Friday, July 23, 2010

The Disaster that is Art, Part II

In my last Disastrous Art post, I explored the reasons why artists, musicians, actors, writers and craftspeople in North America are forced to choose between their art and survival. In this post, I wish to examine the very idea of art itself and how Art is deepening the divide between itself and its audience. I am not talking about the generous, broad definition of art which can be defined as "human expression". I'm also not talking about indigenous art that collectors fawn over because they want to make themselves look worldly. I'm talking about Art.

It goes by many names. Fine art, high art, literature, art-music, classical music, or just Art with a capital "A". It is difficult to define, but some people define it by what it isn't. It isn't pop-art. It isn't genre-fiction. It isn't popular music. That would be fine, except "pop-art," "genre-fiction," and "popular music" are all terms equally difficult to define. At best, Art can be defined as human expression which is "better" than others.

Why is this definition important? Because many institutions place high value on Art. For example, within my own experience, Grain Magazine publishes "engaging, surprising, eclectic, and challenging writing and art" according to their website, which is code for "we're not looking for genre-fiction". The Saskatoon Symphony differentiates between its main concerts in which it plays "classical" music from established masters and new Canadian composers, and its "Pop Series", in which it plays film music by John Williams and ABBA. When I applied for arts funding from the Saskatchewan government, I was advised that if my project was "popular" in nature, I should apply to the extra-governmental Saskfilm for funding.

I see Art-exaltation in people around me, particularly those with a university education in an artistic field. People who work in artistic fields have much of their self-esteem tied into Art, and many feel that they are better than other artists because they practice true Art instead of vulgar entertainment and commercialism. I too have a Bachelor of Arts degree and for a long time I believed in Art. I believed that some art was better than others, that some human expression should be written-off as "entertainment". It was the cause of much snobbery, haughtiness and pooh-poohing on my part. However, since I graduated I have been tormented with the suspicion, then the conviction, that the concept of Art is total bullshit.

I believe that Art is a holdover from less democratic times. Hundreds of years ago, nobles needed a way to make their form of entertainment seem superior to the entertainment of their smelly, toothless subjects. As a noble, the myth of superior breeding had to be upheld. Not only was a noble born better than his subjects, everything he did and appreciated was better. This was essential to his survival, because appearing unworthy of leadership could lead to his head on a pike. Thus was born the concept of entertainment that was better, smarter and elevating. With the growth of the middle-class in the 19th Century, the new moneyed class desired to imitate the nobles. So they bore the noble concept of Art, showing themselves to be cleverer and more refined than those who had less money. While the nobles and their courts have vanished, the concept of Art has lingered among the wealthy, intellectuals and professionals. In our society, it is permissible for people well-versed in Art to hold themselves in superiority over people who do not.

I have said that people believe Art is "better". So what does "better" mean? Firstly, it means a higher degree of skill on the part of the artist. Skill comes with hours of practice at the art form, to a point where technical mastery is achieved. I have no objection to this, although it's worth noting that technical mastery does not equal art. A potter can create a functional plate with mastery, but it does not become art until he uses the medium for expression with glaze and decoration.

Secondly, in the past, Art was distinct because it sought to "elevate" the audience. Elevation is the result of "the sublime", a strange concept based in grandeur, bigness, beauty and proximity to God. An elevated individual is brought into the throes of ecstasy by the Art in question. However, with the decline of religion in Western Society, so has the idea of the sublime fallen. Now, many would submit, Art is achieved by breaking boundaries and expectations. Art must be new, intellectually stimulating and challenging.

Lastly, and most importantly, Art is only for certain people. Many people mask this intent by saying that Art should not be "commercial" or "out to make money". However, what they mean is that Art should not appeal to the vulgar masses. How else does one make lots of money, but by appealing to lots of people? The intended audience of Art must be connoisseurs of art: other artists, intellectuals, scholars, critics and collectors.

So, Art is masterful, challenging human expression that is meant for smart people. Well, my friends, there is no imperial scale that judges the skill of an artist, nor the intellectual value, nor the IQ of the intended audience. That means that Art is subjective. SUBJECTIVE. Because it is subjective, "Art" is a completely useless term with which to judge human expression.

Everybody has varying levels of different types of intelligence and different amounts of experience with entertainment. One man's Art is, to others, either vulgar or incomprehensible. To some, a Fellini film is Art, while most Americans wouldn't understand it. For others, Fellini is vulgar merely because he is a filmmaker.

