Is Art dead?

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TL/DR

Another long post, but things I think need saying (even if a bit meandering musings) if only to get closer to a solution. The problem of art is not simple. While I still contend a great deal of the problem today is resultant of the Enlightenment, utility and reason vs emotion and irrational, we are stuck in an entanglement of issues. On one hand this is really the root of the problem. On the other, it is not really all that helpful to say “We just need to change our worldview on art and beauty and everything will be okay”.

While this assessment is valuable state-of-the-cultural-environment information, I think one of the outcomes of this analysis is to allow us to not generate a solution. It does not put feet to words. It allows us to argue about the problem at a theoretical level. But the arguments do not generate actual solutions. We continue to fight a culture war without an exit strategy or a definition of success. No wonder we are losing the “culture wars”. It becomes fighting for the sake of fighting. No one wins, everyone loses. A false sense of “There is a utopia out there if only we would all think correctly.”

Part of the problem, for all the ills created by the Enlightenment and Modernism I don’t think anyone believes those ills outweigh the benefits. And who could reasonably argue? Without rationalism we would not have indoor plumbing. Everyone might think the cure for HIV/AIDS is sex with virgins. We would have no basis to decry human rights violations. Indeed, there might not even have been the Civil Rights movement or even an abolishment of institutionalized slavery (even though slavery supposedly is at numbers today greater than any point in history, it is just more hidden and no one admits to it).

Let’s start with definitions. My definition of art is rooted in intent. The existence of a urinal does not necessitate art. But taking that object and displaying it to convey something (regardless of motivation or our opinion of the intent) other than its utility is a move in intent. Sometimes the intent is obvious (a portrait) sometimes not (a layer of bricks). This obviousness of intent, or rather lack of obviousness, is what causes many people much discomfort and suspicion. What if we get it wrong? No one wants to be wrong. Being wrong is sinful.

At the crossroads?

People who discuss art and artists try not to get weighed down with what it means to make a living as an artist and that affect on one’s art. We believe the two are or should be disparate principles. One makes art. If one wants to make a living with their art making one finds buyers. But one should not confuse or conflate commercialism and art (is what this boils down to, really).

I think this is wrong headed. This is falling back into Enlightenment, rational/irrational, two natures, thinking. This is not recognizing the holistic necessity of a career as an art maker. There are opposing views. Often, people who think artists who create highly sellable Art are sell-outs. Artists want to make a living with their art without “selling their souls”. It is all nice and everything to say “Art is too important to worry about the economy of art”. Yet if one is to pursue art as a career, how can this be a helpful consideration? Okay, maybe not necessarily wrong headed, but certainly an attitude that falls short of understanding the issues around art and arts support today, because one of the things we mean when we talk about arts support is the capacity for artists to make a sustainable living with their art.

I am not sure that what artists and arts advocates want (support for the arts) and don’t want (commodification of art, or less nicely put “prostituting” our art) is unifiable under the current cultural environment, both generally and the economic culture specifically. Not that it shouldn’t be nor that it can’t be. It is just at least extremely difficult, and likely impossible, under current conditions.

I get it. Art is more important than a monetary value system quantifies. I am not suggesting that artists should create based solely on market trends or only create what will sell. But what sells often goes to support what will not sell but still has significance. As it stands right now, spiritual (not necessarily religious) and existential humanistic significance is not a sellable or marketable subject.

But our culture also uses monetary return as a measure of acceptance by others. As I’ve said in other articles the worst thing to happen to an artist is not that people don’t like their work or even hate their work. The worst thing to happen to an artist is that no one notices them and their work. At a very fundamental level one of the ways we measure respect and acceptance is by how many people (or how many certain people) are willing to pay for one’s work, especially how much they are willing to pay.

This is why money becomes such a power position. As much as we hate to admit it, money also dictates if, what, and how much we can eat, clothes we wear, homes where we live, etc. We can say we only want eyes, viewers, butts in seats, audience reached, people to see, appreciate, and respond to the work. But even if they don’t pay, if that doesn’t result in money from someone (either in the form of grants, sponsorships, or even advertising revenue) it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to continue to create work, especially in the performing arts.

