Philip Guston, Queensbridge Community House, New York City, 1940. Image credit: S. Shalat, W.P.A. Art Project, Wikimedia / Public Domain
As I’ve reflected on Jed Perl’s short piece, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he’s wrong to assume that the arts in America today, have a “freestanding” cultural value. This is his core conviction and, while it’s stated with passion, it’s also asserted without much argument.
It’s probably true that “we”—that is, Perl’s intended audience—also believe in the intrinsic value of art ourselves. But what about the countless Americans who simply ignore the arts, whether high or low?
I agree with Perl that “the imaginative ground without which art cannot exist is under threat”—just not for the reasons that Perl himself gives.
When I worked for an arts non-profit in suburban Minnesota, I saw the widespread lack of appreciation for the arts firsthand. In the mostly-wealthy, mostly-white town where I worked, the local school district had contracted arts instruction for their elementary schools from our organization. No arts education was built into the public school curriculum. Rather, the instructors hired by our nonprofit visited the area elementary schools for a few days each month. The shrinking time spent on arts instruction in public schools is just one example of a broader, cultural devaluation of the arts within American society today. The ground without which art cannot exist is indeed under threat–simply because most Americans never get to learn the value of the arts firsthand.
It is a disservice to the arts for Perl to take for granted a cultural consensus about their significance in any context, never mind their “freestanding” value. At risk is the erasure of the real complexity of the views that currently exist around the arts in America.
In other words, I want to insist, not on the politicization of art that Perl resists, but instead on a more dynamic account of the arts as they actually exist within contemporary society, and not outside of it.
Perl’s argument would be much more interesting if it acknowledged the lack of esteem for the arts, and presented arguments for their importance, rather than lauding their value to an in-group that already believes this. It would also be richer if he were to engage with the spirited debates that also exist within the art world, rather than simply sidestep them—as he does when he mentions the recent controversy surrounding Philip Guston, but only in passing.
Guston’s work came under scrutiny in late-2020, when several prominent museums decided to postpone shows which included his paintings—the most controversial of which depict caricatures in Ku Klux Klan robes. This sparked debate in the art world over the social responsibility of museums. Perl argues that there is a distinction to be made between artistic expression and other social action. But would the parties involved in this controversy agree? Artworks like these move beyond the solitary artistic expression of the painter and enter into the greater context of social and political meaning-making. Art then becomes a site through which we, as viewers, can puzzle over our reactions and better understand our place in the world—that is, if we have a foundation from which to appreciate the arts to begin with.
In the precis of his longer book, Perl neither effectively engages with ongoing debates within the art world, nor does he try to engage the many Americans who simply don’t care about the arts.
It’s a missed opportunity. I know, from firsthand experience, the potential of having one’s mind changed about the importance of the arts. I’ve always been a fan of music, but I haven’t always been convinced of the value of going to museums, or looking closely at paintings. In my early twenties, however, I befriended many artists who began to open my mind to the significance of the visual arts. The sudden presence of visual artists in my life convinced me, not only through the work they made, but also through their lively conversation about the art world, or the artists who inspired them. Once I was ambivalent, now I know better.
These days I labor in support of the arts. I worked in arts administration for several years, I volunteered at a wonderful independent gallery in my hometown, and I now am writing pieces meant to bring the work of emerging and underrepresented visual artists to a broader audience. What I lack in talents in the visual arts I make up for in my fierce dedication to those who have a visual art practice.
Like Perl, I believe in the intrinsic value of the arts. But without widespread social support for the arts, the grounds for upholding such a belief simply disappear.
Lindsey Scharold is a journalist who enjoys writing about art and who studies Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School.