Offices vs freedom

This interesting article on Cartoon Brew features a look at Disney’s Burbank studio back when it was being planned.  Blogger Amid Amidi writes:

But more than the lack of charm, the Burbank studio’s ostentatious in-your-face luxuriousness suggested a certain tone deafness on Walt Disney’s part. It rankled the hundreds of artists who were struggling to get by on $15-per-week salaries, and who now realized that the company cared more about its films than the well-being of its rank-and-file employees. It hardly mattered to the artists that Walt had had to borrow money from the banks to pay for the construction of the studio. Labor tensions began to escalate just months after artists moved into the studio, and within 18 months, the nasty Disney strike that threatened to destroy the entire studio had begun.

I think what artists desire is a we’re-all-in-this-together comradery sort of feeling.  We’re all on the same team, we’re all working together to produce something we can all be proud of.

But the atmospheres of some offices (including the pics featured in the aforementioned blog post) kind of make me sick.  Instead of a comradery feeling, they evoke a factory feeling.  The artists are just cogs.  Uncle Walt will get all the power and glory, and you sit at your desk and do the work your superiors tell you.

I think creative artists in the entertainment industry can struggle with this feeling a lot.  On the one hand, creativity demands the freedom and power to pursue one’s creative interests.  On the other hand, creating something as big and complicated as a film, especially an animated film, demands a level of conformity, a level of sacrifice of control.  This is one of the reasons I can’t pursue a career in animation with as much fervor as I once thought I could; I just find the prospect of a studio life somewhat intimidating.  I have the utmost respect and admiration for those artists who can keep their sanity while bringing these awesome new and wonderful worlds to life.  I’m not sure I’m humble enough for that sort of work.

OK, I don’t know what this post about.  I think I’m hinting at another post I’d like to write sometime soon about how creativity and art require humility.

Stephen Fry on musical snobbery and classical music

Someone posted this on Facebook, and I quite liked it…

It’s a bit raunchy though, but it’s Stephen Fry. I would recommend listening to it, but not actually watching it, because the camera man will drive you insane. I don’t agree with his philosophical theories on the origins and purposes of dance, but that’s beside the matter. I’m not sure what the specifics are of the notion he is responding to, but I still agree with the main message… I think…

(And Mozart died before he was put in a grave…)

On complete non-objectivity in art

While most people will agree that art is subjective and that it’s OK for tastes to be somewhat different, there’s often also this underlying belief that there are certain objective standards that make certain works of art objectively greater than others. For example, an English teacher might understand how his students might have different opinions on Shakespeare’s best work. But if a student considered a Batman comic to be of greater artistic value than Hamlet, the English teacher, along with his colleagues, may consider the student to be objectively wrong in his opinion, and blame his opinion on lack of education.

I would claim, however, that the teacher in the above example is wrong, as are all who judge the student’s opinions to be inferior. I think the problem stems from how people mix their honest emotional responses to pieces of artwork with what they think about a piece’s influence and apparent complexity. That is, if something is clearly popular, acclaimed by academics and critics, or seemingly more complex, people will hold their emotional responses in less regard and form opinions based on these alternative standards.

Influence is perhaps the most obvious factor in determining an artwork’s level of “objective greatness.” If a piece of art has influenced many, clearly there must be something objectively good about it. How else could it have such influence? And the more influential a piece is considered, the more influential it seems to become, as new audiences are introduced to and become influenced by the work by the mere virtue of its being considered influential.

Complexity may also be taken into account when determining the artistic value of a work of art. There may be a natural bias towards the complex. I have not thought about this strange bias enough to have any good guess as to why it may exist. My current guess is that people assume that more complex works are the results of a greater care and thought on the creator’s part, and are therefore more naturally valuable. It’s a completely illogical bias, as audiences can never truly know how much thought went into something, and what seems complex to one person may not seem so complex to another.

I don’t mean to claim that works of art can’t or shouldn’t be judged by these standards. While I don’t think there’s any objective way to do it, I’m not sure there’s any reason or method to stop ourselves from doing it naturally. What I argue against is the natural but illogical tendency of supposing that these qualities determine (or should determine) emotional responses and the validity of the emotional responses of others.

