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Kamarck, Edward (ed.) / Arts in society: tenth anniversary issue

[Unfulfilled opportunities in the arts: a symposium],   pp. [7]-24 PDF (17.0 MB)

Page 11

quarrel isn't finicky, it's genuinely
semantic. This symposium's title seems
one more attempt to harden an analogy
between the arts and other American areas
of unfulfillment, like urban development
and transportation. In this era, when at
last this country is becoming dimly aware
of its responsibilities to all its citizens in
every way, it is also formulating a simplistic
one-to-one analogy. Privileged people had
habitable houses; now everyone must have
habitable houses. Privileged people
enjoyed the arts; now everyone must
enjoy the arts. I think this is nonsense.
Pace Harold Taylor and others, I do not
think that art is an obligation of democracy
to its citizens. Education is an obligation
of democracy. The opportunity for art -
as maker or appreciator - is democracy's
obligation to its citizens. But when every
child, youth, and adult has been given
that opportunity to the fullest, that is
where democracy's function in art ends.
It is not incumbent on democracy to spread
culture to everyone, as it is to vaccinate
everyone. It is not the object of democracy
to make everybody go to museums or
read good books. Nor is it democracy's
function to make anyone feel out of the
swim if he does not buy a local
symphony subscription.
It is not the function of the artist to reach
as many people as possible. It is his
function to be as good as possible, and
take his chances on the rest. If he
does not find enough response to provide
him with a living, then there is something
else that society can do (discussed below)
other than force him down uninterested
throats as proof that America is Coming
of Age.
All the above may seem truisms, unless
one has made even the quickest survey of
the decade's Cultural Explosion.
As against the title of the symposium,
I like the title of this magazine very much.
To me art is a social function, using the
adjective without any sociological or
Political color. A society always controls
and surrounds an artist; there is no such
thing as a purely artistic problem, whether
it is a matter of philosophic alienation
or of brushwork The troubles of art always
follow the troubles of society - not
eventually so but very shortly so. The idea
that problems of art can, in any whole
sense, be discussed in isolation from social
context seems to me silly. For example,
what would be the sense of pointing out
that no great tragedy has ever been written
in this country? A sufficiently talented
dramatist - even one we might conceive of,
abstractly, as having the ability to write
a great tragedy (if such an abstraction
is possible) - might well find it impossible
to write that tragedy today, in this
society. The most withdrawn poet is
still a social product. Robinson Jeffers'
world-rejecting poetry is as much a product
of his times as Allen Ginsberg's
world-embracing poetry.
Then is there nothing that society -  in
this case, an entity called America-
can do for the artist? A good deal. But it
is all in support, it is all at Stage Two.
Stage One is the artist himself. Stage
Two (hinted at above) is society's
opportunity to free him from pleasing it. In
the case of an individual artist like the
novelist or painter, the help is relatively
easy. In the case of collaborative artists like
theatre people and filmmakers, help is more
difficult and much more expensive.
Society can, however, find ways to help all
of them, and must do so with no
expectation that the majority will be
pleased with the result.
If that seems utopian at the present time,
then patrons would do better to
concentrate on supporting the safe, like the
corporations that get awards from
Esquire for sponsoring productions of
The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Nutcracker.
More time will have to pass, the education
that is a democratic function will have to
improve and spread, before our society is
able to help artists sensibly even at
Stage Two. Perhaps that education will in
time help us to understand that art is
made by discontented men, who want to
disturb us, not soothe us; that, though
it is imperative that Shakespeare and
Russian ballet be available, we can support
them for centuries and yet not necessarily
do anything to develop or deepen an
American culture.
I do not equate commercial failure and
artistic merit. Too many examples
contravene that equation. But for at
least a couple of hundred years the best
Western artists have tended to work in

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