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What Good Are the Arts?

3.61  ·  Rating Details ·  244 Ratings  ·  37 Reviews
Hailed as "exhilarating and suggestive" (Spectator), "thought-provoking and entertaining" (David Lodge, Sunday Times), and "incisive and inspirational" (Guardian), What Good are the Arts? offers a delightfully skeptical look at the nature of art. John Carey--one of Britain's most respected literary critics--here cuts through the cant surrounding the fine arts, debunking cl ...more
Hardcover, 286 pages
Published January 1st 2006 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published 2005)
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Alex Johnston
May 26, 2013 Alex Johnston rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
In the first place, this book has the wrong title. It should be called 'How Sacred Are The Arts?', because that's the question Oxford Professor of English Literature John Carey spends most of his time trying to answer. It's not surprising, therefore, that Professor Carey and his publishers went with something more punchy. Another possible title would be 'How Good Do Other People Think The Arts Are?', because the more you read this book, the more you realise that Oxford Professor of English Liter ...more
Jun 04, 2009 Sylvester rated it it was amazing
Am I really a better person for having wandered around art museums, and having sat through symphonies, and having read a few classics? Does spending an afternoon staring at Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus" give me character and depth? Or does it just make me feel superior to the people who prefer Archie comics and video games?

John Carey asks some really interesting questions. I don't agree with everything he says, but I like the questions. Why haven't more writers addressed this topic? I'd reco
Sep 17, 2010 Betsy rated it really liked it
This is a thought provoking book. It's the kind of book that I would recommend to a book club if I was in one and then we would have one of the best discussions we've had. I would encourage anyone who works in the arts or consumes high quantities of both "high" culture and "low" culture to read this. If you think that looking at a Monet is a fundamentally more valuable experience than watching an episode of Jersey Shore, prepare to have a debate with this man. I gave it four stars instead of fiv ...more
Clara Biesel
Sep 19, 2016 Clara Biesel rated it liked it
This book raised a lot of interesting views about art and aesthetics, but while the author was very keen on mocking other people's perspectives, he didn't take the same critical scrutiny to his own views. I'm glad I read it, but it still left me wanting a book whose definitions were not so broad they were meaningless, or claims that are painfully insulting to any art which isn't literature.
Sep 03, 2009 Pete rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2009, 2010
At times, especially in the first half of the book, Carey is ridiculously abrasive. This is a decent trait for polemical writing, however, as the emotional reaction it can trigger in a reader leads to critical thinking. In the end, Carey puts up a pretty fierce argument that literature is by far the highest art form, in large part because it is the only art that can reason. I was like, "Whoop!"
محمد الهاشمي
When I’ve first put my hand on John Carey’s book What Good are the Arts?, I couldn’t dare asking why and how his views resulted in much controversy among art scholars in UK and Europe in general. At a glimpse, his views seemed so British-systemized to me, but when I started learning more about British culture I realized it was more than just that. I personally got more interested in Carey’s book when I discussed its contents with my teachers and colleagues. It’s inevitable to admit that Carey wa ...more
Jade the Wonder Cat
Aug 11, 2014 Jade the Wonder Cat rated it really liked it
An effective (& very amusing) read which leaves one with a clear head & confidence enough to see through the posturings about "art"--whether by "artists" or commentators. It cuts through the language used in the "art" industry, & makes stunningly simple & true points about what it's all about & how one can think about it.