An emotional response is a natural emotional reaction to an experience of art. To simplify, an audience member will, after experiencing the artwork, love it, like it, be indifferent to it, dislike it, or hate it. It is a bit more complicated than that, of course, because we don’t judge our experiences as a whole; we judge them in pieces and sometimes in separate factors. For example, we can enjoy the music and acting of a film, but hate its storyline. We can love a singer’s voice, but hate the song they sing. Our emotions are also biased by factors outside of our experience of art, such as: our emotional state before experiencing art, peer pressure, tastes and preferences, background knowledge of the art’s production, and even our sense of self and social status. No emotional response can be evoked only by a piece of art; no emotional response bursts into existence out of a vacuum.

My argument is that, because these emotional responses are natural, they can never be invalid. There is no such thing as fake joy or sadness. Influence and complexity do not necessarily infer more pleasing emotional responses, and they certainly don’t create them. If a Batman comic fills one with more interest and inspiration than a Shakespearean play, that interest and inspiration is not somehow lower or worse. If a pop song fills one with more joy than Beethoven’s Ninth, that joy is not somehow less valid or less real because more professors hate the pop song.

“Oh, sure,” you may say. “Of course art is subjective! But the people who love Beethoven’s Ninth are of course more educated people.” If that is your response, you have clearly not understood my points at all, and I’m not sure how better to explain them.

By this line of logic, there is also no such thing as “high art” (as I’ve argued before). There is certainly “popular art” (whether that popularity is academic, professional, commercial, etc.), but to claim such art is therefore objectively better or higher than other art, or should evoke more greater or more valid emotions, is terribly pretentious and completely illogical.

It’s natural for us to not understand what it’s like to be other people or experience the same emotions that other people claim to be experiencing. But that does not mean that they’re lying or that the emotions you know you’re feeling are more real or justified than theirs. Your opinions can never be better or more justified than anyone else’s.

“I really wanted to like it, but…”

Sometimes when I read reviews, the reviewer will say something like: “I really wanted to like this, but… blah, blah, blah.”

This phrase really annoys me. Taken at face value, it seems like an attempt of the reviewer to place the ultimate blame for his disliking on the creators. After all, how can it be the reviewer’s fault if he wanted or tried to like it? What more could be asked of an audience member?

I would ask audience members to be not so self-conscious of whether or not they like something; just let the artwork affect you in whatever way it will, and you’ll find whether or not you like it by the end without even having to think about it.

You don’t get any credit for wanting to like something. Of course you wanted to like it; finding some kind of pleasure in the experience of art is the reason we put ourselves in the position to experience it in the first place. But one should always realize that the possibility of disliking something is there and beyond one’s control. You can’t predict how certain pieces of art will affect you; that’s one of the really fun things about experiencing it.

Ideally, one shouldn’t go in expecting to like something. That way, one won’t be disappointed with the occassional but inevitable disliking. Of course, this is easier said than done; there’s always some reason we’re interested in a particular piece of art; there’s always some quality about it we think we have a good possibility of liking. But we can and should still manage our expectations realistically, realizing that they won’t always be fulfilled exactly as we naturally daydream them to be. (Mentioning this reminds me of my older post about goals.)

When you dislike something, the fault is yours and the creator’s. That’s OK. You don’t have to be ashamed of that. You don’t have to make excuses about how you “tried” to like it. Everyone has different tastes and backgrounds they bring to the experiences they have, and while some would like to think of their tastes as being better or more sophisticated or more real than someone else’s, there really is no basis for thinking such things. We can claim another person’s tastes are immoral if there’s something someone else likes that we think they shouldn’t on moral grounds, but this has nothing to do with sophistication or intellect (as we tend to assume it does because of observed behavorial correlations, but that’s another matter). There’s also the possibility that you won’t like something because you’re not experienced enough with the piece’s background, or what material it references, or what historical influence it had. Some academic snobs might look down on your opinions for your “misunderstandings” of such great works of genius and claim that your low opinions of the piece are invalid because you are dumb, but they’re wrong. Yes, your ignorance (and your past experiences) will affect how you respond to a piece, but how does that make your natural emotional reaction any less valid? The validity of your liking or disliking does not get to be decided by a show of hands or a scholar’s analysis. How much your liking or disliking might predict someone else’s future emotional reaction can certainly be debated (such as: “Oh, I disagree with Roger Ebert 70% of the time, so I’m not worried that he didn’t like this film I want to see…”), but not your opinion’s validity. It’s not as if your emotional reaction is somehow faked by your ignorance.

