Thursday, December 27, 2012

The de-legitimization of art

Sheila Heti argues that this is what's happening in America. Or as she eloquently puts it ...that this activity is privileged, narcissistic and childish; something permitted to those at university, maybe, but even then, a bit far-fetched as an activity of real importance. Certainly to be put away – along with the other “childish things” – once one becomes a man...A funny thing is that much of this criticism came from very smart people in populous American cities, where (it is implied) the more mature, less narcissistic, and less privileged thing to talk about is money. Money is a conversation for adults. Art, for undergrads."

Seems to me that what she's picking up on in this compelling, passionate essay is a pervasive ignorance that exists particularly among the 'educated' and wealthy. I know it sounds strange to call the so-called 'educated' ignorant, but it's true in a society that defines education in narrow terms. There is no doubt that we are the most educated society that has ever existed, at least in terms of producing individuals holding university degrees. But we are also the most blinkered. We stream our children early, and promote specialization because it affords the best potential for translating acquired skills into high-paying careers. "Money is a conversation for adults" because it's the one subject most every adult has the capacity to talk about. It does not require 'specialized' knowledge the way art does. Heti's essay made me think about a time when the wealthiest in society could talk about art, and needed to. In fact, talk of money was considered uncouth. The wealthiest considered being educated in the arts absolutely essential, as a critical component of taste, prestige, status, awareness and intelligence. It was also an important aspect of noblesse oblige, the responsibility of those few who could afford to be patrons of the arts to support this greater good. Today this role is fulfilled by governments and universities. When I think of the chasm that exists between wealth and knowledge (responsibility, awareness), Duck Dynasty comes to mind, a TV show about a millionaire family of yokels who seem to epitomize the ignorance Heti is talking about. The Robertson 'clan' wears the 'yokel' emblem with pride; a backwoods family that drives Cadillac Escalades and lives in mansions, who are rich enough not to care less about life beyond the boundaries of the swamp. They represent an anti-elitist credo that is elitist in its own ironic way ie. they own all the symbols of American success without being affected (read: tainted) by outside cultural influences, thereby supposedly retaining authenticity. The thrust of Heti's main argument is that knowledge of art is essential for knowledge of life in the broadest possible sense, because art speaks for the pockets of our culture and our hearts that the mainstream, commercialized world does not want to hear about; art elbows its way in. It’s about balancing – about justice. It allows our deepest grievances and sorrows to take centre stage. Art is an example of human freedom and striving. It defines and stretches our humanity, it clears the world of convenient lies, it touches the loneliness that plagues us all and replaces it with fellow-feeling. It creates models of possible worlds in opposition to the worlds we live in, which we cannot imagine our way out of without art.

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