A Public Conversation Among People Who Care
March 07, 2005The enemy?
I'm joining the conversation a bit late, from a hotel room in Boston--a city that should give comfort to anyone who despairs of maintaining a large and vibrant arts community. But already I'm reading language that I find striking. A reader, Peter Ellenstein, writes "we attempted to justify our existence on our enemies' terms..." And Jim Kelly reminds us of the difficulty of making and funding art in a community that reflects the current "red state, blue state" political and cultural divisions of the United States. I wonder if this is evidence for something big shifting in the way people who love art are thinking about people who don't, and vice versa. In the past, the "non art" population was generally considered to be a bit of a blank slate, a body of people who would most likely love art if only they had access to, and education in, the arts. It was a passive body of people who needed motivation, perhaps through arguments, or simply exposure. But what if they're not passive in the face of the arts, but openly hostile? What if Mr. Ellenstein's word--enemy--is what we're dealing with? We try so hard to avoid condescension that we're all careful to avoid descriptions of the target audience that in any way belittle it. And though I ask this question, I'm hesitant to openly embrace its implications. It's all too easy to demonize, all too easy to forego the efort at understanding. But maybe, just as an experiment, we should contemplate the possibility that some significant proportion of people in this country aren't just suffering from arts deprivation, but are rather hostile to the very kinds of things that others find so richly rewarding in art. If so, it really doesn't matter if you try to entice them with the intrinsic or instrumental values of art. And open hostility is something very different from the usual sense of the non art crowd as vaguely anit-intellectual. The problem is art, with its invitation to independence, ambiguity and vulernability.
Posted by pkennicott at March 7, 2005 01:57 PM
"The problem is art, with its invitation to independence, ambiguity and vulernability."
I agree with many of Peter Ellenstein's points about hostility to artistic endeavors in the present day. The response quoted above, though, doesn't necessarily mesh. A lot of great art is unambiguous and highly charged. People with opposing political and/or religious views can and will be turned off. Others may be against the concept on general principle. It is likely arrogant to assume that these two categories of people just need to be educated. Perhaps they've heard the arguments and not been moved. A sound triage strategy would be to accept this and focus on the people who might be receptive. No one seems to know how large this group is, though.
Another more frustrating question is what we mean by making a case for "The Arts" in the first place. Art galleries, museums, dance companies, small to large theatres, and major symphonies may have superficially the same problems of low and graying turnouts. But, do they necessarily have the same solutions? Their motivations, goals, methods of dissemination, and economics are not the same.
Redondo Beach, CA
Posted by: Ravi Narasimhan at March 7, 2005 07:30 PM