Ever thought you're not qualified to think/write/speak publicly about "art"? Fear not! This book burns away the obfuscation with a flame-thrower & you'll
Mar 30, 2014 Ang rated it liked it
I'm not sure what to say about this. I mostly agree with the author on his first thesis, that art is art because someone thinks it's art and there are no value judgments to be made because of that fact. But his second thesis, I don't know. He certainly lays out a case that literature, after all that, is in fact the superior art. He's not saying WHICH literature is superior, simply that reading/writing holds different, better meaning than art or music. I suppose that might be the case. But I'm no ...more
Mar 15, 2009 Fraser rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Best quote from the book (in my lit. major opinion):

"..My claim is different. It is that literature gives you ideas to think with. It stocks your mind. It does not indoctrinate, because diversity, counter-argument, reappraisal and qualification are its essence. But it supplies the materials for thought. Also , because it is the only art capable of criticism, it encourages questioning, and self-questioning."
saher sidhom
Oct 01, 2010 saher sidhom rated it it was amazing
Dispels the self-righteous delusions about the power of Art an excellent book just for the critical thinking involved even if you don't have to agree with the author.
Jul 21, 2013 Tina added it
Shelves: non-fiction, music, essays
Because I'm a classical pianist, there are certain elements of Carey's argument that I disagree with by default. But he does a very good job of defending it. I'll give him that.
Steve Garner
Feb 14, 2016 Steve Garner rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I remember years ago sitting on a London bus with group of friends when one of the party expressed the view that ‘art makes people better’. This seemed odd and begged many questions: what is art, what is ‘being better’ and what could be the causal relation between the two? The statement seemed at best naïve and at worst arrogant. But, at the time, I was unable to pin down what made me so uncomfortable about it. A little while later I remembered a scene from the film Schindler’s List. In it a gro ...more
Feb 06, 2015 Ada rated it liked it
I have to admit that given all the hype, John Carey's book was slightly below my expectations. That is not to say that I disagree with his premise that that a work of art is 'anything that anyone has ever considered a work of art, though it may be a work of art only for that one person.' Neither do I agree with it. (I try when I can to uphold John Donne's advice 'Doubt wisely'). I enjoy it - in that it makes me think and reconsider what I accept as 'art.' However, though I acknowledge that a rig ...more
Sep 12, 2008 Diana rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I badly wanted to like this book. I bought it because Nick Hornby raved about it in The Complete Polysyllabic Spree. I thought it was going to knock down all the phoneyness and bullshit, which plagues the arts. I was sure I would love it. But, I got halfway through and gave up because that was enough to convince me that he doesn't know what he's talking about. His definition of a work of art is 'anything that anyone has ever considered a work of art'. In other words anything, and correspondingly ...more
Shane James Bordas
Stimulating and provocative, if sometimes a little annoying, Carey pricks holes in a number of theories regarding the purpose of art. The second section of the book, where are argues for the superiority of literature above all other art forms, lost my interest only in that it veered away too much from the overriding concept and seems shoehorned in just to allow himself a bit of indulgence. The postscript, where he challenges his critics, was also a bit cringeworthy and unnecessary. Overall thoug ...more
Hava Liberman
Dec 24, 2009 Hava Liberman rated it really liked it
After loving the first part of this book, in which Carey carefully examines the evidence behind the arts in general, I found myself totally hating the second party, in which Carey critical inquiry disintegrates into a rather boring interpretation of British literature. In his blind love and respect for classical literature, he falls prey to the exact vices that he critiques with such wit in other authors. He blindly presents his own opinions and elitist value judgements about literature as fact. ...more
Sep 01, 2012 Quincy marked it as to-read
From Nick Hornby's favorite books: "What Good Are the Arts? by John Carey (Oxford, $18). A brilliant and important little book — by an Oxford English professor, no less — about taste, high culture, objective artistic worth, and the absurd arguments made to prop the whole teetering edifice up. Carey has an extraordinary mind, and a wicked wit, and it's hard to read this book and end up feeling the same about what you value and why."
Sep 07, 2012 Mckinley rated it really liked it
Great but densely written. Very articulate man who has his view and wont be argued with. Makes many good points and provides ideas to ponder. It starts with chapters contemplating high vs. low- brow art, moving to whether science (can biology point to good art?) or if religions can provide an cohesive framework. Ending first part with the statement that art is something that affects us profoundly and placing art over people dehumanizes. Part two focuses on literature - which is a special case si ...more
Apr 26, 2015 Tim rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Very good. Takes the wind out of arts' pretensions' sails coolly and effectively. That's the first part; the second part urges that literature is the greatest art, while semi-acknowledging the semi-contradiction between the claim and the prior debunking. No bullshit; in fact anti-bullshit - at the same time (not "but") no philistinism. Best, for my money, demolishing the admittedly extremely soft target that is "conceptual" "art".
Quietly entertaining while serious. Buy it. Read it. "You will not
Sep 25, 2016 Nick rated it it was ok
Carey argues that the written word is the best art because it requires interpretation and imagination. (I agree.) He looks at science, religion, and scholarly criticism to question whether any one art is better than any other art. Visual art is very subjective, and Carey defines art broadly as anything someone considers as art. The book definitely made me question my bias towards "high art" but I wish this was a long article rather than 250+ pages. The book dragged at times.
Apr 06, 2014 Anton rated it really liked it
A clearly argued, keenly felt, tidy, terse, and very valuable exploration of the questions aethetic philosophers and art-lovers have been asking themselves for a few centuries, followed by a brilliant explanation of the value of literature, uniquely of all the arts. I couldn't put it down, and really enjoyed the author's deft skewering of several famous critics, and several cliches still bandied about by art commentators everywhere. Really great close readings of Shakespeare to boot.
Jan 27, 2011 Mary rated it liked it
Recommended to Mary by: Nick Hornby
I'm abandoning this one because I feel like I've gotten his point and don't need it reiterated for the last half of the book. The first chapter is delightful and essential, arguing that traditional categorizations of high and low art or simply art and not-art are meaningless. Art is in the eye of the beholder and discussions of the relative value of various art is hooey. Apparently he spends the last part of the book talking about the importance of literature. But I'm done now.
Jun 23, 2013 Harvey rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
- Dr. John Carey is a professor of literature at Oxford University
- from the jacket: "Do the arts make us better people? Are they a sign of civilization? Why should 'high art' be thought higher than 'low art'? Are judgements about art anything more than personal opinions? What are works of art anyway?..."

