Conversation in Vermont

The Samuel Johnson Society of Vermont met on Tuesday, February 21st to discuss John Carey's What Good Are the Arts? (the Johnson Society in addition to paying attention to Johnson and his times also takes up topics that would have interested the great critic). Carey, former professor of literature at Oxford and now a critic for The Times, argued in his recent book that contemporary art "has become synonymous with money, fashion, celebrity and sensationalism." In other words, it's more about snobbery than it is about appreciation.

During the discussion most members expressed some sympathy with Carey's views and were particularly taken with his argument in the second half of the book that literature is set apart from the other arts precisely because it doesn't claim to be free of morality and because one of its clear purposes is the edification of the reader.

These opinions, however, may have had freer rein because one long-time member was pulled away from the meeting by a public hearing. John Devitt, of Montpelier, was missed, but one advantage of his not being present was that he sent a written comment to make sure his views wouldn't be completely absent. As you'll see below, his thoughts are not much in line with Carey's:

If you have the time, please let me know how everyone reacts to Carey's ideas. From what
I've read, I don't find him very sympathetic, so maybe you'll have a more peaceful discussion
without me. He strikes me as the kind of Thatcherite who had no problem nearly destroying
worthy cultural institutions in Britain by suddenly removing subsidies. Bushites are trying to do
the same here, squeezing the paltry amount arts get while wildly squandering vast sums.

As for high and low art, I much prefer distinguishing good art from bad art. I think we've been
in a bad art cycle for some time, so it's vital to preserve the canon in performing arts. I don't
like merely pretentious art anymore than Carey does and if I had to choose the finest creator
of my lifetime I might go with Robert Altman, who hasn't had an easy time in the marketplace.
He has a genuinely democratic vision, but also directs operas in his spare time. Altman would
realize that there's nothing "democratic" about taking support from so-called elitist art,
because then far fewer people would be able to experience it. Carey also annoys me with his
reductionism. It's preposterous to say that someone's enjoyment of Beethoven is simply related
to his production of endorphins. That's just how the body works and endorphins don't produce
pleasure; they're a very healthy bi-product of pleasure. Carey sneers at a woman who says
great art makes her feel "richer and happier," but his attitude sounds a bit like sour grapes to
me. There's an awful lot to enjoy in the world and the puritanical Mr. Carey probably even has
trouble with sunsets.

Do the arts make us better and more civilized? On the whole I'm sure they do, with glaring
exceptions. Carey makes a big thing out of Hitler's 'devotion to the arts,' but what of kind of
arts nut would have banned (to name just a few) Van Gogh, Gropius, Mahler, Hindemith,
Heine, Mann, Klemperer and Frederich Schorr, the greatest Hans Sachs of his era?

There have been bloodthirsty monsters devoted to the Bible too -- Cromwell as an example
(though something tells me he ranks high on Carey's hero list). Does that mean the Bible
should be avoided?  Millions do avoid it for precisely that reason. And genocide (of the
Canaanites for instance) is presented as perfectly OK in the Old Testament. Wagner certainly
had his warts and bears a heavy burden for tutoring Hitler's bigotry, but he never advocated
genocide (just racial snobbery). I don't think anyone need apologize for the rapture gotten
from Die Meistersinger.  And it's a pity more people don't come to enjoy it, but at least a million
or so might have seen the Met's production on PBS a few months ago -- curiously, on a Sunday
afternoon, just like Omnibus and the Bernstein lectures appeared in the 1950s and 1960s,
since Sunday afternoon low ratings never did matter much. I'm very concerned that not enough
young people are discovering such great stuff today. Maybe it's due to a lack of interest, but I
think lack of exposure is the key.

The thoughts of the Johnson Society are amply lubricated by Port, which may, or may not, raise the intellect to a higher level. In any case, gatherings of small groups like this throughout the country surely have some effect in seeing that America is not completely given over to TV culture. That, however, if they're like the Johnson Society, is not their purpose. The little group in Vermont meets essentially for the pleasure of conversation. Any other consequence is mere by-product.

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