Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Art Schmart?

At the risk of betraying one of the Spouse’s deep, dark secrets, I’m going to tell you about the movie that changed her life and helped make her become the person she is today. It was the movie that inspired her to leave home, because it showed her you could do that. It was the movie that compelled her to dream big, because it was about making dreams come true.

She was seven or eight years old, it was The Muppet Movie, and she wrote her Academy Award acceptance speech afterwards.*

Back when I used to teach Theater History at the university, I’d sometimes ask the question HAS ART EVER CHANGED YOU?

I don’t mean an emotional connection. I’ve teared up at movies. I’ve wished for some books never to end. That’s not the same thing.

When we teach craft and technique, we focus on the results that we want to achieve and we talk about Grand Purposes. In the marvelous, at times pitiful and at times embarrassing, documentary Addicted to Acting, the filmmakers follow four German students through their conservatory training. In the first 5/6 of the narrative, they focus on Craft and Art. In the last 1/6, the students are suddenly faced with Business and Getting a Job – and it’s no longer just how good they are that matters – it’s what they look like.** Art just got real petty.

So I say “big deal,” to whether or not you’ve had an emotional reaction. We’ve all had that happen. I want to know the big question – how often has art changed you? Because that’s what we say ART is supposed to do. That’s why ART is supposed to be so great. That’s why – I suspect – artists so rarely talk about the BUSINESS of art. Because that business is a different kind of a gatekeeper.

I had a follow-up question in my History classes after querying whether or not my students had had a life-changing experience because of ART. If art is supposed to change people and make the world better, then why are so many of the people we work with assholes?*** I mean, you’d think that all that transformative mumbo-jumbo would be working on the people who made the stuff, wouldn’t you?

If you’re the author of that emotional connection, there is pride in knowing that you made a connection. There is hope that you brought that person around to your way of thinking by showing him or her what you feel is a profound experience. But did you change anyone? Did someone stop being a bully because you showed him what it was like to be bullied? If it’s that straightforward, then, given the sickening popularity of programming Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol in the U.S. come the end of Thanksgiving, why are there still so many Scrooges in the world?

See, you knew what I meant. Scrooge isn’t even a lesson any more. He’s just a cultural reference.

The best I got in my classes, the absolute best my students came up with, was that someone might have changed based on a play she was performing in. In other words, the process of creating art was more transformational than the process of consuming it.

If you’ve got an example, please tell me. Because it’s my inclination, based on observation and conversation, that art hardly ever changes its audience.

I focused my dissertation research (“Doctor?” “Doctor.”) in the Czech Republic because theater companies led the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Theater companies. How crazy is that? But, I discovered, they didn’t engage with the revolution via their theater. The people helped transform their country, but their art didn’t, at least not directly. Roughly at the same time, the trade union Solidarity was making a parallel change in Poland. You don’t hear unions squawking about how they’re transformational like art is. But there’s historical precedent, so maybe they want to try that in the next election cycle.

Good art makes me think. Good art can fill me with joy or passion and sometimes rage. Good art might make me want to do something.**** But I can’t think of a time when ART made me stop acting in a certain way, become a different person.

The “specialness” of art is not a lie, but I don’t think it’s what we tell ourselves it is.

So what is it for you? What’s so great about art?

*To date, she has not delivered said speech, but I suspect it is only a matter of time.

**Is this a good time to bring up whitewashing in YA lit? Real life example here.

***Incidentally, this is the critique that Brazilian theater artist Augusto Boal levels against Aristotle, calling him, basically, a coercive bastard (not a direct quote).

****Both Bertolt Brecht with epic theater and art critic Arthur Danto conceive of art has having a fundamentally rhetorical bent. For Brecht it was an entertaining lecture that made you a better person, which would help improve Society. For Danto, a successful work of art is one that brings you to the artist’s perspective, at least for the duration of your exploration of the work. (Danto happily struggled with Warhol.)

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7 responses

  1. okay, I have one more thing to say here. Actually, I have pages and pages and pages to say, because I’ve been thinking about this for a freakin’ solid week straight, but I’ll write that on my own time.

    Here’s what I’ll say here: Art is just another way of making an argument. And the success rate of profoundly and fundamentally changing another person through a single argument is pretty small. The buildup of arguments (viewpoints) through time has a much better chance of changing a person, although then it becomes impossible to pinpoint one single turning point.

    August 1, 2011 at 12:04 pm

  2. clickerbug

    Why is there a difference between being inspired to do something you haven’t been doing, and stopping something you’re already doing?

    July 25, 2011 at 11:31 am

    • Is there? I’m not sure I understand.

      July 25, 2011 at 2:53 pm

      • clickerbug

        “Good art might make me want to do something.**** But I can’t think of a time when ART made me stop acting in a certain way…”

        I can see art in both cases pushing one toward doing or not doing a desire that was already inside of a person; i.e. say I’ve always wished I could dance, never tried it, saw a dance show and decided to take a dance class, which led to performances, new self-confidence, and an ability to take new risks (for instance). OR, I wanted to quit smoking, never was able to, saw a photo of a wrinkled old cancerous woman that really hit me in the gut, and was able to use that visual to quit smoking, avoid the smoking lifestyle, quit going to bars and took up the new hobby of cycling to get healthier (for instance).

        I can’t see art inspiring one to do something they inherently didn’t want to do. Will any art ever get me to jump out of an airplane? I doubt it. Will any art get me to give up my liberal viewpoint? I doubt it. Possible, I suppose, but probably as has been mentioned the seeds were already planted from something else and the inclination was already growing.

        Would Lisa still be living at home had she never seen The Muppet Movie?

        I’m not arguing, just thinking. I’m totally on the side of wanting to see art change people.

        July 25, 2011 at 3:48 pm

  3. Randy

    I started to write a smart ass response (as expected) and then began to think, “you know, art has changed me in little, in almost unnoticed ways.” Like Lisa, it’s films that seem to have gotten under my skin and manipulated my way of thinking … slightly … constantly. “The Wrong Trousers”, “Oh Lucky Man”, all the Preston Sturges films, All the Buster Keaton films, William Powell, Cary Grant, submarine movies … they have all changed or rather, formed the way I think about things. Music has done this as well … but that is truly on an emotional level. My point is, don’t look for the epiphany. Changes happen one cell at a time and it never ends … until we do.

    July 25, 2011 at 10:54 am

  4. DMS

    I don’t think art changes the way a person behaves but in some cases the way you think and perceive. However, I think the possibility of being changed by art diminishes significantly as you get older.
    Reading The Great Gatsby in high school made me aware that the behavior of “great” people can be just as pitiful as a lowly high-schooler like I was. That no matter how old we get, we’re haunted by things we can’t let go off or won’t let go of us. And I can honestly say that going to an Ellsworth Kelly showing at the Guggenheim when I was 20 or so made me see the world in shapes, lines and colors. It deconstructed my environment in a way that forever changed the way I looked at the angle of building or the shadow cast by a parking meter.
    Beyond that age, it’s hard for me to come up with any examples. After a certain formative stage, I think, most spectators turn to art for catharsis and reassurance, not for transformation. If they wanted transformation, people would spend more time with art they didn’t like for the purpose of trying to discern what someone else sees in it.

    July 25, 2011 at 10:49 am

  5. Andy North

    I think it’s a lot more difficult to change behavior through positive emotions – excitement, contentment and amusement being the easiest to bring out in others – than it is through negative ones like fear, anger and disgust. But if a work of art brings out negative emotions in people, they’re a lot more likely to turn those emotions toward the work itself than whatever that art is depicting. Does that make any sense?

    July 25, 2011 at 8:12 am

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