Our state government recently decided, despite a failing economy, to increase arts funding by an extra $4.5 million dollars, raising total state funding of the arts in New York to $35.6 million. As someone who frequently peruses art and literature, I think this is a disastrous move. But before one consigns me to the ranks of the book-burning firemen in Ray Bradbury’s novel “Fahrenheit 451,” let me explain.
The place of art in contemporary Western society, its supposed role in uplifting our civilization, is constantly overemphasized by artists. Witness the rampant consumerism that has beset the visual arts. When people have $12 million to spend on a stuffed shark made by Damien Hirst, or $100 million to splurge on a Picasso, one knows that Western civilization has achieved an uncommendable level of decadence.
It’s not the actual quality of the art that to me is at issue. While I do not really see the advantage in spending thousands to acquire the purported excrement of Italian artist Piero Manzoni, as the British Tate Gallery has done, I fully admit that I find some aspects of modern art intriguing. The problem with the art world today is not any one style or form of art, but art itself.
Our friendly neighborly columnist Carl Strock has often reminded Gazette readers of the dangers of religion; yet he is silent when it comes to the dangers of art. But even a cursory knowledge of 20th century art history would point out the deadly consequences of this cultural practice.
Picasso was the second most famous artist of the century; the first was Adolf Hitler, and as historian Frederic Spotts has pointed out, Hitler’s intense love of Romantic art, his embrace of the figure of the Nietzschean superman, was deeply tied to his anti-Semitic views on both art and race in general.
While one should not argue that art directly caused the Holocaust, cultural conflicts over what was artistically proper in Germany did play a major part in bringing Hitler to power.
Nor is Nazi Germany alone in artistic manipulation of the masses. The Soviet Union used the arts to glorify militarism and our own military has funded TV programs, cinema and, in the case of the CIA, certain visual artists, to advance U.S. policy here and abroad. Art is many things, but it is seldom morally neutral.
Why should I, a working-class individual whose idea of good entertainment is Jack London, be forced to provide financial support for some New York City opera company whose tickets I can seldom afford, and whose informal dress code I cannot afford to conform to? And if the operas are bad, what about the philharmonics, the art museums run by corporate CEOs, and the University at Albany-sponsored poetry readings that just, for some reason, never seem to feature the working-class Catholics and evangelicals that I grew up with here in Amsterdam?
The truth is, as French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu famously asserted, that aesthetic taste is one of the prime, perhaps the prime, ways by which the upper middle class and the rich keep their power.
Because the people that I know prefer Stephen King as a novelist and the pope and Francis Schaeffer as artistic philosophers, they are condemned as being socially inferior to more distinguished aestheticians, such as Tracy Emin, with her menstrual-stained bed masterpieces, and Damien Hirst’s peerless mass reproductions of dot paintings.
Working-class taste is denigrated as kitsch — inferior. This would be all right with me if such a position still represented logical sense. But one of the key assertions of artists today is that art is relative: Whatever you call art — whether it be Duchamp’s Urinal or the Mona Lisa or another human being that you’ve “designed” — can be art. Taste, the art elites privately confess, is relative. It’s based on elitism. And the elites plainly want to maintain their position as artistic arbiters.
But their pursuit of artistic treasures at ever-inflated prices leads to a sinking of money into objects, instead of the poor people who are exploited to create those objects: the indigo farmer, the Middle Eastern craftsman, the African-American population that is still denied any real significant presence in most white American sculpture.
Steps to be taken
So what should our community, as a community, do about art?
For one thing, I do not think institutions that cannot provide affordable tickets should be funded. And emphasis should be placed on art that is commonly enjoyed by most Americans, without regard to some artistic elite’s abstract, over-intellectualized sense of taste.
And if the choice is between funding artworks and funding human lives, whether through welfare programs, health care or foreign aid, human lives always take priority. Every copy of Shakespeare is not worth the life of one starving Appalachian child.
The art world today serves the rich. Let it serve them alone. Let the SUNY system’s literature programs go unfunded, let the Gazette stop publishing art reviews, let local churches tear out their stained-glass windows.
A famous critic once said “Art is like cancer.” If it is, it is badly in need of chemotherapy.
John Weaver lives in Amsterdam. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.