The question of the complex relationship between the artist and society is certainly not new. It has been asked from time immemorial, because art is—in turn, if not simultaneously—in symbiosis and at sometimes considerable odds with the society that gives birth to and nourishes it.
Moreover, the “problem with art” is raised more keenly for contemporary art; art that emerges and develops at a specific time, in a given historical context. The art of the past is, for the most part, integrated into the culture of which it shaped certain sectors.
The very nature of artistic work presents ongoing challenges, as artists must necessarily withdraw from society for sometimes extensive periods, to do what they have to do. Mastering a musical instrument, lengthy and demanding rehearsals in the performing arts to achieve a high degree of perfection, dancers’ extensive training, the studio work of visual artists, writing a piece of literature—all of these things require time, a degree of isolation, a freedom that is almost suspect for those engaged in non-artistic pursuits. Artists—those in the theatre, for example—are continually torn between the intimacy necessary for those periods of incubation and rehearsal, during which they are among their fellow artists, and the eventual need to encounter the public who gives meaning to their art. That re-connection is an integral part of their artistic practice, even though it is sometimes difficult.
Moreover, the flowery, romantic discourse that idealizes those long periods of solitude or group work in semi-secrecy—a discourse that seeks to ennoble and glorify long periods of underpaid and undervalued existence—paradoxically becomes a further factor of disconnection… The idea that one could or should make art for the sole pleasure of doing so, giving no heed to encountering one’s fellow citizens, becomes a fantasy that acts like a repellant when one no longer controls it.
The need to connect art—and, even more, artists—with citizens has always arisen; there have been, and still are, numerous, systematized barriers to that connection. Indeed, it is fascinating to see how the individuals who are always in the minority and who possess wealth and power have always sought to exert control over artists, and to attribute to themselves the most exclusive possible privilege of enjoying their works, in every era.
It is only very recently, with the emergence of democratic nation-states, technical progress and the affirmation of the market economy, that a desire and an imperative have arisen to make art as accessible as possible. The democratization of culture, like a minimum level of education, has become a value that democratic counties have advanced with rather wide national variations.
The distinction between high culture, which needs to be assisted by the State (rather than by rich families who control the enjoyment of it) and popular culture, which can be left up to market forces, dates back only six or seven decades, but it has been legitimized in Europe and on our continent.
We are living in a time when the possibility of accessing art is more democratized than ever, thanks to the extensive digitization of images, symbols and sounds. But at the same time, that technological possibility is the last and most deceptive of the great illusions of the democratization of culture, because the possibility of accessing that content unfortunately does not lead to the irresistible desire to do so, much less the capacity to relate to it and draw genuine satisfaction from it.
Consumption of cultural products is on the rise. Attendance of cultural events in the very broadest sense of the term is also on the rise. The search for diversified and intense cultural experiences is more widespread than ever.
But the democratization of “high” culture, or access to art, if you will, is by no means assured as a result.
Fast food and democracy too often go hand in hand. Empty calories are more popular than ever, while everything that harbours meaning and the potential for ennobling the spirit is marginalized and threatened.
We are confronted with two obligations that we must find a way to reconcile: the need to support current artistic creation that the market would sustain only in a discriminatory manner based on profitability (in fact, on popularity), and the urgency of developing cultural participation and appreciation of art on a higher level.
It is not up to artists to spearhead this extensive process of re-connection, nor do they have the means to do so. But they cannot remain aloof and uninvolved. Otherwise, they will end up in the unenviable position of the “dance band on the Titanic”.
You may say that we haven’t yet struck the fatal iceberg, and you’d be right. But there are a lot of them out there, so I suggest we keep our eyes peeled.
Published on the Rideau Hall Blog, March 9, 2010
Documents to download:
Blog Post CM – Simon Brault – The Artist and the Society (09-03-2010) (86 kb)