When we think of “real” art, we often think of expensive, highbrow pieces that are displayed in museums and galleries, and critiqued by the elite.
Should artists make artworks that are easy to understand? Or should there be challenging artworks out there, but free education to help us understand them? What, if anything, is the value of difficult paintings, poems, and novels? This week we’re asking if the arts should be for everyone.
That question has a long and fascinating history. Plato’s character “Socrates,” in the Phaedrus, already worried that books “roll around everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those with understanding no less than those who have no business with [them].” He clearly didn’t want writers to make their words accessible to all. The irony, of course, is that the Phaedrus is itself a book: even as he wrote those words for his character to say, Plato knew he was doing exactly what Socrates warned about!
If we flash forward to the nineteenth century, we find French poet Stéphane Mallarmé telling us to stop teaching great poetry to kids, since they have no way to appreciate it. (Judging by my own reading skills as a high school student, maybe he wasn’t entirely wrong.) But we also have Lautréamont, another French poet, saying “poetry must be made by all, not by one.” So which is it: should art be something we all make? Something we can at least all appreciate? Or something for the select few?
I want to propose a middle-ground answer. I’ve even got a slogan for it: “some art for all; all art for some.” Not sure it would make a great t-shirt, but I’m sticking to it for now. The thought is, first, that it’s great to have some artworks that are universally accessible, or at least as accessible as possible. In case you think that automatically means a catastrophic reduction in quality—pandering to the “lowest common denominator”—it’s worth bearing in mind that artworks can appeal to multiple audiences at multiple levels. Some watch Shakespeare for the philosophical questions, others for the dirty jokes. Some enjoy Jane Austen for the romantic plots, others (also) for the brilliant ironies and traps. Some binge Game of Thrones for the dramatic twists, others (also) for the moral quandaries. So accessible artworks can be layered, sophisticated, and rewarding.
That said—and this is the second part—not everything has to have mass appeal. A novel written in Guadeloupe doesn’t have to pander to readers in New York, explaining all the local references. Quirky comedies, like Napoleon Dynamite, don’t have to tickle everyone’s sense of humor. Political satire doesn’t have to make sense to folks in other countries. And above all, there’s real value to artworks that make life difficult for us.
Here I’m thinking about things like Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, plays by Beckett, paintings by Picasso, poems by Nobel Prize winner Louise Glück, novels by Proust and Kafka, music by Bach… These are artworks that are hard, and so they aren’t going to appeal to people who are in a hurry. But for those willing to think and feel about them, they can be transformative, getting us to contemplate vital questions, sharpening our mental skills, expanding our emotional range, enriching our inner life.
There’s nothing aristocratic about Toni Morrison. Her novels don’t exclude people who haven’t read the “right” things. They are available to all, even if they aren’t immediately accessible to all. They’re challenging, not because they require background knowledge, but just because they require a bit of work. And that work pays off richly, for those willing to do it.
And while we’re doing that work, we often compare notes with other readers, as we try to make the best sense of the challenging novel we’re all in love with. Books like that bring us together—maybe not as entire nations, but as smaller communities of shared taste and fellow feeling. Would we really want to lose those communities?
I certainly think we should do more, as a society, to put art within the reach of everyone: free museums, free concerts, free (and good!) art education, public literacy programs… But once art is within everyone’s reach, we’ll have done our job. We shouldn’t hope for a world in which every poem, movie, or song is immediately “accessible.” All art is for some people—everyone has at least one aesthetic “niche” they belong to—and I think that’s good enough. In fact I think that’s pretty great!