Is Art Worth the Trouble?

Yes–now more than ever.

Everyone knows that being an artist isn’t easy. Some of the dilemmas committed creative people face are so familiar that they’ve become the staples of mythology and miniseries. The year-in, year-out struggle for recognition that may never come. The battle to make a living, which may entail either poverty or a demoralizing double life–stupid job in the daytime, a couple of hours of sleepy art time at night.

Then there are the problems that can’t be solved even by a cushy academic gig, a MacArthur “genius” grant, or blockbuster success. Every artist has to fight the battle of invention–finding things to sculpt or write or dance about. This often means staying intimate day in and day out with personal pain, the world’s suffering, and other stress inducers that the rest of us are happy to put away with a tall scotch or a course of therapy. The arts are so often lauded as “healing” that it’s easy to forget that artists don’t necessarily seek emotional “closure” in their work: they seek energy, fresh images, new experience, and if their personal bent requires them to keep searching for these things on the dark side of their personalities or the world, that’s where they linger. The result can be anything from a vibrant, multifaceted life to madness and suicide.

AND HERE’S STILL ANOTHER PROBLEM (it’s where you and I, the audience, come in). The artist is three things at once: an inquirer, a craftsperson, and a communicator. She works crazy hours at crazy intensity to investigate life, then create something that meets her own highest standards of beauty, depth, surprise, or novelty. At the same time, she needs the systems of exhibition (theaters, publishing houses, galleries, music clubs, etc.) that showcase her vision and achievement for our pleasure, accolades, disgust, or indifference.

The artist has to fascinate us by satisfying himself. If he shorts his own standards in favor of what he thinks will make us happy, he’s a hack; if he ignores us, he’s an ivory-tower-dwelling snob. It would be terrific if every artist, at every stage in his career, were so totally a representative human being that pleasing himself automatically pleased the rest of us; but often that can’t be. Especially when he’s trying to give birth to something new, he may not be able to handle either side of the equation to his satisfaction.

This isn’t just tough on the artist; it’s tough on us. Artists have all kinds of ways to set themselves apart so they can do their strange and difficult work well. They fiercely guard their privacy and their work time. They gather together at film festivals and writers’ colonies, in art schools and coteries, for mutual encouragement. To the rest of us, it can seem that they’ve fenced themselves off into cushy little private preserves where they cultivate private languages and a poisonous sense of superiority.

There’s some truth to this picture. The French symbolists and decadents of the latter 19th century pioneered an attitude toward this craftsman-versus-communicator paradox that put all the weight on the side of craft–art for art’s sake, and damn the audience for bourgeois pigs. (This should not keep us, by the way, from reading the magical verse of symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé or the fabulously overripe prose of the great decadent J.K. Huysmans.) To visit many hip art spots today can be like entering a walk-in refrigerator: If you’re not cool enough, you get a decidedly chilly reception. Mediocre artists have always taken advantage of the mystique of artistic exclusivity to hide out in cliques and feel superior to everybody. Add to this the impenetrable jargon of many critics, and the aura of big money that pervades major theaters, museums, cinematheques, and other arts institutions, and the arts can seem like a sort of gated community, forever excluding outsiders.

As annoying as artistic exclusivity can seem, the fact is that real artists, no less than scientists or religious leaders, need some distance from the day-to-day, a sophisticated group of colleagues for support and sharing ideas, and even a specialized language that helps them communicate efficiently and usefully with their peers. Most artists are not elitist wankers; they tend to be hardworking people of middle-class or blue-collar origin with moderate or less-than-moderate incomes. They have found ways–sensuous, concrete ways–to think through and explore issues that concern us all: what it means to be alive, what real joy is, what the world could be, where we fit in the cosmos. They want desperately to connect with each other and with us, but they do not wish to “dumb down” their search or what they find. And sometimes what they find–what they make–doesn’t quite make sense, even to them.

To inspire us in understanding the world and experiencing life deeply, they need our help and, yes, our love. How can we give it to them, and help them in their quest?

