We do art because art is what we do

October 12th, 2010

On VPR last week I heard a reporter ask Vermont film maker and arts promoter Jay Craven to explain how the arts can strengthen a community.  I thought the question was a perfect example of our society’s cluelessness about art and its place in human life.  What surprised me was the lameness of Craven’s answer.  Jay Craven is an accomplished artist with interesting and important things to say, but on this occasion he launched into the conventional thoughtless high-minded mooing you get whenever Americans start talking in public about the role of art: art makes you a better person by opening you to different points of view and making you more perceptive and sensitive and tolerant and blah blah blah.  Well, maybe.  Some art might have that effect upon some people, sometimes.  But is that why we do art?  For its medicinal/therapeutic effect?  Because, like eating spinach or taking echinacea in flu season, it’s good for you?

Here is what I wish Jay Craven had said:  “Your question misses the point.  Art is not an add-on we do because it’s good for us.  People make art because making art is part of what it means to be human.  In every culture, at all times, people have made and are making art.  They dance.  They sing.  They play musical instruments.  They tell stories and recite verse.  They make pictures.  They sculpt.  They decorate.  They act.  They mime. They arrange things in pleasing patterns.  They do things with clay and fabric and metal and wood.  They adorn their bodies.  They arrange flowers in a vase.  They hang posters on a wall.  They hum to themselves.  They trick out their motorcycles.  There is no community where people don’t do art.  The real question is, what happens to us when our culture and government ignore or neglect this creativity, when people are left to grope along as best they can on their own?”

To answer that question, all you have to do is visit America and look around.  I went to the Third Annual Pumpkin Regatta on Burlington’s waterfront on Sunday.  You know those giant pumpkins that people grow, eight or nine hundred pounds or more?  People hollow them out, float them in the lake, and, using kayak paddles, race them.  It is a vibrantly loony spectacle.  Adding to the pleasure, the pumpkins are decorated.  One had a little jolly roger flag painted on it, and dark paint splashed all over it, and its paddler wore a tricorner hat.  Another had a hobby horse head sticking out of one end and a tail on the other.  And so on.  It struck me, though, how crude the decorations were, the kind of thing that could be slapped together in fifteen minutes with a minmum of thought, effort and material.

I wondered what the Pumpkin Regatta might be like if it were held in a place where the role of art in everyday life is cultivated and honored, like Bali.  Each pumpkin would be elaborately carved with images appropriate to its theme, and might carry a superstructure of intricately woven bamboo and paper and feathers painted in brilliant, eye-boggling designs.  The paddlers would wear dramatic masks of monsters and mythical heroes.  Instead of a couple of loudspeakers blaring factory issue pop, there might be an orchestra or band of local people on the dock, playing thrilling music.  Dancers and puppeteers would act out stories from previous regattas and episodes of pumpkin lore.  Instead of just a few people working behind the scenes on each pumpkin, there might be dozens who contributed to its creation, dozens more involved with some aspect of sponsoring it, all there to cheer it on with family and friends.  Instead of an audience of passively voyeuristic bystanders on the shore, there might be a crowd of highly engaged participants, raising the vibrantly loony to a whole new level of celebration.

I remember going to school choral concerts at Edmunds Elementary, the poor music teacher having struggled heroically to get his age-segregated cohorts of kids to mumble their way through simple tunes more or less in unison against the constant din generated by an audience that clearly had been taught no understanding of or respect for the act of performance.  Art is treated as an optional add-on in our public schools, a vestigial tribute to the vague puritanical notion that it’s somehow good for you to be exposed to it, some but not too much.  That same year I went to a school concert at Lake Champlain Waldorf and listened as an orchestra of little kids negotiated their way through Mozart and Bach with enough skill to show that they had some idea what the music was about.  In Waldorf education, art is recognized as something basic to our humanity, to be nourished and developed in everyone.

How does art contribute to the strength of the community?  Well, when the community fosters creativity, it’s a more fun place to live.  It’s more lively.  The people are more fully human and more engaged with each other.  The silly and the serious are friends, two sides of the same coin.  There’s less of an urge to take drugs to escape aesthetic monotony and the pain of isolation.  When the community neglects the arts, abandons them to the professionals in the movies and on TV and the radio, you get people bobbing around in crudely painted pumpkins like children who never have been shown what really can be done.  I don’t mean to denigrate the Pumpkin Regatta and its participants.  I had a good time there.  But the gap between what we do and what we could do, the waste of human potential, is sad.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 12th, 2010 at 10:52 pm and is filed under art, society. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “We do art because art is what we do”

  1. Karen Bradley Says:

    Thank you, Seth, for this eloquent and profoundly moving rant! Here is my contribution; it is the opening of an overview on the value of community-based dance practices a number of us dance folks wrote:

    “…witness the grace and beauty that stirs our souls and connects us to each other like nothing else can.”
    Michelle Obama on dance: the White House, September 7, 2010

    Since time immemorial, and for human beings everywhere, dance appears at the very center of community traditions. Dance fosters the embodiment of cultural practices through storytelling, religious practices, celebrations, courtship, and transmission of history. It is a powerful tool that unites and binds a community, gives pleasure, and teaches young people the ways of the culture…

    It goes on from there. I will be sure to share your excellent essay and thanks for it.

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