Ars longa, vita brevis

Note: all translations, and therefore all translation errors, by yours truly.

Another rage provoking blog article was brought to my attention on Facebook; a Anna-Leena Nieminen of Pori, Finland, quotes in her blog post (sorry, Finnish only) another provocative post by Mikko Sandt (“Supporting culture is elitism” – also in Finnish). Sandt overuses the word ‘privilege’ and writes:

“The most significant difference between an American capitalist mass culture and the European high culture is that the former is an answer to a demand by the large public, while the latter serves the preferences of a smaller group. The rise of the mass culture happened the same time as the general rise in quality of living and breaking of the elite privileges. A mass culture appeared, because the rise in quality of living has made consumer autonomy possible. The artists (in the narrow meaning of the word) are afraid of the mass culture, because they are incapable of competing against it. The artists, who despise the principles of market economy, think art has some sort of universal value, which, according to their values gives the artists the right to privileges, in this case to focus on doing what they want and how long they won’t while other people foot the cost.

Sandt idolises American capitalist mass culture serving the free market economy. I will take this thought apart later. Nieminen, on her part, titled her post ”GET THE ARTIST BACK IN LINE!! STOP [government] SUPPORT OF CULTURE!”, which in itself pretty much sums up what she thinks – or, if we want to be nasty, the opinion she learned from Mr. Sandt. After all, she pretty much just quoted Sandt’s post and threw in a couple of uneducated, childish comments. Well, I read the posts and thought surely no one would take that seriously. Then I made the mistake of reading the comments section, and I realised that people are really stupid.

Just kidding. I’ve known that all along, stupid.

In a nutshell, Nieminen argues that there are far more important things to give government support to, especially in this time of financial crisis, than art and culture. She describes them as an expensive hobby of an elitist minority, which the poor working class taxpayers are providing for. As prime examples of nonsensical art, she picks out knitted vaginas in one artist’s exhibition, opera and the national ballet. What. The. Fuck. The central argument is that anything that cannot support itself in the market-powered society is not worth supporting; that if artists, unsupported, are unable to earn a living through their art, it means the art is not good enough and they should get a regular job, just like everybody else.

I felt indignant but I think the rage was mostly born of the fact that the article hit close to an already sore mark. I’ve pondered of the social value of the life of a professional artist before and, as usual, it proves problematic to be truly angry when you can play both sides of the argument with equal ferocity. This is as good a reason as any to make an attempt to reach a reasonable conclusion, or to at least try to answer some questions about it, such as:

What is art? What is the value of art? Can art be given a qualitative value? Who decides what is art, what is good art? Who is an artist? What is the social, economical value of an artist? Why does the world suck so?*

*Because if it didn’t, we’d all fall off. Duh.

In the beginning, there was man.

Let’s start with history of culture, and the history of art. It’s considered that the human race grew out of its infancy as it started to create aesthetically pleasing things. Whether it is to carve a piece of wood to better fit into your hand or to draw a picture of an animal for good hunting luck, the act itself reveals a person who is not only thinking about his environment, but analysing it and attempting to influence it. I consider the act of creation to separate humans from animals.

For a long time, art had a significant role in the society: it functioned as a religious tool, as a connection point between man and god. Sculptures and visual presentations of gods, animals, etc., had a symbolistic meaning: they were used to ensure success, good luck, fertility, blessing, curse, cure, to pacify gods and to praise them. Well into the middle ages, a picture of a saint was the saint.

The world of literary arts changed with movable print; the visual arts changed with the invention of the camera. In both cases, the innovation eased mass production and made it possible for the regular people to lay hands on the products of someone else’s creativity. In the literary field in Europe, it was a part of the social revolution which lead to increased literacy levels, the lessening of the power of the Church, the concept of a nation to be born, all the way to modern fictional literature and contemporary possibilities in self-publishing. Hello, world. That’s a whole another story… In the field of the visual arts, the invention and popularisation of the camera and the photoreceptive paper brought on something new: interpretative art was born. Since the beginning of mankind’s creative efforts, religion held monopoly on the arts; there was little demand for anything else. Portraits and depictions of historical events may have had some popularity, but only among the important folk in high positions. The main function of visual art was to portray reality.

