art in america

The following is the transcript of an undergraduate key note commencement address given by as yet unknown British linguistics professor Winston Conner Diggory Bowles IV. The university in question and year of graduation is irrelevant, as, quite frankly, is Mr. Bowles himself. Indeed, he should be considered more as a particular accent, and less as a real and temporal character… or even caricature.

Ahem. Good afternoon graduates, educators, parental units, friendly associates. I stand here before you, humbled by your achievements, excited by your imminent endeavors, and most importantly, jealous of the naivete your forthcoming sheepskin will provide you in this world where you foolishly believe knowledge and intelligence are prized above all else.

Surely this hideous but nonetheless realistic assessment of your futures spoken by such an authority as myself will rile more than a few of the attending mothers and fathers who, either out of social obligation, classist priorities, or that rare genuine love of knowledge, have financed these last four, five, or even in some unfortunate cases six-plus years of matriculation. But I fear that this world of ours has lent itself more towards, well, not the lower end of the spectrum, as some alarmist social critics would like you to believe. No, my dear children, it seems that this world, and in particular your grand country of America, has taken the decidedly middle brow approach to all aspects we can consider cultural.

I am speaking before a liberal arts college, so please allow me the example of the institution of art, and in particular the notion of high art. When one speaks of High Art, one is typically met with the crooked nostril of indignation from his fellow American. Of course, there is a disdain of all things that reek or even sniff of class strata, normally fueled by a healthy dose of both envy and resentment. You here in America would love to think that your society is a classless one, but the truth of the matter is that the American dream, once considered a simple symbol of meritocratic social order, has mutated into a financial one, one that provides the hope of one day being so comfortably and uniquely wealthy that a person may elevate himself to a degree where he might adequately cushion himself from the aforementioned sneer of the lower peers.

However, the classist disdain afforded to the two simple words “High Art” is infused with no such envy, no such resentment; after all, it is quite rare that one actively aspires to be a “high artist”. No. Rather, it is simply a snub, as if the snubber knew better than to appreciate the arrogant folly that is High Art, done so while standing in front of a framed poster reprint of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” purchased at their local Aaron Brothers. Perhaps we could ascribe this sentiment to the cultural residue of dadaism or, its afterbirth, post-modernism, with their confluence and confusion of the high and low arts – for, indeed, when a urinal can be displayed in the galleries of the Tate Modern, what are we then to say about the Mona Lisa?

But I cannot believe this lack of respect for the high arts rests solely at the feet of the postmodern aesthetic, for while America may be the quintessential postmodern country, with Las Vegas being its crowning capital – a city that is perhaps challenged only by Tokyo – we must remember that Dadaism started in the back-room bars of Zurich and grew to flourish in the jazz clubs of Paris, two cities which indeed continue to have the highest regard – and the largest collections – of high art perhaps anywhere in the world. No, this disdain is uniquely American, and it is inextricable with the country’s notion of the artist himself.

As previously stated, the underlying goal of any American who strives to pick him or herself up by the bootstraps is ultimately to accumulate enough wealth in order to… what? Achieve the respect, or more likely envy, of his or her peers? Reach a place where the the respect or envy of peerage is irrelevant? Perhaps. But what is guarded as most sacred in this country, the currency that is both revered and reviled, is that of being one’s own master. As a country that not only works the most hours, days and weeks in the entire Western world, but also has seen its communities condense under the thumbs of monopolizing corporations such as SBC, Viacom and Citigroup, that dream of owning one’s own business, setting one’s own hours, delighting in one’s own work has not only become less promising but indeed has become rather stifling in its improbability.

So what does that American dreamer, always playing strictly by capitalism’s rules yet just as often butting up against institutional barriers and false economic promises, think of the bohemian artist, lounging in her studio loft, waking-sleeping-fornicating as her desires dictate, and giving free, unmitigated expression to her own dreams?

“Get a real job, hippy.”

You see, it is not that the artist is necessarily of a higher economic class than the average American; indeed, I need not stand here, authority that I am, and remind you of the competitive difficulty and financial paucity the art market readily supplies. Rather, the artist is of a perceived leisure class, exploiting the ends meant only to be afforded by the exclusive means of money. That she finds the temporal space to externalize her inner desires without the accumulation of wealth or the centuries-old superstructure most commonly known as the corporate ladder is a slap in the face to the modern American dream. The act of creation, considered a leisure activity, is only legitimized when it is monetized; and, of course, the higher the price tag, the more legitimate the artist. Never mind that some of the greatest Renaissance artists lived in squalor, and not all by tragic circumstances. Consider Gaudi, whose self-imposed vow of poverty provided him the mind frame to create Barcelona’s most breathtaking and innovative architecture, both in facade and structure. Consider also Bernini, whose impossibly corporeal marble statues were handsomely patronized by the Medici family, whose parlor dealings within both the Florentine government and the Vatican kept power centralized for over two centuries.

I do not mean to glamorize the state of poverty, for anyone who has experienced it will tell you that there is no honor in it. However, I do mean to say that we thus find ourselves in a country, however temporary my own case may be, where only those who might afford a higher education (and know how to use it) appreciate the high arts, while those who either squander their opportunities of university teachings or avoid them altogether are left to sneer down their noses at some of mankind’s finest creations. It is these people, these fallen members of the intelligentsia, who turn to find value in and elevate some of the lower arts to the aforementioned middlebrow. It becomes little wonder then why the most populist of all art forms, the cinema,  oscillates to the lower-middle common denominator, not quite the horrifying dirt lowest, when attempting to reach the greatest number of people.

The irony of course is that high art has always been created in an attempt to lift humanity’s spirit, to show the human how he or she might find beauty in both the mundane and the extraordinary of existence on this earth and beyond. It has been used to illustrate and display the inner life, to create a psychic community wherein we all recognize our universal humanity. All this while the low art simply entertains, providing absolutely necessary but nonetheless simple diversions from self-examination or exultation.

But all is not lost, my dears. For, as I began, those of you who have attained the skills to appreciate knowledge, intelligence, high art, and the high artist, as you leave these ivory gates you carry with you the flaming sword of naivete in your grip. Use it swiftly and strongly in the creation and patronage of a high culture. Provide the rest of us with something to grasp toward. You can still bring it to the masses and show that it means no harm, carries no arrogance, that in fact it is here to help, even elevate. But I implore you, do so quickly, before the demands of maturity and financial responsibility dour the flame. I leave it up to you. And please, do not dismiss me solely due to my cultured mode of speaking. For though I myself might reek of classist trappings, must that dilute the truth of my message?

Once again, my congratulations to the graduates, and may the light of knowledge shine brightly on you and from you to us all. I thank you.

Published in: on June 28, 2009 at 9:59 pm  Leave a Comment  
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