Finally, how do you actively “try” or “want” to like something while experiencing it anyway? Do you consciously ignore stuff you don’t like in hopes you won’t notice them anymore? Do you think of pretty ponies prancing through the praries in your head? Do you eat loads of candy hoping to trick yourself into thinking that the joy of devouring sugar is actually from the art you wish to like?

My main point is this: you can’t control your emotional reactions to works of art, and should therefore not be ashamed of liking or disliking something. It may be informative for you to think about what specifically you didn’t like and what you think would’ve made something better. But you never need to try to justify your response. Such justifications will be invalid anyway; nothing justifies your response other than the fact that it was truly your response. Your desire to like something is irrelevant, and it’s silly (if not just plain stupid) to mention it.

Thanks for reading this post; I hope you liked it, or at least tried to…

The artist’s creed

I’ve been thinking about the artist’s creed. At least my version of it. This is all just my advice to artists from personal experience. Not that I have that much personal experience or have achieved anything very famous, but still…

For now, there are only three. I might think of some more later on as I go through life and become smarterer and smarterererish…

1. Don’t get excited

OK, you are allowed to get excited. It’s part of human nature. Just be careful that you’re not setting yourself up for later disappointment. Be honest with yourself about why exactly you’re excited. If it’s only your daydreams that are exciting you, recognize that, and make sure they do not become expectations.

The beginning of the creative process is, at least for me, the most exciting part of the creative process. (The second most exciting part is actually finishing something that you feel good about, but that has nothing to do with this rule.) When you get that first seed of an idea, that first inkling of something awesome, it can quickly become an obsession. You daydream about it all night and day. Oh, what wonderful possibilities!

But what is it that’s really exciting? It’s the possibilities. It’s the unknown. The unknown can be very exciting. It’s why movie trailers are exciting: they give just small pieces of info, leading us to wonder what the entire movie will be like. It’s why we wrap presents at Christmas: what could be in there? I can’t wait to find out!

But with the creative process, we work backwards. We daydream the movie trailer moments first, and that gets us all excited. The problem with this is obvious: we have to create the film. We have to fill in the details and make it something absolute instead of just of bunch of vague possibilities.

While the initial excitement can be a great motivator for getting to work, DO NOT mistake that excitement as a judgment of the completed work. You don’t have the completed work yet. You can’t judge it. You can’t even judge its potential. Something that does not yet really exist does not have potential.

I once met someone who was excited about an independent film he was working on, claiming it was bound to make millions … later on, he mentioned he was looking for someone to write the screenplay. Wait a sec. You don’t even have a screenplay?

In a similar manner, don’t get excited about potential success. If someone promises to make you rich, or to buy your work, or to make your screenplay into a film, or whatever, don’t get excited until it’s actually done, until it’s actually set in stone. When there’s a lot of money involved, many things can go wrong, many important people can change their minds. Save yourself from disappointment. Don’t let your expectations be denied by not having high expectations to begin with.

2. Never be satisfied

This rule requires much less description. It’s the age old philosophy of Kaizen. If you find yourself quite pleased with your work, it does not mean you’re a great artist, it means you’re stupid. OK, you can be a little satisfied. I’m not trying to argue you should always be in a state of self-loathing disappointment. But you should always be able to find something to improve upon. No work of art is perfect. Obviously, you must stop working on a project at some point if you ever want to do something else. As they say: “A work of art is never finished, only abandoned.”

3. Don’t be a critic

OK, you can be a critic. In fact, you need to be a critic of some sort to make any sort of creative decisions at all.

What I mean by this rule is: don’t be a critic instead of being creative. As Anton Ego says in Ratatouille: “The bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”

Good critiques, even if subjective, serve the creative process. They help artists make choices. Lame critiques (that is, unasked-for critiques from non-creative people) are worthless. Still, they can make non-creative people feel productive and involved. So they’re not going to disappear anytime soon.

As an artist, do not give lame critiques your time. And don’t create them.

