|Preface: I should be very careful here to point out that my interest in endorsing most of this view is to encourage an atmosphere in which better art can/will be created, not to insult anyone or hammer any harder on the wedge dividing us in the so-called Culture Wars. Yes, I'm a snob when it comes to fine art (and I know these ideas are seen by many as being poisoned with that most dreaded of toxicities, elitism), but that doesn't de facto mean I don't appreciate popular culture...I actually love it and have the receipts to prove it. I simply don't agree that better art emerges without concerted efforts or the highest of standards. And I believe that better art is a goal so worthy of mankind's efforts that it trumps the evergrowing demand for comfort (which is another way of saying the advocacy of laziness IMO). You'll see where this preemptive caveat is coming from below. |
An anonymous commenter in the Un/Re/De-Categorizing Art thread pointed to the transcript of a speech given by Frank Furedi, the controversial professor of sociology at the University of Kent (published in the UK's Telegraph), that sharply pulls into focus ideas I've been struggling to put into words in that post and others recently. It represents what I consider one of the most important issues of our day with regards to promoting the arts. In re-reading it carefully, I've found there are portions of it I strongly disagree with, but none of that neutralizes the core idea. It centers on music, but touches on all the arts.
The central argument, summarized below, is at the heart of why the alarm bells I mentioned in the previous post are ringing so loudly:
Cultural politics today is driven by the imperative of an insipid conformism that demands that art serve a purpose that is external to itself.This article has shown me the vocabulary to say what I only felt when I wrote the previous post. In a nutshell: Exhibitions geared toward access as an end unto itself are not benign. Furedi explains why (all emphasis is mine):
From here Furedi ventures into territory I'm not sure he's prepared his listeners/readers for carefully enough (which is my nice way of saying I'm not sure this isn't morally deficient), but I'll point it out, with a few qualifiers of my own, all the same:
As the Scottish composer James MacMillan observed, when we are "imaginatively challenged as listeners", we are "required to give something up, something of our humanity, something of our precious time". And we need to educate ourselves to appreciate it. [...]
According to current wisdom, listening to music, reading poetry or contemplating a painting should not be thought of as work, least of all as hard work. Works of art that demand serious attention, time and effort are treated with suspicion because they might not appeal to a significant section of the population.
The official politics of culture of our time stigmatises such art for not being inclusive. Inclusive art is that which is readily accessible since it does not require much effort or understanding on the part of the public. From this standpoint, the engagement with art is not seen as a challenge but as an easily digestible act of consumption. [...]
The main merit of inclusive art is that it is, in principle, accessible to anyone. This emphasis on accessibility indicates that the priority of the politics of culture is engagement with the public rather than with the content of artistic and intellectual life.
What is distinct about the access movement today is that it is entirely focused on the opening up of educational opportunities while being indifferent to the intellectual content of the experience. The access movement makes no pretence of aspiring to an intellectual ideal. Its pedagogy self-consciously eschews cultivating people's appreciation of humanity's cultural achievements. [...]
Today, the policy of inclusion makes no attempt to cultivate and elevate the public taste. On the contrary, it regards the taste of the public as something to flatter and celebrate. Official cultural politics is not merely populist, it is also philistine.
This approach is systematically conveyed through the current policy of cultural diversity - a principle that explicitly avoids any attempt to discriminate, value and set standards in the domain of art.OK, so he notes that cultural sensitivity is admirable, but he could have (IMO should have) not resorted to this creepy sense of "our" values as if those were somehow universally held even within a small population. That's a regretable tangent, IMO, that also sends off alarm bells (i.e., it smacks of bigotry in a way I don't like at all and hope I'm misreading). Besides, isn't it implied that if there are such things as "our values," we will have learned them outside the educational system and although reinforcement is a role the educational system can/should play, that undoubtedly happens so constantly throughout each day that overtly forcing it into any/every discussion of the values of others is offensive?
Guidelines that touch on the teaching of music promote the principle of diversity as a way of bypassing the crucial question of just what cultural value is worth celebrating. For example, the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance's GCSE specification for music states that the curriculum will enhance students' "ability to appreciate music" in a way that "reflects knowledge of cultural and spiritual contexts and sensitivity to the values and conventions of others".
Gaining sensitivity to the "values and conventions and others" is an admirable objective. But what about the values of the students and of their community? While this guideline makes constant references to the "values of others", it is silent about "our" values.
He also veers off a bit from my beliefs with the follow-up idea:
By adopting the attitude that everything is of value, our cultural mandarins are spared the hassle of explaining what it is that we espouse as our own. And when there is nothing important to value, upholding standards in art becomes a matter of individual preference.As an individualist, I wish he had worked a bit harder on that idea. I strongly believe individual preference is highly valuable in art appreciation, it's simply not the only measure of merit.
None of these points of disagreements, though, seem central at all to his thesis about access, nor change my support for those ideas. He gets firmly back on course, I feel, with this idea:
The endorsement of cultural philistinism by officialdom has meant that the political agenda of access, inclusion and diversity becomes the arbiter of educational and cultural life. Music and art are judged not according to an aesthetic standard but a political one.And noting nearly identically what I see as the largest threat looming via this trend, he adds:
That is why grown-up music enjoys little official affirmation. Certain forms of cultural practices cannot be simplified and made totally inclusive. It is difficult to turn a complex musical symphony, for instance, into family-friendly entertainment. So instead of a populist makeover, it needs to disappear or to be treated with contempt.
Something important has been lost when music is reassembled according to the social-engineering agenda. This is an agenda that begins by breaking down the distinction between art and practical skills.Now I understand the resistance to canon-promoting efforts (it's been built to date with horrific prejudices). But the canon is an expanding vessel...what is added today or tomorrow can reflect a more enlightened, more inclusive body of work without a) watering down the quality within or b) tossing out the baby with the bath water. I believe there's a way to counter those prejudices without dumbing down the art viewing experience to the point that we're no longer able to recognize great works. That's important to me, and doing so demands education. None of this means there won't still be camps debating over which work represents the highest achievements, but hopefully those camps will be well-equipped to have those debates.
It then moves on to erode the distinction between artist and audience - after all, we can all make music. And it concludes by collapsing the distinction between the great and the mundane.
The answer lies not, in my opinion, in accepting any object as equal to any other or any idea as equal to any other, but rather in accepting any artist as equal to any other and then judging their artworks based on the highest of standards. I know that will strike many as naive, because the current "standards" quite often represent their own cultural biases, but I can't see where treating any object as equal corrects that. At the very least that path leads through a wilderness from which I'm not sure there's any way out of.
But I've rambled enough here. There's plenty to chew on/disagree with/rant against in there...have at it!