Thursday, April 28, 2005

Why Carroll Doesn’t Get the “Arts” and Neither Do We

"Ars Gratia Artis" is a Latin phrase meaning "Art for the sake of Art.” To expressionistically inclined creative types this statement sounds profound and it has been their mantra for over a century. Such folks maintain that it is Art alone that requires no justification. Hence we have spent a century producing Art that is unjustifiable and as such culturally irrelevant. “Art for its own sake” is like saying “Art for no reason.” If you are not a touchy feely creative type, this translates into “no reason for Art.” So you can’t really blame Carroll for lack of enthusiasm for spending money for “no reason.”

While nobody seems to agree on the definition of Art, most people would agree that a world without it is an undesirable place. Yet how many of us would be thrilled to hear that our son is dropping out of med school to get a PHD in Art History? How many would greet the news that our daughter is marrying an artist with enthusiasm? The profession of Art Critic is universally reviled, by artists and audiences alike. Why is this?

This is because after a century of “Art for no reason,” now deep down inside, none of us can think of a good reason for Art. If you are going to spend money for something or accord respect to it, it is only common sense that there better be a good reason.

I am reminded of the time a frustrated local high school teacher wanted to bring her class to the San Antonio Museum of Art and was told by her principal that they could not go. His first objection was that it would cost too much money to put them on busses to take them down there. When she protested that the school took out a dozen busses a week for sporting events, his response was telling. He said, “That’s different. That’s for a good reason.” Not to be deterred the teacher responded, “This is a good reason.” The principal retorted, “We are trying to prepare these children for the real world. In the real world you cannot make a living as an artist. So get out of my office and don’t bother me with this again.” Now there are so many things wrong with what happened here that I could hardly list them all. Coincidentally, this took place in a school in Carroll’s District. But that is actually insignificant, because dozens of teachers from all over town have told me similar tales of woe.

The teacher in this story was teaching her class in World History about the Romans. At SAMA there is an entire sculpture gallery dedicated to marble statues of Roman emperors, citizens, philosophers and deities. It might come as a surprise to some of you who think like the principal, but under no circumstances will you ever enter this gallery and find ongoing lessons in how to carve a naked emperor out of white marble with a bronze chisel. That’s not why it is there. It is there to provide physical examples of the Roman world for its viewer’s edification. That’s edification folks, not amusement. It is not “there because it is there,” as some of the touchy feely types insist. It is there for a very good reason. It is there to help us understand the Romans. Remember them? Those are the dead guys who invented the idea of the Republic. Adjacent to these statues is an entire gallery dedicated to Greek vase ware. Remember the Greeks? Does the word "Democracy" sound familiar? It is because words like “Republic” and “Democracy” are important that these galleries are important. When we can no longer remember the identities of men like Marcus Aurelius or Socrates and appreciate their ideas and use their images to instruct ourselves as well as our young, then the loss of words like “Republic” and “Democracy” is not far behind.

The Arts are not important because they teach us how to be artists. They are important because they teach us how to be human. They instruct us in history, civics, justice and morality. Perhaps this is why politicians view them as such a low priority, because it serves their interests to do so. This is not to say that if we just throw money at finger painting classes for kindergarteners we will usher in Utopia. But, if we ignore or devalue the Arts we will certainly create Dystopia. Too often Art is viewed like bicycling. Fine for children, but demeaning to adults. Even when the focus is on the young, it is viewed as a distraction from the three R’s. This is tragically ironic, since these used to be called Arts and Letters, and were considered to be essential to a well-rounded education.

Public Art funding is generally viewed as graft for a few well-connected guys with berets who want to use our tax dollars to offend us. Too often artists have viewed it as their role to castigate the bourgeoisie with their work and have considered biting the hand that feeds them an act of integrity. Not surprisingly, taxpayers find using their funds for what amounts to a bad reason even more distasteful than spending their money for no reason at all.

On Monday night the Westside Arts Coalition sponsored an event in collaboration with Salsa-Net and the Cultural Alliance of San Antonio to put questions to the frontrunner candidates for Mayor on their proposed policies for funding the Arts. Where the candidates come down on Art’s funding in the real world amounts to this:

Castro favors uncritically funding artists of dubious talent to offend the bourgeoisie at their own expense. This is because the beret wearers are his constituents and this is their favorite sport. That they can get the taxpayer to fund it only makes it more fun.

Hardberger favors funding finger-painting for children, because it’s cute. Phil also favors the occasional bone thrown to the beret crowd to broaden his base, and because for some reason he does not really understand, Art like vegetables is supposed to be intrinsically good for you.

Unfortunately this is not necessarily the case. Bad Art, like bad food, can be bad for you. That’s why we need professional Art Critics. While we may all know what we like, we don’t in fact all know what is good. We are not all Cordon Blue chefs or gourmets. We cannot all afford the years of dedicated study and expense to become them. But Art Critics are necessary if we are not all to be fed Macdonald’s and billed for Château Briand. In addition Bad Art can put you off Art altogether, much like a bad meal in a Chinese restaurant might put one off Chinese food for a long time. After a couple of bad meals, you might decide you can do without Chinese food altogether. The consequences of Bad Art are a spiritual and intellectual malnutrition throughout an entire society. Occasionally, it is even poisonous.

So where does all this leave Carroll?

Schubert just doesn’t get it, so he doesn’t even pretend to want to provide money for “no reason.” He doesn’t know the difference between Good Art and Bad Art. He probably hasn’t even spent much time considering what kind of Art he likes and why. Must have been a bad meal that keeps alive the memory of indigestion. Besides, can you imagine Carroll in a beret?

Our various local Art Boards and Commissions are either populated mainly by people who know nothing about Art but what they like, or by artists with a vested interest in self-promotion. Until the whole community, politicians, patrons, principals, teachers, students, artists, and viewing public alike, reevaluates its entire approach to the Arts, City funding will be token. The Art specialist will be the professional equivalent of an Officer Dunsil in our society at best and a conman with his hand out at worst. Our Art will be culturally irrelevant schlock that nobody wants to see or pay for, except those who get paid to make it.

While, as regular readers know, it pains me to say something positive about Carroll Schubert, but on this one I give him grudging respect. As far as he can see, the current “Emperor has no clothes” and Carroll understandably sees no point in paying the tailors.

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