CAN ART do more than just sit on a wall? Does art still have the ability to move people? Is art a force for change? And if art no longer occupies this transformational place in our lives then what does have the power to unify us? Can anything today motivate masses of people to strive towards a cause or a goal?
Movies and music could once unite and motivate us to rally behind a cause; they could give life and impetus to a movement in the way that Sam Cooke’s 1964 song A Change is Gonna Come came to exemplify the Civil Rights Movement. Increasingly, however, movies, music and other art forms seem to have lost their once critical role as the vanguard to define and give voice. These are far more fragmented times.
Today, there does not seem to be a conflation of art and popular culture. Not in the way, albeit briefly, that occurred in the mid-20th century when a symbiosis took place between social movements and the music and movies from that time. Think James Brown and his 1968 hit Say it Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud. Ideas of justice and compassion also found a voice, quite literally, in George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, the first benefit concert of grand proportions in world history. Through art and artists like Harrison, Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ravi Shankar and others, our collective consciousness was raised, the plight of the less fortunate brought to our attention and support garnered for the people of Bangladesh.
This was a brief flourishing and fusing of mainstream concerns and counterculture ideology. During these tumultuous time, people waited on the next song by the Beatles or Bob Dylan as a cultural pronouncement. And the songs had impact.
The philosophy of the music was central to how people lived their lives. People believed in the philosophy of Give Peace a Chance. Others, like the revolutionary party, the Weather Underground Organisation, took its name from a Bob Dylan lyric and as questionable as their actions may have been, the point is that art inspired revolution and change. Popular art today must be seen more as an accessory than a catalyst for revolt.
Art As Revolution
A blog written in 2005 by Ryan Sharp and titled Pressing on in the Dark asserts the point that much of today’s art is therapeutic and focused on catharsis rather than any prophetic or revolutionary role.
Sharp rightly points out that in certain places and times, art has been used to start revolution, announce solidarity and pave the way for change.
Lamenting this loss, many would argue that art now comes firmly under the umbrella of entertainment with its attendant purposes and objectives being very different from the goals of art — dollars and market share versus momentum and movement, so to speak.
Art comforts us and entertains us, but once it opened our eyes, ears, minds and hearts. It described the injustice, reality and truth of our world and, as Sharp proffers, offered subversive counter-narratives that brought about change.
Many artists today talk about change, about ending poverty, about saving the environment, but how many incorporate this into their art, into their lives?
Do artists today segregate their work from their espoused beliefs? Some would argue that the ethos of the Concert for Bangladesh continues today through the Make Poverty History concerts taking place around the world. And yet, are our lives really altered by these concerts or are they just another form of entertainment? Do these concerts inspire us to question our lifestyles?
Art In Life
Recently, the Sydney Morning Herald postulated that the days of artists selling hundreds of thousands of records were over and that it had become impossible for any one artist to dominate a market.
While this is true, I would go further and argue that art no longer takes root in our consciousness the way it once did. Quite simply, there are not likely to be any artists emerging today that bridge all generational and cultural classifications; that children, parents and grandparents are equally familiar with in the same way that the Beatles or Elvis were universally known.
Art today is more disposable, more ephemeral. It is no longer central to our lives, no longer occupying the same place in our imagination. Not as it once did. There is much more competition for our attention. Look at how quickly even the most popular films come and go without leaving an impression.
Sure, many of us talked about Avatar but not everyone did, at least not in the way films like Star Wars or Gone with the Wind reverberated within our culture for decades. Those films seemed to be part of the zeitgeist in a way that Avatar could never be, regardless of which is ‘superior’ or more profitable.
Art is also easier to produce these days. Richard Schickel’s article in Vanity Fair on the making of the Martin Scorsese film Raging Bull recounts the difficulty encountered by the director when filming the fight sequences. What we now know is that Raging Bull took traditional mechanical techniques to their limit, to the point that today the arduous labour required to film these sequences would scarcely be contemplated. Instead directors today would quite simply opt for a pragmatic and perfectly acceptable digital solution.
Of course, I would be a Luddite if I suggested that artists should take the most difficult route for its own sake, but perhaps when artists need to come up with novel ways to capture a mood or struggle diligently with the creative process, then this effort often permeates into other domains of the artistic endeavour and elevates the art form.
It may seem churlish to suggest that the democratising effect of technology on art has lowered standards but it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that popular art has reached something of a creative cul-de-sac. Could it be the case that when anyone can do it, it’s just not done as well? And if this is the case, could it be that art today is simply not as good as it once was and so fails to capture us like it once did. One could perhaps be forgiven for arriving at this thesis, but I think a more accurate proposition is that art faces such obstacles today as to prevent it soaring to the same rarefied space or taking its once-hallowed place in the wider culture.
Art And Money
It has to be said that art is not nurtured or cultivated like it once was. Musicians today, for example, must make an instant return on the expenditure of record companies to be allowed to continue developing their work. The cultivation of writers and performers by the A&R (Artist & Repertoire) men is an abandoned pursuit.
When the apogee of society is profit-making, then there is little scope for pouring money into an act that might not realise a return for years.
Here the endeavours of the artist must certainly be compromised. Here the products of their labour are packaged into proven genres and formats and the ‘art’ which was once there, diminished.
How then can we expect to foster a culture where great art flourishes? It may still be possible but it seems to be rarer than it once was. It’s not that there has been a decline in the number of souls born with innate talent — the John Lennons of tomorrow — but even if they are inclined to pursue art (and that’s a big if!) does our current cultural climate give them a real opportunity to develop?