If someone asks for your honest opinion, as a creative person might, be honest, informative, and kind. It is better to say “This part of the story doesn’t work for me because I don’t understand this character’s motivations…” rather than “What the heck?! He can’t just do that! That’s stupid! You should die for writing this crap!”

If someone asks for your dishonest opinion, patronize him; that’s what he wants. “Oh, awesome! That’s very neat! Nice work!” If they need people to lie to them to make them feel good, that’s their problem. And maybe they just want to show you their work and don’t really give a crap what you really think. So be polite and don’t tell them. Unless, of course, you are honestly impressed. If the truth doesn’t hurt, it won’t hurt!

If no one asks for your opinion, why are you wasting your time telling them?

The End

Those are the three rules. As I said, I might think of some more later. For now, I’m going to give these rules their own page and link on the side, which I’ll keep updated as I think of more (or if want to edit these later).

Creative processes

Here’s another post from Elizabeth King, whose blog I critiqued in an earlier post.  This post is really just a graphic, but it’s still interesting…

Overall, I appreciate (that is, I like) the author’s overall goal of encouraging people to be more creative.  This graphic though seems to suggest that an artist’s creative process involves a lot of consideration for the “rules” of art, and then decisions as to whether or not to follow them: “risk taking,” “innovation,” etc.  This also suggests that an artist is very concious of where his or her artwork fits in the big scheme things.

And I don’t necessarily disagree with any of that, if that’s what the artist wants to think about.  (Though I do think an artist can think he knows more about the role of his and other artists’ work in the big scheme of things than he is actually capable of knowing.  Things like influence are like stock market prices; they’re chaotic systems.  They are not linearly-defined cause-and-effect patterns, even though they can be simplified to look like that, and we humans tend to simplify things into cause-and-effect patterns quite naturally.  Nassim Nicholas Taleb, anyone?)

I don’t think any art is created in a vacuum.  An artist is going to be influenced by all the artwork he’s seen before, especially work that really resonates with him.

But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with an artist’s creative process not involving consideration for “rules” (which often aren’t really “rules” in the first place, so I don’t know why people keep calling them that), or consideration for how “innovative” they think they’re being.  After all, one can only judge “innovation” based on what one’s seen before, thus it is a subjective property, a matter of opinion, not objective academic analysis (though such analysis might be interesting for the sake of getting new ideas).  Innovation for the sake of innovation is, of course, worthless.  It’s kind of annoying how many music composers out there could, for example, spend their time trying to create something “new” despite sensing any beauty, hoping the beauty will be found by future generations.  The point of creation is then a hope for later fame, later recognition for being the first, even though they claim to be entirely unselfish in their creative act.  But I guess that’s all beside the point…

I don’t really understand the concepts of “safety” and “bravery” in relation to artistic creation, so it will be interesting to see those concepts expanded upon.  Perhaps it has to do with an artist asking “will this creation of mine work for others?”  If the answer is: “Gee wiz, I just don’t know!  But I believe in it!” then the artist is brave.  If the answer is: “Yes!  I have followed all the rules!” then the artist is being safe.  Or perhaps it has to do whether or not the artist even cares what other people think.  If the artist thinks: “I’m going to do what I wish to do and I shall not compromise for the sake of the masses!” then he is brave.  If the artist thinks: “Well, gee wiz, I sure don’t want to confuse anyone and I hope everyone likes me!” then he is being safe.

Again, though, I don’t think this necessarily has to be a conscious decision, or even a decision at all.  If an artist is just trying please himself, then “safety vs. bravery” just doesn’t apply.  It’s not like you can be “brave” to yourself; you’re never going to do anything outside of what you would do.  To me, “brave” seems to mean you have something to fear, but do something despite that fear.  If you’re not afraid of anything, then you cannot be brave.  And maybe I’d go so far as to say that a fearful artist is a stupid artist, and therefore no good artist can be brave.  After all, if you’re truly fearing something, then your creative priorities are probably wrong.

So, overall, I don’t think this diagram describes a lot of people’s “creative process” and I don’t think that’s bad.  I think it’s a lot more automatic for most people.  It basically goes: What would I like to see exist? –> Create it.  That simple.  No thinking about innovation, rules and rule-breaking, being brave or safe, studying long artistic histories, etc.  Just creating for the joy of it.

