Art That Makes You Work

(Note: This is a reflection inspired by Suzanne Ross' book The Wicked Truth: When Good People Do Bad Things)

Art calls for us to be engaged. Not just entertained, not just pacified, but engaged.

     Recently I found myself in a conversation where I was defending “abstract” or modern art (using that term very, very loosely). I put abstract in quotes because we really were not just talking about a specific genre of fine art, but a projected assumption that all modern art is something that a five-year-old could have done and really does not have any merit or value in the artistic world. We were talking about art like Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square and Marcel Duchamp,’s Fountain and other works that are described as a blot on a canvas or something from the everyday and just has a frame around it. The person I was talking to was convinced that none of this was art, that it did not have any value or purpose in the world and should not be viewed or celebrated or treated as anything of merit. The person was taking a “no nonsense” approach to art saying that if it is not beautiful then it is not art. In that conversation I was also thinking about the music of John Cage or George Crumb, the dance choreography or Merce Cunningham and thought that his argument could have extended beyond just the visual arts. I tried to argue that there was and is value to those pieces of art that may not aspire for the aesthetic values that he believed were essential for good art, but still have merit in a different way; it was a frustrating conversation. A bulk of the conversation was a lot of, “I just know what I like, and I don’t like that…” kind of debate. It was a conversation that did make me think and would not leave me alone. The conversation led me to join the muse of many college philosophy majors: what is the value of art (and the reader should note that when I am speaking about “art,” I am speaking of all forms of the arts – dance, music, painting, etc.)? And I began to think, art calls for us to be engaged. Not just pacified, not just entertained, but engaged.

     As I hear about art programs cut in public schools again and again suggesting that they are not as important as Math, English, or Sports, I am led to wonder what is the value of reading poetry, of painting and engaging with the visual arts, hearing and playing music, or watching people dance (and maybe shaking up the dance floor ourselves). What is the value of art? I get that we need to be able to count and add and read and write. I get that we need to learn our history even though it seems that no matter how much we learn we still seem to be condemned to repeat it. I get how important it is not only to be in good physical shape, but to have opportunities to compete, to be a part of a team, and to celebrate the success of an individual with great acts of athleticism. But what about the importance and the presence of the arts as a part of the shaping and growing and education of our children; is there value to the arts? And I do not mean just the pleasant arts that are accepted by the masses, but the unpleasant arts that push and challenge and demand and response beyond the simple sigh of beauty. What is the value of art?

        I look at our society, past just our education system and continue to wonder if there is a need and value to the arts. The monetary value of a star athlete is considered to be substantially higher than any artist today (and yet see if anyone can remember the athletes of Van Gough’s time or of the Renaissance) and money tends to tell us if something is seen as worthwhile by our society. You may be quick to point out that there are musicians who fill stadiums and make more money than most athletes. The superstar musicians are lifted up, but only those who offer something that can appeal to the masses; Billy Joel, Elton John, Drake, and many more. The world’s greatest violinists, pianists, bassoonists only make a fraction of what these other performers make. The difference in pay adds to a difference in perception between “high art” and popular culture. Those who go to study, who get an MFA, may very well look down on those who write the catchy, sing-able pop tune as selling out and not really doing true art. And it begs the question as to the value of art. Is it just to please and placate the masses? Is it to give people something to help them forget the troubles of their lives? Again, I submit that art calls for us to be engaged. Not just pacified, not just entertained, but engaged.

