Monday, September 26, 2011

Democracy needs the arts: but do the arts need democracy?

I've been reading some essays in the Spring/Summer issue of Salmagundi, collectively presented as a symposium titled "Good Art/Bad Art: Is There A Difference?" At the end of Benjamin Barber's "Patriotism, Autonomy and Subversion" [yikes, Salmagundi apparently can't make up its mind on whether or not to use the serial comma!], Barber concludes:
The reality is that democracy needs the arts more than the arts need democracy. The arts have flourished under tyranny and authoritarianism where, though he may generally be in for a rough ride, the artist is always firmly grounded in his freedom, independence, and critical imagination. And although the arts do not need democracy, and they may sometimes even be paralyzed by it, democracy sorely needs the arts. Without a vibrant arts culture, democracy cannot flourish, perhaps it cannot even survive. Apart from the relevant gift and technique, freedom, stubbornness, autonomy, eccentricity and rebelliousness turn out to be the characteristics we most look for in the well functioning artist, as well as in the well functioning citizen. Democracy offers a home for the contrarian virtues that are indispensable to democratic life and that make markets possible.
Hmm. What do you all think?


Josh said...

"The arts have flourished under tyranny and authoritarianism where, though he may generally be in for a rough ride, the artist is always firmly grounded in his freedom, independence, and critical imagination" says Barber. Well, under some tyrannies. Barber should be condemned to spend the rest of his life reading nothing but North Korean literature.

Nussbaum could probably make a better case for democracy needing the arts.

Timmi Duchamp said...

It occurs to me that Barber is laboring under the misapprehension that "freedom" (presumably of thought) and "critical imagination" are all internally-generated and unaffected by the social, ideological, and political conditions one lives in. I can't accept that assumption. For me, what it is possible to think or imagine depends to a significant extent on one's cultural and intellectual formation-- as well as on reactions to one's ideas and creative work from the people around one (unless, of course, you're an "outsider artist" and thus writing or sculpting or painting purely for yourself, for private reasons, and without intention of showing other people your work).

Consider, for example, the history of formal European music. Extreme manifestations involving dissonance, complicated rhythms, and unlikely experiments with voicing and variant tonalities occurred at the tail end of each of the distinctive epochs (Late Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, & Romantic (perhaps or perhaps not Classical, depending on whether you consider Beethoven a bridge between the Classical and Romantic periods or a Classical composer who pushed the forms of his musical epoch to their extreme possibilities). A lot of people would like to explain Gesualdo's strangeness as due to mental aberration (or genius, placing him "out of his time"), and Beethoven's late work, particularly the late quartets, as due, somehow, to his deafness, but their exercise of extreme freedom and imagination was only possible because the forms they worked in were so well developed and nearly mined-out. (In fact, there was a lot of very strange, difficult music written in the last half of the 16th century, pushing the pope to ban a lot of music from Roman Catholic churches and to hold up Palestrina, who eschewed complexity, as the exemplary composer of music appropriate for the Church. (I tend to believe the Baroque period lasted longer than the Classical simply because its forms were much more elastic and, its peak, less uniform, too.)

All of which ties into our on-going conversation about intelligibility, of course...

claire said...

A link to download the article. Haven't read it yet, but thought this might be useful: