So to celebrate the day, here’s my two cents on how it might be done. What I won’t talk about is how people in the arts can’t disdain popular culture. I’ve covered that enough in separate posts, here and here.
1. Trust the public
I got some disagreeing comments to my earlier posts on this, and the two that made me sad said that we can’t advocate the arts directly — we have to use indirect arguments, like the suspect (to me) argument that the arts are good for the economy. One problem with that, as I said, is that many other things are good for the economy, too.
And another problem is that we don’t wholly mean it, when we use economic arguments. We really mean that the arts are wonderful in themselves, but since not everyone agrees (or doesn’t feel the urgency about the arts that we feel), we have to bring in other artillery. Others, advocating other things, will of course do the same. But in our case, the disconnect between real love of the arts and excitement about their alleged economic impact is so great that economic arguments, I fear, may end up sounding hollow.
Which is why the disagreeing comments made me said. Two commenters said flat out that the public — or else right-wing politicians — would never support the arts, so we have to use non-arts arguments. So, if I believe these people, I was right! The economic argument is what we use for the Muggles. Among ourselves — among superior beings like us, who understand the arts — we can say what we really mean.
One problem here is that there’s no point worrying about what the right wing thinks. As in all political maneuvering, you can’t hope to convert your enemies. Where you aim your efforts, most importantly, is at the people in the middle, the people who haven’t chosen sides yet, and could go either way.
So why assume those people are immune to art, and any need for its support? Why sell them so short? Some of them are into popular culture that’s just as smart as most of what we tout in the arts, so why assume they won’t care about what we do, if we make it real to them? There’s something very sad in this, and also (I think) smugly elitist. We know more than you do, so to get you on our side, we’ll have to descend to your level.
As I said, that’s sad.
2. The arts vs art
Here a line from a Public Enemy song (I think it’s “Fight the Power”) comes to mind. Chuck D (looking at the then-new Elvis stamp, from a black perspective) says: “Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps.”
So I feel something similar about the arts and art. A lot of my favorite art doesn’t get advocated, in most of art advocacy. That’s because — and I wonder if some of the people who launch into me for my arts advocacy skepticism will be surprised — I like a lot of very difficult high art. Webern, as I’ve often said, is one of my favorite composers. In film, Antonioni. In poetry, Anne Carson. In novels and theater, Beckett. (And yes, Waiting for Godot distantly approaches being a repertory piece, but has anyone ever launched a defense of the arts by citing — not Tennessee Williams, not Eugene O’Neill, and not Tony Kushner, good as those playwrights are — but Endgame?)
And no, I’m not saying that everybody has to share my taste, that arts advocacy is worthless if it doesn’t touch the high-church realms I’m happy in. Nor do I dislike all the art that’s more normally cited — the familiar list of great composers, great painters, great novelists, and all of that. I’m reading Dickens right now, and loving him. (And also a dire, gripping thriller by Cornell Woolrich.)
But there’s a tendency, in arts advocacy, to go all middlebrow, to talk about the arts in rapturous terms, as a part of life that’s inspiring and elevating. Whereas art is so much more complex than that. Some of it isn’t pleasant. Some of it isn’t inspiring. Some of it paints the world in dire colors. Some of it is confrontational. Some of it is difficult. Caroline Levine, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, read my previous posts on advocating art, and was kind enough to send me her terrific book, Provoking Democracy: Why We Need the Arts, in which she argues that one main role of art is to be confrontational.
Arts advocates most often skate right past that. For them, the arts might as well be a Johnny Mathis song: “Wonderful, Wonderful.” Which shows that the arts, properly understood, aren’t at all the same thing as art. Essentially, the enterprise known as “the arts” functions as an interest group, one that’s certainly involved with art, but which also doesn’t tell (not nearly) the whole art story.
3. What we should do
Not to be a tease, but for time management reasons (once again), I’ll have to wait a few hours to get to the meat of my argument.