Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Art Isn't Useful, Says SpearBearer Down Left

In the final flowering of SpearBearer Down Left's blog (see link in sidebar), he is reposting some previous posts, with additional commentary. On the topic of the uselessness of art (ala Kant), he provides two posts: "Art Isn't Useful" and "More on Selling Art to Pragmatists." Both are thoughtful and thought-provoking, and I recommend them highly. The former takes at its starting point the Rand Corporation's study of the arts (which I think needs much greater discussion by artists); the other begins with a Ben Cameron editorial in American Theatre. The essential thrust is that we have focused too often on promoting the side-benefits of the arts: the economic or educational effects, and on educational outreach. SpearBearer thinks, along with the Rand study, that we should focus more on intrinsic benefits. He also feels that theatre is becoming schizophrenic in that we are simultaneously trying to create a season of plays and do community outreach.

I tend to agree. I don't think using art as outreach is the answer. However (you knew there was going to be a however, didn't you?), I do think we should use artists as outreach. Let me explain.

When we make our art serve two masters, we serve each poorly. I think art should be art, and be justified intrinsically. Using art to teach elementary school children is a wonderful thing, and there should be more of it done -- but it should be done by people whose focus in entirely on that pursuit, so that what is brought into the schools is suitable. Similarly, art should be taken into and even created in the prisons, shelters, community centers and other institutions as a way of promoting dialogue, self-esteem, self-expression, etc. But again, it should be done by people whose focus is wholly on that pursuit. And artists should focus on art as an end in itself, stretching and strengthening the form, experimenting with new approaches, appropriating and reforming old approaches. There should be people who focus on helping those artists find and communicate with an audience (see my posts on "Helping the Audience, Part 2" and "Helping the Audience Part 3"), and those people should also be experts.

The community outreach should not use the arts, but rather should be done by artists. I'm talking about volunteerism. Artists as citizens should be involved not only in creating their art, but in the life of their community as well. This is good for the artist, who finds out what is happening in the hearts of their fellow citizens, and also good for the development of the audience, because it can create a relationship between artist and potential spectator that will lead the latter to visit the theatre to see their friend.

The problem occurs when we mix artistry and service.

Now, let's keep it real: I am not a good model. I rarely -- and I mean really rarely -- volunteer in my community. I tend to be shy when it comes to such things, it was not something that my family did, I don't belong to a church or a service organization, and I usually fall back on the excuse that I am just too busy. Hell, I don't even talk to the spectators in my lobby when we have a show going on -- again, introversion, shyness, whatever. But. If I were running a theatre, I think I would need to get over that, and I would benefit from getting over it, and my community would benefit from my getting over it. I would want people to get to know me outside of my plays, and see me as someone who cares about others, which I think would make them care more about me and what I am doing. Instead of my theatre being involved, I would encourage my theatre artists to be involved, and hope that this helped my theatre. In my job as a professor, I am evaluated on three things: teaching, research, and service. Perhaps such a way of evaluating artists and staff (I'm talking about a company, not a space with a bunch of jobbed in artists) would work as well. I don't know. But I do know that art-as-social-work done by artists seems like a waste of talent.

1 comment:

Karl Miller said...

Art is useful -- the apparatus surrounding it may or may not be. Theatre can prove its value as a utility without outreach, children's education, etc. And I believe theatres can still continue that kind of activity as long as they have an intrinsicly valid reason for doing it (ulterior marketing motives notwithstanding, these outreach and education programs are valuable unto themselves, right?). Examining art for its utility and demanding that artists have an answer is, at least, a better request from the public than: "Why can't you be more like TV and movies?" Beauty and utility are not opposing qualities. We should start by making the stuff on the mainstage more useful, hey? Great post -- I wanna comment on your more recent one, too, but ... thanks for connecting to the art as utility discussion.

Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

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