Is The Violence And Sorrow Of The World Too Strong For Art?

Somewhat apropos of the whole value of arts theme of my posts this week, novelist Michael Chabon had a letter titled “What’s the Point,” printed in The Paris Review announcing that he would be stepping down after 9 years as Chairman of the Board at the MacDowell Colony.

When he starts out, he basically sounds defeated, observing that despite overcoming his introverted tendencies to advance the slogan that, “MacDowell makes a place in the world for artists, because art makes the world a better place,” the world is much worse now than 9 years ago.

Or, I wonder if it’s possible that I was wrong, that I’ve always been wrong, that art has no power at all over the world and its brutalities, over the minds that conceive them and the systems that institutionalize them.


Maybe the world in its violent turning is too strong for art. Maybe art is a kind of winning streak, a hot hand at the table, articulating a vision of truth and possibility that, while real, simply cannot endure. Over time, the odds grind you down, and in the end the house always wins.

Or maybe the purpose of art, the blessing of art, has nothing to do with improvement, with amelioration, with making this heartbreaking world, this savage and dopey nation, a better place.

As he goes on, his tone shifts:

All the world’s power over us lies in its ability to persuade us that we are powerless to understand each other, to feel and see and love each other, and that therefore it is pointless for us to try. Art knows better, which is why the world tries so hard to make art impossible, to immiserate artists, to ban their work, silence their voices, and why it’s so important for all of us to, quite simply, make art possible.

The metaphors he uses defending the value of art revolve around the personal experience and connection. This dovetails with the concept raised in yesterday’s post that people don’t believe in the value of arts and culture in their lives unless they or a loved or a loved one has a direct experience.

I don’t know why, but there was something about his prose that put me in mind of the “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus” letter. My inner monologue commented, “Yes, but the situation is much darker and more cynical than back then.”

I looked up the Yes, Virginia letter and found it had a lot of parallels to my recent posts.

I forgot the letter started out referencing, “the skepticism of a skeptical age.”  And maybe I subliminally made a connection with the idea of people only giving credence to things they personally experienced because Francis Church continues, “They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds.”

And then of course, the passage that pretty much describes the aspirations of those in the arts, culture and creative field:

You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

I have to say, I didn’t start out to write an optimistic post. I actually felt Chabon moved to feel-good sentimentality out of a sense of obligation to end on a higher note.

That his letter evoked memories of another letter I was moved to seek out and I was delighted to find alignment in everything I talked about this week sort of proves Chabon’s point I guess.

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. (

I am currently the 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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