Enter photograph**. Suddenly the artist profession was truly born; before, they had been craftsmen, trained to replicate reality. This was a revolution of the mind. The time was ripe for visual experimentation, and the new generation of artists would try to capture something intangible; a feeling, perhaps. An impression, as Monet did. His works are now mass-produced and decorating millions of living rooms around the world, but at the time, they were criticised as amateurish, not ”real art”. I imagine the line ”my four year old can do that” was used. I will not attempt to list periods or styles of art across the centuries (if you are interested, read art history), but suffice to say in the decades following the photographic innovations, the artists took visual expression apart and experimented the hell out of it.

A lot of the artists at the time had been classically educated – it was not a matter of not knowing how to paint realistic but a choice not to. They strove to ask questions such as: how much can you simplify? Can you portray four dimensions in two-dimensional canvas? Can art be ugly? Can we create anti-art? How is colour perceived? What is perception? What is reality?

Understand this: the artists were the only people equipped to ask these questions. This was not mere technical knowledge, colour theory or the workings of light. The ‘old masters’ – Michelangelo, da Vinci, Botticelli, etc. – were master craftsmen; they certainly needed to have a certain amount of artistic talent, but they worked their craft in an almost scientific way and often used apprentices to do the actual nitty-gritty work such as applying paint on the wall. The new artists – Monet, Picasso, etc – were artists as we understand the term today.

** Which, by the way, was opposed to as that thing that was going to kill painters. Sound familiar?

In the end, there was man.

The artist profession has been on a steady decline on the social admiration meter probably since it first appeared. As is often the case with any distinguishable group of people, the general public often views artists and art through stereotypes and extreme examples. They are accused of debauchery and frivolous lifestyles, considered anarchist, weirdoes, detached from realities of life, or simply declared fake. All these accusations may be true. But… Detached from reality?

I strongly disagree. The function of an artist, through his or her art, is to challenge us to look at life from a different perspective, to question norms taken for granted, to challenge conventions to expand minds. Art is made to make us think. Artists, whether through music, industrial design, painting, poetry, photography, literature, observe and analyse their environment on a whole another level from your regular joe. Sometimes art is made to transfer our minds to a different world through experience of beauty, to sooth us and to soften the harsh edges of reality.

Detached from reality? Not so. Research has proven over and over again that artists, creative people, are more likely to suffer from mental disorders; mainly depression or bipolarity. The depressive view of the world strips the world of its ‘power to deceive’ (as Melville described it) and forces a view in which the finiteness and brevity of life stands out from the meaningless debris created to hide the absolute, cold reality from our eyes. The depressive artist sees through the conventions of money and power and the mostly inane social ambitions and stares directly at the naked core of our being. Consider this, and ask yourself if it’s any wonder if the anguished artist turns to drink or drugs or sexual adventures***. What is a social convention but a set of mostly arbitrary and often outdated rules?

Yes, sometimes the artist pushes too hard and finds the limit of good taste, but that’s a part of the process. If we all stayed nicely inside our little boxes, our minds would become stagnant and nothing would ever change. Creativity is what life is about; ranking or putting a strictly monetary value on art is as shallow as placing a price tag on life.

*** Whether this happens because the artist is trying to forget the reality or because the artist has his/her priorities straight and tries to make most of the time we have on Earth is open to interpretation.

And then there were the other men.

Sometimes, trying to explain depression to someone who has never experienced it is like trying to explain blue to someone who was born blind. Sometimes, trying to explain art to someone whose ‘four year old could do better’ is like trying to explain chocolate to someone who was born tasteless. (hurr hurr hurr… Sorry.) Without wanting to sound condescending, there will always be people whose mind cannot go beyond their own belly button.

This brings us back to the demand made by Anna-Leena Nieminen in her blog: that culture should not receive government funding. This was further explained in the comments by claiming that art is not a necessity of life, unlike food and shelter, and therefore it should not be the government’s (tax payers’) job to support the culture. Nieminen thinks artists are spoiled rotten by all the money thrown their way.*** Obviously, she hasn’t bothered to do any fact checking before spewing the pre-chewed opinions on her blog. Does she even know to what end the financial aid given through the culture ministry is used? Sure, there’s a national opera and a national ballet and a national museum and a national theatre… Isn’t that a part of a civilised culture?

Oh, I forgot. Culture is not one of the Important Things.

