Jerry Farber :
(excerpt from A Field Guide to the Aesthetic Experience (1982)
The question remains: in what way can art exert an effect on society? ... Does it seem that to perceive an art work as something detached from the practical context would rule out the possibility of any social effect whatsoever? Actually there is not contradiction. Art may be a special form of experience, perceived in the image and free of self-concern. But it is experience, not oblivion, and as such it can affect the way we perceive, the way we feet the way we think and the way we act. It's true that aesthetic response is contained in the image and doesn't lead out of it. But even if our aesthetic involvement is complete while we're perceiving a work, after-ward the remembered experience may be associated in various ways with the practical context -or this may happen intermit-tently while we're still in the presence of the art work as a momentary break in our aesthetic involvement comparable to the kind of break that professional critics and artists them-selves are likely to experience.
I’ve said that art can affect the way we function. In this respect it is both weak and strong. Weak because it's only an image and therefore doesn't demand to be dealt with in the same way that ordinary experience does. To see a painting of a battle, no matter how considerable its emotional impact, is not likely to affect me the way seeing the battle itself would. But art has its own strengths as well; in shaping our attitudes if only for a short time-it can call upon very powerful resources. To take a vulgar example: haven't you been irritated to find yourself responding quite involuntarily with warm feelings to Some soft-drink or fast-food commercial on TV, a cynical hype skillfully exploiting the evocative potential of music and film? And what the commercial can do is trivial compared to what can be achieved by a great playwright or composer or film director. Art has still another advantage. Precisely because it's only an image, we may be more tolerant of certain subjects and certain attitudes in a work of art than we would be in ordinary life. This has limits of course; people do stalk out of movies from time to time. Stilt someone who's not terribly keen on labor unions may "go along" with The Organizer or Norma Rae, when he would resist a more direct appeal. Of course, this tendency to go along with art while it may open us up to a wider range of experience than we would otherwise accept, goes hand in hand with a tendency to pull away when we're done. The magician leaves the stage; the bubble bursts, and we're back in the real world. This "magic spell" aspect of art, theater in particular, led Bertolt Brecht to search for ways to make his audience less likely to go along unthinkingly with a play; he wanted them not to lose them-selves in the work but to remain conscious and critical. It has been debated: did Brecht succeed in this or did he become an "illusionist" in spite of himself?
In any case, we're not amnesiac about art. To some extent we remember it. We may learn from it; we may, even in very subtle ways, be changed by it. Art, as I've pointed out, doesn't merely evoke experiential quality but composes it as well; within each person's universe of experience, a work of art can establish new relationships which may lead that person to look at things in a new way. To what extent do these new relationships continue to be of importance when we've turned away from the work? That depends. We're more likely to assimilate them if they're not entirely new, if they accord well with what is already in us. I picture two tourists walking out of Chartres Cathedral on a quiet winter afternoon, still under the spell of that vast reverent gloom pierced by the unearthly brilliance of the stained glass. One of them experiences a poignant but fast-fading urge to enter the world of Catholicism. The other, whether aware of it or not, has been moving for some time along the path to conversion and needed no more than this to take him the rest of the way. Sudden conversions are rarely sudden.
But to talk of conversion can lead us away from the subtle effects of aesthetic experience, which more commonly insti-gates delicate shifts in sensibility, gradual expansions of awareness, tentative readjustments of understanding, slow bolstering or undermining of commitments. I would expect a work of art to make noticeable changes in a person's behavior or outlook only if it were part of a much larger process of change in that person's life. Often, of course, when this process approaches a decisive point, one single experience may get the credit; this could be-why not?-an aesthetic experience.
Moving from individual
to the overall social picture we can make the same sort of point. The
may have sent a few people back to the Church, and Norma Rae may have
a few people into union organizing, but we wouldn't expect any
social change unless the situation were already ripe for it. What we
expect would be for such
films simply to exert a pressure which other social develop-ments-including, perhaps, other films-would either counter or support.
I don't want to discount the potential importance of indi-vidual works of art, not only as scarcely visible elements in a cumulative development, but also occasionally as dramatic catalysts that can help to precipitate some substantial social effect. it happens occasionally that a work of art acquires, over and above its aesthetic function, the status of a symbol or rallying point for a social movement. Not only did Beau-marchais's Marriage of Figaro contain within it an attack on aristocratic privilege, but also, because of the opposition it met at the hands of Louis XVI and a faction at court the play became, even extrinsically, an instrument of social struggle. With admirable prescience, the king declared that in order for the performance of Beaumarchais's play not to be a "danger-ous inconsistency," the Bastille would have to be destroyed. "This man laughs," he said, "at everything that ought to be respected in a government." The Marriage of Figaro was banned. Beaumarchais in turn told people: "He doesn't want the play performed; I say it will be played, should it be at Notre-Dame."
This battle over the play was given an interesting turn because of an old French tune which had early in the century acquired anti-English words and, therefore, nationalistic associ-ations, and which Beaumarchais had used as the melody for one of his songs in the play. By a complicated chain of events, this song, "Malbrough s'en va-t-en guerre," became a sort of popular anthem which people could whistle in defiance on the streets. Georges Lemaître, in his biography of the play-wright, says that "for about two years 'Malbrough' became the war song of the French crowds fighting along with Beau-marchais in his 'war of nerves' against the king.' The play's eventual public performance was a victory indeed. When it opened, on April 27, 1784, there were enormous crowds trying to get in and continual applause throughout the show, which, under those circumstances, took five hours to play. And people were singing "Malbrough" all over Paris.
We mustn't forget that the social effectiveness of the play was in great part extrinsic: what would Figaro have been if there had been no royal condemnation? On the other hand, the condemnation was no accident but a response to what was, in fact, subversive in the play. In any case, it would be silly to say that Figaro brought the Bastille down. Nor was Beaumarchais himself a revolutionary. But that this play had a meaningful social effect would be hard, I think to deny. Napoleon certainly wasn't inclined to deny it. He remarked that the play was already "the revolution in action," declaring that under his own reign a man like Beaumarchais would have been locked up in the asylum. "People would have called it despotic," he added, "but what a service it would have ren-dered society."
Arlo Guthrie clearly aimed at this kind of social effect in his monologue Alice's Restaurant (recorded in 1967). To some extent he succeeded. The record, with its brilliant folksy satire of the war, the draft, and the police, and its catchy little tune, which was sung on the streets in demonstrations all over the country, made no negligible contribution to the anti-war movement. But on the other hand there were no king and courtiers, not even a mayor, trying to suppress it. So its contribution remained essentially intrinsic.
