Brave New World: Who Muzzled All the Artists?
Have you ever gone to an art museum and wondered what a particular piece of art meant? I have. I mean, why wouldn’t you? It’s a picture, or a statue, or some other object that apparently meant enough to someone at some time that they were willing to master a complete art form, scrape together enough funds to create it, and then devote what in many cases amounts to years of hard labor, if not blood sweat and tears, to create the work. And here it is now, in front of you. It must mean something, mustn’t it?
Why then does nobody seem to know what most art works mean?
I remember standing in a gallery at the Met not long ago and asking a nearby docent what a particular painting that had caught my eye meant. I was curious why it was important, why my more learned peers had chosen it for inclusion in America’s most famous of museums, what it meant to society, and what I might learn from it. “Can you tell me what this one is about?” I asked, innocently enough. My question drew a sort of vacuous almost robotic response from the museum employee. “Well,” she queried as though I were all of 4 years-old, “what do you think it means?”
What do I think it means? Who cares what I think it means! I’m not an expert. You are. You work here, not me. Presumably you’ve devoted some years of study to the topic. I’m just a visitor. You’re the docent assigned to this gallery. I imagined myself retorting with a cocky, “I ask the questions here. Do you understand? Well thank you very much, can I be in charge for a while?” But of course, decorum dictates that I bite my tongue. “Um, I don’t know. It seems to be about a couple… ” I learn nothing from the docent.
And it’s not just museum art. Composer of music fare no better.
Go to any opera nowadays and you’re likely to find a story rife with murder and rape, war and pestilence, political intrigue, backstabbing — in short, pretty much the same sort of content you read on The Huffington Post every day. Why then is it that the only real public discourse you’ll find in the press after the concert has to do with whether the soprano hit her high notes gracefully, or whether the conductor took this or that section at the right tempo? Does no one care about the meaning anymore? Doesn’t the content still count for anything?
I think it should.
Art has always tended to one degree or another to speak truth to power, to enlighten us, to challenge us, to stretch our understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe. It wasn’t always so self-referential, so blasé, so up for grabs. There must have been a time when artists actually had something relevant to say. And I think we need that now, more than ever.
I’m no historian, but I can imagine artists may have started distancing themselves from the meaning in their own works to avoid Stalinist purges and political censorship. Maybe the thought of the likes of Mao Zedong or Kim Jong-Il or Rick Santorum evaluating every work of the human spirit and determining who gets paid versus who gets thrown into the clink for reeducation taught artists and composers and performers they ought to shut up about their big ideas and just let the rank-and-file viewer or listener figure it out on his own. I can’t blame them really, if this is indeed what happened. I imagine it was no picnic for Prokofiev or Shostakovich or any of a zillion other great artists who longed to boldly go where no one had gone before but didn’t want the government-approved ass-kicking that came with it. So they were left with the “see if you can guess my cleverly hidden entendre” method of communicating their ideas; and it probably worked fine for a while.
But I don’t think it works anymore. We’ve drifted now way too far away from meaning. And let’s face it, we’re not the most intellectually rigorous society in the world — at least, we’re not where we want to be. Too many people just spend too much time watching the Real Housewives of [fill in the blank], and our brains are getting a smidge mushy on account of it. So I think it’s time for artists to come out and just tell us what’s on their minds. Challenge us for Pete’s sake! We can take it.
Look, we all know we need to become more creative to survive nowadays. The world is changing, and the economy is not bubbling up in our favor at the moment. That’s just a fact. Creativity is almost certainly the only way we’re going to take our country to the next level of successful life, liberty and happiness. And participating in art, whether through visiting museums, attending concerts, or studying, performing or creating is the easiest way we have to start exercising our flabby creativity muscles so we can get into the kind of shape it’s going to take for us to win anything tangible in this new century we’ve embarked upon. But to actually work, our art has to mean something. Our music has to say something. Artists have to be brave enough to get real, to actually connect with the lives of the people they’re trying to connect with — especially with the communities right around them.
“These,” as Aldous Huxley once gravely intoned, “may be unpleasant facts; I know it. But then most historical facts are unpleasant.” Huxley was a tough guy. The thing is though, we have the chance now to do much better, to give art back its voice while we still can. And I say let’s do it.