came across this piece in the guardian today do the arts matter? in which the question posed in the title of a forthcoming John Carey book, “What Good Are the Arts?” was put to a disparate bunch of artistic types. further questions followed like, what is art? who decides? are there absolute standards? can art make us better people? etc. having just returned from an “art related activity program” this morning, and being overly tired and grumpy from poor quality hotel sleep and bus travel i thought i’d offer up a few quick gut reactions to the questions myself.
what is art? pointless question. why bother? art is anything anyone plants an art flag on. sorry but that’s where we are at in the twenty first century folks. arguing this point is a bottomless pit of time obliterating pointlessness. let it be.
who decides? as noted above, i for one take people at their word. if someone claims something is art, then fine, it’s art. no skin off my back. just bear in mind once it’s art i can subcategorize it into any of my personal gut level aesthetic-value bins: spectacularly shitty art, laughably bad art, painfully pretentious art, terribly executed art, downright ugly art, shoddy art, clever art, groan inducing art, boring art, yawn inspiring art, who cares art, eh art, o.k. art, interesting art, intruiging art, pants crappingly impressive art, undeniably well executed art, beautiful art, knock down dead gorgeous art, and so on.
essentially a more pointed question is “who decides what art is good?” the answer to which is a firm- you do. don’t let centuries of carbuncle-like, heady, impressive sounding, text buildup surrounding a work or an artists tempt you into thinking anything different. you know best. if you think it’s crap, it is. if you think it a droll comment on the socio-economic aspects and throbbing sexual underpinnings of the tea cozy manufacturing industry, then you’re right. if you think it’s beautiful, than that’s just what it is. period.
are there absolute standards? aesthetically? of course not. stupid question. do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars. as a marker for place settings at the table of art history? as an indicator of status? as a mold for giant making? yeah, there’s a standard, the same one whose specifications the machine of the world is built to, it’s called money.
can art make us better people? if by “us” the question means to say, “can art make artists and art lovers better people?” then the answer is yes. i believe i’m a better person when i’ve got art to funnel my flailing, spastic, confused human energy into. it keeps me from robbing banks, or making that trip to the local rope store, or inciting revolutions with a rusty peasant pitchfork. on the other hand, to be fair, being able to indulge in art has kept me from doing anything useful.
if by “us” the question is indicating all of humanity as a species… well, maybe, in honing our sensitivity, in soothing the savage beast, in decorating our surroundings and making them less barbaric and frightening, but i need to say this- claims about art being the ultimate pinnacle of human endeavor, of art being a transformative force in the world, sound a bit trumped up to my ears. for instance this quote from the guardian article “Civilisations are judged and remembered not by their most successful businessmen but by the art they leave behind.” yeah, sounds real nice if you can get over the fact it’s simplistic romanticized pap. perhaps in the sense of pre-history there is some truth in this. it’s hard to tell a businessman from a quarter inch piece of bleached knee bone. pottery and cave paintings are self evident. but once history began to be recorded i’d have to contend the exact opposite is the case.
now, i love art. in fact, a bit to my own embarrassment and dismay, i ought to admit i don’t know how to do anything else. it’s not so bad considering that the act of creation is the only thing which ever makes me feel like something other than a quivering pile of biological processes. it’s a fact artists don’t often come right out and say- there are moments when creating art fills you with a bizarre soaring sense of power and accomplishment. a giddy, “holy shit i’m a fucking genius!” feeling. it’s temporary, and tempered with industrial sized vats of self doubt, but it’s there. so as an artist, art lover, and addict to the fleeting sense of god-like powers, sure, i think art is swell, but let’s not get carried away with this “judging civilizations” stuff.
does art matter, have meaning, and purpose? for individuals- absolutely. for the species? other than helping along our skills of abstract thinking, helping to codify culture into common reference points, and providing a whole mess of entertainment… i don’t know. in a practical sense art is a method for certain types of people to get through the confusing, often ugly, maze of life. as a side effect the world is made a bit more interesting for folks who can appreciate it. but let’s not forget there are swaths of humanity who don’t appreciate it in the slightest, people who see far more value in a farmer or doctor than an artist. i know that i for one would far prefer a decent deli on my corner than a decent gallery.