Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Power of Art

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must preface this with the admission that I was raised Catholic. This, of itself, is no particularly traumatic or uncommon event, but it most likely has some bearing on what follows. Most specifically I was steeped in Catholicism’s peculiar ambivalence towards power, what with all the “weak will be made strong”, “meek shall inherit the Earth” stuff. Now frankly, humiliation and death always seemed like a somewhat dubious path to everlasting glory to me. Die to live?... Really?.... Jesus was just so Tao.

I figured out rather quickly that this was not exactly the parallel that my local preist, Father Cotton, was aiming for, but the padre did seem almost excited to concede that Jesus was quite the rebel. Simply take the prevailing Roman militaristic values and Pharisaic religious norms, imagine their opposite and you have the essential life and teachings of Jesus. Keep in mind that Jesus’ radical revaluation of merit and power was presented to me as the unquestionable dogma of perhaps the single most powerful and hegemonic institution in all of human history. Add to my struggle with this epic irony a general mistrust of authority that has become every American’s birthright and you have the recipe for some serious confliction regarding power relationships.

And so I have issues with “the power of art”. I have issues with art’s ability to inspire sanctimonious reverence or coerce false, flowery esteem from those who are “cultured” or at least want to appear so. I have issues with the fact that although art is often given this kind of lip service and is lauded as among human's highest and most noble achievements, our actions as a society generally belie our true lack of regard or respect for art, a lack that is not necessarily undeserved given contemporary art’s relative impotency when it comes to engaging large audiences or effecting any kind of meaningful social change. We say that art matters. Perhaps we even want to believe that it does. But the fact remains that it doesn’t. Much like the monarchy in the UK, art enjoys a largely historic grandure and an appearance of power based on a somewhat misplaced nostalgic affection. But warm feelings and the bubble of prestige that they inflate, can only be maintained so long as there is no actual exercise of power. This is the issue that I have with "the power of art". By raising art on a pedestal we effectively neuter it. It's a problem of cultural expectations.

Cultural expectations account for the fact that the U.S. has a significantly higher proportion of married couples than any other western nation. We also have the dubious honor of leading the world in the percentage of those marriages that will end in divorce. Counter intuitively, your chances of becoming divorced are highest if you just happen to live in a southern or western state, states whose conservatism is bourn out by the fact that they reliably vote republican. One of the most persuasive theories put forward by sociologists to account for this curious finding that conservative states have the highest divorce rates is that social conservatives tend to hold real, imperfect marriages up to an unrealistic cultural ideal of marriage. In short, social conservatives expect more from a successful marriage, and as a result end up with fewer marriages that are successful. I believe that this same kind of misguided idealism informs our notions of art.

We want our visual art to be meaningful. In both the fullest and most restricted senses of the word. But marriage statistics and the political fecklessness of Prince Charles seem to be telling us that if visual art is to realize any portion of power that we so often ascribe to it, then we should feel free to expect so much less from images. Unlike words that have to mean in order to enter into a preexisting denotative system, images do not. Images have no set grammar or system of meaning production. In order to ascribe meaning to an image we must first discover the system by taking time to become acclimated to it. If there is a power of art it resides in the ways in which it can work on the viewer, subtly refining perception and remapping cognition. But this can only happen if we are uncharacteristically receptive and allow the art to work on us rather than going to work on it, interpreting it to conform to our systems of meaningfulness and confirm our expectations. The key to allowing art to assert its power is for the viewer to give up theirs.-- to be heroic enough to submit, admit defeat, and give up the fight for meaning, or alternatively, to be too cowardly to put up a fight in the first place.

It is difficult to imagine a race less aesthetically inclined than the Borg, the cyborg hive-mentality collective from Star Trek Next Generation. But their oft-intoned mantra is as surprisingly instructive as it is predictably succinct: "Strength is irrelevant. Resistance is futile". If art is to be moving, enchanting or inspiring then we as viewers must neither ascribe nor exert power. The problem is that few of us are heros or cowards. Instead of bravely surrendering or meekly submitting to the charms of an artwork, we decode, analyze, look for signs, hollow out the image in search of the meaning that must lie behind it. The real and only power of art is to make of itself a new and compelling system and to transform the courageous and the cowardly among us into that system.

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