Saturday, January 26, 2008

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

Here's an interesting article on why we need the arts. Sad that such defenses seem to be necessary, but there you are. When high school or college graduates cry out with relief, "I never have to read another book!" (and yes, I have heard them do so), and when politicians bray that public monies should not have to support any artists or works of art that cannot survive in the marketplace, I guess someone does have to come to the defense of art as something besides, or beyond, immediate stimulation of one's nerve-endings.

Here's a quote to inspire to you read further:
The arts build the sets for that interior theatre and fill the stage with vivid, memorable characters who mingle in memory with the people of our lives. Even if we are otherwise lonely, we go through life in the company of this ever-expanding society of artists, characters and images, each of them chosen by us.

You could easily say in rebuttal, "Why lock yourself up in a dark room with imaginary characters? Why not go out into the real world and be sociable--meet some real characters?" And there is certainly a stereotype of readers and art-lovers as introverts who shy away from human interaction. But it doesn't apply to everyone, and it doesn't have to. One does not preclude the other.

And there's a difference. Be as sociable as you like--schmooze, party, mingle to your heart's delight--there is still a role for those imaginary characters and images the author describes. They provide an alternate narrative--a different world. Sometimes it's a long-dead world; sometimes it's a never-was world; sometimes it's a what-if world. But if we cannot see different ways of being in the world, if we cannot say, "it doesn't have to be like this--life could be like this, instead," we cannot work towards change.

And that's not a liberal versus conservative issue. I'm sure there are plenty of conservatives out there who read Jane Austen and say, "why can't the world be like this again?" There may even be some cold-hearted Scrooges who read Dickens and say, "quite right--lock up the orphans and put them to work." They'd be missing Dickens' point, but it wouldn't be the first time that a reader used an author against his own work.

Entertainers throw meat to the ravenous hordes and keep them happy. Artists are supposed to blaze a trail into unexplored territory and say, "follow if you dare." And we get to choose which pioneers we feel like following, into which dark wood. And, of course, the truly great ones--the Shakespeares, the Mozarts, the Picassos, show us worlds we've never imagined before and entertain us.

This trail-blazing function is why autocrats have always persecuted artists--and the more public the art, the easier it is for people to mingle and discuss and share ideas, the faster the tyrants shut it down. In a democracy, which is supposed to be a marketplace of ideas, we are not supposed to fear art, or the ideas that spring from it. We are supposed to be strong enough and capable enough to counter any noxious idea with a better one--to compete for the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens with a more compelling alternate world to inspire us.

But, of course, we don't do that. It's hard work. And anyway, as we all know, the twin Sodoms of Hollywood and New York have access to media all sewed up, and won't allow any voices to be heard that aren't pre-approved by the gay, Jewish, communist cabal that controls All Media In The World. So instead we just rant and rave on talk radio, or issue threats and boycotts, and argue about which Reality we should allow to be portrayed.

Perhaps things will change as the Internet generation grows into adulthood. Because these days, it simply can't be argued that access to media is controlled. Anyone can make and distribute a movie now; anyone can publish articles, editorials, or books. Obviously, I can't distribute a book ro a movie the way Big Companies can. But it's getting easier every year. Distinctions between entertainers and the entertained are rapidly dissolving. We are all, now, both providers of content and consumers of content. It could make things very interesting in the future.

But in that world, will there be any common language anymore? Will we be able to assume that everyone knows who Hamlet is, or who Holden Caulfield is...or what Beethoven's Fifth sounds like...or what the Guernica is? Or will the future of "narrowcasting" lead us to a world of a million mini-republics, the inhabitants of each speaking a hermetic language of imagery and association that no one outside will understand, care about...or trust?

And if that's where we're heading, what will the words "public education" mean? Will there be a body of knowledge that we, as a culture (if we are, indeed, a culture anymore), can agree to pass on to our children? Or are the education wars we're seeing today just a foretaste of an even nastier battle to come?

Or--here's another possibility--will the homeschooling movement (aided by online education) grow even larger, allowing people to avoid the public education fight and just walk away, to do things the way they want to do things--either individually or in small, like-minded groups? If the idea of public education just shatters at some point, will anything hold us together as a culture besides television?

It's an intruguing question, and it's hard to know where things are heading or what things will look like fifty years from now. All I know is, there's no reason to assume that the shape of things to come has to be the shape of things today. The way we learn, the way we communicate, the way we access entertainment--all of it is changing so rapidly, it's impossible to know, and difficult to imagine, what things will be like.

Ah, well. Maybe someone will write a story about it.

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