I’ve been meaning to write on this subject for quite some time, ever since Greg Sandow posted the thought-provoking second part of his series on How to Advocate for the Arts. Greg’s thesis can be more or less summed up by this quote:
If some things in art can’t support themselves in the market place, and need special funding (whether from government or private donors or both), we can make that case, but again by describing the power, value, and meaning of specific art works, the conclusion being (or the conclusion that we try to draw, and hope that others will accept) that these art works need to be available for all of us, even if they’re expensive, and even if not all of us make use of them.
I partly agree with this. Certainly, a central tenet of any arts advocacy campaign has to be that all of us can benefit from the arts even if not all of us actually like the arts. Or, to be more specific as Greg is in this quote, not everybody appreciates the same things—and that’s okay.
People understand, I think — I’ll end with this — that there are valuable things in life that they themselves might not make use of. I won’t hesitate to argue the worth of art like L’avventura, which in fact many people don’t like at all. (As I’ve said before, I like a lot of things that aren’t exactly popular.) What’s crucial, I think, is to admit that it’s not for everyone, but that it still has an important meaning, an important function in our lives.
Here’s the thing, though: I’m not convinced that we can make this case simply by talking about arts experiences that we’re passionate about, but that the listener hasn’t shared. I mean, in his post, Greg summons the wayback machine to revisit his days as a teenager, spending three paragraphs describing why Antonioni’s L’avventura is important to him. Greg’s writing about the film is filled to the brim with passion; it’s obvious that he still wrestles with its aesthetic details today, nearly half a century after he first experienced it and it struck him to the core.
And yet his description doesn’t do a damn thing for me. I’ve never seen the movie. I’ve never heard of the director; frankly, I didn’t even realize that Greg was talking about a film, and not an opera, until I looked up L’avventura on Wikipedia. And I’m all about the arts, for pete’s sake! If anyone should know about this stuff, it’s someone like me. So if I can’t get into it this way, can we really expect that someone with no artistic background will?
In talking to people who make their living in the arts, I generally find that a small handful of formative, extremely intense artistic experiences like the ones that Greg describes in his post end up setting the stage for a lifetime of dedication to the arts. (You can read an account of one of those that served that purpose for me over at the Fredösphere.) Not too long ago, I asked a small group of arts professionals, people whose jobs involve seeing dozens if not hundreds of performances a year, how many transcendent arts experiences they typically have in that time. The pretty-much-universal answer was “one, if I’m lucky.” Now, think about this for a second. Arts professionals have chosen their field out of dedication to the arts, so one would think that they would be predisposed to liking a performance. You might also surmise that they are able to get more out of it because of their expertise. These factors, plus the high frequency of event attendance, would lead you to expect that they would have transcendent, life-changing arts experiences a lot more often than anyone else. And yet one a year seems like a good ratio to them (and to me).
So think about this next time you are mulling how to “convert” people to our side. Think about how you were converted. It wasn’t because someone described to you some work or piece they loved. It’s because you experienced the art for yourself. Indeed, you might well have made the art yourself—or at the very least, participated in the production of it. Maybe it was a high school play. Maybe it was a choral workshop with Eric Whitacre. Maybe it was a concert you saw that moved you so much that you were dancing and singing all the way back home. The arts are a visceral, physical, deeply experiential phenomenon, and people who have never found themselves carried off on one of these unforgettable ecstatic aesthetic journeys are at a fatal disadvantage for understanding the arts’ intrinsic value to their participants. But simply exposing them to the arts for limited engagements is not likely, in my opinion, to produce those transformative experiences, because those transformative experiences are RARE even for people who already like the arts. Is it possible that those of us who make our lives in the arts were just lucky? That we just happened upon transcendence early enough in our lives for us to take advantage of it? Or alternatively, that our parents, our teachers, were already converts and saw to it that we would have those opportunities? And if so, what implications does that have for our advocacy?