Is there a higher moral purpose in the arts? Does understanding Beethoven or Rembrandt really do us any good? What does it all mean? Arts reporter Charles Anderson headed north to the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival last weekend to find some answers to the big questions.
Like all good English boys, Oxford professor John Carey was brought up to believe that the arts made you a better person – that there was some higher moral authority in being able to quote Shakespeare or comment on the musical phrasing of Beethoven's later symphonies.
Art was, for lack of a more specific term, good. But as The Sunday Times' chief book reviewer, Carey has read many annals of famous artists, musicians and writers. And the more he reads, the less good they all seem.
"They seemed like a terrible lot. They drank too much, cheated on their wives and neglected their children. As a specimen of humanity, they were abysmal."
Carey has the demeanour of a sort of academic Bill Nighy. He speaks with a faint speech impediment but one that is overshadowed by his capacity for words, thought and humour.
The question that came to bother him was how this could happen if the arts were to be considered a universal civilising force in the world. What good were the arts, really?
Indeed, he even penned a book with a very similar name: What Good Are The Arts?
It is a difficult debate to have. Surely, some people simply like art and others do not. It is subjective. For example, put two people on stage at Auckland's Aotea Centre as part of that city's Readers and Writers Festival, make sure they really come from different planets as far as each regards the other, give them the question and witness the results.
Well, last Friday evening an audience was treated to such an interaction, which cut to the core of why thousands of people streamed into the centre over the course of a week to hear, with great interest, why and how certain writers wrote what they did.
Subjective? University of Canterbury philosophy lecturer Denis Dutton replied to Carey with an emphatic: "Absolutely not."
Once upon a time, when Dutton was studying for his undergraduate degree at the University of Santa Barbara, the argument went that art, or its appreciation, was not universal because the so-and-so tribe in Guatemala did not really have a conception of art. That Indian music could not be understood by Western audiences because at a London concert, Ravi Shankar was applauded after merely tuning his sitar.
However, Dutton, who has studied the history of art and music, and who has travelled to India and learned the sitar, told the audience: "Yes, the sitar was different but the music had emotion and high levels of virtuosity."
There are links to be found. It was these links that he explored in his book The Art Instinct.
Look further, at New Guinean tribes – at art and literature across the span of human existence – and, yes, "you discover enormous carryovers that allow the arts to be understood cross-culturally".
What is fundamental within humans – what has evolved in the most biological, Darwinian sense – is indeed the capacity to take intense pleasure from the arts, he argues. There is a capacity to understand skill and virtuosity. As far back as human literacy and oral traditions go, there were homo sapiens who took (and still take) spontaneous delight from storytelling, drama and suspense.
"It's more than just merely culture affecting this. There is an underlying humanity that has evolved to include the arts."
But pleasure is surely different to being "good". In fact, the only artist Carey could find who displayed higher levels of moral fortitude was Russian playwright Chekov. He behaved, Carey says, with great magnanimity during life and bravery at death. When he was on his deathbed, suffering from tuberculosis, his doctor asked him if he should open another bottle of oxygen. "No," Chekov replied, "let's open a bottle of champagne."
"It seems like he lived a wonderful life to me," Carey says, "but that is just Chekov against all the others."
Carey says there is no denying that the arts provide pleasure, but that this equating to art being "good" is, in his elongated vowel of a word, "ludicrous".
"A lot of things give you pleasure. Drugs. Football. And football surely is an instinct embedded in the Darwinian sense of play. Mammals might not have art, but they have play. So football is more important than art, if you follow that argument."
Carey has other arguments, too. If art is a universal force, then this automatically presupposes that when one encounters great art, what you feel is more valuable than what others feel. So when Carey listens to Mozart or looks at a Rembrandt, what he feels is automatically more valuable than what someone else feels when they look at a drawing of Homer Simpson.
If you follow Carey's line of thinking, art is merely a subjective pleasure device, on a par with shooting heroin or watching David Beckham swing in a free kick from the edge of the penalty box.
But Dutton does not agree.
"You say that aesthetic experience was subjective. If that was true, how is it that I have learned so much from people where the art I am looking at was not quite clear to me? Where I have read other people's writings about those art works and learned and ended up knowing more or feeling more of an emotional connection to it?"
Beethoven, Dutton says, was an "engineer of the soul" who told humans about drama, pathos and poignancy. Why was it then that so many people would agree?
"Why do we have so much in common? This is a real phenomenon, from people reading books or listening to Concert FM or the lowest-level pop stations at the same time."
"I'm interested why you say 'lowest level'," Carey cut in.
"Well," Dutton replied with considerable fluster, "I consider Mary Had A Little Lamb as a work of art, which it is, at a lower level of complexity of communication than Beethoven's 7th Symphony. Lower in the sense that in some sense, water is 'lower' than a gin and tonic. Not that it is worse."
The battle went on for another 15 minutes. The arguments became deeper, more elaborate and, of course, more humorous. Watching two fine minds butt heads was a fine spectacle, but what about the question? Is art actually any good?
It is a question that an audience member also had. What about the title of the panel? What is the link between art being biologically functional and the fact that it could be good? What good are the arts?
Dutton tried to answer using the beginning of his review of Carey's book.
"What good are the arts?" he began. "Here's one stab at an answer. They provide us with powerful pleasures. They expand our imaginative sense. They are windows into historical epochs and into realms of pure fancy and fantasy. They sharpen our intellectual discriminative powers.
"The arts incite emotional experience of an intensity and variety nowhere else available, and take us deeply into alternative human sensibilities. They can increase human sociality, for artistic performers and their audiences alike. They record what are some of the most profound ideas human beings have ever had, but unlike advanced science, do it in a way that ordinary mortals can understand."
A faint applause almost threatened to snowball through the audience, but never quite did. It was stifled, as if some art enthusiasts had somehow been influenced by Carey's demeanour, his confidence and his incredulity that anyone could not be in agreement with him.
The chair wrapped up the session, thanked the panellists and informed the audience that the authors would be in the lobby to sign their books, which proffered such varied opinions on why those audience members might soon be out there, copies in hand, ready to be taught something of value. Whether what those books contained was good is a different argument altogether. Almost.