Another example: when I was ten years old, I watched the legendary wrestling match between Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant. Professional Wrestling is a form of entertainment of the most vulgar kind. No Art could possibly result from such spectacle. But there they were, two men feigning rage, pain and exaltation. Kinda like actors. There they were, using their bodies to express emotion. Kinda like dancers. When Hulk Hogan triumphed and held the title belt above his head, exhausted and elated, my ten-year-old mind was moved. I felt the ecstacy of victory, the thrill of hard-won triumph. I had never seen anything like it before and my developing mind was touched with the sublime. Yes, I was just a dumb kid. But to me, a WWF match was elevating. At the same age, I would have found a Mozart symphony boring.

What I am trying to say is that it is incorrect to declare any entertainment as "better" than another. Art and entertainment are the same thing. Each individual has opinions and a less harmful way of expressing them is to say "I like this" or "I don't like this".

Harmful? Yes. I say this to all who are reading who believe that Art is better than entertainment and have their egos wrapped in this fallacy: others can detect it. They see that because you know your Art, you think you are better than them on some level. It leeks through your personality and effects your behaviour. It makes people feel small. It makes them hate you. It perpetuates the view that artists are snobby and self-absorbed. It is one of the reasons why Stephen Harper declared that ordinary Canadians don't care about art.

I normally wouldn't mind that people believe in the existence of Art. It is, after all, only an opinion. However, from what I've experienced, art snobs populate high places: universities, arts funding boards, galleries, newspapers, scholarship committees, and friends-of societies. They pass judgment on other people's projects, using the bullshit-definition of Art as a standard. They indoctrinate young artists with a belief that is false and offensive. While film has just started to become recognized as an Art form, film composers are still ostracized by their peers. Sequential art and Video Games are ignored or mocked.

A gaping crevasse yawns between high-artists and the rest of the world. Ordinary folks resent artists for their snobbery and artists resent the hordes of philistines who marginalize them. This is unbelievable. Isn't art supposed to be about communication and expression? Shouldn't people trained to communicate be the best-understood people on the planet?

Artists, we must take the first step, because the rest of the world won't. We must get off our high-horses and stop being so damned smug about ourselves. We have to recognize that our worldview is not the only correct one. We have to respect the tastes of others and not take it personally if they would rather watch CSI. Lastly, and most importantly, we must remember that there are six billion people out there hungering to be entertained; if we can do that, they will love us.


  1. Grymm the PleasantJuly 24, 2010 at 7:21 PM

    It is basically for these reasons that I have tried to avoid being an artist. Not to say that I don't create things that others sometimes consider "art". I do so on an advanced amateur level (as in occasionally someone will ask me for commissions, but it is still a hobby).

    But I have not wanted to fall into the trap of Art, and the potential fart smelling that accompanies such. So starting in highschool, I generally started referring to myself as an artist as an illustrator to put some distance between my work and the pretentious mess of the world of the Artist. It is also why I avoided art classes in University. No need to get caught up in the culture. It generally serves a slightly different purpose, which is show that which is not. Which is a form of expression, but does keep it separate from the ideas of exploration of expression.

  2. Way to maintain your intellectual integrity! Don't let snobbery scare you away from University art classes in the future: they teach very useful techniques and are one of the few places you can learn the human form from a real model. You can see through the bullshit if you know it's there.

  3. You had me until CSI, but I'll try to forgive CSI and accept it.

  4. This weblog is being featured on Five Star Friday!

  5. As you probably know, I agree with you about the big picture. A great deal of what passes for contemporary 'art' is of interest to no one outside of the cliques that produce it. On the other hand, I have a very different take on the specifics. I think that you can have the notion of Great Art while letting go of some of the things which frustrate you. C.S. Lewis has an interesting system in a book called *An Experiment in Criticism*, and he uses it to circumvent many of the problems you describe. Lewis discusses literature for the most part, but his arguments can be applied to all the arts with a few minor changes.

