I think the first thing I need to define here is my idea of art. Now, there are whole books and classes and even lives dedicated to this topic, as well as ever-shifting popular and specialist opinions. I know. (I took a couple classes in college on aesthetics, as well as art appreciation, and the conversation is much bigger and more heated than all that.) At any rate, the most likely answer to “what is art?” falls into two categories: art is beauty, and art is statement. I can appreciate both of these answers.
However, what I have a hard time with is art which is just art. Maybe we could call it art that thinks it makes a statement but which–if it makes a statement–makes one exclusively about art and to a very narrow audience. Sure, if you are somehow targeted at an audience, fine. But more and more of public (and private) art is dedicated to this specialized topic (art) aimed at a narrow audience (the high echelons of the fine art community). Much of the energy, attention, and moneys involved in art are routed toward this particular thing, which I think is most prevalent in the visual arts. How many times have you gone to an art museum and either a) pretended you understood the modern art, or b) breezed by the modern art? Huh. That sculpture’s made with swine fecal matter, sun-dried and lacquered. Huh.
Still, we see the phenomenon in writing. Much of the money of writing goes toward mediocre and crowd-pleasing writing (which makes perfect sense to me even though it may not be my ideal situation). And yet, there are still so many writers (think poets and MFA wannabees) that succumb to the allure–whatever it might be–of the art-schmart thing. (No accident that it rhymes with fart.) The reason I am even writing this blog entry is because I recently came across some of this sort of writing.
I see this a lot in literary magazines and on blogs. And then they wonder why poetry doesn’t make money or journals are a dying breed. When the only people digging the self-gratifying dialogue are other art-schmart people, well there you go. But that’s not the point (partly because some self-indulgent art has really found that it pays). The point is that I find self-gratifying art to be as immoral as bad art. They both make my skin crawl. But why? Maybe because there’s only so much room in the public arena for art, only so many ears listening, only so many minds not otherwise engaged. And when we have the blessed opportunity of having those ears, those minds, those eyes for a time however brief, why would we want to waste that with being entitled and irrelevant?
Are the following statements true? If art is beauty, we should want to share that aesthetic experience as widely as possible for that beauty. If art is statement, we should want to share that message as widely as is necessary for that statement. Why then hide it under a bushel? (Or worse yet, obscure it with a tower made from human hair dyed neon colors?) Don’t get me wrong; art that pushes the envelope or says something new or exciting can be a great thing. Art that is ugly can also be a good thing. Perhaps even some art can be a bad thing and still be art. Remember, what I think is crazy is art that specifies itself out of a job.
Like this: Look at me! I’m weird! I’m different! Those ends are not beauty or real statements, as far as I can tell. And let’s face it: odd and ugly things are SO overdone in modern art. So overdone it doesn’t mean anything anymore. Especially to the average Joe, and I guess that’s what I’m getting at. Shouldn’t most public (and even private) art work for most public? Whatever happened to writing (or whatever) making people go “Wow!” or “Amazing!” or just taking their breath away or making them want to look/read/listen longer? Even better, what is wrong with art that makes people reflect on their lives, on the meaning of life, or on humanity (especially in a positive way)?
Which I guess is what really lies under the skin of the debate. Art of the self-indulgent kind operates in a sort of exclusivity. Whether intentionally or as a matter of coincidental accidents, self-indulgent art is snooty. I think this springs from the bizarre idea that art should not be beautiful or a statement, but should just be. While that may appeal for some, it is not livable (which by the way is one of the tests of the ethics of a thing). And then, somehow, the writer who writes non-livable stories (or anti-stories, as it were) looks down his long aquiline nose at anyone who mistakenly thinks writing should be about something or should do something (perhaps better society or entertain). How silly! How mortal! I’m going to write my non-story and then make jagged lines on a single sheet of paper until morning! See? Totally non-livable. And who want to be snooted at?
As for me, I avoid bad art and I avoid overly, overtly art-based art. Who needs ’em? Only the paying few, the powerful few, the ones with magazines and awards. But that’s not what made J. K. Rowling, and, if I had to choose, I’d stick with millions of readers and an empire, even if it means making people laugh, cry, and think.