Art. MMM..MMM..Good

I have finally finished Joli Jensen’s Is Art Good For Us? The book isn’t really that long. The fact the library let me borrow it for 12 weeks sort of contributed to some procrastination though.

The short answer to the question posed by the title is, yes, art is good for us. However, it is not going to cure the ills of the world any more than studying karate, studying history and going to church is guaranteed to make us better citizens and people. Art is good for us in the same ways all these things, along with sunny days, picnics in the park and puppies licking our faces are good for us. They all have a hand in influencing us in positive directions, but none are guaranteed–alone or together–to make the world a better place.

Reading the book was somewhat like learning the stages of human cognitive and emotional development. As I read I felt as if I were reviewing the evolution of my own philosophy about why people should be attending the theatre. I could see that my own views were moving in the direction Jensen espouses.

One of the things I had never thought about was how much how we view art is tied to democracy. Jensen compares the views of Tocqueville, Walt Whitman, Lewis Mumford and John Dewey in this context. I won’t go into how art and democracy are connected in each one’s mind, but I will say that it was fascinating having never considered it and leave it at that.

There were four general philosophical view Jensen has identified artists as having between 1910s and 1940s. The first was Renewal-“new art is necessary for a social renaissance.” Second is radical view –art as a revolutionary weapon for social change influenced by the rise of Marxist thought. The third was the conservation view of the New Humanists-“art is a repository for higher values to be sustained, protected and judged by standards other than immediate personal or social effect.”

The fourth view Jensen identifies rolls the other three into itself. Respectively, the subversion view of the avant-garde movement saw art as “making things better by restoring the world, changing the world, or maintaining the truth of the world” by challenging the status quo.

While she identifies these views as arising at the beginning of the last century, we still see people cleave to them today. This seems especially true of the renewal view where art will provide a refuge from evil commercialism, make babies smarter and remove violence from our schools. Neill Archer Roan had a great blog entry on this subject back in March that I have been waiting until I did this entry to cite.

The book is fairly easy to read but if you only have time or desire to read parts of it, I would suggest the introduction where Jensen lays out her argument, Chapter 3 Art As An Antidote: The Mass Culture Debates and Chapter 4: Art As Elixir: Contemporary Arts Discourse. It is in Chapter 3 that she tackles the ideas that there is high art and low art, art that illuminates and art (commercial/movies/television) devoid of benefit and which validates the mundane.

I have always had a nagging feeling that positioning art as a cure for evils and enhancement of intelligence, etc did it a disservice. I had similar feelings about trying to define where the line between valuable and valueless art was. I could just never figure out how to logically argue my position. Or at least I didn’t feel confident enough to do so. Reading this chapter I have a better idea of how.

Part of my position I have already stated–art is like cereal. It provide nutrition for your body, mind and soul as part of a balanced breakfast that includes exercise, good schools, good healthcare, health relationships with family, friends and neighbors. When you go before a governmental body to ask for funds perhaps your position should be that you need funding as an integral part of the healthy mix rather than alone as a better, more powerful cure for what ails you. I blogged on this idea before. Check out the Ben Cameron quote. He says it best.

Another element of my position is no surprise. Adopting a view that art is uplifting and mass media is an opiate of the masses that deceives people into believing their shallow existence is infused with rich experiences is just plain bad public relations. Your disdain for people who place high value on mass media can’t help but be apparent in your interactions, atmosphere and advertising.

Of course, you can never completely eliminate a disdainful attitude from your dealings. You just need to minimize the negative vibe you give off. Everyone is incredulous about the absence of something in someone else’s life be it lack of: a cellphone, interest in Lost, addiction to Starbucks coffee, a MySpace account, et. al. A sense of exclusivity whets the appetite to belong. The maddening logic comes in that the environment must be inclusive enough to allow everyone to share in the exclusivity.

Yes I am poking a little fun at the current atmosphere. I guess it is my nervous anticipation that I will soon be labeled a freak for my conspicious lack of piercings and tattoos. It doesn’t make it any less true that people want to feel this way.

In Chapter 4 Joli Jensen points out some of the downsides to positioning art as a medicine for societal ills. One aspect plays into the medicine metaphor quite well in the form of the old adage that it has to taste bad to be good for you. The value of avant garde art has always been in its power to shock and challenge. Just as consumers are always looking for a more pleasant tasting cough formula, a good portion of the public doesn’t want to pay for art that is foul to their senses. Nor do they want to be told that they will be better for it. In a way, like Mother trying to force big spoon of cod liver oil into the mouth, it treats people like children.

There will always be an audience for avant garde art. Like the pain of tattoos and piercings, its benefit is best realized by those who come to it willingly. I was about to say that the audience for avant garde art will probably regrettably be small. As people come to appreciate tattoo art more there might just be renewed interest in avant garde works. Especially if someone can make a connection between being tattooed and an exhibit.