       Staying with the idea that money tends to give things value in our society or at least give us a sense of what is supposed to be important. This may suggest that the easy listening, toe-tapping songs, the paintings that are hung in hotels, and the dances you see on American Bandstand (or whatever the equivalent might be today) is the art that has the most value. Economically, monetarily, one could reach the conclusion that the most valuable art is that which reaches a basic denominator of the populous, that is “for the people,” and is not the “high art” that snooty people seem to enjoy. Perhaps art needs to be a function rather than a form, something that placates the masses and that makes people feel good. Perhaps art should be something that people can enjoy, something that people will want to pay money to consume and will leave feeling slightly better then they did. Perhaps art really should be seen and consumed as entertainment and nothing more. It does not have to be happy, but should feel good because that is what the majority of people seem to want and see to be willing to pay for. The square on the canvas, the cacophony of dissonant sounds, the dancing out of rhythm, the artistic film in black and white is not easily consumed, is not easily enjoyed, and perhaps should not be considered as art for the people. Perhaps this provocative work should be seen as something beyond art and should find a different place in the modern discourse of our culture. Perhaps those works should not be seen as offering value to society and be relegated to a category of oddity that is ok from time to time but not essential. A nice painting of a sea coast with a lighthouse is pleasing and enjoyable and good. That is necessary art because it adds value to the existence of the person who sees it hanging in their hotel room. The symphony orchestra that plays arrangements of Beatles tunes or Frank Sinatra melodies is offering something that is enjoyable for the listener and that may the be better and fuller purpose of art. A piano piece that sounds more like banging and clanging will not please the majority of the listeners and may not be necessary at all. But a piano piece that helps to soften the mood of a hotel lobby, that offers few moments of dissonance may be the art that we should strive for because it is something that people seem to enjoy. Modern art is a luxury that many do not seem to be clambering for, a luxury that many do not seem to be desiring, and we are drawn to question the purpose of such a luxury. It may be that we have two forms of art: that which is consumable and enjoyable by the people and that which is only intended for an elite, educated, soulless ilk. High art and low art face to face and the people tend to opt, again and again, for the lower and more enjoyable path of engagement. And it leads me to wonder and question, what is the value of art. Can I say that all art calls for us to be engaged? Not just pacified, not just entertained, but engaged?

            After reading Suzanne Ross’ book, The Wicked Truth: When Good People Do Bad Things, I have been pushed to consider the role and presence of the arts in a deeper and for me a surprising way. I have been challenged to broaden my own view of the arts, high and low. Ross is offering an analysis of the Broadway musical Wicked; looking at what this musical might offer to society. I want to take a moment to consider the importance of what Ross is doing. She is taking a Broadway musical, a genre of art that is often looked down on by other artists. The musical is not an opera, it is not a ballet, it is not a symphony, or a gallery showing. It is what many consider to be a “low” art; just catchy tunes, semi-decent acting, and watered-down plot. Yet Ross has found depth and purpose in one particular musical – Wicked, and suggests that the deeper meaning that she finds in one musical could be found in other musicals and perhaps in other works of art. I will not be going beat-by-beat through Ross’ analysis, but instead offer some of my own thoughts Ross’ endeavor has provoked. If you are curious about Wicked, then I recommend you get the book The Wicked Truth, and read it.

            Ross is a student and advocate of Rene Girard, the 20th century intellectual who has written much about scapegoat theory, mimetic theory, and the like. She is a part of The Raven Foundation, an organization which is working hard to share the gospel of Girard (which they will not be shy to say rests on the Gospel of Jesus Christ) and the ideas of nonviolence. Ross does a very convincing job in using Girard’s theories as a lens through which to understand the tension and beats in Wicked. Her book is a modern exegesis on a cultural artifact of today, looking at the way in which the musical Wicked speaks to many of the struggles and tensions of society. Seriously, read the book even if you do not appreciate musical theater, because the themes and lessons from the musical speaks to many life challenges. You do not even have to have seen Wicked to enjoy the book, but it doesn’t hurt to do so.

            Beyond offering a great analysis of a musical, what Ross’ work does for me is bring me to consider a purpose for art, high or low, in our culture. On one level, perhaps the most basic, the most surface and thinnest, art is entertainment. The point and purpose of art is to make us feel good in the moment, perhaps to forget, perhaps to remember, but regardless to make us feel something and to have an overall positive experience with that feeling. But there is something deeper that can be found in most works of art; there is a way in which art is speaking to and for society. A work of art, a dance, a piece of music can offer an analysis of as well as be a mouthpiece for society. There are many great works of literature about World War II that speak to the mixture of feelings and experiences and do not pan over the multivalent nuances and experiences of that moment in time. These are works of art that go deeper than any history of World War II can offer. There are pieces of music that came out of the experience of the Viet Nam War that speak to the senselessness of the violence and destruction and horror of war in a way that most books that simply tell about the Viet Nam war cannot. Walt Whitman’s poems capture one sense of the Civil War as well as the feeling of grief that he had in hearing about Lincoln’s death. The 1980s song, “We Are the World,” comes out of a time when musicians felt very self-important and actually believed that one song could make a difference and everyone seemed to accept that premise. Art comes out of a context, out of an experience, a specific moment in time and very often speak to that moment in time in a way that simple reports and basic histories cannot and perhaps should not. We need art to speak to the deeper human experience of the time.