Perhaps I will at some point launch my own site dedicated to encouraging creativity… but first I will have to study whether or not such a project will be innovative enough…

High art and snobbery

[All uses of the word “you” are general; they are just to you, the reader, not to any particular person.]

Yesterday I blogged a response to an article about art education, and I used the word “snob” a lot, which angered some people (of course… it reads very insultingly, and not very many people want to be considered snobby).  My use of the word “snob” was in response to a few ideas I was getting from the author’s writing.  (Whether or not the author truly holds these ideas is another matter.  This can be a pretty complex issue.  There are probably entire books dedicated to the subject.)  The main idea I attribute the word “snob” to is the idea of there being a “high art.”  Does that not seem snobby?  Doesn’t that imply the existence of “low art” that “high art” is “better” or “more important” than?  If not, why use the phrase? defines a “snob” as:

a person who believes himself or herself an expert or connoisseur in a given field and is condescending toward or disdainful of those who hold other opinions or have different tastes regarding this field

Using the phrase “high art” or “serious art” seems condescending to me.  If that’s not snobbery, what is?

What’s considered “high art”?  That’s probably subjective, but what comes to my mind is opera, symphonies, art galleries, Shakespearean theater, and university professor-approved literature.  What’s “low art”?  Brittany Spears, Spongebob Squarepants, heavy metal, Nancy Drew, etc.

(I am definitely NOT saying that anyone who likes opera, symphonies, Shakespearean theater, etc, is a snob.  Nor am I saying that anyone who doesn’t like them is not a snob.  But if you think the symphony orchestra is important for reasons beyond personal interest, if you think there’s something about it that all citizens should know about and appreciate, that’s snobbery; it’s false, and it’s condescending to people who don’t want to go to the symphony.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t support or advertise a symphony; it’s about why you feel the need to.)

I think most people in our culture are certainly aware of a difference between these artistic areas, separating them on a mental spectrum, whatever their personal artistic tastes.  And there is a difference, obviously; I’m not trying to claim all art is the same.  What I find snobby is the notion that “high art” is innately and/or intellectually superior to other art.  The idea that only certain art is “high” or “serious” connotes this.

I’m surprised more people don’t have an issue with using phrases like “high art” or “serious art” … I suppose it’s because these terms and the idea of there being a big difference between “high art” and “non-high art” has just sunk too deeply into the mindset of our culture, and I don’t think that’s a good thing.  (Especially if you enjoy “high art” and want it to be more popular.)


The big complex issue, I think, is in trying to answer the questions: Why might some art be considered “higher” or more “serious”?  What exactly is the difference between “high art” and “low art”?

There may be as many answers as there are people.

What comes to my mind the most strongly are the intentions of the artist.  For high art, the artist intends his art to be high; the artist creates his art in a conscious effort to have his or her artwork become a part of the high art world.  For low art, the intention is just to decorate something, or to make money.  The high artist strives for quality, the low artist for a quick paycheck.  The high artist has something deeply important to say to humanity and wants the audience to think deeply, the low artist just wants to have fun.  The function of the high artist’s art is to only to be considered art.  The function of the low artist’s art is to entertain.

I reject this notion.  It would mean we’d be basing our evaluation of a work of art on the intentions of the artist.  We’d be evaluating the intentions and not the art, only how well the artist’s intentions are executed.  And we’d have to be sure to know the intentions of the artist.  How do we know the intentions of the artist?  Just ask him?  What if we’re wrong?

You might say “Well, can’t we see in intention in the art itself?  Or in how the artist shares it?”  I don’t know.  How can anyone know?  You can certainly get a message out of art (especially in literature or theater or film, perhaps the least abstract arts), but how do you know that’s the message the artist was trying to communicate?  What if you don’t get a message or you’re confused about a message?  If the artist’s intentions (apart from what intentions we see in or infer from the art itself) should matter in our evaluation of art, our own opinions of the art itself become invalid and our understanding of other people’s artwork can only ever be incomplete.  We wouldn’t be able to think for ourselves, we’d have to look to the rest of society and make sure the people we want to be associated with agree with us.

Of course, some artists have known this and have played around with it.  What happens if you draw a can of soup?  What if your sculpture is a urinal?  What if you call random noise “music”?  How did we get to the point where we had to ask these questions or think them profound?  Methinks snobbery had something to do with it.

