There is a growing consensus that the “art world” – that bastion of so-called serious expression – is failing. According to a Time article I just skimmed while rolling my eyes and yawning, many traditional art institutions are losing money hand over fist. Government doesn’t want to fund them, people don’t want to attend, and private donations are not as tax friendly as they used to be. But is it really that the arts need saving or that the definition of art has changed from what we have been taught all our lives?
When I looked at the Time article I couldn’t help but notice what was shown as examples of “The Arts”: Opera, Ballet, Orchestra, and Theater. Let me ask my readership honestly, do you consider any of these worthy art forms? I mean, they’re nice and all, but they’re also several hundred years old. Are you going to tell me nothing good has happened in half a millennium to supplant them? Nothing? Really?
I hear this a lot from the generation of my parents and older: What you hear on the radio is not art. One of my favorite quotes from a so called music authority on a random NPR show was “Brian Wilson is not Mozart”. No, Brian Wilson is better than Mozart. Not only was he a boy genius who created equally and sometimes more complex harmonies, but despite the severity of his various mental illnesses he survived into old age and even reconstituted his failed magnum opus, SMiLE into a critical success. Take that, Mozart. You know, I seem to be getting more generationally persecutory in my old age, but leave it to the Baby Boomers, who created Hippie-ism and consumer culture within two decades of each other, to both invent an art form and then deny it.
This is a syndrome that many futurism programs seem to fall into, the number one being Star Trek: The Next Generation. The crew reads Arthur Conan Doyle, quotes and performs Shakespeare, and plays classical orchestra music. The Fifth Element tries to subvert this, but it’s “Space Opera” singer is really just an opera singer “in Space”. Not only has nothing new happened in the centuries leading up to the shows production, but, apparently, nothing new has happened in the centuries more leading up to the show’s setting. Not even Oscar winning films can get a culturally significant nod in Sci-Fi. Babylon 5‘s Garibaldi liked Daffy Duck cartoons, but he was an oafish man child. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home plays this trope further by equating Punk Rock with “noise” and using 20th Century authors as an example of “vulgarity” in language.
I think the big problem is that what we call “High Art” was defined at the beginning of the Twentieth Century – unapproachable, unpopular, and intellectually opaque – and has remained that way up to today. Dadaism, a total revolt again the artistic ideas that preceded it, told us that art is what you can’t easily swallow. Art’s traditional definition couldn’t be further from the truth. Greek and Shakespearean tragedies alike were watched by ordinary people for mere pennies. The language that seems so difficult to today’s ears was the slang of the day – crude insults and all. Mozart himself was the pop artist of his time who I’m sure had plenty of common, powdered groupies at his disposal. The only real difference between himself and Brian “SMiLE” Wilson was that Wilson could record and mass distribute his work. The sculpture and painting of those days were presented mostly in public squares and places of worship, not in museums that cost $25 a pop. Little did the Dadaists know that the pop art they were rebelling against would become so antiquated and alien that it would fall into their own definition of high art.
So is art dead, or is just this kind of art finally running its course? Opera houses are filling up with an ever graying demographic while the jazz club that opened down the street has apparently revitalized the neighborhood. Orchestra music’s audience is similarly dropping like flies while a Rock concert in the park sells out at a hundred bucks a pop. I hate to say that the corporatocracy is successful at anything, especially with all the turds they hoist on us in albums and in the theaters, but did you ever think that the “arts” need public funding because no one is interested enough to fork over they cash for it? I think the reason why these old art forms stayed alive so long it because after they had already died their first deaths at the hands of fashion (after all Baroque gave way to Classical which gave way to Romanticism even if they are all lumped together today) they gained new life with record players that could introduce them to a much wider audience than the metropolitan areas they were originally constrained to.
As for the static mediums, maybe it’s time we stopped spending so much public money on museums that charge us more money to get in the door and start spending those NEA dollars on art that is out in the open and free for all to see. Art has always been a method of public beautification while still remaining challenging and at odds with the status quo. As I age into a more realistic outlook I realize that you have to trick people into thinking by giving them what they want plus a little extra. Excluding people from the outset with hard to swallow opacity is viable and enjoyable, but will never be popular by definition. Many so-called “Urban Artists” are doing exactly this anonymously already. They just need acknowledgment and funding.
And as a final note, I’d like to add my own personal peeve to this discussion even if it may seem like a non-sequiter. The one place where even commercial art has completely failed its audience is animation. Animation is one of the few truly original visual art forms of past hundred years and yet it still has little respect in the modern world beyond children’s entertainment. This is besides the fact that Pixar and Miyazaki are textured more for and enjoyed more by adults than by children. And when serious animation does come along, like Waltz With Bashir or Persepolis its nodded at by Oscar, but ultimately passed over for the more kid friendly stuff (Pixar’s sword has two edges). Even crusty critics agreed that Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was the best film the title character had ever been in, but it’s virtually unknown next the the Burton and Noland (and even *blech* Schumacher) works. I think this is also a pre-Gen X prejudice. With nerd culture on the rise now is as good a time as any for animation to make real statements in the ways that only it can. My generation has failed to give up the indulgences of its youth and has in fact matured them to keep up with their own maturing tastes. Animation is ready to grow up.
So, are the arts failing, or are they just failing us?