Thursday, June 16, 2005

Do the Masses Still Like Art in the US?

Disclaimer: I can't stand David Brooks. He's the biggest waste of op-ed space the NYT has. And yet, I read him, so...there must be something there.

In his column today, New York Times columnist and, IMO, hack extraordinaire, David Brooks pines for the days when the popular newsweeklies, like Time or Newsweek magazines, catered to the "middle-class people across the country who aspired to have the same sorts of conversations as the New York and Boston elite." The pull-quote in the print version of the paper reads, " Once upon a time, the masses liked art." Brooks argues that the days of 6-page spreads on Abstract Expressionism and other such middle-brow fare were snuffed out by a two-flanked attack:

Middlebrow culture was killed in the late 50's and 60's, and the mortal blows came from opposite directions. The intellectuals launched assaults on what they took to be middlebrow institutions, attacks that are so vicious they take your breath away.

Clement Greenberg called the middlebrow an "insidious" force that was "devaluing the precious, infecting the healthy, corrupting the honest and stultifying the wise." Dwight Macdonald lambasted the "tepid ooze" of the Museum of Modern Art and the plays of Thornton Wilder. Basically, these intellectuals objected to the earnest and optimistic middle-class arrivistes who were tromping over everything and dumbing down their turf.

At the same time, pop culture changed. It was no longer character-oriented; it was personality-oriented. Readers felt less of a need to go outside themselves to absorb works of art as a means of self-improvement. They were more interested in exploring and being true to the precious flower of their own individual selves.

My knee-jerk reaction to this claim was to want to assert that there's now a specialization in the media that didn't exist in the late 50's (literally dozens of new art magazines offering the 6-page spreads he holds up as proof) and that there's no need for broader publications to do that sort of in-depth coverage any would be redundant.

The more I though about that, though, the more I realized that perhaps Brooks has a point (as my father is fond of saying, "Even a blind pig finds an acorn now and then"...OK, that's my last pot shot...promise). Time and Newsweek are supposed to cover the spectrum of issues that affect our lives, including the topics that speciality magazines cover in more depth. Their decreasing coverage of more middle-brow art might indeed represent what Brooks calls a move toward "Less Rembrandt, more Me."

This would seem to be countered by the attendance at US Museums though:
There are now 16,000 museums in the U.S., drawing 650 million visitors annually, a 60% increase in attendance since 1997. Some of this growth is due to refocusing on local and regional visitation after 9/11/2001.
A 60% incease over the past 8 years doesn't sound like the death of interest in art to me, but there may be other factors to consider, like what those museums are exhibiting (i.e., how many of those 650 million visitors included motorcycle enthusiasts jamming into the Guggenheim?).

So back to my question. Do the masses still like art in the US? And how can that be determined?


Anonymous porky said...

I work on wall street and very few of these ivy educated richies care for contemporary art.

6/16/2005 01:22:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I think there's camps on wall street though, porky.

the hedge fund managers (whatever a hedge fund is) are the new power brokers of the contemporary art scene.

Also, I don't think wall street folks in general represent the "masses."

6/16/2005 01:30:00 PM  
Anonymous porky said...

They aren't masses, but they are the ones with the dough. They have the WORST TASTE. It frightens.

6/16/2005 02:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Macallan said...

Do the masses still like art in the US?

Uhmmm, did they ever?

6/16/2005 02:06:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

They aren't masses, but they are the ones with the dough.

Good point, Porky.

Uhmmm, did they ever?

Brooks is arguing that they did.

6/16/2005 02:07:00 PM  
Anonymous crionna said...

IMHO, if anything killed the "middle-brow" interest in art (or politics or literature for that matter) it was the increase in the amount of hours spent working (whether that's at a traditional job, or shuttling kids around to ensure they get the best possible shot at a good college and a good life), TV and the loss of art and music programs in the schools.

6/16/2005 02:18:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I'd vote for the "hours spent working and TV" combo...interest in the arts used to be a "hobby" in the sense that it filled the empty hours...TV and working fill those hours now.

6/16/2005 02:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Macallan said...

...but what about those all empty hours working? Blogs!

6/16/2005 03:09:00 PM  
Anonymous la artist said...

The increase in attendance in museums can easily be attributed to the shift of museums into entertainment - blockbuster hype. And the ultimately user-friendly trend in art to appropriate pornography, comic book/advertising imagery. Brooks (I too am not a fan) is simply noting that journalism/news is now entertainment as well. TV has trained us to expect to be amused 24/7.

6/16/2005 04:11:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

The increase in attendance in museums can easily be attributed to the shift of museums into entertainment - blockbuster hype

sigh...I suspect you're right, la artist.

Brooks does seem to insist that the percentage of Americans who care about middle-brow (as opposed to pop) culture though has declined, so it's not just that news is more entertainment focussed (although it surely seems that way to me).

6/16/2005 04:18:00 PM  
Anonymous la artist said...

Your local tv news may still be reality based but LA local news is bizarre. It's advertised the way shampoos used to be advertised - attractive young women swinging their hair with a smiling young man next to them. And headlines consist of what actors are doing. I'd say it qualifies as entertainment, not news.

As for the supposed dumbing down of art, I keep reminding people that Shakespeare wrote both for the educated in the boxes and for those piled together in the front. Finding common ground is not necessarily selling out. I just observe that art viewers in museums are passing judgement on what they are seeing rather than trying to see what is being shared. They, like Whistler's cow, know what they like. And what they like is what they know.

Sorry, I know you try to be optimistic on your site. I'm just in a state of despair about the external world. Reading blogs, websites just makes it worse.

6/16/2005 09:32:00 PM  
Blogger hilzoy said...

He's surely wrong about middlebrow culture. Think of all those book groups, Oprah's book list, and so on. But I think he's right as regards contemporary visual arts (other than movies, I suppose I should add) and music. Whether it's relevant that both went through what I think of as an unfortunate phase in which all but the very best artists/composers were warped by theory, I cannot say.

6/18/2005 10:33:00 PM  

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