That’s a lofty title, but I mean here to discuss our collective amnesia, or ignorance, of art and “high-brow” culture in Western civilization. Sure, we know it exists, know it has some value, know that there’s such a thing as aesthetics, but we seem to not be very interested in it except when we want to appear “cultured.” This topic is large and encompasses many issues, including arts exposure, a warped version of multiculturalism (the “everything is equivalent” variety), technology, mass production, the decline of education, shifts in demographics, etc. But I wish to focus here on what a certain type of education has done to our enjoyment of the arts.
“Everyone wants to know, ‘well, what does it mean?’ It doesn’t mean anything.” George Balanchine, Complete Stories of the Great Ballets (1977)
“I never saw a good ballet that made me think.” Arlene Croce, Afterimages (1979)
Whenever one speaks of the so-called “high-brow” arts, one can sense the dread in companions: “oh no, we will have to figure out vague meanings! My instinctive tastes will be wrong!” I won’t understand it, I won’t get it is the underlying tone. I propose that this response is NOT actually attributable to art itself, but to the fact that we’ve been trained, in some ways, to think that art will make us feel stupid.
No one likes to be told that there are shades of meaning or pleasures that would be derived from reading a certain book, or looking at a work of art, or attending a performance if one only concentrated hard enough. In fact, such an approach to the teaching of art is bound to leave someone anxious about the experience. And yet, that is how “arts appreciation” tends to be taught in this country. It’s always amusing and troubling to go to a fine arts museum and see schoolchildren running around with paper and (eek!) pencil, reading to see what pieces they HAVE TO look at, and what questions they HAVE TO answer.
If it is really real art and fine great art, it must be studied before it is enjoyed; that is what they remember from school. In school the art of poetry is approached by a strictly rational method, which teaches you what to enjoy and how to discriminate. You are taught to analyze the technique and relation of form to content; you are taught to identify and “evaluate” stylistic, biographical, economic, and anthropological influences, and told what is great and what is minor so you can prepare yourself for a great reaction or for a minor one. The effect of these conscientious labors on the pupils is distressing. For the rest of their lives they can’t face a page of verse without experiencing a complete mental blackout. They don’t enjoy, they don’t discriminate, they don’t even take the printed words at face value. For the rest of their lives they go prying for hidden motives back in literature, for psychological, economic, or stylistic explanations, and it never occurs to them to read the words and respond to them as they do to the nonsense of current songs or the nonsense of billboards by the roadside. Poetry is the same thing – it’s words, only more interesting, more directly and richly sensual. Edwin Denby, “Against Meaning in Ballet” (1949)
Some people have a natural knack for sensing, ESP-like, what one is supposed to derive from a particular poem or book, performance or painting, according to the scholars and schoolteachers. I feel no shame in admitting that I am NOT one of those people. Yet I derive a certain sensual pleasure in a wide variety of arts, and my tastes (my natural responses) have been educated by viewing or reading what is considered “good” or “great” over and over (and over) again. What Balanchine and Croce mean in the above quotes, I think, is not that there IS no meaning in ballet, or that one SHOULD NOT think, but that one’s enjoyment of art is first and foremost a sensual response, not an intellectual one.
Why we are taught to dampen our natural response to art through what Denby called the “strictly rational method” is unclear. I don’t know how arts appreciation is taught in other countries, if our method is tied to reinforcement for the single correct answer, or a sense of insecurity that we might be considered unsophisticated bumpkins by our cultural kin in
Why should we care? The arts communicate our shared cultural values; they are our spiritual and communal heritage. They are reflections of what we have held dear and the ways we have seen the world; they affirm our uniqueness and our contribution. When we lose sight of those, we lose our grip on our own civilization. We lose our place and time in the world - we allow postmodernism in its nihilistic bent to flourish.