Titus Andronicus: Now with twice the vitamins and nutrients

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In the Washington Post, Philip Kennicott reviews William Safire's Monday delivery of the Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy, and wonders where "the arts" will go now that the "instrumental" value of art (the idea that Mozart in the uterus makes kids smarter, etc.) has trumped the "intrinsic" value (ars gratia artis, as Leo the Lion would roar). Safire now heads the Dana Foundation, which is dedicated to brain science and arts education, and his speech (which you can listen to here) focused on practical reasons for arts education. The result, Kennicott points out, is a market heavy on the always good-for-you "classics," where Americans' white matter gets stimulated by stuff like "the last thing we really need: a six-month Shakespeare 'festival.'"

Safire used the word "classic" repeatedly. He spoke of the hope that "cognitive science today can help illuminate classic art." He even referred to the creation of "new classics," an odd locution for an expert on speech.

Arts advocates are no doubt very happy to have allies such as Safire and may not notice the subtle shift in vocabulary toward the dominance of words like "classic"—which suggests art that is widely admired, consensus-building and essentially noncontroversial… But walk outside, onto the terrace above the Potomac, and read what's written on the walls of the Kennedy Center. The president for which it is named once said, "I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty."

That kind of thinking has been fundamental to the thought of arts advocates for generations now. They defined the challenge facing them as a public that fears art, or is simply ignorant of art, or can't get access to art. If only arts lovers had the right arguments in their quiver (art can improve cognition, for example), then the arts might take on a central place in American life.

But what if the problem is more fundamental than that? What if the real problem is that some significant portion of the U.S. population simply hates art? Not fear. Not ignorance. Not even indifference. But loathing.

What would that look like? If you don't like to listen, or observe, if you don't like ambiguity or complexity, if you prefer to shout your opinion (even if you openly acknowledge you know nothing about what you're saying), you are, perhaps, someone inclined to hate art. It's possible that for years now, arts advocates have been wasting their breath, arguing into a black hole, with opponents who will never happily yield an inch to art…

American art used to confront and shame the art haters, exposing their provincial ignorance and bald hypocrisy, their cant and dogma and lies. Art used to be about more than convincing people that piano lessons will help your darling get into MIT. But no more. By limiting the debate to the idea that art is useful for developing practical skills, the arts world disengages from a more epic battle with forces in our society that prefer a world closed to questioning, impatient with the new or threatening, and comfortable only with certainties passed down from authority figures. Perhaps that's why these forces have recently taken on such prominence in our cultural discourse.

The new consensus—which mixes a quiescent view of art and the classics with arguments about cognitive improvement—won't, in the short term, be bad for "the classics." But what about everything else?

Leave aside the argument over whether American art was ever mostly or largely about shocking the bourgeoisie or any other non-utilitarian end (a claim that the decades-ago ascendance of Middlebrow education, Classics Illustrated, and Hollywood agitprop would seem to refute). I agree that people who don't like ambiguity and complexity are dumbasses, and I won't hear any argument about that. But does that mean they should have to pay to be told they're dumbasses? Safire notes that he's not looking for any federal funding, but that's not true of his hosts at Americans for the Arts. Here's a sampling from their advocacy page:

Tell your Senators and Representative to support a funding increase for the National Endowment for the Arts to help support our nation's cultural treasures and the arts in under-served communities.

Tell Congress to support the Senate Appropriations Committee-passed funding level of $35.7 million for the Arts in Education programs within the U.S. Department of Education.

Americans for the Arts also tracks other issues of note impacting the arts community, such as funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).

Send a letter to President Bush urging him to provide funding for cultural institutions affected by Hurricane Katrina.

It's true, the federally funded front of the culture war is in a quieter period than it was in the period of the NEA 4, and Dana Gioia, as Jim Henley noted two years ago, has created a much less daring climate for arts funding. Partly that's because we've all got more important things to worry about, but it's also because there was some truth to the complaints of the art haters back then: If you're going to be forced to pay for somebody else's living, you can at least request that that person not come back and insult you.

