Monday, September 27, 2010
We take a swing at the idea that the arts are 'elitist'
One of the oldest and still most common arguments against the arts is that they are elitist -- for the privileged, the wealthy and/or the hyper-educated. The arts aren't for the "common" people, the argument circles, because the the common people can't understand them, don't like them and therefore won't fund them.
This argument was made in a recent story in The Oregonian, which suggested that Portland's art organizations have failed to attract support, even philanthropic support, because they are too elitist. The key sentence was this one: ""Cultural groups need to recharge their missions in order to seem less privileged." That needs some translating. How about: "Arts groups need to change their missions in order to seem as though they don't only appeal to the privileged."
It's still not a good sentence: The mission of most arts groups is to make their art as widely available as they can. We can argue about whether they actually do this, but surely they shouldn't change their mission to read "we want to trick people into thinking that we are making our art as widely available as possible even though we aren't."
But enough fun with editing. Huge numbers of Americans attend museums and plays and concerts and manage to find something valuable there, even in Portland, Oregon. In fact, especially in Portland, Oregon, if we are to believe a recent PEW study that placed us among the leading states in arts attendance. It takes some reading ability to make sense of "Romeo and Juliet," but our schools still teach it. Something about Old Master paintings still catches our eye, even if we aren't able to decode all of their elements. Even classical music can make our ears prick to attention, as it hums along behind a commercial on TV or when we stumble into a performance in the park.
But I take the point. Our culture doesn't attend to the arts as some other cultures do. We are more concerned with economic survival, new technology, luxury goods and blood sport. And so our arts institutions are always on the precipice. We like them, but we can't quite see our way to fund them as we do the National Football League or the iPhone, even though funding usually serves to give us more access, directly or indirectly, to our history of investigations into our own hearts and minds as they come into contact with the world.
The idea that this lack of cultural attention on the arts is the fault of museums, orchestras, theater companies, dance companies and publishing houses doesn't convince me and shouldn't convince anyone. Powerful economic forces build attention in this country, and even the Metropolitan Opera, with its $300 million annual budget, is microscopic compared to the advertising budgets of our major corporations, which have the muscle to co-opt any cultural product that might prove useful to them.
This isn't to say that our arts organizations shouldn't try. After all, they have something working for them -- genuine insight into the human condition, into the human senses, into the human intellect and emotions. Which is why advertising and large media spectacles so often "sample" them. And at some point, it's possible that our attention will shift to things that matter from amusements and come-ons, maybe when things get bad enough, when we feel truly lost.
The question is, how should they "try"? How do they signal that are a repository for the best of our cultural history and our latest attempts to come to grips with this problem of consciousness? How do they signal that serious business is afoot (even if it's a comedy) and attract the attention of the "common" people at the same time. I've argued that they need to have confidence in what they do, in the value of the art they show or perform, and push it as widely as they can.
But then I don't believe in "common" people, which is why I've been putting those blasted quotation marks around common from the beginning. Each of us has an individual set of needs that art can help satisfy; what satisfies me, won't necessarily satisfy you; no one I've ever met is entirely without art. The arts are social but they aren't common. They are specific.
Still, I don't pretend to know how to solve the seemingly perpetual funding crisis that grips the attention of our larger arts groups. I just know that it keeps them from doing the amazing things we need them to do. Because the culture as a whole is in need of repair, serious repair, and the arts are one of the few ways we have to fix things, though, understand -- it's DIY all the way.
Because of the poor way we've funded the arts, we have indeed created barriers to access. The arts organizations have resisted this, but the barriers were erected -- in the form of ever-higher ticket prices, primarily. They've been inventive about allowing free/half-price/rush tickets/student rates to channel around the barriers. Maybe they could do more, but I don't blame them for the way we've funded the arts. We've made a religion out of the elitism of the wealthy; we decided not to care as much about the things we hold truly in common -- our cultural heritage, the natural world.
The arts aren't elitist. They are the opposite of elitist. They work on everyone. We push arts organizations into a tiny corner of the culture, and we say, you are isolated from us, and then we turn away, as though it wasn't our doing in the first place. My only suggestion to the arts organizations? Fight your way out of the corner and land your best punches.
Look, we've been buffaloed, tricked, coerced, sedated, bullied. The media, by and large, has been the agent of this bamboozlement, because they don't profit if you take another run through Great Expectations or Animal Crackers or Waiting for Godot. And if you do decide that Dickens, the Marx Brothers or Beckett are really the ones for you, the media says you're an elitist. Or, just to make myself clearer, if you read Emerson or John Dewey or Richard Rorty instead of watching Glenn Beck. But no, you are just showing good sense. And you know what? You are not alone.