A few years back, I was driving through a Midwest university town, and I spied an old, oxidized and slightly rusty green Volvo wagon with a gaily colored kiddy seat in the back.
The driver was a young guy with a Lincolnesque beard (no moustache), wire-rimmed glasses and a tweed duckbill cap--all of which just about shouted "junior faculty!" As he turned down a leafy, residential street, I could read the bumper sticker identifying his department and his artistic predicament: SERIOUS MUSIC ISN'T AS BAD AS IT SOUNDS.
Actually, that's my artistic predicament, too. I write about fine art, old and new, and I also make modern art (abstract paintings). The general public's attitude toward them both--that is, when that great, alternately purring and snarling monster that is the mass audience is in a good mood--is something like "O.K., maybe they're not quite as bad as they look." Old fine art fares a little better because it appears in places like the Metropolitan Museum or the Louvre, varnished with historical cachet (although a mummy in the next gallery probably has more). But it's still regarded more or less as boring--kind of murky brown and who cares who all those stony-faced people in tunics are, anyway? The modern stuff, unarmored with the profundity of passing centuries, is thought to be baffling at best, downright ugly at worst. Stupefying statistics about mid-six-figure attendance at old-master and modern-master blockbuster exhibitions notwithstanding, "high art" (the term we'll invoke here to replace "fine art") runs an evermore distant second to the products of pop culture.
When I'm told that museum visitors outnumber pro-sports spectators, I always ask, "Yeah, but how many of them stay for the fourth quarter?" (Here's a test: run a contest for a free trip to New York and a guided tour of MoMA's hit show, "Matisse/Picasso," and see if you get one tenth of the entries that a basketball Final Four sweepstakes enjoys.) Newspaper after newspaper, and magazine after magazine retires the art critic or classical-music writer and replaces that hidebound elitist with nimbler, less specialized people who can flit among the gallery scene, fashion runways, rock clubs and hangouts of callow movie stars with equally distributed aplomb. A reading audience big enough to justify retaining specialists in ballet, serious theater from Shakespeare to Joe Orton, or--ye gads!--poetry, just ain't there. The real numbers are the ones telling you that state after state and city after city is going after the public arts budget with a vengeful meat ax (all while they still cut tax breaks for sports stadiums and movie companies filming on their streets). And they tell the bigger story: "high art" is, if not an outrightly endangered species of human enterprise, is at least a comparatively forlorn one.
Any defense of high art first has to define what high art is and, next, point to exactly what its problem is (other than being forlorn compared to, say, videogames). Neither of these is easy. Maybe they're both impossible. But I'll take a shot. High art includes sculpture, painting, modern dance, poetry, ballet, opera, classical music, some jazz and certain heavyweight novels which are intended to be: un-sugar-coated, perhaps a little difficult for the uninitiated, seriously contemplated after the fun of the first encounter is over, and of some accrual value in strengthening and refining one's esthetic sensibilities. There are lots of holes in that definition, for sure, and if pressed, I'd probably have to fall back on Judge Potter Stewart's famous remark about pornography--that he couldn't define it, but he sure knew it when he saw it.
As for high art's problem, it's simple, but with complex fallout. High art is elitist. Only a relatively few people have the educated taste for it, the patience to enjoy it and, frankly, the ability to get it. We live, however, in a passionately egalitarian society, most of whose members absolutely resent the idea that Mr. Fairfax Van Richbuckets has, when he goes to the opera, a better esthetic experience than Mr. Harry Twelvepack does when he springs for a couple of Bon Jovi tickets. (Of course, Harry doesn't have much regard for his kid sister's taste for Justin Timberlake, and she can't understand her younger cousin's jones for that new Hilary Duff movie. Hierarchies are everywhere.) Connoisseurship on any but a micro level ("Man, that's a great Clint Black T-shirt--must be six colors in the silkscreen for it") is practically a dirty word these days, and I'd be surprised if the word "vulgar" is uttered pejoratively more than twice a year in the United States outside of a Tipper Gore tea party.
The complex fallout includes some frequently inconvenient truths. We are not a society bereft of "art" in the broad sense. Theater (in TV dramas), music (on the radio), poetry (in rap and advertising slogans) and visual art (on billboards) are showered upon us in abundance. Pop culture produces some great things that just might hold up as long as Mozart and Melville have: Credence, "Do the Right Thing," Elmore Leonard, "Thriller" and Ralph Kramden to name but a few. The Duchampian strain of modern art--which holds that art is concept not craft, attitude not form--gave us Andy Warhol (whom the critic Barbara Rose brilliantly calls the Mary Magdalene of art history). Warhol convinced museums to accept popcult banality as an extension of the same avant-garde thrust that produced Cezanne and Jackson Pollock. And young art historians, frustrated by the fact that the only remaining unclaimed traditional territory for doctoral dissertations seems to be the hangnail that Raphael might have suffered on Feb. 16, 1505, have forced themselves to see book-length profundity (and career opportunity) in the dross of "visual culture" as a whole--matchbook covers, mattress warning labels, the Home Shopping Network, etc. High art, in other words, has lost the high ground.
Which is partly well and good. High art used to be a bully ("You watch television and haven't seen the new Bergman film? Oh, how sad!"), and we all like to see the worm turn on a bully. But size of the popcult worm now makes the invertebrate in "Tremors" look like bait on Huck Finn's fishing hook. It's become a cyborg cyberworm to boot. These days, the bulk of popular culture seems like a cold, calculated, faux-sexy industrial product. Is Britney Spears an actual human being? Or is she just a digital bellybutton with vinyl blonde hair and a boiler-room headset, manufactured like a Bratz fashion doll by some publicly traded entertainment conglomerate to be the subject of "feature" stories produced by some publicly traded media conglomerate? Is "Matrix Reloaded" a movie in the same sense that "Talk To Her" is a movie? Or is it a gargantuan videogame whose steroidal special effects have shrunk its, um, soul to the size of a pea? Of course, I can't prove anything, but I suspect the second alternative in both cases.
High art versus pop culture is no longer a matter--let me switch metaphors here--of fancy French restaurant cuisine versus mom's home cookin' or a juicy cheeseburger at the corner diner. High art's opponent is the equivalent of 10 billion tons of ersatz potato chips made from a petroleum derivative, flavored with a green "sour cream and jalapeno" dust manufactured in the same vat as the latest hair regrower, and served in little silver bags through which not one molecule of air will penetrate until 2084.
So let me have a nice hand-painted abstract painting, struggled over by a solitary artist, to look at. Let me have an unamplified group of musicians playing one of Beethoven's late quartets to listen to. Let me have a nice hardbound copy of "The Magic Mountain" or some A. M. Homes stories to read, the occasional Dia Foundation dance recital, and even a Matthew Barney "Cremaster" flick. I don't want government subsidies for my faves (high art ought to live within the means its paying audience provides), other than providing elementary-school pupils some early exposure before they're bludgeoned into goth zombiehood by cyberindustrial pop culture. I just want a little tenderness extended toward the increasingly precarious province of high art. You know, high art really isn't as bad--or boring--as it looks or sounds. Trust me on that.