We can begin by examining the double-edged idea of entertainment. My father, who was a theater director, loved the word and traced it back to its Latin roots: “holding together.” What he meant by entertainment was the fascination with which a powerful performance of a play “holds” the audience, turning all the spectators into one large consciousness. In a wider sense, he meant the responsibility every artist has to connect with his audience–to reflect their hopes and desires, their dilemmas and needs, and to give them something wonderful to enjoy.

But our corporate system has put the idea of entertainment to a very different purpose: turning all the arts into commodities that are supposed to refresh and restore us during the periodic, strictly limited downtime that the modern work regime allows us. Nights, weekends, and drive time: Relax with classical music, refresh with a good play. Then back to the cubicle or the production line and “real” life. If we buy the idea of artists as Muzak makers or mental massage therapists, then of course we are going to be put out when they present us with something that makes demands upon us: adventurous music that sounds ugly or strange, a film that tells a weirdly fragmented story, art that doesn’t “look like art.” We’re going to panic, accuse the artists of navel-gazing one more time, and run away.

But if we choose to see the arts as a great, interconnected set of questions about life, as the sensuous version of the search for life’s meaning, as a quest for truth that happens to use sound, color, the dance of words, the movement of bodies–well, then, we will begin to let the arts into our entire selves, our entire lives. We will begin to realize that some questions can only be asked (and answered) in this way, beyond mere ideas. We will begin to realize that the exploration of art is a dialogue that demands attention and patience on our part; that we are not always supposed to “get” everything right away, but live with artworks and let them whisper their secrets to us gradually. And we will begin to see through the eyes of those who have given their lives to this strange and difficult quest. We will begin to become artists ourselves, and perhaps even produce works full of beauty, uncertainty, strangeness, even “difficulty.”

ACTUALLY, THERE’S NEVER BEEN a better time to immerse ourselves in the contemporary arts: their dilemmas, difficulties, and ambitions. Why? Because in art, no less than in world politics, spirituality, sexuality, and a score of other fields, everything is in flux. There is no single dominant style, no clear test to separate what is from what isn’t art. In 1950 the work of Hemingway dominated the American novel, while the opinions of T.S. Eliot ruled the world of poetry, and the magazine columns and books of Clement Greenberg were the standard for art criticism. No such authoritative voices are raised today. There isn’t even a clear demarcation between “advanced” or avant-garde art and popular forms; serious artists constantly investigate and plunder mass culture, while TV ads and rock videos deploy techniques that were pioneered by underground filmmakers.

But why is this a good thing, for heaven’s sake? No ultimate standards or definitive trendsetters, a confusing fusion of “high” and “low”? Doesn’t it mean the arts have lost their way?

No, I think it means that the search that art always is has become more absorbing, more radical, more fascinating for all of us. Artistic boundaries are blurring as never before, and the result can be a very rich mix. While mainstream American pop music is slowly dying of a surfeit of cutie-pie sexpots, talent-free boy bands, and Courvoisier-swigging rap nihilists, what’s still (rather condescendingly) called “world music” is brilliantly healthy. To mention just one country: Young Mexican musicians like the Nortec collective, Los de Abajo, and Lila Downs [see p. 57] blend Norteño and techno, ska, and Baja California brass band music, cool club jazz and Native flutes. Meanwhile, the personal computer has transformed graphic design, making the invention of new type styles and the manipulation of images almost as easy as clicking a mouse. Today’s designers are even more eclectic than musicians, drawing from vast reservoirs of images and styles and mixing and matching at will.

In galleries and museums, the liveliest artists tend to be genre benders. They’re installation artists like Ann Hamilton, Diana Thater, or Whitfield Lovell [see p. 52], who take over entire galleries to create environments that fuse painting, sculpture, video, or sound art with theatrical lighting effects and architectural ideas. Or they’re filmmakers who bend the rules of documentary storytelling in unpredictable ways. Poets and novelists are re-examining the old divide between “experimental” and “mainstream” writing, discovering that emotional coherence and compelling storytelling (hallmarks of the “mainstream”) can coexist with the restless surprise and intellectual vigor that the experimentalists have always aimed at.

