Thursday, June 15, 2006

Talks: John Carey at the Project Arts Centre

Professor John Carey delivered the opening lecture of the Dublin Writer’s Festival at the Project Arts Centre last night, which summarised the questions he asked himself and the conclusions he reached when researching his book ‘What good are the arts?’. Carey believes that the arts do not civilise, that there is no criteria for establishing what is or isn’t a work of art - it is purely down to the preference of the individual - and that no category of the arts are superior to others, thus dispensing with the idea of high and low forms. He also argues that taste is a matter of social distinction, a means to distinguish ourselves from our supposed inferiors: I am a better person than you because I listen to Wagner and you like Atomic Kitten. Still despite these negative findings, Carey goes on to make the case, inevitably subjective, for the superiority of literature over the other arts. Literature is unique in that it can be self-critical - Wordsworth’s barren leaves- and it is indistinct or its meaning is ambiguous. I couldn’t help thinking of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal - was that not visual art critiquing itself? And isn’t Carey, by stressing literature’s openness, making a call for good old fashioned close reading, a veiled swipe at all the trendy deconstructionists out there? In the question and answer session, I thought Carey reacted in a overly aggressive fashion to a query about the appropriateness of using the Nazi regime as an example of how art does not civilise; he seems too quick to make personal attacks, suggesting that one questioner was in favour of torture for daring to suggest that it was possible to know the consciousness of other people.

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