April 12, 2007

Is Art a Universal Right?

This morning over a coffee and a sandwich I had a discussion with Portuguese and Catalan classmates from a History of Modern Art module.

The Portuguese girl said: “I believe everybody is an artist. Everybody makes something, creates something. People place people in boxes – you are a sociologist, you are a politicologist, you are an artist. I resent that division.”
The Catalan girl said: “But listen, many of my friends who are artists struggle to make a living. It is extremely difficult but necessary for them to making a living with a job by the side. But to be an artist after coming home is very exhausting and constraining for their productivity and creativity.”
I said: “However flawful the selection of ‘official’, or ‘succesful’ artists is, being done by gallery keepers and museum directors, it needs to happen. A selection of quality will always have to be made, as there is simply too much art to get to know.”

In principle, I am postive towards the universalist view of art: everyone must (or at least: can) make it, and it is for everyone to enjoy. In Huizinga´s view, “playfulness” is an indispensible part of a healthy human´s life. Nietzsche stresses the existence of a profound and dark irrational side in humans, outweighing society´s rational organisation. However, the statement has a strongly idealistic and unpractical tinge to it, even leaving the question of talent out of discussion. The quality of all art, after all, remains open for discussion and that´s a positive matter.

Life is given, not asked for, and it reveals all sorts of convenient constraints; artists are no exception to this rule – in fact it sometimes seems they are more severely subjected to it. Everyone must eat and sleep, and to work for that. The artist, moreover, needs to work, improve, produce, for a long time before reaching a peak of creativity and work of lasting durability. In theory, everybody is an artist. But does this mean a sweatshop worker, or ever closer to home, an office clerk, will immediately be able to translate her inner thoughts in beautifully phrased poetry? Where will she find the energy to handle the brushes, the time to observe the world with an artist´s eye and to develop new ideas in all calmness?

Artists are, thus, forced to participate in the money economy (to use Simmel´s term) to survive. It is not convenient, nor much desired by many artists, but useful, even necessary for them if they want to continue their artistic pursuits. The money economy knows its own mores and handles according to its own procedures which allow it to perpetuate itself, and benefit those who know how to maintain themselves within it. Therefore paintings and poetry volumes, as well as novels and sculptures are given a price, a price that we pay, or don´t pay, to enjoy art. The money economy has never been very sensible to such things as artistic innovation during an artist´s lifetime, or genius vision in a work of art. The artist´s profession is known as a harsh life.

All of this to lead to my conclusion. Should we pity those who complain about the absence of Universal Art? I don´t think so. Everybody for themselves may decide to what degree they develop the unquestionable artist in themselves, no choice is per sé better or worse as this is a matter of private discretion. Nevertheless, whomever pushes their art forward, cannot do anything else, as their need to create is too strong to repress it. Under such circumstances, all problems become only obstacles on ever less disputable road.

All we can do is hope that we won´t hear this calling within ourselves, and come to the aid of creative geniuses to the best of our abilities.

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