I think Safire's notions of brain chemistry and the like are a bunch of baloney, and the idea that Racine For Tots is improving anybody's cognitive capacity will someday seem as silly as the idea that Doritos make you smarter. But at least the instrumental argument is an attempt to persuade people rather than mug them; in that sense (and as far as I can see, in no other) it's slightly more defensible. Kennicott doesn't want an anodyne creative climate, and I agree with him. But he might consider how treating "the arts" as a public good is the reason for that anodyne climate, not the solution to the problem.

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  1. We’re always forgeting the lessons of Diderot’s failed efforts to educate by the arts.

  2. Indeed, I was just forgetting that this morning.

  3. Jesse Walker,

    🙂

  4. Hear, hear. In a democracy, public arts funding creates a race to the middle, bogus instrumental arguments, and/or the kind of con game Americans for the Arts is trying to pull. There’s a market for excellence in the arts, but it’s not a mass market. Never was. Great art won’t starve to death, but it could be smothered by all this federally-subsidized crap.

  5. Totally off topic but doesn’t the Reason Pillow Girl look way too happy with that magazine? Like she had just finished “thoroughly examining” a John Stossel centerfold.

  6. Uncle Lumpy,

    Yes. Compare the largelyh forgotten art of the Acad?mie des beaux-arts with that of the lasting (eventual) fame of the Impressionists.

  7. Don’t forget all of that publicly funded art that Ramses littered Egypt with…

    Or that crap from Michelangelo…

    The quality of art is always directly linked to the source of patronage.

  8. I’m pretty sick of the “kids score better on tests with music!” crap. I don’t even know, or care, if its true. It’s worthwhile for its own sake, for whatever spirituality it can bring to our short, brutish lives. It’s part of trying to be more than just a bio-mechanical robot, part of what it is to be human. Turning something wondrous and awe-inspiring into a broccoli pill pisses me off.

  9. Science,

    Key words are, “in a democracy.” Ramses and the Popes were excellent patrons (Stalin, less so). When the patron is “everybody”, you get art for the middle, that is, not art.

  10. Here’s an advanced psychological theory about the arts for you: if more mommies would read (or sing, or play music?) to their babies said babies might grow up with more interest in this high falutin artistic stuff.

  11. science,

    In those cases the patrons were individuals with money investing as a modern individual would do.

  12. I agree that people who don’t like ambiguity and complexity are dumbasses, and I won’t hear any argument about that.

    Fair enough, but keep in mind that someone else may not be impressed with one’s particular taste in ambiguity and complexity.

  13. Doritos don’t make you smarter???

    NOOOOO! My education plans are ruined!

  14. In those cases the patrons were individuals with money investing as a modern individual would do.

    Then there are the classic 19th-20th century patrons of the arts, who supported artists and writers specifically so the artists could abuse and pillory them. That’s the true show of power, when you can keep a court jester around just to mock you.

  15. I agree that people who don’t like ambiguity and complexity are dumbasses, and I won’t hear any argument about that.

    hmm I might be one of those dumb asses…of course i like pictures, and movies and books and music.

    But if you are trying to inform someone about a complex idea or group of ideas then i think ambiquity should be the last thing you are going for.

    To much art present and past (more pronounce though with non-pop recent art) is that simple ideas gain validity through ambiguity. Which i think is the real dumbass in the room.

    If you are interested in this i suggest reading the third culture…we don’t need ambiguity in art anymore…we need specifics to help explain are increasingly complex world.

  16. who supported artists and writers specifically so the artists could abuse and pillory them. That’s the true show of power, when you can keep a court jester around just to mock you.

    It was speculated in Testament that this was why Stalin tolerated Shostakovich, but this has been much debated. I think leftists (and lets face it, a lot of classical musicians are/were) didn’t want to believe it because they wanted to believe Shostakovich was a genuine communist-artist-genius they could claim for the cause. Others ate it up too eagerly despite the fact that the author was a defector with a clear ax to grind, and was basically free to make up whatever he wanted because Shostakovich was dead and didn’t leave behind much writing (understandable for someone in his situation). Me, hell I don’t know. I’m not about to second guess anyone genious enough to stay alive under Stalin’s thumb. How’s that for ambiguous. It certainly has been ambiguous enough to gain validity.

    And by the way, if you don’t like his music you’re an uncultured retard. And you didn’t even have to drop $20 on a ticket to hear it.