In this fascinating flux, the values of what my father meant by “entertainment” are making a comeback. One of contemporary art’s most “difficult” creators, Matthew Barney [see p. 55], makes almost unfathomably bizarre films–but he makes them on the wide screen, with expensive production values, exotic locations, and a sense of sheer excitement that was taboo a generation ago, when experimental films were grainy black-and-white exercises in intellectual austerity. Paul D. Miller, otherwise known as DJ Spooky [see p. 49], is a flamboyantly intellectual artist who just happens to use dance clubs and hip-hop CDs as his medium.

Of course, ambitious films, large-scale art installations, and recording careers require big money–and that translates into large-scale support from the granting institutions and corporations that mainly fund the arts today and have helped ratchet up expectations even as they’ve cast an aura of wealth and hyperprofessionalism over some sectors of the arts. It’s hard to imagine the work of one of my favorite American artists, filmmaker and performer Jack Smith, making a big dent in today’s art world–his underground classic, the flamingly gay Flaming Creatures of 1963, was shot on overexposed stock that Smith shoplifted from Manhattan camera stores.

Yet determined small-scale creators like Smith are still with us, mostly inside lively subcultures like the punk scene, the zine and graffiti worlds, the universe of artistically ambitious comics, and, of course, online. San Francisco’s Craig Baldwin has found art world fame as a brilliant splicer of “found film,” which he turns into hilarious, apocalyptic narratives of national dysfunction and self-destruction. Programmer-artist Mark Napier’s Web site, [see p. 68], is an artistic adventure made of nothing more than html code. The bold James De La Vega [see p. 59] takes his excellent art training and some colored chalk out onto the streets of Spanish Harlem, where he makes images so beautiful and so spiritually charged that he has become a local legend.

THE SPIRITUAL IS A REALM that has had an intimate but uneasy relationship with the arts ever since religion retreated from the center of life in the late 18th century in favor of a secular understanding of the world. Since then, the artist has oscillated between roles: Sometimes she is a secular intellectual, sometimes a priestess and prophet. The overt spirituality of the abstract expressionist artists, whose paintings were meant to be naked encounters with primary realities, gave way to the secular “cool” of Andy Warhol, his soup cans, and his heroin-loving friends (though, interestingly enough, Warhol was an observant Catholic who attended daily Mass). And in many different ways, spirituality is again infiltrating the rather grimly secular intellectuality that came into the art world with the minimalist and conceptualist movements of the 1970s.

Hip video artist Shirin Neshat’s images of Islamic women wandering through paradoxical landscapes are usually accompanied by the magnificent voice of her collaborator Sussan Deyhim, singing the ecstatic poetry of Rumi. Performer-photographer Mariko Mori [see p. 48] creates elaborate settings for self-portraits that depict her as a bodhisattva–accompanied by cavorting cartoon animals. Just when you’ve decided she’s being ironic, you look again at the stunning beauty of the whole image, and your certainty is sabotaged. And one of the most commented-upon entries in the Whitney Museum’s 2002 Biennial exhibition of new art was a video by Christian Jankowski in which the artist, attending a televised church service, collapses at the feet of the young televangelist–who then delivers a passionate, lucid, and entirely unironic plea for a new fusion of art and faith. Just as genre boundaries and high-culture/low-culture distinctions are fading, the line between hipster and believer is growing blurry.

No one–least of all the artist–knows where the arts are heading today, or if they are, in fact, “heading” anywhere, or even ought to be. In place of the old military model of artistic progress (the smart “advance guard” artists leading the culture into battle against the past and the bourgeois philistines) there seems to be an emerging ecology of the arts: a webwork of different styles, approaches, and worldviews, each available to all, most communicating with one another, all necessary and potentially interesting. This situation was called “postmodernism” when it was new and needed a name. For a long time it was an intellectual fashion, and its proponents were formidable (not to say off-putting) theory-heads. Today, as the arts warm up, rediscover the spirit, and search for direction, postmodernism (or, if you prefer, post-postmodernism) looks more and more like the simple truth about a complex world and the first stirring of a large vision that may someday emerge. In any event, for now all bets are off, everyone is trying nearly everything, and all are welcome at the feast.

Jon Spayde, an Utne senior editor, is editor of the Utne Arts Extra. He also writes fiction and poetry, and does performance and public art.

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