What Are the Arts For?

WHY do we fight? Whether you are a World War II soldier trying to save an Italian Renaissance painting from the Nazis, or a 21st century American, trying to produce, assess or defend culture in a marketplace that’s less and less interested in it, the question is the same. The answers — some of them proposed by a new film — may be different.

For a while now, we’ve been, as a society, at a loss to explain what the arts “are for.” Over the centuries, we’ve had a firmer sense, even if the explanation has changed radically from age to age. The question has gone through various kinds of utilitarian arguments (these paintings will help us attract the bison we’re hunting, this music will make animal sacrifices to the gods less brutal), to art-for-art’s-sake (two reasonably brief periods in western history), to art and music as a way of advertising the prestige of a duke or prince, to a Victorian (and later an American middlebrow) notion that culture was uplifting.

These days, our thinking is dominated by neoliberalism’s cult of efficiency (everything must pay for itself, education is training for the job market) and technocrat assurance (everything can be measured) and post-Reagan, post- Soviet disillusionment (public projects and grand dreams are simply covers for vested, even nefarious interests.) Warholism makes old ideas of cultural transcendence sound naive and square.

If this is all true, how do the arts fit in? As with the value of liberal arts education, civil society, matters of the spirit, and many other things that can’t be measured and don’t make a clear contribution to the GDP, we hardly possess a language to talk about these things.

That disorientation, I think, is shaping some of the discussion of the ne300px-MFAA_Officer_James_Rorimer_supervises_U.S._soldiers_recovering_looted_paintings_from_Neuschwanstein_Castlew movie Monuments Men, about a group of Americans who try to save visual art the Nazis have plundered. To them, this art is the foundation of our society – what we’re fighting for.

The Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott has written a very tough and smart piece on how the movie’s sense of art is so hackneyed as to make the film unwatchable.

Here’s a bit from his story:

It’s dangerous to talk of art — the purpose, ideals and spiritual value of art — in general terms. But art can safely be defined in the negative, as the opposite cliché. Thus: Cliché deadens our sensibilities, art refines them; cliché shuts down thinking, art opens it up; cliché is lazy, art is ambitious; cliché affirms our unconsidered, reflexive understanding, while for the past two centuries, art has generally challenged it.

Throughout the film we are given multiple reassurances that art is very important and a high ideal of humanity, and represents our most noble aspirations and teaches us to be human and lots of similar utterly meaningless blather — every word that comes out of Clooney’s mouth, especially in his tedious and risible voiceovers, is a cliché.

So Kenniccott (and others – the movie has been roundly dissed by people I trust) have convinced me not to see the film. (And there is much wisdom in his piece — please read all of it.) But what I’m wondering is how, in the 21st century, at a time when arts education and public funding for culture and coverage of the arts in the mainstream press has been severely depressed, we articulate the meaning and value of aesthetic things. (More broadly, perhaps, how do we have a conversation about non-corporate culture in the public sphere.)

Monuments Men, apparently, does not do a terribly good job at this. But I’m reminded of a similar impasse that may tell us something: George Packers’s The Unwinding lives up to its subtitle as An Inner History of the New America, and it is rigorously reported and often lyrically written; the book deservedly won the National Book Award. But even a book as substantial as this one, observers on both left and right have noted, suffers by not being grounded in a theory of politics and society, of what has gone wrong since the ‘80s. If a writer as formidable as Packer cannot provide a larger frame for our confusing time, I’m not sure how a Hollywood movie, aimed at a more or less general audience, can make sense of its characters’ 1940’s sense of culture in a way that resonates with our own.

The issue, I think, is context: Without a broader sense of how things fit together, of what things are worth and what has value, much of what we say becomes speech in a dead language. Politically, culturally, aesthetically, that’s where we are now. In some ways I, and perhaps other cultural types, envy these World War II soldiers, with their firm and unshakable sense of mission.

Folks, it sounds like a bad movie. But perhaps some of the hostility the film comes from a frustrated sense that our certainty is gone.

ALSO: Here, finally, is some good news on classical music. The Minneapolis Orchestra has begun to play again, after a 16-month lockout. This New York Times story describes the concert and the recent history, calling the show “a concert made even more prominent for being the first in Orchestra Hall since its $52 million renovation, completed last fall. In the event, the orchestra did itself proud, against long odds.”




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  1. says

    This comment comes from my friend Morgan Fahey, who posted it on Facebook. What I like best is her last point — the notion that the mismatch is not between a mid-century and contemporary, but European and American ideas of culture. Here’s Morgan:

    So, having actually *seen* the movie, I think the critics are wrong on the point you’re articulating. It’s not a particularly good movie, but it’s not entirely unenjoyable. It’s an earnest rehash of “lighter” WWII war movies, the kind of thing we make now to reassure ourselves that there are still things worth fighting for and decent ways to conduct warfare (unlike those nasty Nazis and Russkis). It might as well have been produced in 1987, it’s so old-fashioned in its vision of the world.

    However: I think it tries too hard to inspire a *specific* sense of wonder for *individual* treasures, but it *does* do a very good job of underlining the rapacious and inhuman greed with which the Nazis went about plundering the art of Europe, and, reasonably subtly, makes it clear that that was intended to be almost as much a deliberate and intentional act of identity-stripping dehumanization of the subject masses as systematic rapes are in other places. It is *actually* awe-inspiring when they uncover the troves of stolen goods, and genuinely sickening when the Nazis torch a stash in retreat.

    Now, one can, of course, argue that this is only meaningful to audiences who *already* love art and/or have seen it in situ.

    I’m curious to see if the movie is better-received in Europe, where the idea of art as cultural patrimony is more entrenched.

  2. says

    One of the tenants of neoliberalism, as formulated by Francis Fukuyam in 1992, is that with the triumph of an unmitigated capitalism, history ended. In the philosophy’s boundlessly grand vision, no other major shifts in the development of human societies will be necessary. Capitalism is the end point of sociocultural evolution and humanity’s final form of government.

    Since history has ended, we therefore do not need any new political concepts, much less vocabularies that might challenge neoliberalism’s economic and social philosophies. This view has also shaped our media and has served to subtlety suppress thought and dialog.

    From the rust belt to the squalor of our urban environments to the poverty of our cultural lives, we are now surround by the limitations of the philosophy that was supposed to end history. We now see that it was just one more of the 20th century’s totalizing ideologies.

    The biggest irony is that neoliberlism celebrates individualism and stresses the power of the private sphere, and yet it is closely connected to the new surveillance-state we exist in todayWhen the Internet’s social character is combined with the view that capitalism should do whatever it wants, every aspect of our lives is spied upon for the sake of marketing and political control. One might call it behavioral economics. A philosophy that supposedly celebrated freedom and individuality has become the most totalizing forms of social control.

    In case you haven’t seen it, there’s an article here that discusses this idea in more detail:


    And of course, artistic though, which is inherently individual and often outside market forces, has no place in this kind of highly controlled society.


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