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great arts


now,
the concept
 of "art" - as such - is
fundamentally an elitist one

and, I'm not talking about quality, here,
merely social rankings,

because the marked link between same and "valid" cultural production
goes way, way back...long before the West decided to reify
some tiny fraction of this as "art".


Amusingly, however...the stuff that genuinely survives - as anything other than scholarly fodder - is usually "popular" at the time, and nearly always demotic in inspiration, at the very least. The reason for this is intuitively simple, once understood, and is very unlikely to change. The realities of life - at the base - change much less than do the efflorescences of the "leisure classes" - which are much more culturally-bound, to boot. Therefore, more demotic stuff hews closer to the common ground of our human nature - whereas, production for the elites frequently appears foolish or irrelevant once its immediate context has vanished.

Therefore, I'd argue, it's about time "we" stopped supporting "their" arts via bureaucratic funding...and re-cast aesthetics w/out the baggage that has always made it - basically - irrelevant to artistic production.

That conclusion, interestingly enough, was where the whole new humanities project actually started...all of a decade & more ago...

Trouble was, aesthetics remains - once you discard the idealist nonsense - just about the most complicated thing you can tackle... So, lengthy sojourns into all of the actually relevant areas ended up delivering what looks rather like a re-shaped rationale/methodology for the entire Humanities - drawing upon the best aspects of key earlier approaches, and updated via handpicked current work across the complete range of relevant disciplines. Let's just hope the damn thing can fly, eh?


Anyway...back to art - and "great art", what's more.


Too often, cultural criticism/studies make a fetish of one or two aspects of the stuff - and ignores what is really important. Plato & Aristotle are two of the worst offenders here...but, it's actually more useful to focus on recent trends - although there's certainly no improvement. Modern evaluations tend - particularly - to focus on "originality" & "transgression"...as if these were the main things to look for.

Which is purely nonsense - because anyone can produce something that'll fit this bill - as long as there's no requirement for it to be any good... Killing someone, for example, undoubtedly qualifies - unless, of course, they've been killed before...

This may sound simple...and irrefutable. But, the main difficulty - and the reason for all the obfuscation - lies in defining just what makes for quality - especially after philosophical aesthetics has finished w/it. The chief hurdle to be overcome is the "opposition" constructed by that discipline between art & entertainment - and the (spurious) notion that the former is marked by some qualitatively different & more "elevated" experience.

The only answer I can see is to junk the entire setup...and view aesthetics as the study of how/why people enjoy themselves. Sure, this makes "art" merely a sub-division of deliberately-tailored human experience...and the latter simply a subsection of hedonic experience in toto, but - it cuts the Gordian Knot that's damned aesthetics to irrelevance, and opens it up to all kinds of insights from many widely-scattered disciplines...

And, the best current scientific work would suggest that we can't rule any disciplines out of the mix. With the demise of old notions of a "pleasure centre" in the brain - and the crucial emergence of the frontal lobes as the key region for emotional enrichment/regulation (see Antonio Damasio, Elkhonon Goldberg & others) - there is simply no place left for the idealized divide between rationality & emotion which philosophical aesthetics standardly requires. The same, incidentally, goes for the "individual" versus the "social"...which developmental psychologists since Vygotsky have been trying to tell us for much, much longer...

What we're left with, instead, is "reason" & "emotion" - not to mention "art" & "entertainment" - as spurious reifications...of the sort that philosophers have been so good at generating over the years - particularly when they elevate "philosophy" & such over our more mundane pursuits.

So, it's back to the drawing board - which is where aesthetics ought to really work, if anywhere. The most insighful approaches in this area seem to come from collecting the ideas of artists (of all types) - and bouncing these off scientific & historical studies. In contrast, very few cultural theorists - especially the obscurantists - are of any real use at all...as they tend to bring too much baggage w/them to make it through the doorway.


Now...on to the funding issue. There's a real place for government funding of what we might call "museum culture" - as, otherwise, collectors'd hide the best of the past from us - as long as it is easy & cheap/free to access. The same, however, does not apply to contempory work...and it especially does not apply to the elite performance arts such as opera & ballet...funding for same being merely upper-class welfare, as the poor have no chance of access.

This, of course, is one of the true appeals of such forms today - their (current) social exclusiveness makes them ideal as social markers. And, to pursue the point further, it could do so even better were they deprived of their unjustified life-support systems, especially in a luxury market as overheated (see Robert H. Frank) as today's....

So, defund them - and the rich will, surprisingly, enjoy them even more. Same goes for the contempory arts, with - however - one major exception...that of infrastructure.

Because this is the area where market failure is rampant - particularly for those w/out connections - and performance venues, practice & exhibition spaces, workshops, distribution setups...all of these are, in general, either wastefully bureaucratic, underfunded, or absent all-too-often in the current "arts" economy. What we need are a multitude of small operations - with clear tasks to serve - offering people choices whatever they want to do. Moreover, the same could be set up w/seed money by the government, then run at cost...thus freeing-up money next time around for further self-sustaining projects.

Anyone who's had to scuffle for years in one of the "non-legitimate" arts will - immediately - understand the value of such an approach...locked-out, as we are, from the public largesse tapped by the self-selected "arts community" - who too often appear to waste most of their time scratching each others backs, rather than getting down to work.

And, the biggest joke is...it's our work - rather than theirs - that will tend to survive, if the whole of human history is any guide...so, let them eat dirt, for a change - along w/the rest of us - and let's see exactly who proves to have the genuine vocation, eh?

Because, there's simply no reliable way of telling whose work will still be valued in the future...and, we certainly can't give serious direct support to everyone that wants to be an artist. The only alternatives are either to cherry-pick - based upon the opinions of so-called experts - or to support and structure as wide a market as possible...and let intensity of vocation & audience choices serve to select the winners. And, we all know what happens when the former option applies...

Bureaucratic empire-building, wasteful expense on "show" rather than service delivery, self-selecting influence networks making the key choices on highly elitist grounds, and unproductive careerisms of the worst kind. Sadly, there's simply no way out of this mess...except to tear up the blueprint & start again.

Cultural production is great stuff - and there ought to be more of it - but we'll never get there if we keep insisting that, right now, we actually know where the worthwhile new practitioners will be found...


And, remember...the great arts are rarely the arts of the "great".



John Henry Calvinist