These examples come from what is, for me at least, the positive side; I'm well aware that art can have another sort of social effect as well. A standard example is Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film glorifying Hitler and the Third Reich. And Hitler himself more or less appropriated the music of Wagner. As an adolescent, he had been inspired by a performance of Rienzi to believe that he could become a leader who would make the German people great. He had the Rienzi overture played at the opening of every party congress, while Bayreuth itself William Carr tells us, ['from the early 1920's... became a Nazi shrine." Literally a shrine. One German wartime film had a shell-shocked flier experience a sudden cure at Bayreuth during a performance of Siegfried (and wounded soldiers were, in fact, sent to Bayreuth for a sort of musical therapy and re-inspiration). Obviously, there is nothing in Wagner's music-heroic and nationalistic though it may be-that simply turns people into Nazis (though his poisonous anti-semitic writing is not so easily exonerated). But in that social setting, utilized in the way that they were, these works of art were able to lend powerful support to the Nazi ideology. In a very rough way, and with some misgiving, I could say that Wagner's music did for the Third Reich what "freedom songs" did for the civil-rights movement of the 1960's. To the real virtues of art, how much I would like to add this one more: that art, like some sort of moral compass needle, always, no matter where we find it, points toward the good. But I can't.
Would we agree (a) that art can have an effect on the individual's relationship to society, and therefore on society itself, and (b) that works of art may differ in their social effect? If so, then we stand on the brink of an important and contro-versial aesthetic doctrine, which holds that art works are to be judged not merely according to the aesthetic satisfaction they may afford individuals, but especially according to their effect or potential effect on society. This doctrine has been ad-vanced, since Plato, in connection with a variety of positions; it was advanced on behalf of a religious ethic in Tolstoy's What is An, and in this century it has been explored most deeply by Marxist theorists.
If art could never be anything more than a respite, there might be no problem. But since it can have a social effect, is the artist justified in turning away from the most urgent social imperatives to pursue a so-called "neutral" art, which, in fact, can never be neutral? It is not only Marxist critics who have raised the question: why can't art be art and be socially responsible as well?
It's interesting that when you apply this question to the individual artist, you can come up with two very different answers, both of which need to be taken seriously.
First of all, I think it's easy to demonstrate that artists have to work from what they are, not from what you or I would like them to be, or even from what they would like themselves to be. Here is a sculptor Let's assume that she's a serious artist, which means simply that she wants to produce the best art she can. It may be that she has a genuine social commitment which is incorporated successfully in her creative work No problem. But suppose that's not the case. Suppose instead that she feels some obligation, either external or internal, to introduce into her work a social commitment which she doesn't actually have or which is no more than superficial. Is it possible to do this? To create art means to produce an image which evokes, in the artist first of alt a complex of experiential quality that is perceived in the image itself Doesn't this mean that, as an artist, the sculptor has to be what she is? Has to be somewhere within her own range of experiential possibilities?
To fake it as an artist is to seek an image that will evoke qualities which in fact you don't have but would perhaps like to think you have. If art were made solely of ideas, that would be possible. In ordinary life we can sometimes establish ourselves in a social or intellectual group by learning and repeating catch-phrases. But experiential quality can't be willed or pretended into existence. When "would be" substi-tutes for "is," you get concepts and conventionalized images instead of experiential reality a "travel-folder" version of the real thing. The wooden thud of pretense replaces the delicate vibrations of resonance.
I remember watching All
the Family some years back admiring the acting very much, but growing
of the liberal issues which were imposed, one a week on characters and
situations they did not fit. I'm not in a position to say whether the
and directors believed or didn't believe in this liberal-democrat
But as artists they didn't believe; it was all forced into existence
-"brotherhood» one week, "women's lib" another -perhaps in compensation for cashing in on the idea of the heartwarming racist as TV hero. Next to the real evocative power of Archie and Edith, these dutiful manipulations had about as much authenticity as a wedding gift thank-you letter Did All in the Family do some social good? Perhaps, but it seemed to me that the artificial incorporation of these liberal causes implied a subtle negation; or perhaps it exposed a certain inauthenticity in the liberal position itself which wanted "brotherhood" and "women's lib" added on as ornaments to an essentially unaltered social structure, and which softened racism to no more than a personal foible, like Lucy Ricardo's celebrity mania. In any case, I couldn't help thinking that Archie Bunker's many colleagues in the audience would have no difficulty in making off with the redemptive cheese (see Chapter Seven), while easily escaping the cumbersome aggressive trap that would spring so predictably each week.
What I'm saying is that our sculptor, if her art is to be authentic, has to work within the limits of her own experien-tial universe. If she were to be changed as an artist-in the direction of social commitment-this change would have to be a real one and a profound one, extending below the level of concepts. But even if she were genuinely engaged, there might still be problems. Some experiential areas exert more pressure than do others toward realization in an aesthetic context. There might be obsessive patterns trying to liberate themselves within the image of her sculpture, patterns not in any obvious way political. Or she might actually be seeking a psychological balance in her art, concerning herself with cer-tain inner areas, certain needs which her social involvement ignores or denies. Finally, it might be that she would like to incorporate this social involvement in her sculpture, but has not yet found the aesthetic means, the authentic link between the two.
Obviously, there is always the possibility that a person will change. But I think we have to understand also that authentic politically engaged art is not simply a voluntary matter, subject to the artist's will. Still less is it subject to the will of a political group or of the state itself. What do we have then? A vindica-tion of the disengaged artist? Yes, we do have that. But, as I said, we can apply the question of social responsibility to the individual artist and come up with two different answers.
The notion that artists should be free agents, bound to no social goals or values but only to the imperative of the art work itself emerged clearly as an aesthetic ideology only about one hundred and fifty years ago. It remains attractive, particularly so when we recall the pressures that have been put on artists by the various totalitarian regimes of this century. But this notion has a mystifying aspect as well. It tends not merely to say "Hands off!" to society, but to encourage our belief that the social context actually is not involved in the creative process. It tells us that artists should be free, but also implies that, unless "interfered with," they are free.
Art, however, is not at all "neutral" whatever that would mean. As I've already stressed (in Chapter Ten), art is in part the product of a society. The "artist as free agent" ideology, in its mystifying aspect, reminds me of the days when campuses were becoming centers of social action, and some adminis-trators and faculty used to warn us that the university should not be "politicized." The answer, of course, was: "Are you serious? Don't politicize this university which has war-research contracts, ties to the CIA, an ROTC curriculum and a prepond-erantly white male faculty, and whose trustees are political appointees chosen from the business elite of the state? That's what you're telling us not to politicize?" Art may not be a mere reflection of social forces, as in some simple-minded applica-tion of Marxist theory, but neither is it floating free in a "neutral" aesthetic space.
