Where Has Art Gone?

We’ve got things backwards. Not just you and me; it’s a bit bigger than that. Since at least the industrial revolution, and probably before, we’ve been pushing, shoving and smashing something out of our culture: art. A tiny event like the removal of art and music from school curricula has its roots not in budget cuts but in a societal shift away from art. And so the evisceration of any balance in public education (in the name of things like No Child Left Behind) is simply an indication of a greater problem, not the problem itself. A relentless march towards increased efficiency and productivity has created a society that gasps and heaves in cycles:

  1. Sell the ideal of efficiency and elimination of waste and grow huge businesses based on this.
  2. Wait a generation to convince the entire workforce of the validity of part 1.
  3. Sell that same generation tools (books, seminars, self-help!) to do what businesses do: efficiency and elimination of waste.
  4. Next, sell the ideal of relaxation and meditation, with no effort toward questioning why relaxation and meditation have nearly disappeared.
  5. Repeat.

My ruminations here aren’t talking about 35 hour work weeks or some fundamental change in multi national corporations. No, this is about a tragedy: so thoroughly are the ideas of “no waste” and “mathematical proof of progress” promoted, that alternatives of “slower pace, lower productivity” aren’t even considered. I don’t know, I may be rambling; time to clarify…

Here’s the main idea: it seems that the huge category of “art” is slipping away — it survives only in places where it fits into a balance sheet (movies, music, gallery art sales) — I hate that. I wish that the things humans were capable of, some of the beautiful things they can do to improve their own lives and the lives of those around them, didn’t have to make money to be appreciated. It’s like this: what if, on a weekly basis, amateurs got up in front of millions of people and sang to them? Well, they do. But it’s only for a few short seconds, and they are all ruthlessly judged, and the only reason anyone is up there is the hope of a huge money making (not necessarily for the actual artists) contract with a record company. It’s not artistic — it’s the use of hyped and processed sound bites to power a multiple media juggernaut. Don’t get me wrong, the show doesn’t bother me so much… it’s just an example of how far art is from being, well, art.

A bit more on art can be found in the long version of a quote from John Gardner; I read the short form in a Salon article interviewing Ira Glass. It’s from the book On Moral Fiction, and you can read (I think) the full book online at this Google Books Link. Anyhow:

“Art is play, or partly play,” they’ll tell you with an engaging smile, serving up their non-nutritious fare with the murderous indifference of a fat girl serving up hamburgers. What they say is true enough, as far as it goes, and nothing is more tiresome than the man who keeps hollering, “Hey, let’s be serious!” but that is what we must holler.

In a world where nearly everything that passes for art is tinny and commercial and often, in addition, hollow and academic, I argue—by reason and by banging the table—for an old-fashioned view of what art is and does and what the fundamental business of critic ought therefore to be. not that I want joy taken out of the arts; but even frothy entertainment is not harmed by a touch of moral responsibility, at least an evasion of too fashionable simplifications. My basic message throughout the book is as old as the hills, drawn from Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Dante, and the rest, and standard in Western civilization down through the eighteenth century; one would think all critics and artists should be thoroughly familiar with it, and perhaps many are. But my experience is that in university lecture halls, or in kitchens at midnight, after parties, the traditional view of art strikes most people as strange news.

The traditional view is that true art is moral: it seeks to improve life, not debase it. It seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us. I do not deny that art, like criticism, may legitimately celebrate the trifling. It may joke, or mock, or while away the time. But trivial art has no meaning or value except in the shadow of more serious art, the kind of art that beats back the monsters and, if you will, makes the world safe for triviality. The art which tends toward destruction, the art of nihilists, cynics, and merdistes, is not properly art at all. Art is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy. It is a tragic game, for those who have the wit to take it seriously, because our side must lose; a comic game—or so a troll might say—because only a clown with sawdust brains would take our side and eagerly join in.

I’ve you’ve skipped over it all, an action I certainly can’t fault you for taking as it’s probably due more to my disorganized thoughts spewed into this post than anything else, I leave you with this: can we have more art, more beauty, in our society? Please? kthnxbye.

2 comments left


Nils +1

I think that the removal of arts programs and funding from schools to make room for bigger and better sports teams (eg) is depressing. It is during the formative years, 0-18 or so, that individuals find their artistic potential. But, the way I see it, not everyone is capable of being an artist, at least not in the definition of art that I think of (which in itself is a vague concept to me, but like the Supreme Court once said about porn, I know art when I see it).

Art is beautiful, art is moving, art is thought-provoking, and many people are not capable of creating works that embody these things (or they just don’t want to) so its impossible to expect something beautiful or artistic to come from anybody or everybody. Those that are capable are constantly and have been constantly churning out artistic creations for a long, long time. Since when was art anything but from painting, photography, music, the written word, sculpture, or film? I can’t imagine a situation where millions of people would gather to hear some amateur sing, to use your example, and personally I wouldn’t want to be subjugated to that. I will get my music fix from the concerts, albums, music videos, reviews, etc., and decide for myself if I like what I hear. I will actively pursue music I like, I don’t want to have someone else force it down my throat. Those who win me over (or anyone else) wins and has become an artist of sorts. But not anyone can do this.

So for me, I see and hear and experience art everyday. I listen to music, read books, see films. Just yesterday I was on a walk in the forested part of the Arboretum at sunset and it took my breath away. The natural beauty of nature and the outdoors is all around us and maybe somehow the fascination with and the drive to look around and see this natural beauty springs from artistic inclinations; seeking out beauty and things that move you just as you would peruse a video library for a film that will inspire you in some way. In this same way, I think traveling for the sake of traveling and seeing the world springs from the same desires that art can fulfill.

But these days, its all too easy for someone with creative and/or artistic ambitions to find an audience for their creations. We have the Internet! Anyone and their mom can post amateur pictures, videos, thoughts (like this blog), etc. People who would never have found a small niche or audience for these expressions in their own physical communities now have the opportunity to showcase them to the entire world. Millions of people do watch amateurs do silly and trivial things (the kind of things Ira Glass says we must protect) on YouTube everyday. People like me come to your own website almost daily because something about it intrigues them or interests them, and if that’s not what art is about, I don’t know what is. I think art is very much alive in society today.

Alexander Micek

I carefully crafted a response, and then forgot to post it before I closed my browser (that’s what writing PHP code all day will do to ya!). Anyhow, here’s as much as I can remember:

Reading through your comments got me thinking: I realize I got a little tied up in the idea of art being sanctioned by some sort of authority. I always use the example of the Medici family commissioning works of art and essentially sponsoring the Renaissance in their part of Europe.

I think your point (and what I missed), is… with the advent of technology, art can focus its message to a group of interested people and do what it was meant to do. Just because the technology of the internet allows transient things like digital ephemera doesn’t make it any less valuable. I’m glad you brought that up, because I agree.

I think I conflated art falling out of favor with authority as art going away. You thoughtfully pointed out that art is everywhere, and continuing to add so much to life.

Essays Nearby