Common Sense Comes to Town!

Common sense is the most fairly distributed thing in the world, for each one thinks he is so well-endowed with it that even those who are hardest to satisfy in all other matters are not in the habit of desiring more of it than they already have. (Descartes)

Art: Expiry Date

Posted on | June 6, 2011 | No Comments

Waging war on artists is popular nowadays. I should specify that it is popular in the Quebecor Media Empire, which threw some oil on the fire through an editorial in the Journal de Montréal, and was back at it lately on Sun News. What to do with Art? Or crudely put, what does artistic expression bring to our era? What’s in it for me?

I won’t go over the economic arguments in favour of art, nor on Québécor’s hypocrisy (given the subsidies they receive for their “creative” content). I do want however to ponder on the treatment we reserve as a society to various forms of artistic creation.

Since the conclusion of an analysis is influenced by its underlying ideas, I’ll put my cards down, so to speak, and pull two clichés out of a hat:

1)       Our contemporary society is an over-consumption society

2)      Our modern society is obsessed with the present moment and fear of death

Why start with these worn out clichés? Because they allow us to unveil a few interesting things about the art we buy, as a society. We consume more and more movies (10,5 billion dollars worth in 2010 in the USA, and over 30 billion worldwide. We buy more and more music, mostly online and the global music industry amounted to 66 billion dollars in 2010. As a comparison, the dance industry in the USA generated in 2007 600 million worth of revenues. As for visual arts, I could find no trustworthy source of information. Book sales are also hard to quantify but are apparently on the way down since 2007.

We buy what we can put on the market. To consume more, our experience has to be limited in time, but accessible at will. Is it so surprising that ephemeral yet infinitely reusable products such as music and, to a lesser extent, movies, are so popular? That dance, rarely immortalized on film and broadcast, is less so? Even when the works are as poignant as Béjart’s choreography on Stravinsky’s The Rites of Spring? 

To be popular art must come with an expiry date. Art made to last, to perpetually question its viewer does not fit in with contemporary values. It must repeat an ever unchanging message. One has to be out of one’s mind today to dedicate a pictorial work to posterity. When we stare at it we are face with our unavoidable decline – the tabooed fate of our civilization.

But maybe I enjoy stepping out of time for a moment, as when contemplating Baziotes’ The Dwarf, for example. Maybe I enjoy being faced with a new context, a different reality, sometimes raw, sometimes hostile. Can a work possibly speak to me without being clocked? Can I on my own begin a dialogue with art, the duration of which will depend only of me, and not on the final credits?

One must not only be crazy today to create with paint brushes, or with bare hands, or with one’s body. You also need a mighty dose of courage and confidence to shout at the world a message it tries resolutely not to hear.

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