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.)