Pete's Blog

Too Many Artists

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Plenty of people have talked about it, and I've talked about it here, too. It's the idea that with the demise of the old aristocratic patron class cultural leadership has been ceded to profit-making organizations which, in their ongoing search for new customers, inevitably throw their weight behind art which speaks to the largest number of people - which is to say, dreck. As I said, I've written about that before. And I'm not terribly keen on revisiting the subject today. But there is a side to the story that doesn't get told so much. We can talk about soulless media corporations all we want, but the question we don't ask is this: Where did all the aristocrats go? Well, to begin with, most descendants of the patron class don't have as much money now as their illustrious forbears did then, so it's an open question whether they're really aristocrats or not. But they're still here, money or no money. And because they're still intelligent, cultured people they're still interested in art. So, with the inclination towards art still in them, but the ability to promote art by helping artists now behind them, what do they do? They become artists themselves. This is a problem. Because throughout history the greatest artists have tended not to come from the patron class. Artists were the kind of people one doesn't invite to dinner, either because of their lower-middle-class origins (Shakespeare, the Beatles) or because they belonged to "outsider" racial groups (Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong). Aristocratic patrons thought of artists as servants. And that's what they are. These aristocrats may have been quite good at deciding that Beethoven was a greater artist than Johann Nepomunk Hummel but most of them were not very good at making art themselves. Neither are their descendants. So our culture fills up with, on the one hand, stupid exploitative art promoted by corporations to the ignorant masses; on the other a subset of deposed aristocrats doing tepid, self-referential work that does as much to lower our cultural tone through it's bland competence as do the cheap hustlers in their expensive suits we saw at the Grammy Awards the other night. Sometimes I think the Soviets had the right idea when it came to art. Establish a State board to certify artists. Sure, with the government there is no recourse. And sure, at least half the musicians now working would have their guitars taken away and be reassigned to more useful work, or shot. But sometimes I wonder if that would be such a bad thing.

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