Here’s Lookin’ At You Kid– Art as Cultural Mirror

While the arts community is rightly concerned about the seeming political ambivalence towards arts, if not its downright antipathy, and while the focus is primarily on funding concerns and “proving” arts value, subtler questions of the place and value of the arts can end up being by-passed or ignored, or maybe not even seen at all.

It is only to be expected that a bottom-line culture can only weigh value from a bottom-line perspective. But the narrowing of focus that this causes, in particular with the arts, may be having a reductive effect, not only on the arts, but on our ability to frame meaningful questions about the culture.

Often, when an argument is presented for the value of the arts, the first “value” reached for is the one that equates arts with childishness, along the pop psychology lines of getting in touch with your inner child. And often, inadvertently, the message put across is that arts are for kids, or artists are immature, or art is irresponsible “playing”. Ultimately, that art is not serious. And from this misconception the arises the idea of art as meaningless and empty and childish. Harmless, but possessing some obscure value, worthy of some small gesture of investment in the next generation. Paying it forward, whatever “it” actually is. And from this perspective the bottom-line culture proffers its only value, money, to “encourage” art, accepting that Art is somehow “good” for the community in some obscure way. And besides, arts donations afford neat photo-ops when handing over the giant cardboard cheques artistically created for the occasion, so its a win-win for a modest investment and everyone looks and feels good.

The art then produced from this diminished understanding of art’s value inevitably ends up aimed at children, featuring costumes and sets with big, bold nursery primary colours where Fun is the order of the day and you can’t help feeling that Ronald McDonald is hanging around somewhere backstage, offering serious investment advice to the toddlers. This misconceived infantilization of the arts may be doing as much if not more damage to the health of art than the bottom-line arguments that constantly demand that art explain itself in clear economic and utilitarian terms. “Just lay it on me Salvador. What bang am I gonna get for my buck?”

Every right-minded adult is aware that Art is a means of understanding the culture and its complexities, and that we need it now more than we ever needed it. Milan Kundera, the Czech writer, said that during the Czech uprising against the USSR in the 1960’s the only arguments that could reflect their own perception of the twisted absurd soviet bureaucratic state they were struggling against, were the surreal and absurd writings of Franz Kafka. Not only did Kafka’s stories help to clarify the layers of absurdities they were faced with, they seemed to be prophetic in their understanding of a state bureaucracy that had taken its people prisoner as a consequence of the sheer logical illogicality of the slow, inexorable machinations of a massive, unimaginative bureaucracy. In Kafka’s absurd art they found sustenance, insight and hope.

In our time, the ongoing and developing misconception that art is some kind of pop psychology lifestyle choice for getting acquainted with your inner child is perhaps one of the greatest threats to the vitality of art and its essential service as a mirror to the culture. In the old fairy-tale, Snow White, the wicked witch, accustomed to flattery, breaks the magic mirror when the mirror praises Snow White’s looks instead.

A culture has to be mature to allow Art its voice, or to even understand why Art is important to the health of the culture. The infantilization of Art in our culture demonstrates perhaps not the “uselessness” of Art in bottom-line terms, but the immaturity of a culture wary of viewing its reflection in the mirror that serious Art can provide: a culture seemingly intent on demeaning Art, so that Art may never provide a clear reflection of the cultural absurdities of late-stage capitalism. That culture is Donald Trump, glaring into the magic mirror, with that peculiar pout of his, and those narrowed deal-breaker’s eyes as he arrogantly bellows, “I don’t like the picture I see. Try again.”