Making the case for Art

I received a tremendous reply to the comment I made on Linda Essig’s blog, and knew my own response to it would simply be too large to leave there (More typical OverKillGillies blathering, I’m afraid. And this one is epic….). So instead of dropping it on her blog I sent it as a letter to her and to the artist with whom I was discussing the issue. And now you get to read it too! This is what I said:

“Ahoy Richard!

I just knew there was a bit of kindred spirit between us. Obviously you are at least as passionate about these issues as I am. Quite probably more so. And obviously you have spent many more hours fighting for the cause. I think everyone should be grateful you are out there fighting this fight. I thought I’d let you have the last word on that blog post, but I thought I could probably still explain a bit more about my thoughts. Hope you don’t mind! And I’d love your feedback. You are obviously a deep thinker with an extensive background on this issue.

So first off, I absolutely agree that the issue of funding seems to be stuck between helping the current generation of professionals and encouraging future generations. And either of these avenues ought to at least spill over into the other: Professionals ought to be communicating their passion and ideas to the community, inspiring them, and emerging artists ought to be supporting the efforts of established workers in the field. So maybe its the case that in at least some sense either way of funding the arts is in part mutually beneficial.

But of course it doesn’t always work this way. The Diane Ragsdale quote I latched onto in my comment on Arlene’s blog seemed to indicate that the haves are often more interested in maintaining their own preserve than in sharing or spreading the wealth. So my initial question was whether putting so much power in the hands of the status quo didn’t in some ways fail to develop (or possibly even inhibit) the emerging class of creators. It just seems like an interesting question. I’m not saying I have a definitive answer, if such a thing could exist.

I think especially when you acknowledge that a pie only has so much that can go around, who gets the slices can become a deeply partisan struggle. For instance, Opera and Symphony orchestras may gain disproportionate support because of who is supporting them. And if we see a greater funding of something that has a narrower more exclusive audience, one that may not speak as clearly to a younger less affluent audience, there does at least seem to be a discrepancy, an absence of equality. How else do we explain it? But I hesitate to use the word “elitism”. It just happens that it gives this appearance, not necessarily by intention.

And to give credit where credit is due, these institutions have often made concerted efforts to bring their product to new audiences, and to even open up the format of what they are presenting to a more inclusive interest. Its not all Bach and Beethoven, but also transcriptions of today’s pop idols. As you point out, galleries have open doors, and museums have posters and educational materials. They are obviously making the effort. But is this enough?

And don’t get me wrong. I think opera and other arts perceived as primarily catering to an exclusive audience do need the support. Without massive funding, orchestras and opera companies would simply cease to exist. And it would be a crime if we allowed that to happen. But whose fault is it that these Arts are in the position they are in? Is their art no longer ‘good’ enough? Do we blame the public for a lack of sophistication? Or do we concede that the generations that made them popular are unfortunately dwindling in the rear view mirror? Its sad when the flow of history puts us in this position, but there it is….

I guess every generation has to ask these questions, and its not surprising that a certain amount of conservatism applies. One of my all time favorite pieces of music, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, was greeted with outrage when it was first performed. And now the cannons of classical music have a special reverence for it. Strange how time changes things…. And its no surprise that academic art has an arthritic commitment to its cannons. And praise the art gods that it does! Pushing pottery out the hallowed doors was bad enough, but how long do we wait before digital arts start cramping studio based arts to the point of their dismissal? At least, that’s the impression of our future I’ve been getting through the grapevine.

So YES to Painting, YES to Sculpture, and YES to Printmaking. YES to Dance, YES to Theatre, and YES to Classical Music. I’m just pointing out that it sometimes takes an inequitable stance to prop up these institutions in the face of competing priorities. I’m NOT saying its wrong to make that effort. I’m just asking whether we also lose out on other things by only pursuing one agenda in particular. Have we truly weighed the costs? Or are we so focussed on the undeniable merit of these institutions that we can’t see beyond them? Is it a short sightedness that can end up costing us? That’s my question (and it IS a question).

Its possibly something like a person in a rock slide whose two friends are hanging off the edge of a cliff. If you use one hand for each, they likely will both slip and die. But if you use both your hands on one, that one can perhaps be saved but the other will almost certainly die. What do you do? Can we save them both? This is the dilemma I see us in. Do we grasp at our friend’s wrists, drop one to save the other? Or, do we plan ahead and build a safety net?

