What Good Are the Arts

William Butler Yeats published the poem 'Sailing to Byzantium‘ in the poetry collection The Tower in 1928. What stands at the centre of this time-honoured piece of poetry is the unswerving belief that art, in all its manifestations, is what outlives us. According to Yeats, art possesses this potential for extension over time, culture and space because of its inherent capacity to be the “singing-master[s] of my soul”. That this perspective exhibits merely one view of a debate still current today is clear  judging from the lively debate What Good are the Arts? The trio of scholars on the panel for this widely popular arts debate were John Carey, author of What good are the Arts? (2005), Sarah Thornton, author of Seven Days in the Art World (2008), and Dennis Dutton, author of The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution (2009).


From the outset the event was rollicking. This was largely due to the fascinatingly diverse opinions that each author held, in addition to a privileged art form each held rather dearly. For Carey it was literature, for Thornton it was art, and for Dutton it was music. While Carey openly professed to his subjective privileging, Thornton countered this act with the claim that she refused to argue for the superiority of one art or medium over the other, it was “silly”. Carey, in response, did not seem to bat an eyelid.


While this may seem to highlight the quibbling couple as Carey and Thornton, it was in fact the competing claims of Dutton and Carey that largely ruled the debate. And what, you might ask, was the cause of these two scholars at loggerheads? Largely a conflict over whether there are absolute and eternal values inherent in the arts that allows it to transcend cultures, time, and space, a belief  Yeats and Dutton avidly propound, and Carey clearly does not.


Dutton passionately defended his argument that Darwinian conceits have allowed us to get great pleasure from the arts, that the arts are not merely cultural encounters. Dutton, it seemed, believed in the commonality and shared experience of art, a perspective I wholeheartedly wanted to embrace. But Carey and Thornton made it so hard for me, and indeed, I imagine for most of the audience as I heard similar perplexed mutterings of each side of the debate later on as we filed out of the theatre.


Carey, in response to Dutton’s animated propositions, explicated briefly and in a rather humorous fashion (albeit never cracking so much as a smile), his own path that led him to the sticky question “What good are the Arts?” Carey shared his growing scepticism that began due to his position as a reviewer for the Times. He discussed how we are brought up to believe that exposure to the arts somehow made you a better person and yet, the sheer quantity of authors he reviewed who did not exhibit positive ethical values was staggering. Interestingly Carey did champion one author equally dear to my heart, and remarkably also Dutton’s, that was a veritable exemplar of the notion that the arts make you better in some way. So Carey digressed and recounted a tale of Chekhov, the singular morally upstanding citizen, who on his deathbed when asked by his doctor if he should open another bottle of oxygen, he replied “no, let’s open a bottle of champagne”.


Following this apposite digression Carey outlined three general strands of argument in relation to the notion that we can claim access to some eternal truth through the arts. The first of these was the belief that great art is what god likes. This claim Carey slammed as nonsense with the witty provocation “How you can check on the aesthetic taste of god is beyond me”. Cue audience roaring with laughter. Next he discussed the scientific claims being heralded with the use of MRI scans which illuminate which area of the brain is functioning during art appreciation/activity. The issue with this argument, Carey pointed out, is the tectonic jump between observations of brain activity to some sort of discussion of value judgements. Again, this was an equally compelling argument. Lastly, and most contentiously, Carey thrashed out the idea that the feeling you have when you encounter art is a valuable feeling in itself, but it is a subjective value judgement that you are making and you are unable to truly know the value judgements of others.  This, Dutton felt was wildly incorrect.


The debate continued, with a memorable discussion of the recognition of skill in art as an absolute (Dutton), with Thornton’s quip that Dutton’s argument unravels in 1916 with the explosion of Dada, and with Carey’s constant exemplar of football foisted into every conversation. What was so telling about the encounter between these three ‘greats’ was that the interaction could have been summarized through an examination of Thornton’s book Seven Days in the Art World. At the beginning of the debate Thornton exposed the conclusion of her foray into the art world by stating that the only consensus in the varied art arenas she became involved with was that art is a thought provoking thing. That aside, according to Thornton, the art world was a juicy cluster of squabbling subcultures. After experiencing Thornton, Carey and Dutton in What Good are the Arts? I would have to agree.

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