What is the role of art in today’s society? It is often lumped in that amorphous section of the news that might read “Arts & Entertainment” or “Arts & Lifestyle” or “Arts & Leisure”. You might find the horoscope there, or cartoons, maybe the crosswords. I think that speaks volumes to its current role today. Is art really only a vague mix of various innocuous time killers? When we look at history’s most advanced civilizations we see the Arts at the very forefront of innovation, providing the fertile ground for new vital ideas in all disciplines. I doubt very much the great pyramids were built for entertainment, nor the cave paintings at Lascaux just to pass some time, nor the classical statues of ancient Greece as a diversion, and so forth. Art does not seem to have a tangible meaning in our society because we won’t let it be anything but what we have already labeled it. If we let it, it could help solve humanities’ biggest dilemmas. For example, I think most people would agree that humanity, as a whole, has an energy problem. We have put all our eggs in one basket by putting so much dependence on oil, natural gas and coal. The future of these sources is speculative indeed, but regardless, it seems to make good solid sense to seek out more efficient, cleaner, and abundant sources. After all, as long as we are living on this planet the sun will be shining, beaming down an unbelievable amount of usable energy; and the internal furnace of our planet’s core will be stoked, waiting to be tapped, etc. These are the obvious and inevitable ways of the future. The only barrier that lies between us and harnessing these basic sources is within our minds. Regardless of how we solve it, it needs to be solved for our perpetuity. The Kardeshev scale is a way of measuring our evolution by how we master our available energy sources:

“A Type I civilization is one that controls the energy resources of an entire planet. This civilization can control the weather, prevent earthquakes, mines deep in the earth’s crust, and harvests the oceans. This civilization has already completed the exploration of its solar system.

A Type II civilization is one that controls the power of the sun itself. This does not mean passively harnessing solar energy: this civilization mines the sun. The energy needs of this civilization are so large that it directly consumes the power of the sun to drive its machines. This civilization will begin the colonization of local star systems.

A Type III civilization is one that controls the power of an entire galaxy. For a power source, it harnesses the power of billions of star systems. It has probably mastered Einstein’s equations and can manipulate space-time at will.”[1]

Using this scale, our current civilization is Type 0. In fact, from a glance at the daily news, it might seem that we are actually going backwards, exploiting and killing each other instead of uniting for the common good. Seeing that we have monumental obstacles before us, we might look at our past, to see where we got it right and made genuine advances in our collective evolution.