I could go on about this point, because it’s a complex one, and wording my argument isn’t easy.  Maybe I’ll dedicate an entire future blog post to this point.

Anyway, moving on…

One could also bring up the matter of influence… high art influences many high people.  But it’s easy to see why this explanation breaks down.  It turns art into a popularity contest; the more popular something is, the better.  And low art becomes popular all the time, yet it can never join the ranks of high art.

What about complexity?  High art is complex, and high artists spend years of practice and dedication to create their works.  Low art is simple.

Too subjective, right?

What about timelessness?  High art lasts hundreds of years, low art is soon forgotten.

Well then we got a long wait before knowing what high art is being created today.  (Perhaps there is none?)

What are some other answers to these questions?  I’m not sure off the top of my head, but they’re out there.  If there’s one out there I don’t reject, I’ll have to change my beliefs and take back what I say in this post.  But, come on, that’ll never happen!  Bwah ha ha ha ha!!  Aha ha ha!  Aha!  *Narf*


In conclusion: the term “high art” and “serious art” and “high culture” and related phrases (and the world-views they imply) are snobby.  I hope you now understand why I think this.  And if we truly want “high art” to be more popular, we’ll have to rid ourselves of any appearances of snobbery.

“You know what I’m craving? A little perspective. That’s it. I’d like some fresh, clear, well seasoned perspective. Can you suggest a good wine to go with that?” ~Anton Ego

Stop blindly defending arts education

I’m not against people defending arts education.  I just don’t like seeing people doing it blindly.

I read this article from a link I saw on my twitter feed: Arts Education and Civilization: This Isn’t Child’s Play

[UPDATE: Please also check out the comments!  I throw around the word “snob” a lot below, but my intent is not to personally call the author of this article a snob; it is in response to the actual ideas.  Just in case you’re mad at me already.]

Now, Elizabeth King, the article’s author, isn’t being blind.  It’s people who support arts education and, in turn, support articles like these without reading them, or without reading them closely enough, just because the conclusion agrees with theirs.

About the article: I don’t like it.

The article’s author seems to suggest that arts education should be funded in public-funded schools because…

Because why?

Just because.

Because, you know, smart people think arts are good.  It’s just the “smart” thing to think.  So we all just defend it because we like it.

I’ll state my own opinion at the bottom of this blog post, but first I want to go over why this particular article annoys me.

The article starts off with two quotes, which I’ll reproduce below.  The first quote is from Doris Sommer, Director of the Cultural Agents Initiative at Harvard University:

Some people mistake the arts as only a vehicle for expression. That’s a very limited view. Art is a vehicle for exploration, learning, and trying things out. If people are serious about reducing violence and educating youth to become productive citizens and more satisfied in their own lives, supporting and expanding art is a major opportunity for developing intellectual capacity. All of the rhetoric about empowerment gets immediately grounded when a youth is working on an art project. This person is authoring something that didn’t exist before.

I’m guessing King quotes this because of its general support for arts education.  Of course.  But it’s a vague quote.  It doesn’t really say much beyond “youth that is creating art is good.”  But why is it good?  Well, it reduces violence.  Evidence of this?  Oh, it just does.  What else?  It educates youth to become productive citizens (whatever those are) and more satisfied in their own lives.  Again, evidence of this?  Oh, who needs evidence, these seem like truisms!  How could they be wrong?

Firstly, maybe their “art” is rapping about having gangsta wars and shooting each other.  Maybe they want to make violent films.  If expanding art education reduces crime simply because youth won’t have as much time to do crime in the first place, you could equally support sports, religion, couch-potatoness, and prison sentences for pre-crimes for the same reason.  Secondly, I’d like to say there are plenty of artists who aren’t satisfied with their own lives.  They’re miserable.  But this is probably beside the point, because “satisfaction” is not something that can be objectively measured.

The second quote is from Tim Smith from the Baltimore Sun:

… [Glen] Beck singled out cities with budget crises where they’re cutting back on police, but not slashing the funding for such things as libraries, museums and, in Baltimore, the Lyric Opera House — a.k.a. the “stupid, snotty opera house.”

