Friday, June 10, 2011

On Art in a Disenchanted World

Our survival as dare I say, members of a sensate class, depends on not just food, shelter, occupation, but on the idea of a full life. And into every full life, some art must fall. I am not going to escape the charge of elitism I know, but to my limited knowledge, art is not the prerogative only of the privileged classes, but of all communities, even if often referred to instead as "culture" or "tradition". So we all sing, paint, draw, listen, dance, and create -- objects, forms, outlines, and curlicues.

So then now we have not a fully formed definition of art, but a sense of it....surely, you don't think we can stop there?

Assumption.No.2: We need art even if we are not completely agreed on the parameters of evaluation or even on its definition.

Well then let's pile on an additional question; what is art? Do we define it by its fetish object, its ability to be magical, its meaning making function, or its "auratic" presence comprising all of the above and some? Is a building art? Is a painting art? Are the little squiggles made by a little kid on my neighbor's compound walls art? Democracy would entail that I answer yes to all the above, but then I lose specificity (God forbid!). So for purposes of exigency and this highly limited set of pontifications, let's assume that art is self-conscious. So, to begin with, we are assuming a certain distance; art stands apart even as it is part of the world.

Assumption.No.2: Art needs support.

To say this, of course, is to either deny or to admit to the consummately capitalist nature of the world we live in and therefore to say one of the following
(a) works of art must be allowed reprieve from the vagaries of supply and demand
(b) why should art escape commodification? Markets dictate taste; in other words, shape up or ship out.

I am, I'm afraid, rather squarely on the side of (a), mainly because the market and its rather droll logics neither appeal to my aesthetics nor to my humanity. As Benjamin writes, “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art", indicating therefore Max Weber's discussion on the loss of magic in a world disenchanted by the advent of capitalism and consumption. But then, if placing myself within the confines of an "art for art's sake", I am also hoping, indeed insisting that there is an art qua art outside the mechanics of the market. And this, I am not so willing to stake my paltry scholarship upon...

The categories I discuss above are neither mutually exclusive nor clearly delineated. All forms of art can be bought and sold and they do bear some sort of function even if only "for art's sake". They are within the clutches of market and patronage and can neither be considered above nor completely within. In other words, I have successfully argued myself into a corner.

Assumption No.3: Art has a point. Or points. Or role.

Somehow, discussing the "role" of art makes it seem so, well, blase. As if, everything in this world ought to have a "role". What of the appendix then smart people? Or colored bandages? Or or....koi fish?! In case you need a visual guide, here you go.

So then, does art have a point? I am going to be slightly sneaky here and borrow from an ongoing debate on the role of the humanities and its continued relevance in the world as we know it; a world of hard-headed utilitarianism and efficiency. Here, for example is Anthony T. Kronman, a professor at Yale Law School, arguing that the humanities’ initial and essential role in higher education should be to address the deeper questions of the meaning of life. And here is Gayatri Spivak, who emphasizes that the only hope of reclaiming the arts "from the investment circuit" lies in the painstaking work of criticism and support that the humanities undertakes. Even more infamously and exclusively, Stanley Fish claims that the humanities “cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.”

Let me quote further from Fish before returning to our original discussion,

"You can’t argue that a state’s economy will benefit by a new reading of “Hamlet.” You can’t argue – well you can, but it won’t fly – that a graduate who is well-versed in the history of Byzantine art will be attractive to employers (unless the employer is a museum). You can talk as Bethany does about “well rounded citizens,” but that ideal belongs to an earlier period, when the ability to refer knowledgeably to Shakespeare or Gibbon or the Thirty Years War had some cash value (the sociologists call it cultural capital). Nowadays, larding your conversations with small bits of erudition is more likely to irritate than to win friends and influence people."

And he thus concludes with the abovementioned equivalent to the God argument -- if you don't know God already, then there is no way you will know God.

And on the other side of the fence, we can always find gems such as these...

“When a poet creates a vaccine or a tangible good that can be produced by a Fortune 500 company, I’ll rescind my comment.”

So then, what does art do for us? Is it, like the humanities, that which will nudge us ever so gently to continue examining the meaning of life? Is it but representation clad sublime? And lastly, is my attempt to render meaning in that which might well push beyond meaning, futile?

Assumption no.4: Art is political

And this I will not be swayed from. I do not mean politics in the narrow version of a card-carrying anything, but rather, in the sense of what Hannah Arendt might call the opposite of totalitarianism. In other words, politics becomes the necessary condition to find solutions, albeit messy, albeit incomplete, but solutions nevertheless to the inequities of the world.

I will not say more and instead leave you at this critical juncture with a critical video and hope that if you have made it thus far into this ponderous stream of, well, something, you in turn will have something to say....come readers, de-lurk.

(Be warned, the talk will require 20 minutes of your precious time).

And lastly, M.F.Hussain has passed away. We all have tough questions to ask. Of ourselves and the world.