In the early 1800s, the population of England was roughly 8 million, and they produced Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Byron, Keats and Shelley — not to mention Robert Southey, Leigh Hunt, Walter Savage Landor, Thomas Campbell, Thomas Moore, John Clare and Thomas Lovell Beddoes.
It is an astonishing flowering of poetry in a single era. Six major poets and a handful of others still read with pleasure by millions of people.
One might average them out very inaccurately as one great poet per 1 million in population.
Even in the 17th century, when the population of England was half that of the early 19th century, we have Thomas Carew, George Chapman, Richard Crashaw, John Donne, Michael Drayton, William Drummond, John Dryden, George Herbert, Robert Herrick, Ben Jonson, Richard Lovelace, Andrew Marvell, John Milton and John Wilmot (Earl of Rochester).
Of these, we can easily confer “major poet” status on Milton, Donne, Marvell and Dryden, making our ratio again 1-in-a-million.
By these numbers, we should easily expect, living in the United States at this moment, roughly 300 major poets. One scratches one’s head, because these numbers obviously are not true.
Just one state, North Carolina, is roughly equivalent in land area and in population to England in 1800. There should be at least six poets writing between Asheville and the Outer Banks of equivalent worth to Keats and Shelley, Wordsworth and Coleridge.
(Obviously, there are eras in which poetry features more importantly in a nation’s culture, and other times when the palm, the oak or bay goes to the novel or the stage, and times — and places — where emphasis is given to painting, sculpture, music or even philosophy. This equation is only meant in general terms — in any art, there should be more well-known and influential practitioners than one might generally count among the population at present).
I reckon that the problem should be understood much as a bicameral legislature. If we count a poetic house of representatives, there should, indeed, be 300 major poets writing at this moment. But instead, we have a senate, and we have a limited number of spots per nation reserved for “major” status. Perhaps we should never expect more than four at any given moment in any given nation.
That means we must look to the reading public (or art-going audience) as a conferring body that says there is only so much room in our culture model for the role of major poet, like only so many slots for general in an army.
It may be part of our cultural umwelt. We have a fixed and number-limited idea of what it means to rise to the top. Perhaps there really are 300 people writing poetry in American now that, if they had been published 200 years ago, would have been considered important, but now are merely the residue of a niche publishing market.
But I mean to present my case in much wider terms: the many arts as they manifest in the culture.
There is a top tier, and we treat these artists — currently the Damien Hirsts, the Jeff Koonses, the Richard Serras — as if they are the “major” artists, whose work is our answer to the Raphaels, Rembrandts and Monets of the past. Their work is deemed somehow more important than the work of thousands of other artists working away, often outside the beehives of New York and LA.
Of course, any critic with an ounce of humility will grant that these are only our “guesses.” That history has a way of choosing different names for the art history textbooks of the future. But as the art world is currently constituted, there is a great divide between art that is considered important and influential — art at the cutting edge of a presumed history — and all the lesser lights, the wannabes. And this doesn’t even make marginal room for all the weekend painters and watercolor society members and their pretty irises and tablecloths.
But who is art for? This is the crucial question. Is art made for the critic, curator, collector and gallery owner? Is the measure of its worth that it fulfill the expectations of narrow and self-specified interest group? If that were so, the rest of us might as well give up and turn on the TV.
This is not to disparage those critics (of which I am one), curators, collectors and gallery owners, many of whom I know and admire, and whose gifts are considerable. But it is like saying that a book is best judged by a librarian: There may be some insight there, but we choose our books by our own lights, our own interests and tastes. To the librarian, we entrust the Dewey Decimal System.
So, who is the art for? The poetry? The dance, the theater, the opera, the string quartet? They are all for all of us who love them.
The search for the “historically significant” artist is a question of history, not of art. We should all be free to enjoy whatever art speaks to us. And as artists, free to make the art that speaks for us.
The “big-boys” (and girls) of art are not disincluded: They really are making wonderful things. But so are the lesser lights, the regional artists, the undiscovered, the shy. The names you see over and over in the art magazines are there on their merit, for sure, but they are also there because of their naked ambition to climb the art-world hierarchy and because of luck. Some were just lucky enough to be spotted by some curator making the rounds for another museum biennial, or to work in a university program noted for graduating elite artists.
I worked in the fields for 25 years in Arizona, which is not usually thought of as a fertile ground for the world’s great art. And it does have its unfortunate share of blue coyote paintings and noble Indian chief portraits.
But I knew a dozen, maybe a score of artists whose work, given the proper exposure to the right people with open minds and open eyes, might stand equally before the impasto of Lucien Freud or the imposture of Jeff Koons.
The work was forceful, imaginative, idiosyncratic and intellectually rigorous. There should be no shame in being thought an “Arizona artist” if the state could produce a Marie Navarre, a Jim Waid, a Mayme Kratz, a Bailey Doogan, an Anne Coe, a Matthew Moore, an Annie Lopez. I could name a dozen more that you’ve likely never heard of, but that you could well have, if things had gone differently.
Each of these artists had given me great pleasure and spurred my intellectual growth and widened my world for me.
And every state in the union — indeed, every nation on the globe — can put forth its own slate of names of the artists, poets, dramatists, filmmakers, architects, authors, musicians and composers whose value is underrated or ignored, whose work has made a local difference, even if not a national ripple. Who’s to say they are not important? Who’s to say their work is not the equal of the headline artists at the Whitney Biennial?
If we include these excellent but unheralded artists and poets, we probably begin to match the ratio of poets to population of 17th- or 19th-century England.
But I don’t want to stop there, either. It isn’t merely regional art I am defending. I would make a case even for such maligned art as the academic art of university teachers, the irises and tablecloths of the watercolorists — even the paint-by-numbers amateurs and the selfie-posters of Instagram.
Every person who makes an image — and especially those rare and brave people who take up a pencil and attempt to draw something on paper — makes a contribution. They learn something about the world, and about art, even if they don’t have that name for it.
Art is not merely what hangs on gallery walls. Its primary purpose is an interaction with the world, and when anyone makes that connection, with pen, brush, camera, clay or word processor, filtering through their sensibility their ideas, feelings and reactions to the world around them, they have made art.
And ultimately, it is the making of art, not its consumption that has value. Everyone should try it, everyone would benefit from it.