Society and the Fine Arts
R. Bryant Hill
Despite our innate drive to make art, the last 25 years of our creative history have been tempestuous times in the relationship between the fine artsballet, opera, theatre, classical music, painting, photography, sculpture and the likeand society.
Accusations of indecency, political clashes over public funding and the dismal state of arts education have largely defined the terrain of this social landscape. This despite the emergence of new artist enclaves in Southern California and the Pacific Northwest, Broadways success in reconnecting with a larger popular audience, or the veritable explosion in nonprofit organizations whose sole purpose is the support of the arts. Whether or not we, the public, should fund art in which many of us may find no value or which we may even find offensive, à la Mapplethorpe, and whether we should be at all concerned with the lack of art funding in our schools remain points of contention. Significantly, both issues concern questions of how much value we place on the fine arts and how much we are willing to pay for them.
Time was, fine art and society enjoyed a much more stable and clearly defined relationship. As Rod Taylor, associate professor at the Adelaide Central School of Art, notes, In the distant past, artists almost only produced what their masters, or patrons (viz their societies), required. They had little need to explain the meaning of their work, for instance, since it was mostly determined for them, and in any case would have involved a common, or at least shared, mythology. While perhaps personally inspired, artists produced art for the individuals and groups that paid them to do so. They were producing works under specific direction from those who would be the primary audience of the art created.
Such is not the case today. Artists now have complete independence, and are totally free to pursue almost anything that they wish. In fact, there is a powerful expectation that they do soindividualism is now practically a necessity. Patronage and/or employment, a once simple affair, is now a large and complicated industry, encompassing on the one hand the open art market, and on the other government bureaucracies, says Taylor.
Yet, this freedom has introduced significant challenges to the life of the artist and problematized the delicate symbiosis that existed between art and society. Removed from the confines of the patronage system, the artist no longer has any guarantee that there will be a market for his or her work. Taylor notes that there is now no assurance that what artists produce will either be understood or appreciated, or even wanted at all.
From the other direction, society is now as likely as not to be faced with art that challenges and derides its most venerable traditions as it is with art that lifts them up in praise. Herein lie the thornier elements of the bond between art and society.
Sergio Costola, assistant professor of theatre and dramaturge at Southwestern, says art addresses societal norms in three ways. The first two are: via an art that creates ideals and via an art that tries to tell the truth. He notes further, Both an art that creates ideals [Art World 1] and an art that tries to tell the truth [Art World 2] invariably refer to pre-existing norms of behavior and a sense of order; to our desire for unity, coherence, universality and tradition. Additionally, there is art that attempts to create a new reality, by inspiring new ideas and feelings, affecting its audience towards social change [Art World 3].
A healthy society needs the existence of all these artistic worlds.
The often uneasy existence art suffers in contemporary society would suggest that not everyone appreciates the creative freedom of todays artists, particularly when it offers up a less than flattering reflection of social norms. More significantly, our culture has come to view the arts as a generally inscrutable luxurya perception only exacerbated by the introduction of high or fine in conjunction with art. The end result of these uneasy relations is often the sacrifice of the arts on the altars of practicality and marketability.
Low funding for arts education is one indicator of the low social utility we assign to the arts. Historically, we have associated American success with our industrial and technological prowess. We have built a great nation. We havent imagined, painted or sculpted one. Accordingly, our schools are less concerned with the arts than with the subjects that our society believes will best promote our continued economic success and keep the technological juggernaut rolling.
In recent years, America has seen its technological dominance challenged, its global lead in mathematic and scientific research eroded. In hopes of combating this slippage, we have significantly increased the number of measurement tools utilized by our schools. Gary Marks, with the American Association of School Superintendents, notes that emphasis on high-stakes aptitude tests pushes arts education to the margins because of their focus on core subjects like math and science. When a schools standing is on the line, where do you think theyre going to focus their attention? he asks.
Summarizing a late-1990s study of art programs in schools, then Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley announced, The study verifies that most American children are infrequently or never given serious instruction in music, arts or theatre. Thats wrong.
We deem the fine arts less practical and less intrinsic to our nations economic success. In the language of the marketplace, the arts represent, for most Americans, a luxury item rather than a staple or durable good. Not surprisingly, we allocate educational and economic resources to the fine arts only when all the necessities are accounted for in our ledger. Paul Gaffney, dean of Southwestern Universitys Sarofim School of Fine Arts, explains, In many segments of society, art is seen as useless. You cant do anything with it, so why bother? It is very difficult for the fine arts to maintain a foothold in a society where utility, or at least marketability, is so vital.