As far as the rise of anti-intellectualism, I couldn’t be more discouraged. I absolutely despise the culture (not the people, for heaven’s sake!) of insipid surface dwellers grasping only at the low hanging fruit. The question, I guess, is how you get them to raise the bar. Why would they want to, especially if its proposed as an either/or issue? In my comment I was advocating an inclusiveness, not one side at the expense of the other. In other words, not anti-intellectual (bad) art at the expense of intellectual (good) art, and not intellectual art at the expense of anti-intellectual art either.

Maybe I’m just dreaming, but my concern is that if we have too narrow a vision about what art is supposed to look like we end up sometimes putting the baby out with the bathwater. We let that other guy slip through our fingers. (Interestingly, we also sometimes fail to recognize brilliance. We abandon challenging works like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring before they are properly understood.) In other words, if we give up on the bottom feeders how can we expect anything other than the fatal drop to their intellectual deaths, much less their ‘improvement’? If we only fund the acknowledged high points does this necessarily trickle down to the masses, a Reaganomics of art and intellect? It seems a parallel question to what the Occupy folks are asking the 1%, doesn’t it?

And the deeper source of my disquiet is that anti-intellectualism is perhaps more a symptom than a cause. I would even go so far as to suggest that it is our society’s fundamental lack of curiosity that is to blame. I would also say that when we discourage folks from taking art into their own hands we are blunting their curiosity about the world. We are (perhaps unwittingly) turning folks into consumers rather than creators. And this has consequences far beyond whether the next generation of kids grow up to be professional artists. It has very much to do with our society’s collective capacity for self determination, for open mindedness in the face of the unfamiliar, for an ability to rise above our provincial biases and prejudices, and to see potential in the world. Our ability to BE artists is in fact the source of our ability to confront the world as if it still possesses the exciting mystery and wonder of the unknown. It sparks and nourishes our curiosity. Without it the world just comes off as dead to us. We are incurious at the expense of killing wonder in the world and wonder about the world. (Interesting word, “wonder”….)

Take, for instance, the example of Joshua Bell performing a violin concerto unannounced and for free in a train station. I’m sure you must be familiar with this. If the best he could muster was a solitary kid’s rapt attention while just about everyone else completely ignored him, just what does that say about our curiosity in the world? Just what does that say about a general audience’s ability to appreciate even the most refined art performance? Even the folks who otherwise would have paid those $683 tickets to the concert at the Kennedy Center couldn’t grasp the beauty that was on offer for the mere price of a moment’s respite. The lack of curiosity was simply astounding. Without the familiar packaging of a performance hall most adults couldn’t even be tempted by the outstanding performance.

I believe that art can make a difference and should aim at making a difference. You say as much in that quote from earlier: “Good art effects people…. Bad art does nothing for anyone.” But does that mean that Joshua Bell’s performance was on the side of being bad art? In at least this instance its not the art that is at fault. Its the audience. If the art is good enough and ordinarily accessible enough but the public has no chance of ‘getting’ it, what good does artistic excellence do? Will our society become so immune to good art that we end up turning even our most sublime efforts into ‘bad’ art? The point I’m making is that we are in deep trouble if we only focus on the art end of things, the products, and not on our society’s ability to make sense of what we are doing.

I’m not sure who would argue that NASA and the AMA don’t make a real world difference. And the incomprehensibility to the layman is irrelevant to the science having an effect on us. Both NASA and the AMA strive to make the world a better place. And they make a difference independent of how well they are understood by laymen. But can the same be said about art? Does art make a difference without being understood? It seems that if art has value it does so by making an impact. But what is the value of art that fails to make an impact? Joshua Bell’s performance might as well NOT have happened except for that lone kid caught up in what he was doing…..

Science doesn’t have to speak to an audience to have an effect. It crops up in ipads and toaster ovens, it manifests in jet planes and cures for cancer. But art that speaks to no one has no effect. Science is applied instrumentality. Science is implemented in the world. It works at a level underneath our comprehension. But if art only speaks to a limited few, how can we argue for its universal value? Why should people be asked to care about art that makes no difference in their lives? Art makes a difference in precisely how well it moves us and inspires us. And the fact that Joshua Bell’s performance was so blithely overlooked should say to us that there is something seriously wrong with how art is finding a home in people’s everyday lives, and that THIS is the danger we are facing, not artists’ ability to make good art.

