Sunday, 27 March 2011

Idealising Art

What makes something art? It's a question that many ponder over, some with more systematic approaches than others. About a decade ago, I remember there being a story on the news about the New South Wales gallery purchasing a post-modern artwork for a large sum of money that was just a large white canvas painted white. Why a gallery would spend such a large amount of money on a piece like that probably has a good reason from an artistic perspective, but the news description was in such a way to make it seem like anyone could have painted it and it was a waste of taxpayer resources.

In general, people don't need to be sold the worth of art, people are more than happy to spend money on art in various forms, and of the means to experience art. The sound quality of a hi-fi system and the clarity of a screen are worth nothing without music and cinema which to utilise the technology.

And in such a world where we vote with our currency, it might seem odd that the arts would need any investment at all. It's just "high art" that fails to be financially viable, where people fail to see the value or see it merely as elitism masquerading as intrinsic worth. And if art is really just subjective, then why does one's opinion matter more than another?

I do think there are some legitimate points in these concerns, however I think the reduction of funding for "high art" is problematic. For one, it turns art into a business. There's value to art that is irrespective of profitability. And by judging on profitability, it's on mass consumption rather than intrinsic value. With mass consumption comes many arbitrary reasons for success, change and contingency play a role. Also, knowledge doesn't necessarily mean elitism; someone can enjoy something without it being a projection of a status of superiority.

If nothing else, I think a reason to fund "high art" is a recognition of a worth to art as an ideal. That art has the power and capacity to move and inspire, and to give artists as well as the public the capacity to indulge in this activity irrespective of market forces. If we can't recognise this intrinsic value, then all we will have is what we consume, and thus we'll have cheapened art to mass indulgence. Not to say there's anything wrong with mass indulgence, just that it's not sufficient to capture the ideal, and if we bank on anything that's insufficient then something core to the concept will be lost.

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