The closure of venues offering live music through fledgling talent in many ways seems to signal the death knell for budding independent musicians. Without a culture that cultivates artistic pursuit, it becomes difficult for the aspiring artist to keep creating. There must surely be those who continue to toil anonymously in the vineyard of artistic endeavour, but they seem destined never to connect with a truly broad audience.
I am sure there are still great works being made today, but I for one, would have trouble naming them. They are not universal; they haven’t touched all of us. Can you think of the last song that everyone knew; children, adults and grandparents?
Art And Life
Instead, to cut through the static of our media-saturated sensibilities, today’s artist must be shocking. This is the climate we have engendered. Lady GaGa makes for an instructive example. It’s not that she’s without her merits. It’s more the case that it has become almost impossible to make any meaningful judgement. Is she good? Is she bad? Is she something genuinely new? I just don’t know.
It would be easy to conclude that the only domains of life that people seem to rally behind today are new technology, celebrities and reality television. There’s no doubt that Master Chef was the biggest event in Australia for some years. In fact, the finale even pushed aside the national debate for our upcoming federal election and forced a reprogramming by all networks. As telling, are the queues of consumers that accompany the opening of any new Apple store. And while it is true that people came out in support of Barrack Obama, Americans have always flocked to an inauguration, always revelled in celebrity.
It is also the case that the threat of environmental devastation has spurred collective action and here there is a link to art. It would not be overstating things to suggest that Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth has done much to unite people and help bring the reality of climate change to our universal consciousness.
But if you believe, like I do, that technological gadgets, reality television and celebrity are poor sites from which to launch a movement to build a better world then one is left to argue the case for art. Of course there are quantifiable economic benefits to art like increased tourism, better education and enhanced technology.
Few would dispute that a thriving art scene also makes us more confident and contributes to society’s wealth. But as the artistic director of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Juliana Engberg has argued, art also cultivates empathy and adaptability and helps us to be a more tolerant society, better able to look at the world around us in different ways. Artists help us define what it is to be human, to consider pain and triumph, fear and hope and to arrive at new paradigms by which to navigate through the world.
Arts And Rats
Moreover, scientists have discovered that there is greater synaptic firing and interaction between the left and right hemispheres of the brain when looking at visual art or listening to music. Engaging with art can also reduce cortisol and stress levels, so that it not only enhances our cognitive ability but also the health or our brains and bodies.
Further evidence that art can enhance our well-being comes from a classic study where baby rats were placed in a sensory deprived environment and compared to a group which was raised in a sensory rich environment. Perhaps not surprisingly the sensory deprived group suffered stunted brain development, so much so that they couldn’t find their way through a simple maze and were prone to aggressive and violent social behaviour.
The sensory rich rodents, however, developed larger, better connected brains, they learnt complex mazes quickly and they played happily together. Given that the nervous system of rats shows many similarities to ours we should make every effort to create a brain nourishing, sensory rich society. What better than art to provide this. What’s more, psychologists now know that the quality of stimulation provided by one’s external environment is crucial to our continuing brain development. A recent study at the University of California, for example, demonstrated that IQ scores rise significantly although temporarily when subjects are tested listening to Mozart.
So it seems that enhancing our health and well being through art is possible and incredibly important, especially when you consider the findings of a Kansas State University study which showed that workers with high levels of well-being made better decisions and showed superior interpersonal skills. Further, according to Harvard Business School research, workers in a good mood were more likely to have creative ideas because of the positive, cognitive process that sparks flexible, fluent and original thinking.
So if we know that art can help cultivate a healthy mind and body it is not surprising that experts like Professor Rob Moodie, Chair of Global Health at the Nossal Institute for Global Health recommend not only healthy eating and increased exercise but participation in art related endeavours such as joining a choir, learning a musical instrument, learning to dance and joining a book club. Such activities appear urgent when you consider that the World Health Organisation says that by 2020, depression will be the second biggest health problem world-wide behind heart disease.
Keep Art Pure?
Surely art also gives us a unique opportunity to encounter experiences in a world that is fast becoming more synthetic and digital. As Juliana Engberg has postulated, art can help keep our minds agile by confronting us with incongruent ideas and the arresting cognitive conflicts that give rise to thinking and stretch our brains in new and different ways. As many have said, art creates ‘what if’ scenarios and surely these scenarios can help develop our business, moral, interpersonal and contemplative selves.
Art must do more than just sit on a wall. Art must do more than merely entertain. Art does matter. Jo Tatchell’s novel The Poet of Baghdad: A True Story Of Love And Defiance recounts the life of artist Nabeel Yasin who defied Saddam Hussein’s regime to tell his truth through poetry. Tatchell writes that behind closed doors, small groups, sometimes no more than three or four people, staged theatre shows, read and wrote literature, painted, talked and shared their stories. In these communities, art, it seemed, was still a symbol of defiance. In these small gatherings Nabeel found people filled with yearning and spirit. Art remained a way of connecting with the truth. It is this theme that recurs when talking to people about the role that art must assume — to connect us to the truth, to connect us to what is real. Here I go further.
Art also connects us to each other and bridges the distance between people. Perhaps the last word should go to Steven Soderbergh, who when accepting the Best Director Academy Award for Traffic recognised and dedicated his win to everyone who creates any piece of art and is willing to share it with the world. The entire speech was as follows: “I want to thank anyone who spends part of their day creating. I don’t care if it’s a book, a film, a painting, a dance, a piece of theatre, a piece of music — anybody who spends part of their day sharing their experience with us. I think the world would be unliveable without art.”
This article was first published in STORM in 2010.