Recently by Martha Bayles
President Obama's appearance before the Republican congressional retreat was the best piece of political theater I've seen in years. (And I mean that as a compliment, since so much of leadership is theater.)
But most arts advocates seem incapable of reaching out in this fashion. For example, I suspect that the "we" in this blogathon is as blue as a Nav'i's backside. There are other political colors out there, folks.
The obvious first step is to reckon more honestly with the 1990s culture wars. That is, to recast the narrative so those years are not simply described as a time when mad-dog conservatives suddenly went berserk and began persecuting innocent painters, actors, musicians, and poets whose only offense was to uphold artistic freedom.
That's only half the story. The other half is a culture of transgression that valued art for no other quality than its willingness to violate widely held norms of decency, propriety, and civility. Soon American culture was consumed by a Hatfield-McCoy feud between between moralists who hated art and artists who hated morality.
My problem with "expressive life" is that instead of addressing this festering issue, it draws on the same anodyne language that has always been used by arts advocates and bureaucrats: a blend of 19th-century gentility and 20th-century boosterism. Why not emulate the president and put some grit under the wheels?
By contradiction I don't mean disagreement. On the contrary, the level of agreement is thoroughgoing. The problem is, the two propositions that everyone seems to agree about are contradictory.
First, there is a general sense that "we" need some sort of centralized cultural authority to deal in a coherent and coordinated fashion with the array of issues raised by Bill Ivey.
Second, the prevailing mantra is that cultural authority is bad, especially when it is centralized.
Bill has done an admirable job of raising a set of interrelated issues and tracing the connections among them. But while no one is proposing a U.S. minister of culture (or to use the more likely term, culture czar), many of the arguments posted here point to a desire for some national entity powerful enough to direct resources in a more fruitful direction, maximize the amount of expressive life flowing in all directions, and (most important) re-order the perverse priorities of an irresponsible private sector.
I am in sympathy with all of these aims, and I will leave aside for the moment the question of whether the government has either the power or the will to impose any sort of curbs on the entertainment industry.
The point is, you can't want a culture czar and at the same time decry any exercise of evaluative judgment as "elitism." (In arts circles, I find that "elitism" is like "racism," an epithet that effectively paralyzes thought.)
Resources aren't infinite, and the unspoken goal of every human being's self-expression being appreciatively received by every other human being is absurd. So choices must be made, and unless the cultural marketplace is to become even more of a lottery than it is now, those choices must be based on some sort of evaluative judgment.
So elitism -- i.e. cultural authority -- is required if "we" are going to achieve any of the goals presented here.
We grew up and lost touch, and instead of becoming a visual artist I became a writer who draws the occasional quick sketch. On impulse I recently Googled R.C. and was amazed to learn that he has become a self-educated master of oil painting, with the kind of deep, subtle style that comes not just from talent but from years of cultivating talent.
R.C. has received no commensurate rewards for his work, and I know how bitter that is. So I agree that something needs to be changed about the larger art world and a discourse that seems self-defeating.
But the words themselves are not to blame.
Why are "art" and "culture" so loaded? Both can be used in a non-evaluative way, as in "Don't trip over the art," or "Jersey Shore is not reflective of Italian-American culture."
But both words also have a pesky evaluative meaning that irritates people who associate artistic achievement with social privilege and economic advantage. My question is, where does that leave R.C., who gave up conventional success, not for "expressive life" but for art?
Adrian Ellis; Alan Brown; Andras Szanto; Andrew Taylor; Bau Graves; Douglas McLennan; Ellen Lovell; Bill Ivey, William James; James Early; Jim Smith; Lewis Hyde; Marian Godfrey; Martha Bayles; Nihar Patel; Russell Taylor; Sam Jones; Steven Tepper
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