We cannot assume that our hypothetical sculptor is, as a creative artist, socially neutral to start with, so that the only question facing us is whether or not a social orientation should be "added" to the creative process. Artist art work and audience exist in and are defined by a network of social relationships. We should not be surprised if the kind of art this sculptor creates is affected by her sense of a possible audience, by her understanding of her own social role as sculptor, and also by the kind of success she may aspire to. Does she have the clear sense of working toward a particular audience, as might a carver of funeral sticks in an African tribe, a stonemason carving figures on a medieval cathedral, a sculptor patronized by the court of Louis XIV? Or is she uncertain about a possible audience and therefore more re-flexive, self-oriented as an artist? To the extent that she is conscious of an audience, what kind is it? Other sculptors? A circle of friends? Wealthy patrons? Working-class people? Crit-ics? The sense of audience is one force that helps to narrow the enormous range of aesthetic possibilities in an artist. Another such force is the artist's understanding of the role that will be played by the work itself Does she see it as part of the public life of the community? As an offering to friends? As a competitive entry submitted for evaluation to persons in a position of power or authority? As a feature of galleries and private collections? At this point in her career, what would success be? A favorable write-up in Artform? A tenured teaching position? Popular acceptance? Commissions from businesses or public agencies? Political effectiveness? A foun-dation grant for foreign study?
I don't want to be simplistic; an art work doesn't carry the answers to such questions inscribed on it. But wouldn't it be naive to deny the influence of these relationships, to exclude from the creative process the social context in which this sculptor creates? If so, then we need a two-part answer to our question about the artist and social responsibility. The possi-bilities for Some kind of social engagement in an artist's work are not merely a function of individual temperament but are themselves linked to the social structure. In fact, a general tendency to see the artist as being "free" from the social process is itself part of this structure. The doctrine of art-as-propaganda offers one kind of support to those who hold power; the more subtle doctrine of "neutral" art offers another
The myth of the solitary artist pursuing an aesthetic vision while the world rushes by unnoticed may be a flattering one and it may also help to make alienation more endurable; it may even, as myths tend to do, reveal some basic truth-in this case about artists' singlemindedness: the way they are likely to be entirely given over to the work at hand. But having said this, I have to add that it gives a tremendously distorted and limited picture of artistic creation. The myth may b6 liberating-and good P.R. -at a time when social demands are oppressive to the artist. But the myth itself can become a form of oppression: "Hey, you artists are too good, too lofty for these sordid realities. Pursue your lonely vision and keep your nose out of the political process."
If our sculptor finds, after all, that her art remains uncon-genial to political commitment then even those who might prefer to see her work take on this political dimension will have to accept things the way they are. An artist has to play the hand she's dealt. But we also may want to see if the deck has been stacked. There are excellent reasons-and not just aesthetic ones-to respect the freedom of artists. But since this very freedom has its deceptive aspect, we should also recognize that the system of social relationships within which art is produced must be looked at critically. We know, for example, that during the period of aristocratic ascendancy in Europe, painters, playwrights, architects, composers, and so on who came from the lower classes had good reason, gener-ally speaking, to direct their efforts, not to their peers, but to the aristocratic class or to the hierarchy of the church. The aristocratic class has effectively disappeared. Artists no longer look to courts for patronage. Some-including many film-makers-pursue a mass audience through media dominated by commercial interest. Some seek acceptance primarily from other artists (this is common among poets, for example). Some, particularly in the fine arts, resemble their counterparts of centuries past: alienated as artists from the people among whom they've lived, they are impelled to look upward socially for recognition and reward.
It incidentally, I have given the impression that I believe all art should be "activist" art, I certainly haven't meant to do so. That is one position. Another is arrogant disdain, in the name of aesthetic autonomy, for social concern in art. What we need, and what I think we're beginning to move toward, is a synthesis that strives to understand and do justice to both the individual creative process and the overall social process. There is nothing to gain and a great deal to lose from bullying artists in the name of the state or in the name of the revolu-tion. Art doesn't respond well to this kind of bullying, not because it's isolated and otherworldly, but because its truth is experiential rather than conceptual; its truth is the cognitive-affective truth of resonance-too deep and too elusive to be forced into compliance, either by the artist or by anyone else. On the other hand, the social existence of artists is not separated from their creative work. In every epoch art is socially defined and integrated; it is not to be seen merely as the result of social forces but neither does it pursue an independent course. The political-economic processes that created Lincoln Center, that send modern dance companies on lecture-demonstration tours to universities around the country, that put authors on TV talk shows, that give certain rock stars annual incomes in the millions of dollars, that determine network TV programming, that lead the art depart-ment of a high-prestige university to style itself "conceptualist" -all of these matter; all of these ultimately exert their effect within the "privileged" frame of the work of art.
Artists are not to be
but there is no question of leaving them alone-how could that be
What we need to ask is not whether there should be an economic
around the arts, whether there should be public policy, but simply:
kind? For now, let me merely register the questions. I'll return to
in Chapter Thirteen. At present I'd like to pursue the question of art
and its social effect.
We may recognize that works of art vary from one to another in their social effect. But a very interesting question remains. Does art itself-not merely this song or that painting, but the very aesthetic experience itself-have a social effect? And if so, of what sort? Perhaps we may not come up with an answer which is universally applicable, but we may at least be able to recognize tendencies.
For example, art tends, doesn't it, to exert a socially cohesive effect? To the extent that aesthetic situations are participated in by a group, there can be the sense of a shared, even a communal subjectivity. Other social institutions may establish objective relationships between individuals, but art can estab-lish a subjective bond, a sense of experiential unity. Singing and dancing in a tribal Society may have a magical function; they may provide an aesthetic release, may even induce an extraordinary, religious state of consciousness; but they also constitute a sort of experiential bath in which the individuals are immersed together, a sacrament which celebrates and fosters the merging of the individual into the tribe.
In a huge and complex industrial society, this cohesive force may not always be as obvious, but we shouldn't discount it. It's certainly possible for someone isolated in a large city to sit alone reading poetry and sense some experiential contact with a social unit that might be of any scope, from a relatively small clique united by taste and temperament up to the human race itself.
Most obvious today in the United States is the cohesive function of art with respect to subgroups within the larger society. Nashville. Motown. Woodstock These three place-names invoke not only aesthetic categories but social group-ings as welt which have had more in common than aesthetic preference, but in which art has played an impressively cohes-ive role. The art of a ruling class or of a revolution has a social effect that derives not merely from the particular form which that art takes, but also from the fact that those who share in it sense a subjective community with each others "These people are my kind of people."
This cohesive function is not universal in art. It would seem to play a less important role in natural aesthetic experience. (There is, though, a very old Japanese tradition of group excursions to see flowering trees, to go moon-viewing, etc. Also some kinds of natural scenes may acquire sub-cultural reference; in fact, the very ability to appreciate what we call "nature" helped to identify an aristocracy of feeling in late eighteenth-century Europe. And here in San Diego, I know that there has been, from time to time, a bit of a sunset cult among beach dwellers.) Even with art works-which are much more likely than natural scenes to imply an audience-I doubt that a cohesive function is necessarily present in our aesthetic experience. But that it is a tendency rooted not in any partic-ular kind of art but in the nature of art itself seems a reasonable conclusion.
