Portrait of Eleanor Heartney. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Eleanor Heartney, art critic and author of Art & Today as well as monographs on Liza Lou, Kenneth Snelson and Roxy Paine among others, has written a short but hard hitting piece on artnet that asks many of the tough questions not being addressed in the current cultural dialogue: What is art’s relationship (and obligation?) to society? What is its role in the current economy? How can the meaning and “usefulness” of art be evaluated?

Here’s an example:

I again heard the statistics about the collateral money art events infuse into the surrounding community, the dollar value added by artists and art institutions, the degree to which local economies are stimulated by the arts. Taking the higher ground, others argued that we should try to make the case that art is valuable because it instills critical discourse and participatory thinking.

But is any of it really true? If states are looking to stimulate the local economy, wouldn’t an infrastructure project have more long term effect than commissioning artists to install more giant art projects? Can one honestly make the case that states in danger of bankruptcy should be funding art festivals or even art classes instead of police forces, school lunches or Medicaid?

Heartney goes on to acknowledge that encouraging discourse is a worthy goal, but is that art’s job? Is art really up to that task? The issues are intertwined and complex.

Meanwhile, the class divide within the art world…(to say nothing of the even greater class divide in society at large) is bigger than ever. I have always been struck by Clement Greenberg’s famous assertion in his 1939 essay Avant Garde and Kitsch that the avant-garde remains attached to the ruling class by “an umbilical cord of gold.” Today, as private patrons who have benefited from America’s trickle up (or should we say gush up) economic policies call the shots at museums, preside over a burgeoning art market and style themselves as the New Medicis, Greenberg’s dictum seems truer than ever, and sadly, no one dares to yank the chain.

These are issues that are political, complicated and difficult. But Heartney’s point of view rings true for me. We would be better served with more discussion along these lines.

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