Beck claimed that $750,000 was in the budget for that historic venue in our fair city, while “cops are on the chopping block. This is like my wife saying we are broke, we have to cut down our expenses on food. I turn around and say, OK, when you grocery shop, no more meats, organics, milk — we’re cutting that out. Just get Mountain Dew and Cheetos … How about we get the rich who never pay their fair share to buy their stupid snotty opera house? Would you cut the opera house or the cops? … What does your gut tell you? That everybody involved in this is moron?

I suppose this quote supports art, and that’s why King posted it.  But to me this seems to be more about “art vs. cops” and their funding.  So cities are not cutting back on funding for an opera house?  Why are they funding opera houses in the first place?

At least, that’s the message I get from this little quote.  Things are probably somewhat more complicated (read the full article).  But I do think the government can stay completely out of the arts and both the arts and the government will be just fine.  Using public funds to fund only a specific type of art is not fair to people who don’t enjoy that kind of art.  To support such a fund is to be stupid and snotty.

OK, to the article…

King writes:

Most high art

Woah!  Hold it, hold it!  There goes my snobbish rhetoric alarm.  “High” art?  Some art is “low” and some art is “high”?  Already we must have completely different definitions of what “art” is.  Tsk, tsk!

OK, King goes on to try to define art:

Most high art—visual art, music, literature, dance, theater—intends to examine a group of people, comment on society, recount experience, investigate social norms, and challenge them, highlight them, or reinforce them.

Woah!  More snob rhetoric!  “Intends”?  You now think you know the intentions of dead artists?  Another big tsk tsk!  I disagree with this definition.  It might be true for some art, but I don’t think we can state a definition so objectively and self-contained like that.  Maybe King didn’t mean to do that, but that’s what she wrote.  You think Mozart’s 40th symphony had anything in particular to say about society?

King writes:

High art strives for better—better execution, better message. It looks for continuity between what has come before and its own sense of direction; it’s aware of its own longevity.

Ha!  You wish!  Wouldn’t that make the subject easy to understand!  But King is over-generalizing immensely, and the rhetoric is still snobbish (“high” and “better”).

After snobbishly attempting to define art, King then writes about a survey from the National Endowment of the Arts (which, ideally, does not need to exist) about how participation in snob, er, “high” art is declining:

The 2008 survey results are, at a glance, disappointing. As reported in Arts Participation 2008, a summary brochure of the survey’s findings, a smaller segment of the adult population either attended arts performances or visited art museums or galleries than in any prior survey.

Why are the results disappointing?  Why is attending arts performances or visiting art museums and galleries automatically good?  People should like and pay for this stuff, otherwise they are dumb, uncultured, uneducated fools?

The quote from the NEA goes on to try to guess at why there’s a decline, and guesses that the decline in arts education has something to do with it.

So… we should support arts education so attendance at NEA-surveyed places goes up?  Again, why would this be automatically good?

Finally, King attempts to answer this question:

When we let go of cultural traditions and inquisition, the after-effects are more than a momentary disruption— it’s not just some blip on the screen in our society. When we consistently replace cultural exploration with pop culture consumption we ultimately create a hole in our connection with each other across society. Ignoring art means breaking our bonds with each other. Truly, abandoning the arts puts us at risk for increased violence in our communities. Ultimately, if our culture is one of the defining elements of our civilization, if it propels us forward and connects the work we do now with that of the past and, even more importantly, that of the future, then to destroy that continuity and meaningful connection actually puts our society and civilization at risk.

Whew, that’s a lot.  Let’s go over this paragraph more finely.

King writes:

When we consistently replace cultural exploration with pop culture consumption we ultimately create a hole in our connection with each other across society. Ignoring art means breaking our bonds with each other.

What?  I don’t think so.  The problem here is that King has snobbishly separated art into an elite “high” art and the lowly “pop culture.”  Just because attendance at symphonies and art galleries goes down doesn’t mean that art isn’t being consumed, it’s just not the kind of art you think is “high” enough.  That “high” art is not some invisible important cultural glue keeping us all functioning properly, while “low” art does nothing.  How do we bond with each other through “high” art?  What sort of “bonds”?  That’s not a rhetorical question; answer it!

I, of course, completely disagree.  Art is something that comes natural to humans.  We will always involve ourselves in art, whether it’s taught in schools or not.  There is not some higher subset of art that keeps us all bonded nicely.