Closely related is the tendency of art to act as a cultural transmitter. A building or a song, a play or a folk tale can provide the most effective kind of schooling, can define our past, present, and future, tell us how we are expected to feel and behave, tell us what is of value and what is not. But since there is, perhaps, nothing about art which is better understood than this function, I won't dwell on it, except to emphasize that this transmission is, also, cohesive in its effect.
So far we've come across nothing to imply that art, essen-tially, is critical of society. Obviously, individual works of art can encourage social criticism, but is there anything in the very nature of art that would give rise to such criticism? I would like to think there is, since this would go a long way toward resolving the whole troubling question of art and social responsibility. But what I'd like to think isn't necessarily what's so. We want to resist getting sloppy, taking that testimonial-dinner approach which finds in art every conceiv-able virtue.
Even though we recognize that certain individual art works, because of their particular subject matter and political per-spective, may constitute a criticism of society, it's hard to see how there could be any such critical element in the very nature of art itself Once again: perception in the absence of self-concern would seem to imply acceptance, not criticism. I accept my back yard when I see it aesthetically; for me to view it critically is to view it in the light of self-concern.
Still, there is a possibility, I think that art-all art-may provide, not social criticism necessarily, but a possible basis for such criticism. We need to remember that art involves more than merely perception in the absence of self-concern. When I perceive aesthetically, I perceive my own response out there in the image. When art is working, there is no antagon-ism between what is in here and what is out there; the art work not only evokes my own subjective response but accepts it as well. Now, a work of art may be detached from the network of practical relationships, but that it exists in the objective world is clear. The painting, the poem, the song are clearly out there, So that, when I perceive my own subjectivity, my own experiential quality in the work that very work constitutes a validation of this subjectivity in the objective world. The art work demonstrates that our subjectivity exists beyond the individual self. The art work is, on the experiential level an ally in the world out there.
Now consider, by way of contrast, the kind of relationship which can exist between individual subjectivity and social institutions (not which necessarily must exist but which can exist). To the extent that institutions are based solely upon the objective existence of individuals, an antagonism can develop between the institution and the individual as subject.
In this society particularly, as our institutions grow more and more powerful and all-embracing, the individual becomes more and more rationalized in objective, institutional terms. The individual as IBM card is the reigning cliché of our time-and the very truth. Increasingly, what we are can be punched onto a computer card for the use of schools, banks, legislators, marketing departments, social scientists, TV producers, law enforcement agencies. The card is all they know of us and all they need to know. More and more, what we actually experience as process-fluid, whole, unfathomably deep-is redefined into hard-edged categories, sorted out into shallow compartments. And, most important of all, this redefinition is not merely external to us; we tend to accept it and to see ourselves according to its terms. Every aspect of subjectivity can be, in the real-estate sense of the word, "developed," parceled out for institutional definition and exploitation. Even social misery and rebelliousness are defined, exploited, re-cycled by institutions-the ideal goal being a closed system that consumes its own waste products. Misery feeds the therapeutic institutions and the "self-help" industry, and is also channeled by advertising into consumption. Rebellious-ness is merchandised. And sexuality is defined, processed and packaged until as they say in the pork business, nothing is left but the squeal.
In such a situation, unreconstructed subjectivity becomes a possible basis for social criticism. This subjectivity doesn't simply equal social criticism, since such criticism to be meaning-ful requires analysis. But without subjectivity which remains far enough outside the institutions to be critical of them, there is no basis for a challenge to society.
Can it be that art, which instead of defining and rationalizing subjectivity, evokes it, accepts it, and validates it in all of its irreducible dynamism and abundance, can it be that art-all art, not merely political art-to the extent that it works, has an effect which is potentially political?
Herbert Marcuse, though
aesthetic categories are rather different from the ones I have been
is led toward the same kind of conclusion in The Aesthetic Dimension:
see the political potential of art in art itself in the aesthetic form
as such." Marcuse's emphasis here is not so much on the valida-tion of
subjectivity as on the "promise of liberation," deriving from aesthetic
"form," "which gives the familiar content and the familiar experience
power of estrangement-and which
leads to the emergence of a new consciousness and a new perception.' What Marcuse establishes is a basis for criticizing the traditional distinction in Marxist aesthetics between "pro-gressive" and "decadent" art. In response to that Marxist criticism which scorns inwardness" and individualism in bourgeois literature, Marcuse points out:
The 'flight into
and the insistence on a private sphere
may well serve as bulwarks against a society which administers all
dimensions of human existence. Inwardness and subjectivity may
well become the inner and outer space for the subversion of experience,
for the emergence of another universe.
Here in this point of Marcuse's is, I believe, the very nub of the matter; we need only extend it from the particular types of literature in question to cover art itself: there is in aesthetic inwardness and subjectivity what can be seen as a political dimension. Sánchez Vásquez makes a comparable point: "Crea-tion comes to mean rebellion." He is particularly concerned to justify the same sort of art that Marcuse defends:
The "accursed" (maudit)
of the late nineteenth and early twentieth
century is accursed because of his insistence, ex-pressed through his creative
activity, on resisting the inert and abstract universe of the bourgeoisie. By
objectifying himself by making human or humanized objects-works of art-the
artist assures a human presence in things and thus helps prevent the reification
How attached we can become to
works of art! I think of a teen-ager in the 1950's, never tiring of
the Everly Brothers sing "Cathy's Clown," of myself at nine reading Boy
Scouts to the Rescue over and over again, and now having a similar
with Felix Krull or A la recherche I think of Maddie seeing Beauty and
the Beast for the sixth time, of Catharine and Amarcord, of myself
and Playtime. There is a family feeling that people can develop toward
works of art, an almost protective affection, which is not to be
with the contentious posturing that "art lovers" sometimes fall into.
works know us and participate with us as we are experientially; they
sustenance at the core. We feel the truest kinship with them. The works
to which we feel most allied may give way to others as we change,
there may be Some which manage to grow with us, greeting us anew at
successive stages. This sense of alliance, which is so obvious in the case of a person's favorite art works, exists to some degree in any aesthetic experience. The work validates our subjective existence, and has the potential at least, to strengthen our hand vis-à-vis institutions that seek to objectify us. The work of art, an object itself is like a friend at court. It suggests that the objective world, though it may well seem so at times, is not irremediably hostile to our inner self Even more, the moment of aesthetic perception, detached though it is from the practical context, still, because it allows this temporary reconciliation of subject and object, leaves behind at least some cause for wondering if it might indeed be possible to remake things "nearer to the heart's desire."
I should add that this essentially individual experience can easily take on a group character. In conjunction with the cohesive tendency I've already described, it can contribute to the development of a bohemian counterculture, of a somewhat defiant adolescent subculture, or of a revolutionary movement. For bohemia, Rimbaud. For the adolescents, "Cathy's Clown." For the revolutionary movement, "Malbrough s'en va-t-en guerre." Stilt I want to emphasize: whether or not it's identi-fied with a movement or subculture, any song can be a freedom song. Any art can be "subversive." For me, once, it was John Coltrane playing "My Favorite Things."
