Pete's Blog

The Art Racket

There is a car in the parking lot here with two bumper-stickers on its tail. One reads "Kill Your Television," the other, "Art Saves Lives." I can agree whole-heartedly with each, taken one at a time. But side by side on somebody's rear bumper they make a combined statement I fear reflects an error of observation. Together, the statements "Kill Your Television" and "Art Saves Lives" suggest that our culture suffers from to much of the one and too little of the other, that these two form a kind of yin and yang. I think, instead, that we have too much of the one BECAUSE we have too much of the other. However stupid and degrading television may be, its place in the lives of the people who watch it is the same place Art has had since the days of Boethus. Stupid art for stupid people is still art, because stupid people consume it for the same reasons smart people consume smart art. There is no difference between a college professor listening to Mozart while smoking a fine cigar and an unemployed dropout watching "American Idol" while chugging Diet Sprite. It may not speak well for our culture that so much of our art is addressed to stupid people, stupidly. But there it is. For most of human history "fine" art was for the elites, who understood it and to whom it communicated with subtlety and grace. The unwashed made their own art, much of it as subtle and graceful in its own way as the "fine" art produced for aristocrats by professional artists. The idea of professional artists addressing the ignorant is a new one, and may turn out to be the defining cultural story of the age. The idea of fine art, for most moderately educated people, begins with the plays of Shakespeare. Anything before that feels like History. The end-point, for Catholics, might be Puccini; for Episcopalians Henry James; for the AME Zion Duke Ellington, and so forth. The point is that it has ended, in this view. What we have left is a hegemony of professional artists, most of them fleeing the middle class, who earn their living creating for money what the uneducated classes used to produce for free, and better. There is too much art in the world - go home!

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