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Nashville Scene In Defense of Elitism

Learning the difference between art and Art.

By David Ribar

JANUARY 12, 1998:  About 20 years ago, a graduate faculty instructor hotly admonished me during one of our coffee-fueled debates. "The problem you have," he said as he shook his head sadly, "is not with asking whether or not something is art--we all know by now that you can call anything you want 'Art,' given the right context and rhetoric. Warhol's soup cans and their spawn are just more catchy but slight variations on Duchamp's 'Fountain,' and performance artists are just pissing inside of it." He continued, eyes focused narrowly, "The really important question you and everyone else like you still needs to ask is whether or not the thing is any damn good!"

It has taken me years to acknowledge that my teacher was posing the right question, and the implications of his question are even more valid today. Although elitist in assumption, it bears consideration if not outright advocacy, for indeed our recent history in the arts has contributed to a diluted notion of what art is. The whole issue raised by my teacher's remarks resurfaced only recently after I read the massive NEA report entitled "American Canvas." Swelled with boosterish ambitions, uplifted with a democratic spirit, and couched in sincere platitudes, it often sinks to the lowest common denominator in attempting to define art.

Reading the report, one learns that "If we will look, we will find art all around us: in the things that we make with our words (songs, stories, rhymes, proverbs), with our hands (quilts, knitting, rawhide braiding, pie-crust designs, dinner-table arrangements, garden layouts), and with our actions (birthday and holiday celebrations, worship practice, playtime activities, work practices).... Viewed in this light, art...is not something that exists 'out there' in a world alien to many families but is rather an essential part of the lives of most families. The problem is that they just don't know it."

And, I might add, Martha Stewart is our new Picasso!

Seriously: If anything and everything are art, how can any art be of value, which presupposes categories of taste and quality? How can we presume any art to be great or even good? The user-friendly standards posed by "American Canvas" seem every bit as threatening as the hostile members of the House who want to abolish the NEA. At heart, the report undermines the subtler and nobler qualities of the arts in favor of something more ordinary and diminished. It reeks of the near-total desperation of the NEA's supporters to justify the organization to the American public and to Congress. And if that's the kind of pathetic bowing and scraping required nowadays, I say scrap the whole mess.

Ironically, much of our contemporary avant-garde remains obsessed with demolishing any perceived barriers between "art" and "daily life," or its members seek bogus revolutionary action in "terminal assaults on the art-as-commodity establishment." Of course, blasting away the barrier between "high" and "low" has been the primary avant-garde preoccupation for decades. Meanwhile, our public is becoming increasingly militant about censorship issues--something that says less about the alleged obscenity of the art and more about a fundamental lack of understanding regarding the purpose and value of art. Epater la bourgeoisie has its drawbacks, you know.

Yet what's really shocking is that it's no longer true that any fool can see the difference between price and value. All this constant talk about dollars and business has skewed our sense of how easily art is sacrificed to the principles of the marketplace. Sen. John Ashcroft, a Missouri Republican, opines that "the average guy wants to go down and see Garth Brooks at the country concert, he doesn't get a federal subsidy, but the silk-stocking crowd wants to watch the ballet or the symphony orchestra, they get a subsidy." Our cynical senator really wants to incite class warfare against what he sees as the Democratic-supported NEA. Yet Ashcroft ignores the fact that his poor Garth fan gets hits harder in the pocketbook when he must fork over taxes to underwrite (read: subsidize) the construction costs of stadiums or arenas owned by the Very Rich.

Furthermore, our Garth fan still has the choice of attending the ballet or symphony or museum if he wants--which he may well do--but does he know that most cultural institutions derive little more than 1 percent of their annual funding from federal sources? The real Medicis here are American-based international banks and corporations, along with some Very Rich individuals; without these people, the nonprofit art sector would dry up. Does Ashcroft even wonder why their contributions to nonprofits happen to be tax-deductible? Or why Mr. Garth Fan won't get to write off his ticket on his return?

Just as annoying as Ashcroft are tub-thumpers like William Wilson of Cincinnati, who contributed the above-quoted remarks to "American Canvas." Wilson is emphatically quoted elsewhere in the report: "[Our] new downtown Aronoff Center for the Arts was completed as a result of investments made by the state of Ohio, local corporations, and individuals. This arts center has played an essential role in revitalizing much of our downtown area with investments in new businesses, increased spending, and steady activity that brings people back to the downtown for entertainment purposes." For Wilson and others like him, art is just entertaining, just one more diversion. Sadly, his attitude is typical of many who've come to equate art solely with business and entertainment; the effects of this thinking are no less detrimental than those resulting from our conflation of news and entertainment.

Now, it's not my intention to denigrate corporate investment in the arts, artists marketing themselves on Web pages, the political debate on federal arts funding, the need for community-outreach programs, or art's potential for solving complex social problems. Nor am I objecting to children learning the value of making rhymes or doodles. What I am objecting to is our failure to discriminate between exposure and cultivation. Our receptivity to the potential magnitude of the art experience has become increasingly dulled. How can we maintain it in the face of so much self-serving rhetoric; noisy, misguided arguments about obscenity and style; and overweening emphasis on business?

In his essay "Do Blondes Prefer Gentlemen," the late writer Anthony Burgess lamented that art had been made into something entirely too ordinary in today's culture, that true creativity is enormously difficult to achieve. He warned that we "need to stop thinking that what kindergarten children produce is anything more than charming or quaint." (I would second that for most "folk artists," especially the ones with MFA degrees.) Burgess was also a stickler for craft in the service of an idea: "Art begins with craft, and there is no art until the craft has been mastered. You can't create unless you're willing to subordinate creative impulse to the construction of form. But the learning of craft takes a long time, and we all think we're entitled to shortcuts.... Art is rare and sacred and hard work, and there ought to be a wall of fire around it."

Like a grim and self-righteously determined docent at the Whitney Museum, many of us are tempted to turn the trivial into the significant. We fool ourselves in the constant smashing of art's boundaries--as if there were any left to smash, decency included. We deceive ourselves (and our children, for that matter) when we pretend that art is something we find anywhere, like rawhide braiding and pie-crust designs. We trivialize the whole question of what makes something art when we refuse to accept the very real difference between art and Art. Many are called; few are chosen.

It's time to ditch Duchamp's challenge of the urinal, time to end the pretense that anything can be art. Creating it, analyzing and understanding it, judging it are extremely demanding, though immeasurably rewarding, experiences. Making the arts effortlessly accessible or good for business does nothing but cheapen them in the long run. Neglected art writer/philosopher Gerald Sykes put it best 27 years ago: "The art that has survived for centuries of close inspection has been able to meet the demands that people have made upon it in moments of ego-free contemplation. To think that we can bully our way out of those demands, by shouting how artistic we are or how brilliant our program is, is not only to parody the original aims of the avant-garde but to announce our secession from reason. Contemplation is still the final test of any picture."

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