Monday, September 6, 2010

Politics and Art

Politics of Art is a pernicious phrase. It is not threatening to me, ultimately, but to what this phrase conjures in my mind. First, I am skeptical that politics should have any say over art. At first glance, keep them separate. It brings up images of book burning, censoring content or schools cutting the budget of young people learning the benefits of living creatively. Secondly, however, my defense of people to say and express themselves freely comes not from reversing the priority of the previous phrase for political reasons. I'm devoted to the idea that a range of creativity is sovereignly expressed by the person expressing and cannot be censored by the state. But is it right to think that politics enables art solely or is there a different relationship philosophically that art maintains in relation to politics?

Unknowingly to myself, the previous rugged defense of individualism purely expresses what some have come to see as the death of tradition, art or at worse, the death of Western civilization. My very reasons for defending pure expressibility is nothing more than having grown up in a time where culture has been uprooted for a mass culture seeking and wanting to express themselves freely only for entertainment purposes. What I am missing in my reflection is that a politics of art is only a phrase symptomatic of a different problem altogether. The want to be entertained has grown so large it attempts to appropriate culture for instrumental ends, steering us away from beholding the eternal wonder and value inherent in cultural works possess beyond the life of their inception. Cultural works have become instrumentalized. Hannah Arendt makes these points brilliantly in her essay, Crisis of Culture.

Culture relates to objects and is a phenomenon of the world' entertainment relates to people and is a phenomenon of life. An object is culture to the extent that it can endure; its durability is the very opposite of functionality, which is the quality which makes it disappear again from the phenomenal world by being used and used up. The great user and consumer of objects is life itself, the life of the individual and the life of society as a whole. Life is indifferent to the thingness of an object; it insists that everything must be functional, fulfill some needs. Culture is being threatened when all worldly objects and things produced by the present or the past are treated as though they are only to fulfill some needs...(208)

For Arendt, cultivating a sensibility to the beautiful, to those works of art and culture that "arrest our attention" preserve the conditions of society in order that intrinsic value may survive. However, we have entered a time period in which, as I have said, this intrinsic interest has paved way for a more instrumental mentality to the point that culture is all but dead. Yet, Hannah Arendt finds in this crisis an optimism, or what can be taken as the only possibility. In her words,

And the task of preserving the past without help of any tradition and often even against traditional standards and interpretations, is the same for the whole of Western civilization. Intellectually, though not socially America and Europe are in the same situation: the thread of tradition is broken and we must discover the past for ourselves--that is, read its authors as though nobody had ever read them before (204).

So, we are to rediscover the tradition without any mediation, but encounter it for ourselves. And this is the point of crisis, we can either return to the historic authors of art and philosophy, or we can go on pretending we can do without them for mere entertainment. I am left to wonder if this can be done at all given entertainment's "gargantuan appetites", and more to the point about art itself. For I started wondering about a politics of art, and my want to preserve the individualism of the artist as a right. I invoked political language and the metaphor that an artist is sovereign, autonomous and downright in tension with the very society that would seek to censor expression.

A report by the National Endowment for the Arts came to some odd conclusion about how much time Americans are reading. The following synopsis comes from a CBS article here.

Among the findings:

  •  On average, Americans ages 15 to 24 spend almost two hours a day watching TV, and only seven minutes of their daily leisure time on reading.

  •  Reading scores for American adults of almost all education levels have deteriorated, notably among the best-educated groups. From 1992 to 2003, the percentage of adults with graduate school experience who were rated proficient in prose reading dropped by 10 points, a 20 percent rate of decline.

  •  In 2002, only 52 percent of Americans ages 18 to 24, the college years, read a book voluntarily, down from 59 percent in 1992.

  •  American 15-year-olds ranked fifteenth in average reading scores for 31 industrialized nations, behind Poland, Korea, France, and Canada, among others.

  •  Money spent on books, adjusted for inflation, dropped 14 percent from 1985 to 2005 and has fallen dramatically since the mid-1990s.

  •  The number of adults with bachelor's degrees and "proficient in reading prose" dropped from 40 percent in 1992 to 31 percent in 2003

  • The situation looks bad when so much of our current attempts to engage with culture are strictly entertainment. On top of that, anecdotal evidence from numerous college professors who I admire and respect corroborate the growing trend of incoming Freshman can't read basic Plato. This is my experience as well. Something like the Apology is difficult to teach. I struggled to teach the Euthyphro last year in my Intro class. How is it that Arendt can suggest an encounter with the sources of tradition where at the same time the death of that tradition has died? For a moment, I am granting that she is right about the state of affairs. Yet, I just don't see how it is that we can go on pretending there is no mediation given the death of tradition. It is like her optimism may have only applied to her from her New York City window. On the streets, things look a whole lot different, and this difference is a constant source of agitation for those of us teaching at public universities.

    What to do as an educator, let alone a philosopher? I resist any attempts to turn my classes into a degree mill by administrators wanting clear-cut assessment. Such attempts at conformity in a curriculum do not challenge students to think, let alone think though the cultural works of Western civilization. However, as I look around, I encounter very smart people in other disciplines that do not share this sense of resistance. I feel like any resistance is again a political move. I come back to the very beginning that inaugurated this blog post, a politics of art.

    Politically, I resist conformity and the gargantuan appetite of entertainment not for the artist to challenge orthodoxy (that's only a very small part of it), but that the transformative experience for students to encounter the greatest thinkers and artists of Western philosophy is also a renewal of culture. This is what Arendt misses. She misses that culture is renewed through every encounter, and the resistance it takes to entertainment is the very site of my classroom. This is what it essentially means to teach philosophy and allow the humanities to exist unhindered. It is not the goal of the university to breed consumers, but actively intelligent citizens that can engage with the world in an enriched understanding of its many dimensions: philosophical, political, sociological, poetic and aesthetic layers.

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