“So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure, How amazingly unlikely is your birth, And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space,’Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth.”
– Monty Python, The Meaning of Life
I end the year wondering about how we can pursue art deep into the future without the mechanisms of a common, shared understanding of culture’s worth. Two recent issues:
1. With a declaration of bankruptcy the city of Detroit will be forced to sell its assets. The Detroit Museum of Art holds some of the finest works in the world, purchased and gifted to it during America’s empire building years. Some in the city believe selling the work could help with the city’s debt; others believe that a public gallery is a resource not an asset. The city has now pitted pensioners against the value of the gallery’s collection. What is at stake is that publicly viewed works might disappear into private collections.
2. The Ministry of Canadian Heritage turns down funding for the Toronto theatre company Buddies in Bad Times Theatre’s thirty five year running festival Rhubarb!. The festival is responsible for helping begin and shape careers of artists who are now internationally recognized, building one of the most successful artistic communities in the country and whose impact on Canada’s largest city is non-debatable. MP Peggy Nash’s query to the Minister in charge is pointedly unanswered in a recent question period. What is at stake is that a festival that nurtures artists (such as yours truly) in a rare but vitally non-constrictive way could be lost to future generations.
Both of these issues bring to mind that questionable quote by Churchill who replied to why they shouldn’t cut arts funding for the war effort, “what are we fighting for then?” is what he supposedly posited. His actual quote was that they should just hide the National Gallery paintings in cellars when asked whether they should ship them to Canada during the bombing of London. He was confident they should stay put because they were going to win the war. In any case, the arts was discussed at the highest level during the 20th century’s most significant event, and it was decided it was worthy of protection. Don’t get me started on the Nazi looting either, while it makes my blood boil (The Ghent Altar piece kept in a cave until they were going to finish ruining Europe!!!!), even Hitler recognized the collective understanding of the value of art and with it culture.
Today? Not so much. We have come to an almost end time in the arts when private money and profit trumps any other kind of thinking. The social compact or social good as Rousseau, Socrates and many other philosophers spoke of; ideas that shaped our world are being stomped on loudly by a non-stop ideological juggernaut that proposes making profit by any means as the only activity the human species should be engaged in. Have we lost our ability to have a common good?
How did we get here? World War II was only seventy years ago.
I can’t possibly answer why it seems that art is now nothing more than a possible bit of equity to be traded, sold, borrowed on and insured rather than discussed, contemplated and reflected upon. There are collisions of reasons I suppose. We neglected its significance while trying to make it entertainment; we bought into the idea that a market place was a fair and equitable way of running the economy; we busied ourselves with gender and identity politics rather than looking after a bigger picture; we thought aspects of it like oil painting was a relic from a dead era; we fell in love with iphones and figured they and their makers will save us; we feel that art is perhaps, like God in the 19th century, something that holds us back from being modern.
But I haven’t lost hope because only a year ago it would have been unthinkable that Walmart employees would try to form a union. We have a Pope that decries capitalism. A Pope?! Our era more and more resembles the 1820-50 era in Europe when everything was contested by a raucous, unruly and increasingly educated public. It is a time of transition or even transformation. We do however owe it to the people hundreds of years from now that they too can see an altar piece created in a world that dedicated itself to the power and mystery of faith and that redemption figured as largely then for people in a real way as bargain hunting does for us today. The Ghent Altar piece reflects medieval Europe and its complexities, before Henry VIII got his hands on the church, before Luther nailed his protest to a door and western civilization was changed/transformed forever; the piece stands as a testament to our vulnerability as a species unmoored from nature, adrift in a cosmos hoping to give our flesh some meaning.
What will we be without being able to know work like the Ghent Altar piece (not that it is in jeopardy but I use it as an example of a significant work that was once) or the works in the Detroit Institute of Art or even the contemporary courage of artists in the Rhubarb! Festival? Without an understanding of our potential we will be slaves. Haven’t we all fought long and hard for generations to be rid of slavery? Or perhaps as a species this is what we do; fight for a place among the heavens, for an immortality of spirit and for a freedom to proclaim ourselves special in a dark and forbidding universe. Art can help take us there.
State of the Arts will return January 6, 2014.