Here’s something I said at the Brown Symposium at Southwestern University, a gathering I raved about in my last post. What I said wasn’t a formal presentation, since there weren’t any, in the conversations I was part of. But it’s what I wanted to add to the discussion.
- What is art, in a public policy sense? Is it a public good? A commodity? A service? A luxury A form of entertainment and recreation? A social necessity?
- What is its purpose? To entertain and amuse, or serve as a diversion from “real life”?? To educate? To challenge? To be part of the public political discourse?
- Who gets to to say what is art, and what is worth preserving, producing or supporting? Professors? The NEA? The state arts council? The “man in the street?” Museum curators? Politicians?
Great questions! I didn’t consciously set out to answer them, but here’s what I said.
I wouldn’t try to define art, but if I had to say what its role in our world is, I’d go to the last page of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and quote what Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s young artist/hero, says he’s going to do. He wants to “forge…the uncreated conscience of my race.”
And if that sounds wildly grandiose, remember that I’m not saying any individual artist does or needs to do that. Instead, I think it’s what art does as a collective activity, it’s what happens when many people do art. Our conscience — or consciousness — gets forged.
So if that’s what I’m looking for, it’s clear — or certainly ought to be — that,, for at least a generation, the forging of our consciousness no longer happens exclusively in the fine arts (or high arts, or whatever you want to call them). It’s now spread into popular culture, and in fact — as creativity starts to permeate our lives — into society at large.
Of course, you won’t see that if you’re prejudiced against popular culture — if you think, for instance, that popular culture is largely or even exclusively shallow, empty, hollow, created only for money. That’s not true at all. Popular culture, at the very least, has created its own kind of art, which isn’t fueled by commerce and might not even be popular.
And, of course, the high arts aren’t exactly free of commerce. I cited Brahms, Verdi, and Picasso as artists who had tremendous commercial success. And just look at the art world now.
The consequences, for public policy?
Well, first, the arts — and arts advocates — now look like an interest group, lobbying for support like any other. And one big goal (conscious or unconscious) of the arts, as an organized activity (and lobbying group), is therefore to deny that art has migrated away from their control. Which they do to persuade us all that they still need funding. Without the arts, they want us to believe — without officially designated art activity — there wouldn’t be any art. (I forgot to say this at Southwestern, but I’m including it here, because it’s a key part of the ideas I wanted to present. And will present elsewhere, starting here.)
I’m sure some people will be outraged to see me saying this. Though, on the other hand, I tried the idea out yesterday with two friends who make their living from the arts, and both said I didn’t go far enough. One even said that the goal of the arts (again as an organized activity) is to suppress art activity happening elsewhere, by declaring, implicitly or explicitly, that it can’t be art.
Luckily, art — wherever it’s made — can’t be suppressed. As a Southwestern theater student said in the discussion, at this symposium. Artists are going to make art, no matter what.
So, more specifically — the consequences for public policy?
We need to understand — accept, proclaim, welcome — the change. The arts should graciously withdraw from their pretense of superiority (artistically speaking), and happily coexist with all the art going on outside their control.
And funding should be — ideally — directed toward art that really does forge our collective consciousness. And, more strongly, our conscience. Art, in other words, that really changes our world. Which might well mean less private and public money for symphony orchestras (which for the most part keep on doing the same old thing), and, in place of this, money now going to truly creative rock bands.
Outrage! Did I really suggest that? It’s an idea worth thinking about. If you think orchestras are important because they preserve the classical masterworks, I’d say in reply that these masterworks are more than adequately preserved, both in live performance and in recordings. And that the amount of money we — as a society — channel into this preservation is far more than is needed. (The question of whether enough people pay attention to the masterworks we preserve is something else again — a question of what our culture values, not a question of funding.)
And rock bands, we all should understand, don’t make much money. Oh, the big ones do. But when a band is starting out, it can’t make a living from its music. A string quartet, starting out, can go better, at the very least because its members can get paying gigs, as freelance musicians and as teachers, something that the people in a rock band largely can’t do.
And if you worry that the band will go on to make millions (though very few bands ever do) — just remember that we already fund shows heading for Broadway, when they’re developed at nonprofit theaters. Those shows might, if the stars align right, make millions. So why rule the rock bands out?
But funding rock bands (or not funding them) isn’t the main question. The main thing is to channel arts support into truly creative activity, to support and foster creativity wherever it takes place. Which is largely going to be outside the arts.
Tomorrow: a demonstration of creativity in pop music, and a suggestion that pop music functions as a true artistic democracy.