The other day, as I was reading a commentary on life in the Czech Republic, I was struck by an artist's statement that today the art, literature, and drama are all boring. Perhaps this is to be expected. Only a few years ago avante-garde artists were heroes, courageously standing for freedom of expression in the face of an unimaginative but still fearful party dictatorship. They had turned their back on all the many incentives the communists were offering--money, travel abroad, moderate fame, the chance to see their work displayed prominently--and gloried in the denunciation of producing "pornography" and "garbage." Now they were being ignored.
That is a human response. To go from a starving hero to a starving nobody is a come-down. But there was more to his statement: art is supposed to shock, to disturb. At that point, I began to reflect on what I was seeing around me in Olomouc.
This small city has a historic city hall in the center of a large square. There are, in all, four seventeenth century fountains, two large columns, then many renaissance, baroque and art-nouveau buildings. There is art galore here, some of its naive, some pure religious propaganda, but none of it was meant to shock.
The main purpose of art is to beautify, to give pleasure. Unless I'm mistaken, this is why we sometimes refer to hair stylists and chefs as "real artists." If the former give us something shocking, that's a sign that we are fifteen years old and are declaring our independence from our parents; if the cooks do so, we don't eat it. I'm not sure where the artist fits in there, but his main idea seemed to be that the artist has a duty to make society see itself as ugly as it really is. The least that society can do in return is to honor him for his insight and honesty. Money wouldn't hurt, either.
What was worst of all, according to the artist, was that his colleagues were selling out! They were producing art that people wanted to buy. Or they had gotten jobs.
The myth of the rejected artist is really very strong in our society; chances are the artist picked this idea up from America (all progressive ideas in art come from America--the only thing our money-grubbing capitalist culture does well). We all know the stories of artists who were not popular during their lifetime, but whose works now sell for millions. That yardstick of measurement is interesting, when applied by someone who despises money. In any case, it is the duty of the artist (alas, in music as well as painting and sculpture) to "educate" us by making us look at and listen to stuff we really don't like.
My first reflection on this is that, according to what I read, most successful artists in the past didn't have that hard a time. True, they had to master their craft, develop someone unique styles, and work hard. (So did farmers, for that matter.) Once they had demonstrated exceptional competence, patrons competed for their services, occasionally paid them handsomely, and sometimes let them do what they wanted. My second observation is that quite a bit of what passes for art isn't very good. This is certainly true in Olomouc. But add three hundred years of rain, a few shratnel scratches, forty years of pollution, hundreds of generations of pigeons, and even the worst traditional sculpture does its part toward making the square more pleasant. My third thought is that there is a tremendous amount of artistic talent out there nowadays, and some of it has been well-trained. This makes for a lot of competition. To be successful, one has to be good, work hard, advertize oneself and be lucky. It's like being a professional athlete, but with a longer working lifetime, more interesting company, and fewer knee injuries. Lastly, even today the starving artists are somehow finding places to display their work. The other day I took my students into the museum; as we finished the historical exhibits, the caretaker suggested that we go to the modern art floor, where they were having an exhibition by a visiting artist. I fled as soon as I saw what awaited. The students were braver, marching on until they had seen it all, but I doubt that any of them will go back for a second visit.
It wasn't that it was that bad. Just that it was a waste of time. I'm sure that we were more disappointed than shocked. Free societies are harder to shock than semi-free ones (and non-free societies simply eliminate anyone who even thinks about shocking them). We just turn our heads, change the channel, or don't read the book. The poor Czech artist. His public has no time to bother with being shocked. Everybody has better things to do than ponder somebody else's self-absorption.
However busy the public may be, it takes the time to care for its artistic heritage. While taking a break between drafts of this essay (even writers have to put in their share of sweat), I saw on the news a story about the multi-billion crown project (millions of dollars) to restore the statues and buildings on the Olomouc city square.
For art that gives pleasure, there seems to be money and appreciation. Pornography they can buy at the newsstand.