March 22, 2006

Ars Gratia Artis

William Safire apparently gave the Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy recently, which WaPo covered. Here is a fiery response in Hit and Run to the content of Safire's lecture but also to the WaPo article.

Reductively, Safire said that great art (the classics) should be made available to mainstream audiences because art is instrumentally good for people. WaPo finds it interesting that a liberal group, Americans for the Arts, should embrace this view after decades of promoting art as an esoteric experience meant for Whitney Biennial goers and not too many others (a questionable assertion, I feel) and that is good intrinsically, for its own sake, and not because it may help your brain more fully develop, as Safire claims. Philip Kennicott, the WaPo writer, goes on to say that looking at art instrumentally, as Safire does and as many liberals are beginning to do, fails to see that much of America hates art (a claim not backed up at all) and vitiates any effort to confront these philistines with their barbarian yokelism. As if that were the best thing art can do.

To me, taking this confrontational view of art is the same as holding the view that we must inoculate our kids because children scream when they see the needle. Not only that, but holding an intrinsic view of art makes as much sense as believing that vegetables are to be eaten because of their innate worth, regardless of whether they actually are healthy or not. Vegetables for vegetables' sake seems a thoroughly ridiculous proposition, doesn't it?

Why are people afraid of looking at art as mental calisthenics? What most people think of as the greatest achievements of visual art (the works of the Renaissance and Counter-Reformation) were created for mostly instrumental reasons—either for spiritual calisthenics, one might say, or as propaganda for a patron—and if they were confrontational, it was in a way that drew one closer to the work rather than making one recoil from it. Music likewise long depended for its greatness on its utility in "bringing one closer to God" or something rather than on the inherent beauty of tonal combinations, or now, I suppose, in the inherent shock of atonality.

When we look at our great art, we often forget its provenance, forget that most of it was created to do something other than sing the praises of Art or shock the bourgeoisie, and that the Muses were not narcissists and they weren't above being widely pleasing. Great art may be both narcissistic and widely disliked, but it is not so constitutionally. In fact, the greatest art is often both narcissistic and selfless, intractably challenging to all and immensely pleasurable to most. Anna Karenina or Augie March or Leaves of Grass or William Wordsworth are all accessibly challenging and universally private. It is rather depressing that many "arts advocates" cannot see this.

Edit: Then, there is Matthew Barney, the creator of the Cremaster series and now this—Drawing Restraint 9, a film that combines Shinto customs, Japanese whaling ships, Bjork, and a whole lotta vaseline. Wow.

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