T.S. Eliot had his "social function of poetry" and we have social media - YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc. etc.
Could it be that what we celebrate as the art of our times is not Art at all? If so, What is Art?
At best, our culture has relegated Art to the dubious field of "entertainment" - hijacked from its true purpose, left to serve as a decoration on the public walls of high society museums and the private walls of wealthy collectors. At best, art is fashion.
Wait, wait, wait.
John Seely Brown's latest newsletter takes us to task by raising an important point:
"Artists are not included in our debate on how we build the economy for the future. They're excluded in our nation's emphasis on innovation which has been left to the STEM crowd. We're not thinking about designing for emergence. Innovation is about seeing the world differently. Who is better at helping us see the world differently than the artists?"
Why is this? I can think of three reasons:
1) The "art" made by "artists" is irrelevant
2) The "artists" are not Artists
3) Art is generally devalued in a society polarized by Science, Fashion, and Politics
Alright, I'm being a bit silly, but here is someone who's not: Ben Davis and his 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (h/t Doug Smith) serve as both an indictment and a wake-up call for artists everywhere. Have a look at this excerpt:
2.0 Today, the ruling class, which is capitalist, dominates the sphere of the visual arts
2.1 It is part of the definition of a ruling class that it controls the material resources of society
2.2 The ruling ideologies, which serve to reproduce this material situation, also represent the interests of the ruling class
2.3 The dominant values given to art, therefore, will be ones that serve the interests of the current ruling class
2.4 Concretely, within the sphere of the contemporary visual arts, the agents whose interests determine the dominant values of art are: large corporations, including auction houses and corporate collectors; art investors, private collectors and patrons; trustees and administrators of large cultural institutions and universities
2.5 One role for art, therefore, is as a luxury good, whose superior craftsmanship or intellectual prestige indicates superior social status
2.6 Another role for art is to serve as financial instrument or tradable repository of value
2.7 Another role for art is as sign of "giving back" to the community, to whitewash ill-gotten gains
2.8 Another role for art is symbolic escape valve for radical impulses, to serve as a place to isolate and contain social energy that runs counter to the dominant ideology
2.9 A final role for art is the self-replication of ruling-class ideology about art itself--the dominant values given to art serve not only to enact ruling-class values directly, but also to subjugate, within the sphere of the arts, other possible values of art
OK. But why are artists banished from the Republic?
One can argue (via Ben Franklin) that the last artist was Jesus and before him Socrates. I'd add folks like Gandhi, Malcolm X, Mandela, Marley... The artist sees differently. Not just paintings on a wall, but society itself. Who paints our vision for society today? Lady Gaga or our lobbyists?
Walker Percy saw the artist (or writer) as a canary in the coal mine. The artist as prophet. But we are deaf to the canary. We've banned our artists from society - not by muzzling them with threats and jail time, but by turning them into designers of consumer and fashion goods.
For the first time in history, we've made art useful as a financial commodity- and killed it in the process.
Meanwhile, somewhere, hidden from the lights of Sotheby's and Christie's, art is still being made.