(First published in the March 30, 2000 Woodstock Times.)
The poet Howard Nemerov asserts that “Poetry is a spiritual exercise having for its chief object the discovery or invention of one’s character.”
Extend “poetry” in this quotation to represent all the arts, and it raises important questions about contemporary motivations for creating art.
Does art any longer have a spiritual dimension? What part do today’s artists play in revisioning a sense of the sacred? What role does making art play in shaping not only an artist’s character, but the spirit of the times?
These are large questions about intangibles that no one is addressing. (Once philosophers saw them as fodder for discussion, but philosophy today is a branch of science increasingly irrelevant to the rest of us.) If we look around at America at the opening of a new century, we see no evidence that artists are able or willing to offer alternative visions in their art to the dominant mode of debased materialism. The artist’s age-old charge to open our eyes to the eternal seems to be another casualty of corporate consumerist culture. All is spectacle, entertainment and fashion.
What is the artist’s responsibility in such a culture? What do today’s artists care about? Is making the work or making a reputation (and the resulting sales) more important?
The traditional Romantic view (according to dead white male art history, at least) is that artists should place their work—their vision—before love, family, health and even sanity. The formula for success in this tradition is rebellion, suffering and ultimate posthumous (oh well) triumph. Think of Van Gogh as representative of a long line of artist-martyrs. It’s a story once well-loved by the middle class, now passé.
But there is another tradition in art, of artists shrewdly managing their careers—think Andy Warhol. These artists are business-minded. As we turn the curve into the millennium, it looks like this second, Mercantile tradition has won out. Most artists today care most about making names for themselves. Their work is not an end in itself, but a means to an end: fame. The American Grail of celebrity. The formula is, watch the waves of art fashion, and when a new wave comes up on the horizon, aim your surf palette at it.
Art—which has always been marginal in American life—grows increasingly irrelevant in this scenario, because artists eargly become content providers whose only aspiration is to greater moolah. Art becomes just another commodity. Politicians (God help us) are left to provide “vision.”
Perhaps what we should be discussing once again—as Ben Shahn and Edgar Wind did long ago—is the old form-versus-content argument. You can conceptualize your innards or tell us in a poem what you had for lunch, and do it so someone will salute your effort; but do you have anything to say?