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Speaking of development or change, I just read on the art therapy listserv
ARTTHX-L that poet and feminist ideologist Adrienne Rich, who, it is said,
sees poetry as an instrument of change, has declined the 1997 National
Medal for the Arts, which is administered by the National Endowment for
the Arts. In her decline, she pointed to the increasingly wide gap
between those that have and those that have not in the domain of control
and capital; saying that art "means nothing if it simply decorates the
dinner-table of power which holds it hostage."
Given a choice, Rich has never been a favorite of mine, either as a poet
or an ideologist. In this specific case though, I find myself in general
agreement. Rich's politics an mine remain at odds I suspect. I like to
avoid the attempt to control an ecology; environmental, social, or
political. but, that's beside the point.
A great deal of the most valued art, in urban cultures, both west and
east, seems to fit Rich's characterization of it as window dressing for
the social commerce of an elite community of wealth and specialized
knowledge. This possibility (it's a point of view, not really stablishable
as a "fact") does not, to my mind, in any way devalue such works but it
does expand their context.
It would seem to raise an issue for art educators however. Art knowledge,
some components in particular, represents a potential "entre" into this
elite society, and, at times can act as a tacit support for what I think
Rich might characterize as patriarchy, imperialism, or the dominant
hegemony. Still, I don't think it's a "done deal"; it is not requisite
that an elevated "artworld" is complicit in the abuse of socio-economic
control or "power" as Rich would have it. (I find flaws in that usage of
On one hand, given notions of "cultural literacy" education in art does,
in a way, represent such an introduction into a relatively "elite" segment
of our society. Arguably this is a good thing, offering as it does
impartial access to another social "level". At the same time though,
elites have a way of remaining elite and separate. Several phenomena might
mitigate events towards the maintenence of an elite. e.g.: Few students
might pursure such knowledge to such levels. Additional refinements of
perspective or knowledge might be developed to maintain the class. A new
and "higher" group of insiders might develop on the basis of some quality
other than a strict knowledge of art. The old barriers might be
ressurected in a new place.
And, for some at least, such elites may, indeed, be desirable things; as
markers of "dues paid" and of efforts made; as a well-earned position.
So, it is a dilemma. No simple over-arching answer will do.
The teacher faces the additional constraints of established curricula and
standards. Obligations to, and expectations of, the employer/district or
community. It's not easy.
For my part, I don't think that this is the kind of thing that can be
taught. I don't personally believe in singular answers to such tough
questions. But, I do think that it is an issue which can be addressed and
discussed in class; even touched on in the lower grades. Future
generations, after all, need to decide these things for themselves.
It is, after all, part of the larger, cross-era, cross-cultural,
"discussion" on the place of art in society as well as being part of the
discussion on the more general direction a culture chooses to move in.
Artists and people of the aesthetic domain have a part to play in this
discussion; a contribution to make.
I know I'm waxing phiilosophical here. For me that is a very real part of
the arts. It seems to be part of the notion of art's association with
expression. There is a great deal of art out there to which "meaning" is
attributed. The arts are seen by some as a basic modality of
communication. It is argued that a work of art carries a message. Much of
this meaning, message, communication is not readily or easily accessible
to the uninitiated viewer (we note our hypothetical elite, the initiated
Some critics and artworkers seem to insist on translating works of art
into text or dogma. To fix the message as a direct linear statement which
can be framed in words. Personally, I've always felt that if the content
or thrust of a work of art CAN, effectively, be put into words, perhaps
text would have been a better choice of medium. Perhaps, with the possible
exception of advertisements and propaganda, art might better be reserved
for the expression of ideas or feelings which are much harder to express
or get across. Not that this OUGHT to be the general rule, but it is
something to consider.
Any how, back to the digression on philosophy. Art philosophy CAN be words
and indeed seems to be a good place for words. Art philosophy; the
philosophy of the expressors and makers, the artists; is part of both
aesthetics and criticism. Even art history occasionally touches on the
event of philosophy or the current ideology of an era or of a specific
artist. And so, for me, when I venture into ideas and perspectives on the
nature of the arts that seems to be part of my job as an artist. And, as a
teacher, I feel the need to cover that part of my artistic experience.
Digression ON philosophy done. back to the philisophy proper.
Back to Rich's claim that art (the arts) are held hostage somehow. I think
it's a discussion that needs to be moved out of the isolation of "the art
world" (one of many) and into the classroom, into society at large. How
prepared are we to address the arts outside of, beyond, the artworld to
which Rich refers? Can we find "borders" for that limited vision of art
and move beyond them? Is Rich accurate in perceiving things in such a
way? If so, what would an artworld be like, what would the world be like
where the possibility that such an aesthetic perspective permeated all
levels of society and a majority of the people felt "empowered" (too
trendy a word, sorry) to create, express, and comment through art. Is art
some how diminished in cultures where common people creat and express
themselves through artifacts which WE only encounter in "coffeetable
books" created by photographer/adventurers, or in our vacations in exotic
Well, I've gone on enough. MORE than enough, I'm sure some would say :)
For those of you with the patience to read this far, Thanks! I know I've
covered a lot of ground, but I'd like to read some other takes on Rich's
act of refusal and the notion of arts as hostage.