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Of Empathy, Good Citizens & General Motors
by Greg Sandow

Here’s the problem. We - the arts - are an industry that needs more support. We want the rest of the world to think that whatever’s in our interest is also in their interest. Or as one of President Eisenhower’s cabinet appointees once famously said, "What’s good for General Motors is good for the country."

I can imagine howls of protest for that last quote. We’re not General Motors. We don’t make anything as crass as cars. We’re not corporate profiteers. But we are making the same assumption that 1950’s CEO made, except that we make it about our stuff, not his. We deeply believe that the arts are good for everybody, and even necessary for everybody (or at least necessary somewhere in our culture). and I’m highlighting this belief as crassly as I did because - and I can’t stress this enough - we haven’t proved this assumption!

That’s where the study comes in, of course. It tries (among other things) to point us toward useful ways of making our argument. And for that it’s very helpful. But still it’s only taking baby steps, because the arguments it suggests aren’t yet helpful at all. In its section on "intrinsic benefits," the study suggests that arts involvement can lead to four things, all of them good for society:

But does it provide any proof? No. It’s ironic, really, to read these claims, however tentative they might be, after seeing how the study attacks common arguments for "instrumental" benefits. These supposed intrinsic benefits have even less evidence to support them than the instrumental benefits do. And they’re open to exactly the same objection that the study makes for the supposed instrumental benefits of the arts - that the same social goals (higher test scores, and so on) could very likely be reached more effectively by other means. 

I want to look at each of these points. First, why should we believe that art gives people more empathy, or creates social bonds, or helps communal meaning? History, common sense, and my own experience would suggest exactly the reverse. First, look at the people most deeply involved in the arts - artists. Have they, in the past and now, shown much empathy, either individually or as a group? I don’t think so. They vary all over the map, of course. Some are fabulous people, some are a mess. But very often they wear blinders, especially in the area that most concerns them, which is art. They understand the kind of art they make; they completely fail to understand art that isn’t like theirs. 

And then look at their personal quirks, if "quirks" is the right word for huge prejudices, ghastly political beliefs, and gigantic character flaws. It’s fascinating, above all, to see how avant-garde artists, people who break new ground artistically, may with equal passion embrace conventional beliefs, even horrible ones, elsewhere in their lives. Since I’m a musician, I’ll take my examples from music. Look at Wagner, one of the most unconventional, imaginative composers who ever lived, who also was a vicious anti-Semite. Or look at Webern, who couldn’t write a note without breaking new ground, but was also warmly pro-Nazi. 

History shows things like this over and over again. Major league baseball had its first black player in 1947; the Metropolitan Opera had its first black singer in 1955. Can we really believe that the arts teach empathy? (The Met was even in same city, New York, where the first black player played.) 

Berlioz, one of the most advanced and open-minded musicians of the 19th century, heard Chinese music at an exposition in Paris. He derided it; the silly Chinese, he wrote, couldn’t even play music in tune. There were limits, obviously - and highly conventional limits, given the automatic assumption of western superiority common in Europe in his time - `to the tolerance his art taught him. 

When scholars first studied medieval music in any depth, in the early part of the last century, they routinely derided it, just as Berlioz derided Chinese music. The silly medieval composers, leading scholars wrote, wrote childish, ungrammatical music, full of ghastly and surely unintended dissonance. Evidently (the scholars even said) these medieval composers didn’t have enough common sense to listen to their compositions (by playing them on an instrument), before deciding they were finished. 

No tolerance there! Deep immersion in art, I’d argue, doesn’t seem to teach tolerance. Instead, tolerance grows elsewhere in society, and very likely comes into the arts from outside. We (as a culture) now understand Chinese and medieval music not because of our experience of art, but because we’ve learned tolerance and empathy elsewhere. 

Does art create social bonds? Sometimes - and, just as often, it reveals huge cracks in our culture. Here it’s useful (essential, in fact) to make a distinction between art and "the arts." The arts are diffuse, and, above all, institutional. They’re the support structure for art. It’s easy to gush about them. Clearly museums and theater companies and orchestras are good to have around. They show beautiful paintings, stage fascinating plays, play gorgeous music. 

Art is a different story. Art is tough. It’s often unpleasant - or strikes many people that way. It’s often divisive. Do I even have to type the words "Robert Mapplethorpe"? The Rand study seems to forget this. It gushes endlessly about art. It talks about artworks that defined an ear. One of them is Jack Kerouac’s On the Road - a perfect example, I’m afraid, of how art doesn’t bring people together. The book divided America. It defined one important part of a culture - but defined it (as anyone who knows anything about the beats surely understands) in opposition to the mainstream, as a living attack on mainstream culture. I supported that completely (and still support it), but to say that the book defined an era is just silly. Or, anyway, at least greatly incomplete. It defined a persistent crack in our culture, between (to put this very, very loosely) the hip and the square. (Now turned into a cliché as blue states against red states, except that the beats had no more use for blue state people than for red.)

