Art at the Margins…of our mind

“You know, Shawn, you’ve done a lot of playing in your life,” my father said when, at 26, I wanted to change my career path from performing arts to teaching. “Most of us, you know, have had to work.”

This sentiment highlights where my father, and I would guess most people, place the arts: apart from and below real work. He loved that I was doing something I loved, but it did seem to him like mere play. That is, it was not lucrative, respected work. Yet, those years as a performing artist inspired the rest of my life; they were invaluable. Why, then, are the arts undervalued like this and relegated to the margins of the “real world”?

Instead of blaming corporate America or my Dad, I want to trace the marginality of the arts to its base in our individual thought. I believe that it is an idea-problem as much as it is a resource-problem. In myself, why do I struggle to maintain space and time in my life to make art? Why do I sometimes consider creative pursuits, even ones that financially support me, frivolous? Why do we all (I’m including almost all artists) divide work from play, art from life?

Following these questions, I propose a couple of hypotheses for why the arts have to sit at the kiddy table:

Hypothesis #1: There is something dangerous about art. In its aim to complicate or radically clarify our reality, art proves slippery and subversive to those who are invested in maintaining the dominant view. I think of how evocative and imaginative images, posters, movies have accompanied social movements — Bolshevik posters, labor union songs, political cartoons, etc. Powers-that-be tend to shut down and censor these activities as a first line of defense. Hence, in our thoughts, we couple art with transgression and potential reprimand.

Hypothesis #2: Art and art-making don’t fit well with the primarily utilitarian concerns of our age. Our market economy values efficiency (speed) and mass producibility (quantity). Artistic endeavor, above speed and quantity, values quality. Over profitability, art values meaning and thus challenges the basic tenets of a purely economic outlook. For us, then, art becomes divorced from productivity — another ultimate economic value. Art becomes the opposite of work.

The marginalization of the arts, then, has its roots in our fear-of-change and in our work/play binary. These two powerful social-psychological forces tend to devalue and separate art from daily life. Yet, placing creative experience on the margins has dire effects.

First, we are often blind to the art in front of us everyday. We think art exists in museums or only comes from professional artists; we certainly don’t think of ourselves as capable of creating art. Secondly, professions and disciplines that have inherent needs for artistry, education for example, try to align more closely with utilitarian values such as technical mastery and efficiency. Denying the artistic core of work like education has detrimental effects on quality.

I think that James Baldwin (1962) puts art in its rightful place: “…the conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”

To bring art back to the center, I propose, we have to rescue it from the sidelines of our own mind.

References

Baldwin, J. (1962). “The Creative Process.” In Creative America, Ridge Press.

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