We admire certain artists who seem to have found their good fortune with their art, such as the usually agreed upon greats. But somehow, someone like Thomas Kinkade crosses the line into foisting sentimentalism on an unwitting public and is guilty of crass commercialism, selling art rather than selling art. So, when people are interested in Kinkade, willing to spend money, we really mean, sure, support art, but only what “we” consider art? I have met and even know some of the people who will say “It isn’t art until I say it is art”. I still do not see how art, or even ‘A'rt, benefits from such a process. There are people who may benefit, but art does not.

Let’s look at one example, the MacArthur grants, also known as the Genius Grants. At one point their stated mission was to allow artists to create without the pressures of life, the implication of course being they mean the pressure of having to sell their work in order to live. I tell art students, if art is about life, how do you have art if you don’t have a life? So get a life! It is from life and the pressures of life that our creative well is replenished. We love the notion that artists should be free to create whatever it is they want to and can think of to create, without imposed limitations and constraints. But is that really where creativity thrives? I don’t think so.

Personally, I think art schools do a disservice to not teach at least some basic business courses as part of an art curriculum. I get it. “Art” (capital 'A’) is not about commercialism. But when people with those $120,000.00 art degrees are one of the smallest percentage of people making a living as an artist, what is the point of that art degree? Especially at that cost? For a host of reasons, not just the marginalization of art, it is harder than ever to make a living as an artist. This is a huge dichotomy. How can we tell people on one hand that art is important, maybe more important than ever. Then, on the other hand not only disparage the business of art, but tell artists they are on their own to figure out how to make a living with their art?

Consuming versus Consumerism

How do you consume art? I had a person ask me “How do we become better consumers of art?” I was unsure how to best answer this question. There are two ways to consider “consumer"—either in the economic sense or in the (metaphorically) biological, dietary sense. I started at a dietary understanding. When I asked my family that question they went straight to an economic understanding of the question. I think both perspectives can lead to an answer. Ultimately the answer is education. Learn to eat what is good and healthy. Learn to be a better buyer, either with personal capital or monetary.

But I fear an economic approach to the question, however, once again leads to the utility of art, thinking like a Consumer Reports of consuming art—how often does the art need repairing, is this a good investment, or how much use is the art. That is already a large problem for art, how much utility can we get out of it? We, as arts advocates, continue to justify arts support with things like economic impact, educational impact, health impact, social justice impact, etc., things beyond irrational emotional impact (which does not seem to be enough of a justification for most people). If art had no such impact, would it still be important? Yet, at the end of the day, would it even still be art?

Lawrence Lessig has spoken on what commercialism (and thus copyright law) has done to art. He talks about culture moving from a read/write/rewrite creativity to a read-only creativity, particularly with the advent and advancement of copyright law in the last couple hundred years. He levels the accusation that, through copyright law, Disney wants to prevent anyone from doing to Disney what Disney did to the brothers Grimm.

I understand the argument and to a large degree, I agree. At the same time, we live in a monetary economy and if my livelihood depends on my output, I don’t appreciate someone else making money on my work without my permission or at least including me in on the revenue.

But then, there is a whole industry of people who makes their living off the art makers and don’t actually make the art themselves. They are usually the ones most vocal with their objections, not the art makers. To be cynically, brutally honest, they often would prefer (and, historically, often have) to make their money on the backs of and at the expense of the art makers. Again, art school does little to prepare artists for this environment.

There are large realities of making a living with one’s art that have a huge affect on the art that is made and available. We say art is for everyone, yet we often immediately put a barrier of money in front of the art before "everyone” can view. But it isn’t always money that is the barrier. I am often amazed me at what people are willing to spend money on and how much they will spend on such items. Art is often just lower in economic priority.

And thus, we are back to the dilemma of making a living with one’s art making. It’s one thing to say create what moves you, what you are moved to create. It’s another thing to make a living with your art. And, in my experience, when people advocate for arts support, no matter the rhetoric about how art is important, we usually mean support my art, support my work.

There is a balance here that I am not sure anyone is able to articulate in a democratic, unselfish fashion. I fear I have not moved us any closer to a solution. I hope someone reading can.

Email me your solution and I’ll post it here!

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Joe

 
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