What about the fine arts as simply a form of entertainment? Isnt there social utility to be found in the arts for this purpose? One would think. However, several cultural and economic changes in the last half-century have made even the entertainment marketplace a hostile environment for touting the value of the fine arts as, if nothing else, a viable leisure activity. To be sure, the fine arts used to be an important element of broadcast media programming. The first regular commercial radio broadcasts were typically classical music and vocal performances. NBC even had what was considered one of the best orchestras in the world, led by Arturo Toscanini from 19371954.
But as post-World War II America left the cities for suburbia, our leisure time became more home-oriented and more devoted to the mass-marketed cultural forms offered up by the countrys media industry, which involved little effort on our part. Increasingly, the proliferation of commercial broadcasting convinced us to associate leisure with passivity, with sedentary experience.
Patronage of the fine arts, which now required us to get dressed up and go somewhere, became more stratified. Soon, once popular leisure activities like going to the theater or attending a symphony concert were largely the recreational outlets of urbanites and the well-to-do. An evening of fine arts, in the popular consciousness, came to mean tuxedos and gowns, high-dollar tickets and a drive into the city. Many Americans simply opted for a casual night at the local movie house or dinner in front of the television.
This perception of the fine arts as a luxury item actually increased the price tag on, for example, attending a play and helped make it the socially exclusive event we were imagining. Says Gaffney, Eventually, theatre and some museums had to rely on box office and charge higher admission to produce fine arts because they were underfunded by the public. This makes the fine arts more and more expensive and means that more and more people are unable to afford to attend a fine arts event.
In recent years, the concentration of media ownership has proven the most daunting challenge for artists trying to reach audiences via the national and even local media. Says Frank Rich, formerly chief theatre critic for the New York Times, These new megaplayers can now pursue their audience in almost every conceivable space and locationnot just in the U.S. but the worldthrough media as various as a satellite dish, a computer screen, a Playstation 2 and an old media relic such as a magazine printed on paper. Whatever cultural product one of these companies chooses to put its muscle behind becomes instantly ubiquitous. He continues, In such a marketplace, its very hard for non-pop culture to be heard at all, let alone compete.
Media concentration levels entertainment options to meet the tastes of the broadest possible audience and keep the profit margins well in the black. The fine arts, which are often critical of social norms and seek to challenge audiences or even make them uncomfortable, do not fit neatly into the mass-marketing models of the new media age. Unsurprisingly, the fine arts are less and less present, less and less visible to the general public.
Rich makes this point as well, When I began as a drama critic in the 1980s, every local TV station in New York reviewed every Broadway play on the 11 oclock news, and some Off-Broadway plays as well. Now, no broadcast channels do. And were talking about New Yorkthe cultural capital of the country, and one where the arts, the high arts included, are a significant part of the local economic base. Further, [N]ewspaper coverage of the arts is also largely dismal. Polls of newspaper editors in the 1990s showed that the arts came in next-to-last when they were asked to list their top 15 priorities for news coverage.
The arts were once the very means by which we transmitted news and information, such as with the pictographs of ancient hieroglyphs or the songs of traveling minstrels. Now, the fine arts are something set apart from everyday life. As a result, most of us may have forgotten what it is they do, forgotten why they are important. Yet, the importance of the arts remains profound.
Practically, the fine arts create a number of social goods. Rich notes, At the civic level the arts can generate direct, practical rewardstourism, spinoff income for surrounding businesses, a selling point for corporations that might be tempted to move into the community.
Arts education also benefits childhood development and improves intellectual performance. Notes Smith, For more than 20 years researchers have been uncovering positive relationships between arts education and cognitive development in children. Smith further explains that arts education enhances vocabulary and math skills and helps develop spatial reasoning.
Perhaps of even greater consequence are the ways the arts impact our humanityintellectually, emotionally and spiritually. Explains Gaffney, Art is one of the activities that truly humanizes us. It requires us to use our minds, our souls, our emotions in ways that other animals cannot. Art communicates something that cannot be communicated in any other way. Art lets us be complete in a way that nothing else does.
A sentiment echoed by American painter Georgia OKeeffe, I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldnt say any other way ... things I had no words for.
The arts mark the deepest and most heartfelt understanding of our lives and their relationship to the world. They are our efforts to express what is most important and most sacred. As Aristotle explained over 2,000 years ago, The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.