Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Art and the Consumer, Part 2

The question: how can we consumers ensure that the best art -- paintings, music, literature, films, television, dance -- gets created, produced, and enjoyed, without the help of government funding?

The answer is obvious: we need to throw our weight behind the best art. We need to vote with our wallets. When we consumers clearly demand high-quality art, supply will not lag far behind.

Then we run into the real trouble -- the phrase "high-quality" and its inherent subjectivity. I'm prepared to state without equivocation that certain television shows, namely Keeping Up With the Kardashians, its spinoffs, and Jersey Shore, are just plain bad, and there's precious little room to argue otherwise. But what about The Hangover, or Lady Gaga's music, or the collected works of Tom Clancy or L. Ron Hubbard? These, I have to acknowledge, are simply not to my taste, and I can't judge them as worthless from an objective standpoint.

If we the consumers are going to step up and assume responsibility for the arts in this country, one of the first things we have to do is be willing to accept the existence of art we dislike, and even resist the temptation to put quotation marks around that word art. We have to understand that not everyone looks to art for the same things. Some of us seek pure escape, some enlightenment and understanding, and others beauty. In each of these aims we find a heavy measure of the subjective. Some listeners may find more beauty in a Rush song than in a Mozart piano sonata. Many readers have found a great deal of wisdom in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, while others dismiss this trilogy, along with all fantasy, as pure escapism.

We need to allow room for as great a variety of art, for as great a variety of tastes, as possible; we can't expect all works of the imagination to meet our own personal specifications. If we do, we'll resemble a relative of mine who once dismissed the great Ella Fitzgerald as untalented because she didn't have as good a voice as her favorite opera singer. I wince to think what the arts might be like if this relative had the ordering of them.

All the same, while too much control is far from desirable, neither is laissez-faire the best approach. Some books, music, films, and television shows are superior to others, and we don't see quite enough of the good stuff. There is a problem, particularly in the areas of film and television, which needs to be addressed. Many of us might be blithely unaware of what this problem is, and might assume that film and television producers are merely "giving the people what they want" when they present us with dreck like Epic Movie and Jerry Springer. It's not that simple. A certain factor stacks the deck against substantive, rewarding stories in film and television.

It's called demographics.

(Watch for Art and the Consumer, Part 3: Know Your Enemy.)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Art and the Consumer, Part 1

I heard this simple observation in a trailer for a documentary called Missinterpretation: "We can't be what we can't see."

The possibilities we sense for ourselves come from all we see around us, not only in real life but in art -- books, plays, films, music, dance, painting, photographs. Since art shapes our perceptions of ourselves and the world so crucially, artists have tremendous power. But so do we, the consumers, who determine which works of art succeed or fail and, ultimately, which works of art see the light of day. It's a habit, particularly among conservatives, to rail at artists whose decadent, hedonistic, often nihilistic output shatters rather than mends, degrades rather than uplifts. I've made such complaints myself, and sometimes I have to use force to bring myself around to the truth: we consumers get exactly the kind of art we ask for.

As I've grown older and moved from liberal to libertarian, I've had to put aside many of my youthful ideas, including the notion that the government has a responsibility to subsidize art. I used to look on such funding as confirmation of the value and importance of the arts, particularly when I heard arts funding's opponents express a generalized contempt for all works of the imagination as "wastes of time." But I have come around to the belief that art is too crucial for the government to be trusted with it. We, as private citizens, should step up and support great art ourselves rather than asking others to do it for us.

Then comes the sticky question: can high-quality art thrive under a free market blown by the winds of ephemeral popularity? Will the public throw its support behind classical music and ballet in a way that enables orchestras and dance companies to flourish, or will the concert halls sit empty while crowds pack the stands to see Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber?

Mass consumers are not as predictable as producers and marketers like to think. Sometimes we do the right thing. We made blockbusters out of Peter Jackson's sublime Lord of the Rings trilogy. In the summer of 2010 we flocked to the multiplexes to see the mind-bending Inception, sending the message that we were hungry for a movie that was neither a sequel nor a remake. More recently, we took to our hearts the kind of movie that we usually dismiss as "elitist": a character-driven British period drama called The King's Speech.

But we've also made household names out of people whose disgraceful behavior and complete lack of talent, intelligence and honor should fill us with loathing -- classless, charmless, graceless famewhores like Paris Hilton, the sisters Kardashian, and perhaps most repellent of all, "Snooki." When Rutgers University pays this bubble-brain, who has boasted of getting a book published when she hasn't read more than two books in her life, more than award-winning novelist Toni Morrison for a speaking engagement, something is very wrong.

Blaming Snooki is a waste of time. She's just doing what comes naturally in a market-driven pop culture: using what she has in order to make money. No, we are to blame, when we have said with our dollars and attention that we're willing to buy what this creep is selling.

That's the bad news -- we're the problem. But the good news is that if we accept responsibility, we can also be the solution. If we want better art, we have only to demand it. If we can organize and make things happen in the area of politics, surely we can do the same where art is concerned. Art, after all, influences our hearts and minds more directly than politics, and it's in our hearts and minds that the most permanent and meaningful changes take place.

(Coming in Part 2: What can and should be done.)