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June 01, 2011


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Jeremy M. Barker

This is a really fascinating question that's been percolating in my brain because of something I'm writing: what is the value of art? I think on the one hand it's a dumb, collegiate question, but sometimes you have to grapple with it. Historically speaking, I think we're nostalgic for the period of bourgeois-ification that demanded the recognition of universalism in the arts. That proposed a value for the arts that we inherited but which is changing over time.

But more politically, I think it's actually a funny debate that happens within a democratic society. Democratic societies are not actually socially tolerant; they're marketplaces of ideas in which values are contested. You never hear anyone suggest that hard work or the accumulation of wealth are unimportant...unless the speaker is a dismissable communist or college socialist or something. The fact that for thousands of years, visual art, painting, and writing have been a human activity isn't enough, apparently, to demonstrate their value in our society. At least beyond a doubt. The value of art itself is being contested today. It's supposed to "prove" its worth, which is where these weird sorts of ancillary valuations come from: reading makes you smarter! Music helps with math! None of which, of course, have anything to do with the actual value of the work itself.

Which is sort of interesting, if you think about it.

Scott Walters

Isaac -- With all due respect to Laura Miller, it is actually possible that something can be good for you AND be enjoyable. It is a trope of capitalism, which thrives on creating anxiety and bad health, to draw a curtain between the two. As far as people who read also being jerks, Paul Johnson wrote an entire book on this called "Intellectuals." Again, this is kind of a dumb observation: yes, it is possible to listen to Mozart AND be a guard at Auschwitz. I don't think there is ANYONE who would argue that reading Jane Austen makes each and every person morally upright, just like walking into my garage doesn't make me a car. But for SOME people it has that effect (OK, it doesn't make them a car, but you know what I mean) -- is it really necessary that the effect be universal?

What I find problematic are artists (or more likely administrators) who play the moral improvement card when putting together grant proposals, but then completely ignore that when it comes to choosing a season. As with Republicans, all I ask is a little consistency.

I teach college, and what you describe is right: some students don't really love it like you do. And so what. But what is important about what we do doesn't involve the content -- I've had some great teachers in my life, but I don't remember much about what they said. What I remember is their way of being in the world -- the passion they had for what they did, the willingness to engage with students, the eagerness to explore. That's what we teach: a way of living in the world.

Andrew Utter

I'm with Scott. The expectation that art will appeal universally is doomed to fail, and the sooner it is dispensed with, the better. However, works of art can serve as touchstones of community, helping like-minded people find and enjoy each other. This is one of Alexander Nehamas' big themes.

Scott Walters

Thanks for the Alexander Nehamas tip!

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