Art for the masses versus art for the few

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They are questions that can make your mind go in circles until you get dizzy: What is art? Why do we make art? Why do we need art? What is good art? What is the point? They’re questions for which every single person would have a different answer. 

My whole life I’ve tended toward being a snob — refusing to go to blockbuster movies, preferring smaller “art house” films, scoffing at Broadway musicals in favor of “experimental” theater, liking things that are weird and rather inaccessible over things with broad appeal.

Recently that’s been changing, though, as I’ve thought more and more about art in relation to society. My feeling these days is that if we don’t want to repeat the Fall of Rome here in America, artists of all stripes have a duty to be inclusive, rather than exclusive. Does that mean everyone needs to paint happy trees and turn everything into a feel-good song and dance with a car chase at the end? No, of course not. But we have to find more ways to create a society where everyone feels they belong at an art event, not just a few.

Part of that has to do with the cost of participating. Tickets for theater, dance, opera and classical music in the big houses tend to be exorbitant. That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions — summer brings a host of free outdoor concerts, for example, and Mixed Blood is leading a revolution with their Radical Hospitality program. Art galleries are nearly always free, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is free, and the Walker Art Center has their Free First Saturdays and Free Thursday Nights.

Another factor is dwindling arts education. Since No Child Left Behind, schools have spent more time focusing on math and reading- so that music and theater and visual art sometimes get cut from the budget, or the offerings are limited. If we want to sustain a population that engages in art when they are adults, that is going to have to start when they are in school.

In my research of theater in the 1960s and 70s in Minnesota, I’ve looked into how the Guthrie Theater was able to come to our state. It wasn’t as if it just plopped down here from the sky — there was a whole host of leaders from around the city that made it happen. Not just artists, but businesspeople, folks from the University, and many volunteers who decided that it would be a good thing for our city to have the great Tyrone Guthrie build his theater here. And then after the Guthrie was built, there was a kind of wave effect, where that belief that art was an important component for having a strong city “trickled down” (if you’ll excuse my expression) to other theater groups that formed in the wake of the Guthrie. I don’t believe that spirit exists to the same degree today. So, what happened? 

All is not lost. After all, Minnesota did pass the Arts and Cultural Heritage Amendment, clearly showing that Minnesotans DO care about the arts. And if you look at events like Northern Spark, where thousands of people flock to see what Minnesota artists have to offer in an all night art festival, you can garner some hope. However, when you look at the dwindling foundation grants available to arts organizations, when you look at how many arts organizations teeter at the brink, when you think about how many people don’t see art as being a part of their life at all, it is a bleak picture. Somehow, art needs to figure out how to be relevant, and as a society we need see arts as something that will serve us as individuals, and also as a community living together.