If sometimes even the most sublime and otherwise enjoyable music can be so callously trodden underfoot then it can only be because we are not getting our message across. Joshua Bell wasn’t aiming at something obscure. It should have been accessible. And what this tells me is that we are uncomfortably close to training a populace that lacks the basic curiosity to investigate the world.

Without nurturing curiosity how can we expect folks to care about the mysteries of the world? Why would we expect them to care about art? Art is potentially such a potent force of good in the world. It can make a real world difference if only because it is an obvious open door to imaginative possibility. We are not in danger of losing our society’s ability to create profound works of art. We are in danger of no longer being able to be moved by it. Without curiosity even great art tastes like cardboard, and moves us about as much as the pavement beneath our feet.

And so I also see taking creative responsibility in our lives as a moral issue. We need art because we need to keep our curiosity alive. When we create something new we are helping to decide the visual/material/auditory/conceptual/intellectual fate of the world. We are making a choice between this not that. We are recreating the world in the forms of our imagination. We are acting as moral agents, not as herded sheep. And this is why art matters: Because it puts the power of creative decision making in each and every person’s hands. Creativity implicates the intellect. Nurturing creativity nurtures an inquisitive mind. Only by taking curiosity and creativity out of the hands of everyday people do we turn them in to the passive tools of advertising executives, and turn a major part of their brains from ‘on’ to ‘off’.

So I would say that as important as it is to sustain working artists, perhaps it is even more vital to insure that the curiosity that each of us carries inside is given an opportunity to flourish. Perhaps it is even more vital that we promote a more ubiquitous open minded exploration that would lead new audiences to our work. Perhaps it is even more significant that we lay the groundwork for a society that CAN appreciate what it is that artists do. If folks come to love the artist within themselves they will love the beauty that surrounds them. Not just as consumers being told what to like, but also as potential explorers in their own right.

Well, that’s my take on the issue at least. Hope you got at least a small chuckle at my mental gyrations!

Thanks for the great conversation and for putting yourself out there to fight this fight. I’m not nearly as courageous as you, so I appreciate your willingness and commitment.

Take care,

Carter Gillies

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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7 Responses to Making the case for Art

  1. john bauman says:

    I haven’t been keeping up, but I thought you might find this at least interesting.

    http://www.openculture.com/2010/08/borges_the_task_of_art.html

    • Thanks John! That is a lovely video. And what he says is, of course, exactly what I’m talking about:

      “The task of art is to transform what is continuously happening to us, to transform all these things into symbols, into music, into something which can last in man’s memory. That is our duty. If we don’t fulfill it, we feel unhappy. A writer or any artist has the sometimes joyful duty to transform all that into symbols. These symbols could be colors, forms or sounds. For a poet, the symbols are sounds and also words, fables, stories, poetry. The work of a poet never ends. It has nothing to do with working hours. Your are continuously receiving things from the external world. These must be transformed, and eventually will be transformed. This revelation can appear anytime. A poet never rests. He’s always working, even when he dreams. Besides, the life of a writer, is a lonely one. You think you are alone, and as the years go by, if the stars are on your side, you may discover that you are at the center of a vast circle of invisible friends whom you will never get to know but who love you. And that is an immense reward.”

      Great stuff!

  2. A friend just directed my attention to Adbusters, which I haven’t been paying attention to since I was in grad school in the mid 90’s. Up popped this article that is at least tangentially related to the discussion and some of the points I am poking at in the last two posts:

    http://www.adbusters.org/magazine/100/1-percent-art.html

    “In the midst of an economic crisis, the art world is experiencing an ongoing market boom which has been widely linked to the rise of High Net Worth Individuals (HNWI) and Ultra-HNWIs (people worth over $1 million or $30 million respectively), particularly from the financial industry. A recent report by Art+Auction even celebrated indicators that these groups were rebounding from their 2008 dip to precrisis wealth. Until recently, however, there has been very little discussion of the obvious link between the art world’s global expansion and rising income disparity. A quick look the Gini index, a measure of income inequality, shows that the countries with the most significant art booms of the past two decades have also experienced the steepest rise in inequality: the United States, Britain, China and India. Further, recent economic research has established a direct connection between skyrocketing art prices and income inequality, showing that “a one percentage point increase in the share of total income earned by the top 0.1% triggers an increase in art prices of about 14 percent.” It is now painfully obvious that what has been extraordinarily good for the art world over the past decades has been disastrous for the rest of the world.”

