“The arts” — Pfui!
I hate “the arts.”
Don’t get me wrong: I love art. In whatever form. I could not live without music, dance, theater, architecture, literature, cinema, painting or sculpture.
But when grouped together and made plural, so that I have to bracket them in quotes as “the arts,” they become a value that is paid lip-service by politicians, administrators and businessmen and they become a category in the public agenda, much like potholes or redistricting. We hear over and over a justification of the arts that argues how much — how many dollars — “the arts” contribute to the economy. As if this were their raison d’etre.
While it is certainly true the arts have some civic utility, frontlighting that is like saying that the invention of writing is important to civilization because newspapers are so useful to wrap fish in. It misses the point entirely.
When pluralized, the arts are neutralized: turned safe enough for school children and wives. They become a civic virtue, and ring as hollow as the platitudes of a politician running for office: not much more than a flag lapel pin.
And so, I hate “the arts.”
As James Agee once wrote in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, “Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation is beaten again, and is the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding.”
Art — not “the arts” — is about that salvation. About becoming more fully human, more aware of the world and our place in it. It saves us from isolation, from ignorance, from emptiness. These are the big issues we face, in contrast, mutable public issues are trivial: When we come to the end of our lives, what remains of the fustian of our existence has little to do with annual income or who got elected; it is how much we have loved and been loved, whether we have become larger in our hearts, or shrunken and dried up.
Art engorges our hearts and makes our neck veins throb. We feel alive; we become more alive. Art teaches us to love and be loved. It gives us the images that train our hearts to the potentials. Without the images, without the metaphors, all there is are words, no more meaningful that an alphabet we cannot read.
Anyone fully listening to Isolde’s death song, or reading Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode, or paging carefully through Goya’s Disasters of War can be reduced to weeping — and the kind of profound weeping that makes the rest of the world disappear and our insides open up to become a sea as large as the planet.
There was a time when I was young that I thought art was merely “cool,” and that I wanted to be — or could be — in control of art instead of art being in control of me. I didn’t believe Emily Dickinson when she wrote, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”
I write this listening to Strauss’s Four Last Songs (this is my own translation):
4. In the Red of Evening
Through good times and bad,
Anger and joy,
We have walked hand in hand;
And now we take a moment’s rest
With the world all before us.
All around us, the valleys dim away,
And the details gray out.
You can begin to see the lights below.
And overhead, two larks fly alone,
half-dreaming into the velveting air.
Come closer to me,
And let them fly over us;
Soon it is time for sleep.
And we must not let the darkness
Separate us from each other.
The peace is wide and still,
Deep in the redness of the western sky.
How tired we are of this need to keep moving.
Is that what death is?