The Artist in America

If the “business of America is business,” as has been so famously said about this nation, then it is no wonder that artists do not feature in the general vocabulary and Zeitgeist in our culture. Artists are seen as something peripheral, errant, irresponsible. Art is something to be done “on the side,” for it is rare to find the artist who makes his or her living through his or her craft. Artists feature among the uninsured in this country, or the underinsured, because certainly there must be a high risk for a self-employed with paint artist who stands in front of a canvas all day (note sarcasm here). The National Endowment for the Arts seems to be in a perpetual state of doom due to spending cuts as well as censors who fear the visual portrayal of depravity. Certainly, there are fellowships and MacArthur awards and grants given to creative folk, but generally these do not sustain the artist, who must seek funds from multiple sources or undesirable jobs. And yet, oddly, we have one of the finest museums in the world—-the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York—-and stunning collections in equally stunning museums and private collections around the country. Many museums were really founded upon a given collection by a wealthy individual or family. And given our ethnic and social diversity, we have probably the widest range of types of art on display and for sale in the United States. Want to invest in modern Native American? Check. John Singer Sargent portraits? Check. An installation of gigantic slabs of metal by Richard Serra? Check. You want it, we got it. And how many millions of people around the world own an iconic silver laptop or iPod with that familiar white fruit logo? Don’t forget—-it’s as American as Apple!

But we must go further and examine the mentality of our culture and why art, artistry, and aesthetics are not part of our daily vocabulary. Even people who are well educated and prosperous might simply be too pragmatic to appreciate that which is abstract and inexplicable. It doesn’t “make sense” to many people, it is “too emotional,” or, worst of all, “weird.” We do not come from a culture where there was an Oscar Wilde in our past, or huge movements in our daily culture that supported aestheticism and beauty. “Art for art’s sake” seems like a wasteful mentality to our practical, Anglo-Saxon values. Writing a folk song about a flower might seem “sappy,” and in no other country can you actually buy clothing from a category called “business attire.” Everything has to serve a purpose, because time is money, and marketing studies have calculated every last color detail down to the Pantone wheel as to what will sell best. In a culture that is so calculated and precise, there is very little room for the imprecise, the imaginative, the dreamy, or the ephemeral. When we have so many social problems and inequalities to solve—-very necessary tasks, indeed—-how can we afford the luxury of artistic pleasure?

America, since its inception, has valued a sense of justice, fairness, intelligence, hard work, equality, individualism, optimism, efficiency, and wealth. And ironically, those qualities are what can make a great artist. The artist needs the drive to succeed, the discipline to work hard, a uniqueness of vision, the funds to obtain the materials, and the boldness to ask the world for the compensation he or she deserves, is due. And the artist also needs supporters of the arts, in audiences, visitors to galleries, and scholars like Maxine Greene or Camille Paglia who bridge the gap between thought and the arts. We need the Steve Jobses and David Kelleys of America to link stunning form with necessary function.

And most of all, we need children. We need the child in each of us, the child that still exists even in the most boring office worker in his or her cubicle, the child that once experienced such joy in dipping a brush in red tempera paint, mushing Play-Doh between her hands, or spending hours hunched over a notebook with a pencil in his hand. We need to encourage everyone to keep the creative child as a part of our lives, and to express that naturally art-loving side of ourselves, especially as the world becomes more and more technology-oriented. To quote the inimitable Oscar Wilde, “Art is the only serious thing in the world.” If only more people lived that philosophy.

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