But I earlier insisted that Wagner's music became a Nazi "freedom song." Does this contradict the notion that there is inherently in art the basis for a challenge to social institutions? Not at all. The Rienzi overture appears to have done for the young Hitler the very kind of thing I've been talking about. Later in life, he described the annual Bayreuth festival as "the most blessed time of my existence." Wagner's music, a friend of Hitler's observed, "became an integral part of his person-ality." Social criticism is a very inclusive term; everything depends on what kind of criticism it is. Again, we don't want to claim more for art than it can deliver I've said that art can strengthen the hand of the individual-as it apparently did Hitler’s, vis-à-vis the prevailing institutions. But as I've also pointed out, it offers no moral compass needle (particularly since perceivers can interpret a work as they see fit). I suspect that The Sorrows of Young Werther provided Napoleon, who read the novel seven times, with an experiential ally. If Napoleon found the inner strength to challenge the political structure of Europe and spend hundreds of thousands of European lives in his pursuit of an empire, there may well have been works of art that helped him find it. The point I've tried to establish is a limited one: insofar as social institutions are antagonistic to the subjective existence of individuals, art plays what is potentially a political role by validating and supporting subjectivity, and, also, perhaps, by suggesting the possibility of a more congenial objective world. But what all this means specifically depends on the particular situation.
"Still, can't we hope, at least, that art will make people more humane, more accepting of each other?"
Humane and accepting toward members of a particular community, perhaps, because of art's cohesive tendency, but this community might have the most bloodthirsty attitude toward outsiders.
"But then as the world becomes more aware of itself and as communities come into closer aesthetic contact, as we move toward Goethe's notion of a Weltliteratur, which, for our purposes, would be a world art, isn't there some hope that art can make its cohesive contribution to a sense of human community?"
Perhaps. Shall we say that the jury is still out? Has the enormous presence of black music in the United States done anything to mitigate racism? Perhaps. Perhaps without it, things would be far worse still. It may even be that if you're going to hate black people or gypsies or Jews, you will feel the need to close yourself off to their art. As a teacher of compara-tive literature, I have certainly observed that art can expand the sense of community. But this expansion, if it does take place, is a fragile thing-as art is a fragile thing-in a selfish, fearful world. If the material base of society is ever altered so that it does less to incite our selfishness and fear, then perhaps we will have reached the epoch of fragile things, and art may come into its own as a social force.
To the extent that art does have some social effect, isn't there a possible contradiction between the two tendencies I've described: one cohesive, the other critical? That may be. Let's look more closely at this.
The aesthetic image objectifies and validates subjectivity. This can help to maintain a strong base outside thoroughly rationalized and institutionalized areas of consciousness-a base which may' become, insofar as institutions are felt to be unnecessarily antagonistic to the self, a political base. Now it in addition, the individual senses that his subjectivity, embod-ied in the work of art, is shared by a sub-group or social class which also shares his criticism of institutions, then the work of art, becoming more overtly political exerts an effect which is critical in one direction and cohesive in the other It's not necessary that the work be politically explicit. When I was an undergraduate, "folk songs" in general had this effect: not just obviously political songs like "Union Maid" and "Los Cuatro Generales," but also, let's say, "Sweet Betsy from Pike" or "The Longest Train."
Isn't there art, though, which tends to bind individuals not to a critical clique or revolutionary movement but to the overall society or the dominant institutions themselves? Clearly there is. We might think of the singing, dancing, and costume at a tribal wedding. Or of the great cathedrals of the European Middle Ages. Or of movies like Alexander Nevsky. Or of "Rule Britannia" or "Deütschland uber alles" or "The Star-Spangled Banner." With, of course, the proviso in each case that the work is actually functioning aesthetically and cohesively for the individuals who perceive it. The proviso is crucial. "The star-spangled Banner" may have a ritual function, like the Pledge of Allegiance. But the particular kind of cohesive effect that art exerts requires more than ritual. What makes art cohesive is the sense that one's own experiential quality, perceived in the image, is shared by others in the group. This resonant response that we seem to share is not a concept, not a value, not an obligation or a profession of faith, but rather a living portion of the experiential self For "The Star-Spangled Banner" to work as patriotic art, it has to work as art. Aesthetic response is assent freely given to the image; it can't be forced, faked, or willed into being. There needs to be some experiential area which can be perceived entirely in the image, without any sense of division between the image and the perceiver. Now this kind of response is certainly possible even it in other areas, the perceiver may have reservations. Just as, I can find a basis for assenting aesthetically to Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism "even though," 50 I may, as a medieval Catholic, assent to Reims Cathedral even though I have reser-vations about the archbishop; and so a great many people in this country may assent on one level to the national anthem with its brassy splendor, its sometimes exciting imagery, its defiant assertion of national pride, even though they may be ready to insist on another occasion that the country "is going to the dogs." But there are limits. One work of art by its success, another work of art by its failure can raise questions about the appropriateness of institutions to the inner life. As the experiential basis for assent dwindles, patriotic art loses its ability to bind people together in the context of a Society or institution. Patriotic art can live for a time on promises, but it begins to die with promises broken. For some people, "We Shall Overcome" and "Light My Fire," between them, cut the experiential ground out from under "The Star-Spangled Banner," which Jimi Hendrix did manage for a moment spectacularly to redeem-but only by narrowing its vast cohesive Scope and turning it (again) into a revolutionary anthem. For the anthem to regain Some of its old evocative power, there might have to be either a new revolutionary commitment to the future or a new enemy (which latter, as of this writing, seems the more likely, I'm afraid).
Ultimately, I think, art
subversive of social structures which fail to win or keep any
assent on the immediate unconceptualized level of subjective
Not just "political art" (which retains, of course, its own particular
value) but art itself. Any art which evokes and validates subjectivity
can undermine patriotic and institutional art works to the extent that
these lose their ability to do the same. Small wonder then that rulers
and ruling classes are so often tempted to control the arts, since even
"neutral" art may not be entirely safe. Small wonder that revolutions,
which have tended since 1789 to seek not merely a restructured Society
but a refashioned human image, are similarly tempted. What this tells
is that we need, in all seasons, to demand that the arts have fresh air
and plenty of room to grow, so that we can deny one further instrument
of coercion to those who rule, and so that we can protect revolutions
their own self-constricting tendencies.
(from CHAPTER THIRTEEN....)
Society and Art
The most decisive feature of
society, then, is that economic life ceased to be a means to social
it placed itself at the center, became an end in itself the goal of all
social activity. The first and most important result was that the life
of society was transformed into a grand exchange relationship; society
itself became a huge market. In the individual life experiences this
expresses itself in the commodity form which clothes every product of
capitalist epoch as well as all the energies of the producers and
Everything ceases to be valuable for itself or by virtue of its inner
artistic, ethical) value; a thing has value only as a ware bought and
on the market.