This blog entry, though not much longer than previous entries, has taken me a couple days to write. This is mostly because while I have suggested people read some select chapters, there is value in reading just about all of it. My copy of the book is bristling with Post-It notes marking paragraphs to discuss. I have been attempting to distill concepts and avoid summarizing chapter by chapter which would probably lead to multiple days of lengthy, boring entries devoted to the book. There are a lot of great things to think about so the task of informative compression hasn’t been easy.

In the interests of relative brevity, (relative to how much I just threatened to write), I will attempt to tell you why you should read this book. Or at least the intro and chapters 3, 4, and 5.

The purpose of Is Art Good For Us is essentially to tackle the logical fallacies, unsubstantiated claims and ill-serving reasoning employed in the pursuit of arts audiences and funding. In addition to the aspects I have already mentioned, Jensen tackles the whole idea of selling out and how commercial success demotes good art to trash. It is somewhat akin to the idea that it is the journey, not the destination that is important. Art is good as long as you are in constant pursuit of funding. Once you there is a surfeit, you have lost your soul. She quotes from a conference “The Arts and Public Purpose” that noted “audiences did not know or care if a play or opera was fiananced by nonprofit or commercial sources, although that distinction remains important to artists” (her emphasis).

In terms of changing the way the conversation about the arts is conducted, Jensen address the reprecussions and pretty much summarizes what is wrong with the current approach.

“If we gave up notions of art as social medicine, the logic of American cultural and social criticism would become unraveled. The arts must maintain their conceptual distinctiveness so that they can still be invoked as a fudge factor in criticism…”

“Invoking the arts as a fudge factor also allows us to avoid the hard work of directly defining what we value and what should be done…Current arts discourse allows us to be for all good things, and against all bad things by invoking the presumed good of the arts in opposition to the presumed bad of media, commerce and the marketplace.”

“Such a discourse has significant costs. It guarantees that our social criticism is vague, overblown, insulting and impotent. When we discuss our common life, what is wrong with it and what can be done to improve it, we need all the directness, specificity, clarity and compassion we can muster.”

The alternative path is encompassed by Dewey’s expressive view. It is an approach that includes many of the things I have already mentioned-viewing “arts as forms of social practice; as such the arts share the possibility of all human practice to solve problems and make the world better.” Jensen says “Dewey asks us to consider a work of art as something that ‘develops and accentuates what is characteristically valuable in things of everyday enjoyment.'”

If you are thinking that this view sounds a cop out that defines everything as art so that it doesn’t have to take responsibility for categorizing anything as art or not, I have to agree that I felt the same way. I can see the validity of the argument since I can envision how it can apply even to performing and visual art pieces that seem to invest the least effort necessary to make money. Personally the proliferation of lazily made art ultimately doesn’t bother me since it takes little effort on my part to turn my attention elsewhere.

Professionally is another matter. I am not quite sure yet how to shift my perspective and apply it effectively. When I am booking artists should I be selecting performances that I believe contain elements that the greatest number of people will deem “characteristically valuable?” I am pretty sure that it isn’t completely constructive if I program artists because I believe people ought to see them and despair that I am surrounded by ignorant louts when no one shows up.

If I invite a group that I am not sure will have wide appeal because I would like to offer people an opportunity to see something from the other side of the world, am I elitist because I readily acknowledge it might not be everyone’s cup of tea? If I figure there are enough people interested that I will be able to pay a band, provide my local population and the band an opportunity to interact and don’t damn those who didn’t buy tickets, it seems like a good thing. But would I have been a better guy if I engaged a different band with the potential of interacting with a larger audience?

When you choose one path you are inevitably discarding at least one other. I can’t say the expressive approach helps me judge if I am doing a good job any better than the other one did. Unfortunately, no matter what approach I take, my bosses’ judgements of the job I am doing does revolve around numbers.

Like most philosophies, Dewey’s sounds good on paper. Practical application is a little more tricky. In truth, I certainly need more time to digest and ponder all the implications of what he says. By most measures, he suggests a healthier approach simply based on the less antagonistic relationship with the public he espouses. It is a little dysfunctional to simultaneously despair that people aren’t attending arts events and disdain performances that enjoy the large audiences associated with commercial success.

If there is any criteria by which to measure success in Dewey’s view, it is the potency of the relationship that is developed. Art, Jensen says quoting Dewey, “needs to be acknowledged as a form of social relationship, not ‘treated as the pleasure of an idle moment or as a means of ostentatious display.'” It seems then the audience member has an equal responsibility to take the experience seriously and contribute to the cultivation of the relationship.

That about does it for the observations I have. As expected the book does a more thorough job explaining how Dewey’s position applies to the arts. Lacking the time to read it all, I suggest reading the intro, chapters 3-5 and the conclusion. 😉

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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