            Yet art, good and profound art, strives not only to be in the moment and of the moment, but also to transcend the context and the moment. Whenever we listen to Corligino’s 1st Symphony we could keep in mind the crisis and tragedy of the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but we can also connect with the pathos and sorrow in our own time and find our own place to connect. It is a work that does not have to be placed in the particular context to still carry weight and meaning and depth. What many have decided to be “the classics” like Monet’s Water Lilies will again and again offer a sense of calm even in the kinetic feel of the technique regardless if we have any understanding of Paris and the greater context when Monet was painting. There are shared hopes and values, there are ideas of human experience that are articulated in great works of art high and low. Art calls for us to be engaged. Not just pacified, not just entertained, but engaged.

What many art snobs (and I include myself as one of them) tend to miss is that some of the “low art” is speaking to a commonality of the human experience that is just as valuable and important. Piano Man, while offering lilting melodies that tend to unite the slightly buzzed or drunk individuals offers a comradery with a sadness that speaks to the struggles of life and the importance of community. Born in the USA may seem like a rally song for American pride, but it also speaks to the deeper small town experience as well as the experience of having to go to war and trying to make sense of the experience. And the deeper connection of these songs continues beyond the time and place from whence they emerged. Art connects with experiences of society, of culture, high or low. This is important because if we cannot express what we are feeling, good or bad, it is very likely that we could find ourselves repressed, confused, or in some kind of conflict. We need the art that transcends the time, speaks to the experience, and allows us to connect with humanity in the moment. To be at a funeral and hear a prayer for the dead that has been written centuries ago can be just the release that someone needs to be able to begin to fully grieve. The descriptive and proscriptive qualities of art, subtle or not, can give a place for us all to find a voice and to know that we are not alone.

Art connects us with something greater than ourselves. The theologian David Tracy has written at great length about the power of the “classic” in culture. For Tracy, the “classic” is that thing or event or art that evokes an aspect of humanity or of reality that collectively we understand to be true. (David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination, 108). It is something that connects us with something greater, something more than what we are. It is a way in which we are brought beyond ourselves and into an awareness of the transcendent and with the divine. I’m not saying that sports cannot do this but the way in which sports can connect us with something more than ourselves tends to be in the moment and does not hold that ineffable quality that transcends time. There is something about the arts, high or low, that pushes us. It is more than just striving to be entertaining. It is more than just striving to serve a basic need. It is something that calls us to go beyond our basic selves and I would say connect us with an experience of God. The more abstract, high art, tends to cut more deeply, tends to offend more quickly because in many instances it is not concerned with being consumed but rather with being engaged. This is not always a good or pleasant experience, and perhaps most often is not. It is an experience that is often meant to push us off balance, to increase our stress, if only for a moment or for a while. The horrific painting, the music of lament, the challenging poem can all push us to a place where we find God in the pain of life, in the depth of grief, and in the very evil of the world that we see again and again.

            Yet this role, art itself calls for an engagement from us. This calls for us to not just experience on a surface level, but to allow the work to push us, to challenge and move us, comfort and afflict us. From the song on the radio to the piano sonata in the recital hall, we are called to be engaged. Yes, even in the musical are we challenged and pushed and prodded and then sent back into the world changed and different. The experience of interacting with art calls us to be interpreted by the work of art just as we are interpreting it. Ross sees this in the musical Wicked, and invites us to engage the deeper experience as well.

            There is a value to art. There is a value and a need. It is to connect us with the greater human experience, to connect us with the reality that there is more than what we can know and see. It is to connect us with the divine. The way that happens with differ with the person and with the art. High Art, Low Art, Abstract, or Classic, it all has the potential in one way or another to bring us face to face with humanity and the divine. Art calls for us to be engaged. Not just pacified, not just entertained, but engaged. Perhaps that is what makes it good.