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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.


Elatia Harris, commenter extraordinaire, left this as a response to a comment left to the post below. Thank you Elatia for your reliably insightful and sense-making point of view.

Re: Arts funding:

Much depends on whether you think art follows consumer taste or leads it. And on whether you would be happy for art to reflect culture rather than to stimulate it.

You have to consider how much poorer your life would be if an artist were not different from an entertainer. Maybe not poorer at all, if entertainment is the objective. If what you’re seeking is to beguile your hours, get a change of scene and a sense of relaxation, that’s no bad thing. The government funds the gratification of that aim if you can accomplish these things by going for a day in the park, and you fund it if you buy a ticket to the concert of a commercially successful band. (To say a band is commercially successful is not to slight it, only to emphasize that it’s available on the basis of a ticket, as artistically successful bands for which there is less consumer demand are not.)

If what you want is to immerse in a different reality that might or might not be gentle and fun, however, and to confront rather than escape yourself, taking away food for thought for many days or years — all of this in the company of strangers who are doing more or less the same — then you might want art, perhaps without knowing it. My view is that people want art without knowing it all the time, because we seek transformational as well as restorative experiences, and long to be knocked for a loop. This takes vision, however, and while everyone is responsive to vision not everyone has it.

Some artists do have it. Does this mean they function for the public good? If the answer is yes, then you posit one difference between a consumer, who funds her private idea of a good time, and a taxpayer, who needs to be concerned with the public good even when she doesn’t personally respond to certain artists. Art can reset the human imagination, temporarily turning a consumer into a person who strives and is illuminated. Entertainment can’t risk that, although it occasionally accomplishes it anyway.

You have no right to be entertained at the public expense — as we have seen, that results only in pitting lions against Christians, or perhaps in the creation of “The Yellow River Concerto.” But you have a right to art as you have a right to health care. It should be yours for the price of citizenship, yours like a day in the park.