    And when this month’s Reason gets posted on line, I look forward to another arts thread. What good are the Arts? Is literature really first among the arts? Subscribers already know! So, what’s the reimbursement rate for shameless plugs?

  17. Oftentimes, “ambiguity” and “complexity” are used to obscure lack of understanding. Any claim that these are ends in themselves or some indicia of the quality of ideas is just as bogus as the current fashion for claiming that all “dissent” is good.

    Like “dissent”, ambiguity and complexity are completely neutral terms. What matters isn’t whether your ideas are ambiguous, complex, or dissenting, but the content of those ideas.

  18. I know *for a fact* that Doritos made me smarter.

  19. Hak and Lumpy

    The key words are actually,

    “The quality of art is always directly linked to the source of patronage.”

    In a democracy, the artistic choices for public art are often made by individuals (with taste–or not) that have control of the public money. I doesn’t matter much if the person is a bureaucrat, king, or pope making the choice, the source of money doesn’t impact the artistic quality one whit. Artist get money from whatever source they can. Some are good artists, some suck. Always been easy to find private funding for crap art.

  20. Science,

    Could you help me reconcile, “the quality of art is always directly linked to the source of patronage”, with “the source of money doesn’t impact the artistic quality one whit”?

    Yes, interest groups hijack arts funding in democracies (cf. “the kind of con game Americans for the Arts is trying to pull” in comment #4 above). And sure, there’s plenty of crap funded by despots (cf. “Stalin” above), etc.

    My point is that good art can’t come from a transparent democratic process. You can try to sneak it in NEA-style, but if you do it fair, you get crap.

  21. “Anyone who accepts public money for art is a whore.” – some artist.

    Disclaimer: I’m a “professional artist.” I make shitty pictures (and sounds) and give them away; someone else repackages them and I end up with about $50 a year from it. As part of the process some people are mildly entertained.

    The quality of art is always directly linked to the source of patronage.

    If you like the art, then the source is defined as “good”; if you don’t like the art, then the source is defined as “not good.” Nuttin’ cosmickal about that.

    Art = entertainment. ‘Tis trivia; much ado about not much.

  22. science,

    Apart from your contradictory statements, I have to ask, when the impressionists were getting no money from any patron, how was the quality of their work effected? After all, they spent decades in the art wildnerness.

  23. Wouldn’t the impressionists presumably be wealthy (ok, maybe not Van Gogh)? I thought they were landowners who lived in rural areas and painted stuff from their privately-owned landscapes.

  24. I mean, ’cause I’ll be honest here: a lot of the artists and musicians I know spend their days painting and playing music because they are trust fund babies who don’t need real jobs. (Some of them, on the other hand, are poor by choice and probably use food stamps.)

  25. But does that mean they should have to pay to be told they’re dumbasses?

    What, you expect somebody to tell them they’re a dumbass for free?

  26. But does that mean they should have to pay to be told they’re dumbasses?

    What, you expect somebody to tell them they’re a dumbass for free?

    Yeah, isn’t that how Insult Hotlines got started?

    Does anybody actually ever call those?

  27. smacky,

    No, most of the Impressionists came from middle-class backgrounds (the children of merchants, etc.) and only found fortune in their work during their old age. Indeed, the majority of them spent most of their young adult and middle-aged life in a hand to mouth style. That’s why they are such heroic figures – despite the scorn and ridicule of the artistic community and society generally they kept at it and eventually overcame and conquered the art world and of course remain on top to this day. Van Gogh was really a post- Impressionist painter. The main Impressionist painters were: Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas, Sisley, Pissaro and Morisot.

  28. Lumpy

    Re:
    Could you help me reconcile, “the quality of art is always directly linked to the source of patronage”, with “the source of money doesn’t impact the artistic quality one whit”?

    Look up the word “sarcasm.” I was mocking the position that the quality of art had anything to do with the source of funding. In second post I stated the position clearly (for those who missed the sarcasm in the first post). I would equally mock the idea that “good art can’t come from a transparent democratic process” but that would be redundant.

    And, Hak, this means that I don’t think funding or lack thereof had any impact on whether a particular impressionist was producing worthwhile art. Many (most?) worthwhile developments in the arts come from outsider artists, but some come from those connected to the powerful.

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