Not So Great Gatsby: The Show Must Go On
Spring is taking its grand ol’ time in arriving fashionably late to Lil Rhody. It’s more like “Winter 2: Electric Boogaloo” than any kind of fairer, milder, out-like-a-lamb type weather. While I am stuck indoors, it gives me time to think, which isn’t necessarily a good thing, and is sometimes more difficult than it sounds. Do you remember that art exhibit you and I attended where it seemed more like the artists dug through trash cans and dumpsters and threw it all in a pile than something you’d see at the Louvre? With the elimination of the NEA on the table from Trump and his people, I started thinking about that exhibit, and what makes art, art, and how and why it matters at all.
I had a physics teacher in high school who would always say “Physics is everything, and it’s a part of everything.” It stuck with me, in part, because it’s true. You and I wouldn’t be walking around without acceleration × mass, and don’t forget about gravity keeping our feet on the ground as we reach for the stars. Physics is mostly invisible laws of nature at work making things happen. But because of this teacher I am aware that it is in everything. We need an advocate for the arts with the same kind of communication skills.
Art is very visibly in everything. From the curves on a Dusenberg to the snowflakes currently falling from the sky to the color on the horizon at dusk. The clock ticking in the background is a metronome keeping the beat to the music of our lives as we dance to the rhythmic music in our head, or the cacophony of the world around us. We all are master actors and actresses, plying our craft, pretending to like a co-worker, or listen to a spouse’s story (about how he pretended to like a co-worker). Art is a force unto itself, illustrating the physics that control the world in colors, sounds and action that translates the science into a life worth living. Why then, is the National Endowment for the Arts so disposable, such a target for budget-conscious politicians? It should be evident that art is a necessity, not a luxury. Why is that not the case?
I think one reason is that art, to many, is an exclusive club, that leaves many folks outside the stage doors with their noses pressed to the glass. An accepted definition of art is something for rich people, or “the liberal elite,” or the strange creative people on the fringe of society. We need to do better to recognize the art in fixing a pipe, or patrolling a neighborhood as a police officer, or juggling a schedule as an executive assistant. There is a degree of artfulness in everything. The way your loved one can put together an outfit or set up the furniture. It’s all art.
I am not going to go so far as to say the backlash against art by the politicians and working class is warranted, but we may want to cut down on the number of awards bestowed upon singers and actors and writers. Shakespeare never received a trophy and Michelangelo was never nominated for an art award. Art is so subjective that giving out awards is strange as it is, but having multiple organizations line up to give out awards for art is a little crazy. I understand the Nobel people giving out awards for a body of work, but I would argue that identifying and awarding the best supporting actor of 2017 doesn’t really mean much to most folks, besides that actor’s inner circle, it cheapens the work of all actors, supporting or otherwise. Mahershala Ali is a great actor. He is classically trained and compelling in every role he takes on. Did he need an award to prove that? I would argue he does not. You could sit anyone in front of Ali and because he is such a skilled artist, almost every person would acknowledge they had witnessed a wonderful and moving performance.
Here’s where it gets tricky. By giving out awards and proclaiming who is the best (and sometimes the worst) at each concentration in the arts, you are making art a commodity. It becomes a Thomas Kinkade, just a product to be mass produced and sold, not an experience to be beheld and shared. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the smash Broadway hit Hamilton, sold tickets at regular prices save for a few tickets the day of the show for $10 (a Hamilton for Hamilton). But because of the popularity of the show, scalpers were selling the $200 tickets for thousands. The art remained the same, but the tickets were the commodity.
Art needs a public relations coach. And maybe someone to keep its self-congratulations to a minimum. Because art is in everything. Art is vital to our day-to-day experiences. Art is what makes us human. It’s not a line item in a budget, and even if the NEA is eliminated, Trump could never eliminate art. But the arts community needs to work to be more inclusive, to be more self-aware and to stop complaining about expression while being so focused on commerce. As I write this note, I am listening to the Kreutzer Sonata, smiling in the knowledge that Beethoven never won a Grammy.