The simple art of making sense

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I was watching the first part of the BBC's forthcoming drama documentary on Beethoven the other day when I found myself uttering one of those sub-vocal moans of dismay that register an unexpected blow to the prejudices.

I was watching the first part of the BBC's forthcoming drama documentary on Beethoven the other day when I found myself uttering one of those sub-vocal moans of dismay that register an unexpected blow to the prejudices. In this case it was because Charles Hazelwood - by-and-large an excellent, soft-spoken champion of Beethoven's virtues - had just announced that one of the composer's early compositions "articulates the indomitable power of the human spirit". And though one expects a certain amount of this kind of rhapsody in serious arts programmes - and even more in a series devoted to music, which always puts a strain on our powers of paraphrase - I still found myself irritated.

I also went into capitals in my notes - a kind of mute shouting. "WHAT DOES THIS MEAN!" I scrawled - and even though I've thought about it further since I'm still not sure. I suppose you could take that particular piece of music as evidence of Beethoven's indomitability - since he completed it in difficult circumstances - but the indomitability of the human spirit in general? And what about "articulates"? How, exactly, given that it's composed of wordless tones? Above all what would you advance in the way of evidence for such a remark?

I was soothed, anyway, to pick up John Carey's forthcoming book What Good Are The Arts? and discover that there was someone even more impatient with transcendent rhetoric than I am. The book is a work of aesthetic theory -- not usually a genre that delivers much in the way of knockabout fun. But its contents turn out to be just as combative as that punchy title. First of all Professor Carey takes on various historical attempts to define exactly what constitutes a work of art, successively dismissing Immanuel Kant, Walter Benjamin and Theodore Adorno for confusing cultural superstition with philosophical argument.

"The idea that by calling something a work of art you are bestowing on it some divine sanction is now as intellectually respectable as a belief in pixies", he writes - and this is not a lament for our loss of absolute values but a celebration of it. Every now and then he'll send up a firework to mark the demolition of another bit of numinous speculation. The former culture secretary Chris Smith's thoughts on art, he notes, are "banal and evasive claptrap". Iris Murdoch is "spectacularly wrong". And Jeanette Winterson's theories, as outlined in her book Art Objects, are "barely sane". He concludes that a work of art is anything that anyone chooses to call a work of art. The debate should be about how good it is.

He isn't much kinder to the scientists who have attempted to analyse our obsession with art and culture - explored in a chapter titled "Can Science Help?" It seems not. "Analysing a work of art or literature using [Edmund O. Wilson's] rules would be like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle using a forklift truck" he argues, and even his courteous concessions to scientific knowledge are lethal. "Before dismissing [VS] Ramachandran and [William] Hirstein as the Laurel and Hardy of neuroaesthetics... we should remind ourselves that they are... highly distinguished academics", he writes. Indeed, "their theory's hopeless ineptitude illustrates the difficulty of applying scientific research to art, even when fine minds attempt it".

There is a purpose for the caustic. Carey wants to burn away the clogging sediment of spurious claims about art - that it can offer any kind of secular alternative to religion or that it is morally improving (he doubts it and cites the envious and backbiting atmosphere in the average English faculty as circumstantial evidence). He's also at pains to demolish distinctions between "high" and "low" art, which he argues have their origins in social snobbery rather than aesthetic purism. The only concessions to the arts' social utility he seems prepared to make is that they give us great pleasure and that they can make us more intelligent.

Since this isn't a book review I can confess I haven't quite yet finished the book. Indeed I am only a little way into its second half - in which Professor Carey abandons his wrecking ball to make the case for literature as the art form best able to promote our critical intelligence. I have got far enough though to reach a phrase which has resonated since I read it - Carey's claim that all criticism is "camouflaged autobiography".

The more I think about this the truer it seems. What Hazelwood surely meant was something like this: "Beethoven's composition leaves me feeling exultant and awed by what this particular human was capable of - and striving to find a vocabulary which can match its crescendos". If he'd said that there would have been no need for capitals at all.

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