Tribe House Blog

Not Rich? Forget Art.

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Posted : July 9th, 2012 by

Originally posted by Jim Biggs on his blog who “lives at the intersection of Art and Faith, trying to keep traffic moving.”

Most historians agree: art only flourishes in wealthy cultures. Everybody else is too busy just staying alive.

A case in point is the Haida Indians on Canada’s west coast. Apparently the fish were so easy to catch back in the day that they had a lot of time off; hence much good art. I found that out in a textbook, and I have seen it with my own eyes. Those folks produce fine art.

Michelangelo is another one. He was financed either by his father or wealthy patrons for his whole life, which is why we have the Sistine Chapel ceiling today, or the Sixteen Chapel, as Justin Bieber calls it.

Jim BiggsSpeaking of Mr. Bieber, his stupendous cash flow should free him up to write outstanding tunes sooner or later, if the theory holds. His fans, on the other hand, having spent themselves into poverty buying concert tickets, will be less likely to pursue music. They have to work.

The wealth/art connection seems plausible enough, but only if you don’t think too much about it. Ancient cave dwellers, for instance, found time to draw on their walls, and American slaves turned out lasting music, both of them without benefit of wealth. More recently, a couple of years back I drove a bus all over Canada, hauling a troupe of Kenyan performers. In more than a hundred shows, they never failed to get multiple standing ovations; their art was simply mind-boggling, and it was born in poverty. Maybe even because of poverty.

Without question, wealth enables leisure, but does leisure necessarily translate into art? For the answer to that, we need only look out our windows: we North Americans, on average, are the most fabulously rich people that have ever been on this planet. Are we therefore turning out mountains of good art? Or do our technologies just make it look that way?

sistine chapelI fear the latter. Peering into our TV screens or computer monitors, it would seem that artistic production has reached unprecedented levels, but looking around at real people in the real world, it would seem that what is truly unprecedented is the amount of time we all spend looking at art on our computers and TV’s rather than doing art in real time. Put another way, an increasingly small elite of producers serves an increasingly large mass of consumers. Wealth (and its attendant technologies) has simultaneously made art more available to consume but less attractive to produce, such that, for instance, one can sit for hours watching great concerts on youtube but never practicing music. In that mode, time and ambition just seem to slip away. We’re rich, but the resulting leisure goes for consumption ahead of production. It’s easier.

That said, the problem might be deeper than economics; it might lie in how we see the world. I wonder: would Van Morrison have written “Brown Eyed Girl” if he really thought the brown-eyed girl in question was just a time plus chance ball of gas? Would love songs obsess the whole world if people really thought that love was just a glandular phenomenon? Would anybody bother with art at all if they were really thorough-going materialists?

Over the long haul, I suspect not. Art is passion, art is longing, art is meaning and humor and transcendence, all of which are hard to find in a random, indifferent universe. It is no wonder that critics denounce “soul-less” art; like the rest of us, they know when something is wrong.

Material wealth might enable art, but it takes other kinds of wealth to bring art to life. We’ve got cash; maybe the withering of art in our lives bespeaks another kind of poverty. Mozart will last a long time; Madonna, that Material Girl, is already spent.


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