David Joseph
Sep 05, 2012 David Joseph rated it it was amazing
Rahr!!!!, tough guy!

A little overly serious for me, but otherwise a well argued and sensible definition of art.

Stimulating book club book? Maybe. I think many kinds of groups might find it difficult to identify a persective on the book that is easily accessible. I think the path to it might be more contentious than a lot of people generally enjoy.
Aug 28, 2007 Ellen rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this humorous attack on pretension, which simultaneously elevates literature, including poetry, to deserving new heights for individual appreciation. Then again, who am I to judge? ;p
Jul 17, 2007 Jane rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: everyone
A really great read. There are some holes in Carey's arguments, but his combative, witty style carries him through. A very pro-art (no, not Pro Hart) book that seems to have pissed off just about every art critic in Britain.
Mar 26, 2008 Carol rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2008, 2014
Interested to get this well known English art reviewer's opinion on the value of the arts. The most interesting thought he had was that writing was the best form of the arts because of it's vast ability to communicate to many people. Other than that, he was quite the snob!
May 07, 2012 Felipe rated it it was amazing
very interesting. nice examples. as expected: no clear answer. we'll have to keep insisting on well thought out and congruous qualitative arguments.
Mar 19, 2013 Daniel rated it did not like it
such an awful book. after i read it i had a heated email exchange with john carey, now i'm attacking him in my thesis.
Mar 18, 2008 Andrew rated it really liked it
Well. I was curious and found out that not only do the arts serve a purpose, but that literature is supreme among them. Works for me.
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“...literature gives you ideas to think with. It stocks your mind. It does not indoctrinate, because diversity, counter-argument, reappraisal and qualification are its essence. But it supplies the materials for thought. Also, because it is the only art capable of criticism, it encourages questioning, and self-questioning.” 5 likes
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