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.)

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