Re-stated: Nieminen thinks culture should be self-supporting; if art, the hobby of a small elite, cannot survive without financial support, it should be allowed to wither and die. She says, I quote, ”Let those support culture who voluntarily choose to, but the [culture] ministry has no right to demand (=force) taxpayers to foot the cost of the [government] benefits. Get the artists back in line with their inappropriate demands!”

And there you have it. People like Nieminen have been so saturated with the free market economy ideology – not to mention the admiration of the American mass culture – she thinks economic value is the only value there is. I think she’s misguided and hasn’t thought this through. By using the same logic to other things (something I seem to be fond of doing), government should stop support to police (after all, they can earn their keep by charging for their services), sports (if you’re not earning enough to support your silly ice hockey hobby, maybe you should get a day job), starting businesses (obviously, if your business generates no profit, it’s a bad idea anyway), students (you can always work while you study, right?), the unemployed (they’re just a lazy bunch anyway)… If I’m not interested in cars, I don’t drive one and they’re actively bad for the world anyway, why should I pay for it? Install street tolls. Increase vehicle taxes. I’m against nuclear power, I don’t want to pay for that either. Neither do I think the army is necessary.

*** I would like to see some of that!

The mold of a man.

It’s so easy for you, you’ll put it together in five minutes!”

If you ever said that to a creative person, slap yourself right now. Some people think that creativity is something you can turn on and off, just like that. Here, be funny now! Are you funny yet? If you’re not funny, you must be a dreadfully serious person. What’s the matter with you?

Would any great literature, poetry, paintings, sculptures be created, if arts were not supported? In my experience, the first thing to die when working a nine-to-five job that pays the bills is your creativity. (And I’m not alone in this. Yes, I have discussed it before.) It doesn’t mean our passion for art is not burning brightly enough; it means we are human, just like you. We need rest and sleep, just like everybody else. Our brains, too. Being an artist is not a hobby you do for two hours every Tuesday and Thursday; creativity needs time and space. A brilliant painting is not made by working on it for half an hour before work every day – it’s born out of inspiration and in a state of a creative flow****.

Nieminen thinks art is an elitist hobby, and that by withdrawing government support from it, life could be improved somehow. Naively, she seems to think this works to improve the life of the non-wealthy non-elite, but she couldn’t be more mistaken. If arts were not supported – as was the case in the past – art would ever remain an elitist hobby, as no one from a non-wealthy background would have the opportunity to study art, to master it and to create things to achieve the mass-production status Nieminen thinks bring the only real value to arts. Theatres, operas would be too expensive for regular people to attend to; they would have no option but to watch the shit that comes on TV or in cinemas. The minds of the non-wealthy become less able to distinguish art from marketing, they would become less intelligent, less able to think for themselves. Since there would be no government support for the national TV either, at least for nothing but news and facts, all other content would be sponsor controlled. The regular people, who Nieminen mistakenly thinks she represents, would have no option to be interested in anything but what the marketers somewhere think should be popular. The gap between classes – which have been all but eliminated in Finland – would become bigger rather than smaller.

I’ll tell you now: art is not the ‘hobby’ of the wealthy elite. Art is not some strange alien life form. Art is culture, you idiot, and culture is life. Without culture, you have no design, no fashion, no jewellery, nothing that feeds our minds. Art is the interest of thinking people from all walks of life; it should be available to all.

I was going to entertain the thought that Nieminen could be at least partially right, but it goes against every fiber of my being. I would do art for free, and be happy about it, if my basic needs were satisfied and if I was given the materials needed to do my job. I tried a regular life in a real job, I tried to be a productive member of the market driven society, and it nearly killed me. Not everyone was built to work like a robot, Anna-Leena Nieminen. Would you rather that I was shut in a mental institute – all the more of a burden to a society – than at least trying to do my part in making the world a little more livable?

I might be an example from the more extreme end of the spectrum, but fuck you, I’m not alone. I’m not a freak. I’m different from you, and I think that’s a good thing indeed.

**** See this interesting talk to explain the concept of the creative flow: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on TED.


3 Responses to “Ars longa, vita brevis”

  1. November 10, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    Thanks for your comment Laura. I was following Nieminen´s blog and entered here. Good things and I underline those too. -alias els´-

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Heard it through the grapevine:

It Has Been Written:

November 2010
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