    Lewis' system is based on an intriguing proposition, instead of looking at WHO likes a given book, look at HOW the book is liked. Instead of saying that a book is good because a lot of people like it or because ‘the right’ people like it, why not consider how readers express their appreciation? What does it mean when they say that they ‘like’ this book and not that one? Because in the end, there’s a world of difference hidden in that one little word. We may say that Person A ‘likes’ *La Divina Commedia* and Person B ‘likes’ *Angels and Demons*, but using the same word in both cases may give a misleading impression. If person A ‘likes’ Dante’s poem the way that many poetry lovers do, he or she will read and re-read it, study it, memorize favorite passages, or even learn Italian to savor every word in the original. But if person B is like the majority of the people who purchase Dan Brown’s Illuminati/anti-matter novel, he/she will read it once, probably while flying on one of the airlines that still doesn’t have an entertainment system on the back of the seat. (Recall the headline from *The Onion* about copies of *The Da Vinci Code* littering a crash site).


  6. The beauty of Lewis’ system is that it takes some of the sting out of the assumption of superiority which you rightly associate with the notion of ‘art’. At least to some extent, one doesn’t have to say that a book or some other work of art is better because ‘better’ people like it. A book, movie, song, or painting may be said to belong to a higher category, the category of art, because it is appreciated on a higher level: the people who enjoy it enjoy it again and again throughout their whole lives, and it is loved and cherished centuries after it was created. There’s still potential for snobbishness here (as in the *Onion* editorial “I appreciate the Muppets on a much deeper level than you”), but it allows for one thing which is impossible in the notion of ‘art’ which you describe. It allows you to recognize something as ‘art’ even when you fail to see its merits yourself. You may not like a particular work, artist, or genre, you may condemn a whole form, such as the graphic novel or the video game, but if you hold to this system, you can still admit that what you don’t like is great art: you may even have to. If it elicits the fervor and devotion which great art inspires, then you must acknowledge a certain artistic merit, whatever your personal feelings. Like you, I can’t enjoy much of what passes for art today, but if it survives the ephemeral passions of the moment and creates a lasting impression on the people who say that they appreciate it, I’ll have to conclude that there’s something to it after all. If the match between Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant still moved you today, just as it did when you were ten, that would be a piece of evidence in favor of the argument that the two wrestlers were great artists of the ring. And if you don’t feel the same way now, it doesn’t have to detract from the thrills you felt in 1986. But if we called everything that thrilled us ‘art’, the word would be too broad to be useful.

  7. But perhaps there’s no need to insist that all opinions should carry equal weight. Why should they when people have different degrees of commitment to the art form in question? If you want a guide to French wines, you’re certainly not going to be equally content with anyone’s opinion. Do you go to someone who’s hardly tasted the stuff and has trouble distinguishing it from mouthwash (that would be me), or do you look for someone who grew up on a vinyard in Provence, someone who’s tasted many varieties of wine and immersed themself in the process of making it? Or to use an analogy that’s closer to home, I would invariably trust your verdict on a ‘good’ boardgame over that of the guy who’s only played monopoly or risk once a year at Christmas. You know boardgames: you’ve played a lot of good ones and even more bad ones, so your opinion is worth a lot. And it’s the same with anything else worth doing: a great book, pizza, or graphic novel isn’t necessarily the most popular one. It’s the one that appeals the most to the people who care the most about books, pizza, or graphic novels. Apart from anything else, I like this because it frees us from the absolute subjectivity that comes with measuring artistic excellence either by our individual perspective (“if I like it, it’s art”) or by counting the number of people who like something (beauty, like sanity in *1984*, is statistical). But the main thing is that I don’t object to the notion, which you call ‘aristocratic’ and some political commentators have called ‘elitist’, that gives certain people more credit on certain subjects. The error of the aristocrats was to insist that you could determine whose opinion mattered from a glance their family tree. The democratic notion, which Jefferson called “natural aristocracy,” leaves room for people to discover their talents and interests and to be pre-eminent on their own terms. As I see it, it’s not about anyone being superior in a general sense, but more about having certain specific areas of expertise. It’s a little like what Paul said in Romans “as there are many members in one body, and not all members have the same function, so we, being many, are one body... having different functions according to the gifts we have received.”

    So I guess I’m saying that while you may have a point, you don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. You don’t need to trash the whole idea of art to argue that there’s something wrong with the contemporary Canadian art scene. It’s enough that many of the books, films and so forth that receive funding don’t strike chord with so many of the people who care deeply about books and films and whose opinion, in my mind, ought to be respected for that very reason.

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