King writes:

Truly, abandoning the arts puts us at risk for increased violence in our communities.

Evidence?  No?  It’s just a truism?

And, again, not going to art galleries is not “abandoning the arts”!  If what you call “pop culture” is “high art” to someone else, then you have nothing to worry about, do you?

Ultimately, if our culture is one of the defining elements of our civilization…

Uh… OK, culture is a defining element of civilization.  But culture emerges naturally.  People don’t sit down and consciously design a culture.  “Well, we’re a great civilization, we just don’t have much culture…” No.

…if it propels us forward and connects the work we do now with that of the past…

We move forward in time because we have to.  Cultural changes do not go backwards and forwards (unless you mean in a moral sense), they just change.  Artistic trends, likewise, change; they do not “progress.”  And I have no idea what King means by “connects.”  That word is too vague.  Makes grammatical sense, seems fine if you’re reading quickly, but if you stop and think about what it means… what does it mean?  I don’t know.  I could guess, maybe that’s what King wants readers to do, but I don’t know.  The word is too imprecise.

…to destroy that continuity and meaningful connection actually puts our society and civilization at risk.

So ultimately this is all about a vague sense of “connection”?  This isn’t good enough for me.

King then gets patriotic:

The American experiment is still new. The work we’re doing to perpetuate a democracy is still, in terms of global history, extremely fresh. By abandoning the arts we are abandoning ourselves. By offering exceedingly paltry arts education we are abandoning our students now and future generations. We are abandoning the first Americans who risked their necks so we could be here. Finally, we are abandoning our potential for continuity, the creative economy, and, most fundamentally, the luxury of relative safety that we enjoy on a daily basis.

Again, King makes the snobbish assumption that art museum attendance (and such) and the cutting of art education programs are signs of the public “abandoning the arts” when in reality they’re just abandoning a certain definition of it.  King claims we are somehow thus abandoning “the first Americans who risked their necks so we could be here.”  What in the world do they have to do with it?  Saying that you’re “abandoning your parents who took their time to raise you” makes equal sense.

(Oh, and I guess art education isn’t as important for non-Americans?)

King then lists some other vague ideas we’re abandoning.  “Our potential for continuity” … what does that mean?  “The creative economy” … what does that mean?  And “the luxury of relative safety.”  Absolute safety would be more of a luxury.  But… what the?  How does safety have anything to do with this?  Oh, are you going back to the idea that crime rates go down with more arts education?

King writes:

The discussion about Arts Ed is heated, but it’s tough to talk about when so few Americans actually engage in the arts.

Well, yeah, isn’t that your problem to begin with?  That’s like saying “it’s hard to talk about why math books should be more popular when so few Americans actually read math books.”

King then makes a commitment that her blog, or website, will start talking to artists…

The vast majority of the artists we’re going to talk to are going to be full time, established artists–people you should know about.

Just had to get one last moment of rhetorical snobbery in there?  “People you should know about”?  Gee, thanks!

My own opinion

I hold the rare position of being against our whole system of public-funded education in general.  I think there are worse things to worry about, like the actual reasons behind why we even have to question whether or not to fund education about the arts.  What other things are we teaching and why are we teaching them?  What’s the point of education in the first place?  To be ranked #1 in the world and dominate it?  To stay busy?  To just learn as much as we can just in case we might use some of it someday?

If a work of art isn’t influential enough by itself to pervade the public’s consciousness on its own merit, then we don’t have to artificially extend its influence by forcing students to be conscious of it.  Works of art that were once considered “great” can be forgotten, and that is OK.  If you think that is not OK, if you think that is sad, then you are a snob.  Being conscious of works of art that used to be popular and influential does not make you “smarter” or “better.”  Just because something is helpful or interesting to you does not mean we should, as a society, force everyone to know it.

Having said all that…

In some ways, I’m playing devil’s advocate here, because I’d rather align myself with people like Elizabeth King who support arts in education rather than these stupid school officials who just want more compulsive testing.  But in some other ways, I’m very annoyed, because so many people don’t seem to have objective reasons for supporting this stuff; they just do it because they like the arts themselves.  And if that’s all that’s guiding them, they’re really not helping much.

“Support the arts in education!  A way to shove art chosen by other people down the public’s throat for its own good!”

We don’t need that.