Whereas objects establish
with human beings, and thus have human significance through their use
their exchange values appear as attributes of the objects themselves,
rela-tionship to human beings. Objects lose their human meaning, their
quality, their relationship to man. The commodity, we might say, is a
object but in a dehumanized form; that is, it is no longer appreciated
for its use value, for its relationship to a specific human need.
-Adolfo Sánchez Vásquez
What a pity if we were to consider art as a means to social change and say nothing about it as a possible beneficiary of social change.
Art may have its basis in individual experience, but society has surrounded this experience with a system of social arrangements that sponsor it, define it, and help to shape it. Obviously, these arrangements include theaters, galleries, recording stu-dios, high-speed color presses, and so on. But they also include legislatures, ad agencies, gossip columns, corporate-earnings reports, art-appreciation classes, disc jockeys, swap meets . . . it makes a fascinating list. This entire system of arrangements is likely to have its effect on works of art, just as it will affect the way you as a perceiver respond to them. In other words, aesthetic experience, personal as it is, can also be seen as a social product.
Art may be universal, but
arrangements that surround it are not. If we don't like them, we don't
have to live with them. The way society provides for art is just as
a subject for criticism as any other aspect of society. Though food
an important role in all human life, the way it is produced,
and consumed will vary from one society to another; and we are willing
to make judgments in this area, to say that one system of food
is fairer or uses resources more effectively than another Few of us,
look at art in this way. Even more with art than with, say,
education, or politics, we tend to assume that the way things are at
is simply "natural." After alt art is not linked in any essential way
our notions about eco-nomic, political, or technological progress; and
so, though most people know very well that there is stylistic change in
the arts, they tend to take the social context for granted, to see it
no past, no future. And yet, even our very categories of art and artist
belong to this time and this place, though we have very little
that this is so.
Have we learned anything, then, about aesthetic experience which could lead us to question the appropriateness of its present social context? I think we have.
To understand the full
to which art has become the kind of commodity that Lukács and
Vásquez describe, we need to be aware not merely of the role of
the marketplace but also of the role that knowledge has come to play in
attitude toward works of art. Knowledge, though it is not capital, strictly speaking, is analogous to capital in some ways. In personal or corporate terms, knowledge is a key resource, often directly translatable into hard cash. There is, moreover, a marked tendency for knowledge to accumulate where wealth and power are, and to be allotted on very unequal terms to the rest of society (attempts, for example, to bring the poor-especially the minority poor-into higher education are half-hearted and short-lived). If you like, knowledge itself can be seen as a commodity which is defined by its exchange value and which can be used to acquire other commodities. This brings us back to art.
Art, as commodity, can be
with money or with accumulated knowledge. After I started teaching, it
took me a while to understand that many students enrolled in a poetry
were not after the experience of poetry so much as they wanted to
the poems, which would then, in one way or another, increase each
own personal assets. And this acquisition would take place at the
when I, a retailer licensed by the State of California, handed over to
them the "real meaning" behind the words. occasionally in class when I
cast some doubt on my ability to do that very thing, I would sense, in
a student's response, the feeling of "Ah, cunning devil! They probably
save that for their graduate students."
I'm not sure that many people, deep down, really believe that the art in a public museum is free to all (or available at least to everyone who can pay the entrance fee). Either you are a millionaire and can afford actually to own a great work of art, or you devote years to study and become an expert who knows what these works are all about. Everyone else is no more than a windowshopper, or at best has only some token share in a great work like the person with one share
General Motors. I hardly mean to deny that aesthetic experience occurs in these situations-only to reveal the kind of mystification it has to contend with.
The dominance of exchange value over use value tends to keep people on the outside of art works. It emphasizes the value of these works as objects rather than as experience. This is not a superficial misunderstanding, easily remedied by the application of aesthetic theory. It is very much part of the way of seeing that is inculcated by a capitalist society. It doesn't universally prevent aesthetic experience, of course, but, in overall social terms, it exerts a steady counter-aesthetic force, which will affect people in different ways depending on their own background, the art form involved, and so on.
"Popular art" carries its own mystification, and is even more blatantly a commodity than "high art" is. Generally speaking, it's an unashamed commercial undertaking, whose products are packaged, merchandised, and consumed, with the rem-nants either discarded to make room for new items or, sometimes, re-launched on the second-hand market. The emphasis on exchange value could scarcely be more obvious. Enormous interest and excitement attaches to the marketplace itself: the finagling, the competition, the charts and rankings. Movie grosses, rock stars' incomes, best-seller lists, network schedule-jockeying this is big news. Performers too are commodities, and their packaging, overnight sales-promotion, consumer acceptance, and rapid obsolescence all constitute news which itself becomes a commodity and which may even attain wider circulation than the performer's records or films. Popular art, especially, is dominated by fashion. As Lukács points out: "the novel, the sensational and the conspicuous elements assume an importance irrespective of whether they enhance or detract from the true, inner value of the product. ... it is of the essence of the market that new things must be produced within definite periods of time, things which must differ radically from those which preceded."
Popular art is accepted as mass-market merchandise: widely available, relatively standardized, and inexpensive in every way. One needn't be a millionaire, and only a very modest amount of expertise is called for.
What's ironic is that
last point is not nearly as true as it seems to be. Someone who's been
a moviegoer since childhood has developed, effortlessly, a considerable
knowledge of the form. Not much backstage knowledge to be sure. No talk
of camera angles and jump cuts. But this person is likely to have
relatively perceptive and discriminating all the same. In the same
I have no analytical system for dealing with people's faces-at least no
conscious System-nor even a
set of categories that I could readily label. But like everyone else, I have the keenest sensitivity to slight differences in the shape of a jaw or the curve of an eyebrow; my response to faces is acute, complex, rich, and subtle; after all these years I am, in other words, a terrific audience for faces. There are people who have been listening to symphonic music for many years, who may know little of music theory, but who have a sense of structure, who are familiar with a wide range of styles and who listen to music with discernment and enjoyment. Mere exposure to an art won't produce this kind of knowledge. But a combination of exposure, enjoyment, and genuine interest is likely to do so. Still, the person who has developed this kind of knowledge of say, detective fiction might be awed and intimidated by what he considers "literature," and unwil-ling to pay the price he thinks it exacts. Yet it seems to me ever so much easier to tell Bach, Mozart, Brahms, and Prokofiev apart than to make the discriminations that people I know are able to make among a multitude of rock groups, lead guitarists, and such.
My point is simply this: any real distinction that we could make between "high" art and "popular" art is exaggerated by mystification. The one is seen as a high-ticket commodity produced for an elite, inaccessible to plain folk, in one way or another too costly, "too much trouble"; the other is mass-market merchandise, ready to use right off the shelf You could suspect that these categories aren't as neat as they appear, if only from the way some art forms can change their social coefficient. Fairy tales and folk ballads turn into "litera-ture." African tribal sculpture is not only elevated to museum and gallery status but becomes an important influence on European artists. The Strauss family become staples on classi-cal-music stations. "Serious" composers discover folk music. Jazz first appears at the very bottom of the socio-economic scale, acquires an absolutely terrible reputation, and then works its way up, drawing erudition and connoisseurship toward it as it rises. And what are we ever going to do with movies? For a while it looked as if there might be a two-track system possible, with plain "popular" movies on one side and fancy foreign movies-" art" movies-on the other A whole generation of critics helped to dismantle that distinction.
