Posted by: Sarah | January 10, 2006

What Good Are The Arts?

I’ve just started to read John Carey‘s absorbing little book, What Good Are The Arts?, about which probably more later. Meanwhile…

Chapter 1 asks What is a work of art? After scampering through what philosophers, critics and arbiters of taste down the ages have said and argued on the subject, Carey opines that the only real response is: Yes, if you think it is; no, if not.

Chapter 2 poses the question, Is “high” art superior? In the course of answering it, Carey summons evidence that seems to touch on the origins and purpose of two of the most popular fiction genres: romance and the detective story.

Anthropologists (stop me if you know this already) have pointed out that in the long history of the human race, nomadic hunter-gatherer societies have been the norm, so that even today we still have Stone Age minds and Stone Age needs that our modern lives can’t satisfy. According to the anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake in her book What Is Art For?, we’re fundamentally lonely because the close-knit hunter-gatherer group has broken down in the modern age, and inclusive “low” art (as opposed to exclusive “high” art) helps assuage that loneliness as (quoting Carey):

[it] is receptive and accessible, not aimed at an educated minority. It emphasizes belonging and so seeks to restore the cohesion of the hunter-gatherer group. It is preoccupied with romantic-sexual love to a degree unprecedented, Dissanayake believes, in any previous human society, and this is a response to the loneliness of the modern condition…The violence and sensationalism that critics of popular art deplore can likewise be seen as answering biological imperatives programmed into us by evolution…We seek intense emotions, because the purpose of emotion, in evolutionary terms, is to give focus and direction to our activities. Cognition is, so to speak, freewheeling until emotion (anger, fear, desire) selects something for it to home in on. (p. 36)

But, Carey goes on to say, the Czech novelist Karel Capek, in his lifelong campaign to bring art to the people, showed that these emotions in popular (“low”) art are precisely what connect it to the historical roots of all art. Capek “identifies the detective story, for example, as essentially a hunt, and traces it back to the hunting scenes in Stone Age cave paintings.” (p. 37)

I wonder what readers and writers in these genres think of all this? It all fits in with what we know about the fundamental human need for stories, and the part about the detective story seems obvious. But romance is mainly read and written by women, so does this mean that women have a more profound sense of loneliness than men, or do we assume that with men one should read “sex” for “romance”?

John Carey, by the way, is a professor of literature at Oxford who seems, in this book, to be taking huge and entirely justifiable delight in pricking the pretensions of elitist intellectual snobs, while attempting to arrive at serious answers to some very interesting questions.

Has anyone else read it?


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