All the great civilizations of our history held Art in high esteem, though its role may have differed, its value was greatly prized. These civilizations also were surprisingly advanced in other areas as well, whether it is astronomy, engineering, philosophy, mathematics, science, etc. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Chinese, Indians, Sumerians, Persians, and Mayans to name a few, are all good examples of this. Wherever one finds great art, one also finds sophisticated advancement in many other areas as well. And, of course, we do have some great art today, and have had great art in recent history, but only because of unnecessary suffering and sacrifice at the expense of the artist and often without any support or recognition until after their death. We have accepted the myth of the artist as someone who is starving, suffering, maybe crazy, but probably harmless and rarely, a genius, bit certainly not something worth the risk of investing in. Part of this myth is that the suffering is necessary to make great art, but this is simply a falsity. (Cezanne is an example here.) We can thank Van Gogh for much of this current myth. Poor Van Gogh who suffered so much, never to sell a single work, and today is the plaything of billionaires. If only he could have enjoyed a fraction of a fraction of that wealth! His senseless premature death could have been avoided and we would all be richer for the works he might have made. How many other Van Goghs might there have been with a little support and how might that have changed our future? The artists we do know about then and now had some kind of financial backing, either coming from a wealthy family or marrying into wealth to support the “habit” of art. This is just a sin. We all lose in this situation. A very good example of where we currently stand when it comes to the arts, I found as I visited family in Cleveland for the holidays. The local professional football team had been doing very poorly and so a big name was brought in to help out with an undisclosed salary somewhere between five and ten million. Five and ten million! The mayor of the city only makes 100,000 or maybe slightly more! And this recalls how the individual NEA grants were axed because one penny per person per year was just too much to spend on art. Because Andres Serrano put a crucifix in a jar of urine and named it Piss Christ, ALL funding for ALL artists are taken away. There is some sound logic for you. I once heard about a demented dentist in Brooklyn that was selling body parts from corpses on the medical black market, or something completely reprehensible like that. Following this logic, I guess we should imprison ALL dentists! Today, it is better to take away the chance of nurturing the next Van Gogh than to possibly be offended by an artwork that may challenge our fragile beliefs. A society like this, which is too rigid to allow the ideas that will save it to be considered, is simply doomed. Being an artist today is kind of like a prison sentence, with the prisoner possibly being better off. (In prison there are at least three square meals a day and medical care.) Today, the term “artist” is most associated with the likes of Beyonce, or Brittney Spears, or Kayne West, leaving the visual arts out entirely. In the visual arts the most popular artist in America is Thomas Kinkade. Are these “artists” our contemporary versions of Cezanne, Mozart, or Leonardo? Are these “artists” really the best we can do? Among the crowd that is more in the “know”, someone like Damien Hirst might come up first. To me, he is an example of an ultimately transitory fashion, which is inexorably linked to our collective societal psychosis, where shock equals quality and sheer capital buys success. This is artist as corporation. Anyone with an army of talented employees could make a fake pile of excrement look interesting if enough money is thrown at it. If you had enough money to put a pallet of hundred dollar bills in a gallery it would be awfully impressive. But isn’t it only impressive to a growth obsessed capitalistic society on steroids? Otherwise it’s just paper. Would a dead shark in a tank of formaldehyde be impressive to a Type I, II, or III civilization? If it were, it would not be for the same reasons that it is considered “great” now. But Van Gogh will always stop a sensitive viewer in their tracks because he transcends the transitory and strikes at a deeper, richer vein in our collective psyche. His paintings speak about that which cannot be spoken, but needs to be heard and we desperately want and need to hear it. This is why someone will pay hundreds of millions for one of his paintings. Someone may pay a fortune for a Damien Hirst now because of it’s current inflated market value and investment possibilities, but in a hundred years or less, it may be just a dead shark.

When we talk about art with those who do not have a vested interest in it, one immediately is aware of the gulf that has opened between the artist and arts community and the everyday person on the street. There are many diverse ideas and opinions for this. In my opinion, it is the lack of education, which has created this divide, or maybe it should be more accurately called an abyss. Education is the single most important element we can invest in, even before art. Without education, art with a capital “a” cannot and will not exist. This is the realm I am afraid we are now entering. Our society has been so dumbed down and hypnotized, that without an influx of education, the arts will slowly (or quickly) fade into obscurity; a footnote to tomorrow’s Hannah Montanas. Instead our money goes to building a perpetual war machine. Without education, it is evident that art is a luxury for the privileged in our society and often plays a part in displaying the elite status of a person. Also, it often appears as if trends in art are manipulated by sheer capital, not aesthetic value. It has always seemed odd that money is ultimately the bottom line in an area, which in my mind, is the only entity capable of touching the ineffable, the transcendent that is common to all humanity and is the antithesis of money. We can fool ourselves with grandiose, cerebral theories, trying to chip away at its hold on us, but we all actively pursue and need Beauty in our lives in some way. One cannot put a trademark on or patent Beauty or the pursuit of its treasured shores. The only thing that differs is how we define it. For me, the experience of beauty is that essentially positive, open space which remains after the ephemeral aspect of a sensory experience has melted away in the mind. It transcends the limits of the mind, as it simply cannot be contained. Beauty opens the mind and relaxes it: holding it still in reverie, allowing space for more fluid, intuitive insights. Certainly the ancients knew this, as the most innovative cultures put the pursuit of their definition of beauty as the highest of priorities. This would mean a society that is making and appreciating more Art is better adjusted to meet the problems at hand by embodying the perspective of the mind frame necessary to solve its problems. Art in its purest state is not limited by dogma, money or petty politics: it is open, brilliant and vast. Art can and will “be” whatever we want of it. All we need to do is empower it, nourish it, and it will expand our entire society in ways we cannot even begin to speculate.

[1] Michio Kaku, Hyperspace: a scientific odyssey through parallel universes, time warps, and the tenth dimension (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994): 278.

Possible Futures: A Potential Role of Art in a Future Society | 2010 | Home | Comments (0)