    That is, its a boom if you are one of the artists that can cash in on this. The rest of us end up as marginalized and as overlooked as the rest of the 99%. But its this 1% of art that owns the limelight and which gets the disproportionate attention and funding. The art game feeds on the investment potential of brand name artists, and reputation rather than quality ends up selling work. And if this doesn’t at least share the same bed with elitism, I’m not sure where else its living. Here’s one of the comments on that post:

    “Our mistake has to do with thinking that this has anything to do with us, or even anything intrinsic to do with art. Art spent the 20th century revolting against it’s long history of making objects glorifying highly concentrated power – making art without objects, like performance, or video, etc – only to end the century licking the oligarchical a$$es of the 1%. In the latter 20th century, the aura of art, it’s inherent value, transferred from the artist to the museum itself: where once art was defined as anything made by an artist, it is now defined as anything you put in the gallery. Thus, 1% art collectors can market using the myths of the artist in sensational style, while the real value of art is now determined by museums and galleries – which can be owned and controlled.”

    Here’s another great commentary on this phenomenon from the film Basquiat:

    Art patrons get “mad at you” when your art doesn’t carry through on their branding interests (read investment in reputation), and patrons are less interested in what you did to make your art than in what its worth. The quality is simply less important than what you can get for it, $ being more important than what the art itself is.

  3. Scott Cooper says:

    Hey Carter,

    I agree with your argument about Bell’s performance — it would have been great if every commuter that morning had stopped for a minute to listen and appreciate the random encroachment of beauty into their day. But a contrarian thought occurs, too.

    You said, “Joshua Bell’s performance might as well NOT have happened except for that lone kid caught up in what he was doing…” Perhaps this is mistaking quantity with quality, in terms of impact. What if that lone kid is the next Stravinsky?

    • Damn straight he might turn out to be the next Stravinsky! And that’s why I said “except for that lone kid” (meaning the kid was the exception). Maybe I should have put it in bold letters…..

      What I was getting at was not an attempt to diminish the impact on that kid, but to point out that unless you have a minimum quantity of one person you can’t even conceivably have quality that would matter. So, what I WAS saying was that for all those other people who were unaffected there was no appreciable quality because their effective quantity came out as a net of zero. You can have a red ball, but unless there is a ball there is no red ball. Unless there is a person affected there is no good or lasting effect. In other words, except for that kid, his performance might as well NOT have happened. Without that kid, he could just as easily have been playing in a broom closet at home. I think….

      But of course that’s all too simplistic anyway. Who’s to say that all those passers by needed to stop in order to be affected? Maybe what they caught in passing was enough to actually inspire the next Stravinsky. I don’t know this was not the case. Maybe there is something that penetrated subconsciously despite not having lingered to consciously appreciate the performance?

      It just seems like an awful lot to gamble on the benefits and powers of inattention…..

      • Scott Cooper says:

        I get it now — I mis-read your original meaning about the lone kid. And I agree that if we were using that example to determine something like allocating limited funds for supporting the arts, I wouldn’t want to gamble on the odds of hitting that one perfect target either, at the expense of trying to hit hundreds or thousands of more imperfect ones. (Not even sure if I’m still on the issue at hand, but for what it’s worth…)

        I think an example like Bell playing in the subway is a great thought experiment; almost like one of those psychological studies that starts out seeming to prove one thing, but ends with calling all one’s assumptions into question.

        For example, I was thinking, what if some of the people who seemed to be walking by completely uncaring of what they were missing were actually great musicians themselves, either tuned in to the music in their heads or blasting out last night’s performance on their headphones? In that case, stopping to listen to Bell could have been a net loss…

        I know — speculative and unlikely. Fun to chew on, though.

  4. Pingback: Life on the planet Jargon (part 1) | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

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