But please understand. I'm not "leveling -just questioning the prevailing aesthetic class System, which contains and pre forms much of our understanding of art. No question of making Edith Wharton knuckle under to Barbara Cartland. On the contrary. The supermarket romances to which 50 many people are addicted these days, which do for the psyche very much what candy does for the metabolism, are not only sugary and tempting; these books are protected by steep attitudinal tariffs which greatly exaggerate the cost of novels such as Wharton's: Cartland is "easy reading"; Wharton is literature, i.e., "homework." I'm not sure these formula romances -though they have their own charm- would hold up quite So well in a "free trade" situation.
In "high" art and "Popular" art alike, the importance of the Perceiver and of his experience tends to be downgraded in favor of something approaching idolatry toward the work and the creative artist or performer. Shakespeare, Mozart, and Rembrandt are regarded with awe and reverence; we are encouraged to approach them on our knees. Similarly, Singing stars, movie stars, the top rock groups not only become famous, and wealthy as maharajas, but also can acquire a magical, almost godlike status.
It could be argued that this is inherent in the nature of art and that, aesthetically, it does no harm and may even enhance the experience. But I think there are reasons to believe otherwise.
What can happen with star performers is that the status, Personality, and charisma of the artist take away from or even replace the aesthetic experience itself I don't mean to be priggish. I'm sure that to have been a Screaming fifteen-year old at a Beatles concert, to have been Part of the "red sweatered ecstasy" that Allen Ginsberg describes in "Portland Coliseum," is to have had a very Substantial experience in its own right. But in more general terms, as a way of approaching art, this Sort of idolatry, whether of Rod Stewart or Baryshnikov tends at best to restrict the resonant range of aesthetic experi-ence, and can even lead out of it or deny it altogether It's also possible for this over-concern with the artist to compensate for and to distract us from deficiencies in the art itself When a singer makes eight million dollars a year, when you can name his wives in order, when he's been on the cover of fifteen magazines, all of this creates a froth, an excitement which you may be able to project into and perceive in the image of his singing. All well and good. But what it when the froth dies down, there's not that much there, and, instead of looking for better singing or a better song, you're led to look for more froth somewhere else? In other words, this disproportionate emphasis on the externals-on celebrity excitement and market value-amounts to a misdirection which can lead us toward an engagement with art that is off-center. It is very good for business, however
With painters, composers, novelists, and so on, we encounter a somewhat different, though parallel, situation. Here the artists are only rarely invested with any glittering jet-set ce-lebrity, ephemeral but heart-throbbing. What they acquire, gradually, is the lofty grandeur associated with our highest and most enduring values. They become part of our "precious heritage" and so on. They are monumentalized. Fine. They deserve it. But unfortunately, as artists they also deserve better than that, which is for their works to be encountered aesthet-ically. And here there's some contradiction. To establish an author or work as a cultural monument can introduce a counter-aesthetic distance between the perceiver and the im-age. And not just a distance but also a sense that the work is above one's reach. This enshrinement of an artist can also introduce inappropriate elements into the perceiver's experi-ence, elements which may even, like the idolatry of pop stars, take the place of a genuine aesthetic response. We enter the Rembrandt room with respect, awe, reverence. There's con-siderable excitement at being in the presence of paintings which are not only masterpieces of Western civilization, but also, in this case, worth big bucks on the art market. This excitement may substitute for any substantial aesthetic experi-ence. And that, somehow, will be what Rembrandt is all about. Now the more experienced "art lover" may not be so totally mystified. But there are degrees. Monumentalization can encourage a falsified response even in more sophisticated perceivers. There is the sense that in the presence of a master-piece you are being judged. So, unless you choose to play the equally mystified role of anti-snob, it may be difficult to avoid a rigged conclusion: your response must be worthy of the masterpiece. And So you make sure that it is. What happens is that perceivers can become used to being alienated from their own response. They don't want to think of themselves as faking it. But neither do they want to risk failing the test. So they learn to accept a willed response as the real thing. Needless to say, this too is counter-aesthetic. Moreover, it tends to become a habit; there are people who, unwilling to trust their immediate response and equally unwilling to admit that this is the case, lose their ability to respond directly and spontaneously to "great art." if they are lucky, there will be detective stories or space movies or show tunes to fall back on.
Finally, idolatry, whether of a long-dead novelist or a nineteen-year-old rock star, goes hand in hand with Systems of media-tion. For the rock star, it is magazines, talk shows, posters, T-shirts, etc., that serve this function. This kind of hoopla maintains an enormous exploitation industry around the pop-ular arts. For the novelist, as for "great art" in general, a priestly caste of teachers, experts, and critics exists as mediator between the Perceiver and the masterpiece. This isn't to deny that teachers and others can be aesthetically useful. But what happens is that this caste, like all priestly castes, tends to make its presence indispensable. You see the Painting through the teacher or critic or guide; without them you feel helpless.
In more general terms, the danger of Overemphasizing the lofty status of the artist or the work of art is that this en-courages a false understanding of the aesthetic experience. Aesthetically too, the kingdom of heaven is within. We need to trust our own response -cultivate it and inform it, of course but trust it and, above all, value it, because individual percep-tion and response form the true center of art. Without this self-trust and self-respect, we are thrown off balance aes-thetically, our experience is less authentic, we have allowed ourselves to be mystified. Our experience of art-or of some Particular art form- remains off-center and not entirely satisfying.
Socially, what all this suggests is the need for art to exist in a context which does not grotesquely exaggerate the status of certain performers, which does not turn art works of the past into official monuments guarded by a caste of haughty priests. and which recognizes the essential importance and the legit-imacy of individual aesthetic experience. Above all, what we need is for art to exist within a system which is not dominated by the marketplace, with its emphasis on exchange value, and therefore on the outside of art works. (It should go without saying that there would be no benefit at all in substituting for the marketplace the judgments of a ruling clique. I'd certainly rather keep the marketplace than have one of those juntas our government loves so well or some ham-handed Kremlin run-ning the show.) Maximization of profits should not be the motivating force behind the presentation and distribution of what we refer to as "popular art." Rock groups should not be encouraged to give concerts on the scale of and with all the mystique of papal appearances. The money that now goes to a small elite of superstars in films and music, TV and book publishing, would be enough to reward these individuals generously relative to the median income (if this were thought necessary) and still support a vast number of other worthy actors and musicians and writers.