And there’s another dimension worth mentioning here. Kerouac bitterly complained that his book was misunderstood. Women would approach him, he said, thinking he himself was his Dean Moriarty character. They wanted to go to bed with him. They didn’t understand that he wasn’t Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady, in real life), and that in fact his view of Dean Moriarty was greatly ambivalent. 

So add this to the social problems of art - art is often misunderstood. And people disagree about it, artists most of all. One mark of most great artists (and also of great critics) is how much they hate some kinds of art, including most specifically art that the rest of the world considers "great." 

So if the Rand study wanted to foster true understanding, not of "the arts," but of art, it would focus on strategies to get people to think for themselves. People (if they’re going to think like artists, or like people who really understand art) have to learn to think for themselves, to be just as likely to hate a piece of art as to love it. The people who most succeeded in reaching this point might be lonely. Their friends wouldn’t understand them. The whole world, even the world of the arts, would seem to disagree with them. They’d even have fierce fights with other people who thought more or less the same way they did. 

Is this the fabled empathy the Rand people would like to teach? I doubt it. But it’s the reality of art. 

And there’s another problem with this idea that art can make us better people. Are we saying that people with good artistic taste are also virtuous - and in fact more virtuous than other people? The argument would seem to point, at least potentially, in this direction. But this would be awful, a complete trash on many good people and, surely, factually incorrect. Do we dare interrogate Nelson Mandela, let’s say, and find him wanting as a human being because he doesn’t listen to the right music? What a horror! What about the woman I read about last month, who ran into a burning school bus on a street in Brooklyn to rescue the kids and the driver? Do we think less of her, if she doesn’t go to museums much, or watches bad reality TV? 

Or do we believe that exposure to art makes people more likely to rescue people from fires? I’d love to see the proof of that. 

And finally, when the study talks as art as a communal force, isn’t community just as strongly created - maybe more strongly created - in other ways? When the Red Sox and the Patriots won championships, didn’t that do more for Boston than the Boston Symphony ever could? 

Maybe - if our goal is a better communal life - we should foster communal gardens, or recycling, or better medical care, instead of art. And what’s especially telling here is that popular art already fosters community, and does it effortlessly, without special funding or advocacy. Look at Titanic, a film many of us might feel wasn’t art. Many people saw it twice, or several times. Pop radio stations learned to expect barrages of phone calls, requesting the hit song from the movie, after each showing of the film got out. People would call from their cars. They wanted to hear the song again, immediately. 

Something similar is happening now with The Da Vinci Code, not exactly an artistic book. It touches some deep vein in our culture - people want to believe that there’s some hidden force for good, and that women did and should play a greater part in orthodox religious life. 

Is something wrong with this? Are the people who loved Titanic trivial, somehow, because they weren’t brought together by an El Greco show, or a new Merce Cunningham dance? 

And here, I think, we have the real problem with the arts. Art, as always, will take care of itself, against all obstacles. Artists will produce it, in whatever form seems right. But the arts, as traditionally defined, are reeling - at least in my view - not because they’re not getting funding, but because, again as traditionally defined, they’re no longer necessary. When I was growing up, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, everybody thought that the crucial work of culture - forging our uncreated communal conscience, to paraphrase Joyce - was being done by the traditional high arts, painting, novels, classical music, dance, theater. 

But now that’s no longer true. Now, for better or worse, a new generation (maybe, broadly speaking, everybody under 60) looks to graphic design, photography, film, pop music, TV, maybe comix (or, more formally, "graphic novels"). This is a huge shift, implied, of course, in my Titanic example. What are we in the arts going to do about that? This is the question the Rand report barely addresses, though it does touch on it with this naïve remark:

Another way to facilitate early arts involvement would be to tap into young people’s involvement in the commercial arts. High schools, for example, might consider offering film classes that engage students in discussions of some of the best American and international films.

"Naïve," really is too kind a word for this, which first uncritically accepts a distinction - obsolete, and suspiciously self-serving for people in the old high arts - between real art and "commercial art," and them apparently lumps all films (even foreign films!) into the commercial category, as if Godard and Truffaut and Buñel and Antonioni and Orson Welles and Hitchcock and Jean Renoir and Fellini and Kurosawa and Almodovar (etc., etc., etc.) had never lived. 

We’re going to have to do a lot better than that if we want to save the arts. I’d suggest starting with complete acceptance, even an embrace, of art outside the formal, institutional (and by now quite tired) arts, but that’s another story. Quite a long one.

Greg Sandow is a critic and provocateur, and writes the "Sandow" blog on ArtsJournal

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