Massive centralization should give way to a system of many centers, managerially less efficient but aesthetically more produc-tive, and it should become more feasible, both economically and psychologically, for artists to seek a local or a regional audience. Decentralization of theater, dance, opera, symphon-ies, TV, even film, would help to demystify these arts; and it would provide much wider opportunity for composers, play-wrights. directors, choreographers, and so on.
As for schooling in the arts, since education is the subject of the chapter that follows, I won't pursue it here, except to say that schools need to find ways of teaching the arts and of preserving and transmitting the art of the past without doing so at the expense of the aesthetic experience itself
But if we're going to talk about change in the social arrangements that surround art, there is still another feature of the present system that needs to be challenged. It is not only as aesthetic audience that most of us are intimidated but also as artists or potential artists. In the chapter on performance, I stressed the continuity that binds creative artist, performer, and audience. But this idea of continuity doesn't go far enough. From a theoretical point of view, I can see no reason why people in general should not be capable of fulfilling all three of these aesthetic functions. To be a great painter or a great actor may require a very special combination of temperament, aptitude, and commitment. Precisely-and therefore many of us have the attitude: "If not great, why bother?" I know, however, first-hand the considerable aesthetic satisfaction to be had as a fair actor, a mediocre though enthusiastic folk dancer, an ignorant composer I also know that this kind of experience has made me a more receptive and sensitive perceiver. Just as we accept an exaggerated and to Some extent artificial distinction between high and low art, 50 we also accept unjustifiably sharp divisions between artist and non-artist, and between amateur and professional. We tend to accept the idea that most people are not artists -never can be, never will be. And among artists, amateurs scarcely count; we may appreciate that they cultivate the piano or like to write, but obviously if they were any good they would be in the big time. As a result of this kind of attitude, we get the amateurism we deserve.
It's worth reminding ourselves that among human societies there are other possible arrangements. This is Charles Mount-ford's description of Australian aboriginal Society:
There is no
artist class in an aboriginal community.
Every member of it, young or old, will sometimes be an artist....
All aborigines are natural artists. I have yet to meet one who
would not or did not want to paint. Naturally, Some are more
skilled than others and take more care; yet anyone who has
watched these people at work, totally absorbed and oblivious
to the world around them, will be convinced that these artists
are experi-encing the same pleasure in their efforts as creative
artists do in any community.
I've had the opportunity to teach both creative writing and improvisational theater to people with absolutely no experi-ence in these arts. In the case of creative writing (an odd term), I've taught people whose negative attitudes and false notions made them worse off than beginners. And I've been struck by the amount of satisfaction that these "non-artists" can find as artists, and, in a number of cases, by how much their work has to offer from a perceiver's point of view. Creative writing admittedly is a problem. By the time students reach college, there is much to overcome: anxiety and a stubborn self-distrust in the area of writing. Still, even here a certain amount of unteaching and unblocking, along with some technique and a look at effective writing, can help them develop rapidly.
It's the theater classes, however, which have taught me the most. When I began teaching improvisation to beginners I was flabbergasted at how good "ordinary" people can be. Naturally, it takes massive technique, acquired during years of training and apprenticeship, to become a competent, versatile, reliable actor. And that's the choice people confront. Either run off and become an actor-a full-on life commitment-or resign yourself to staying forever in the audience. The third possibility has been "amateur" theater, which can often turn out to be more of a social than an aesthetic involvement. But here in my classes were people beginning in a matter of months to produce honest-to-goodness theater, which at its best left any notion of amateurism out of the aesthetic picture. I asked myself: where does all this come from? My initial answer was that, because of dreaming, which is a sort of built-in theater, because of the constant role-playing that people do, and because of enormous exposure to dramatic art in films and on TV, people have much greater latent talent for theater than they do for other forms of art. Since then, I've revised my opinion. Perhaps theatrical ability is developed more quickly; stilt I suspect that there may be as many potential musicians as theatrical improvisers, as many painters as musicians, as many dancers as painters, as many poets as dancers.
It's easy to imagine a society in which each city would have not only various local symphonies, dance companies, theatri-cal repertory companies, and so on, but also neighborhood chamber groups, jazz bands, folk ensembles, theater groups, folk-dance clubs, art exhibits, film projects, TV productions. It's easy to imagine such a society but not so easy to say how we might get there from here. At present, economic forces in the arts, with Some very important exceptions, tend to con-verge at the top and at the center. The money spent on pharaonic jumbo art-centers could pay for a number of more modest buildings spread out to cover a wider geographical range. Local television, if it weren't crushed, by networks, beneath the combined weight of New York and Los Angeles, could develop and keep talented writers, actors, directors, and producers; could serve its community well, and could also make an individualized contribution to the diversity of pro-gramming available for exchange with stations elsewhere. At present, rock jazz, and country radio-stations, with their attention fixed either on the charts or on tried-and-true "oldies," are inhospitable to local talent. Painters and sculp-tors, if they want to make it, have to go where the important critics and the important galleries are, where art history is made, where the money is; the alternative is to remain "provin-cial" and therefore of no importance. This means New York or just possibly one of a few other cities. And a would-be modern dancer who's never been to New York is like a would-be cardinal who's never been to Rome.
But how do we get there from here? Most people not only don't regard themselves as artists, but are quite sure they could never become artists. They may play a little piano; they may have been good at drawing in school or have enjoyed a drama class and thought they might like to do more of it some time; they may sing a little or write poems, or do stained glass, or have a knack for taking striking photographs; they may be storytellers or marvelous dancers, but none of this counts. None of this is worth really cultivating. Once the point of decision is passed, once you have decided not to run away and join the circus, which is more or less the way we see a professional commitment to art, once you've made that deci-sion, you can forget it. You may play the piano, but you're no artist. Art is up there and we're down here. That's not only what the schools teach. That's what the record companies and TV networks, and museums and jumbo art-centers teach.
What am I saying? That we should stop putting our resources behind the best art and settle for a vast mediocrity, that we should stop "striving for excellence?" Trade the excitement and ferment of New York Tokyo Amsterdam, and Paris for a vast Kansas of Sunday painters? Isn't one New York City Ballet, housed appropriately in Lincoln Center, worth a hundred lackluster regional ballets in sweaty little local auditoriums?
But does it really come down to a trade-off? I would suggest that a thriving "amateurism," if we have to call it that, promotes high quality in art: not merely because it provides a seed-bed out of which occasional great artists may grow, but because it provides an aesthetic atmosphere that's alive and exciting, because it provides an audience with genuine interest and with some knowledge and taste as well.
Another set of
for art is indeed possible. But it would come only if there were
changes in the society as a whole. Decentralized art -a thriving
art works appreciated neither as commodities nor as mere ideological
but rather for their aesthetic use value; all of this, I think, would
(and contribute to) a truly demo-cratic and decentralized socialism:
is, a society which at this point exists nowhere on the face of the
But good sense and a vestigial humility bid me stop at this point. The
sociology of art in a decentralized socialist society: this book has
off more than enough already without adding in that little morsel.