Editorial: Why Support the Arts? By BECKY O'MALLEY

Tuesday August 02, 2005

The air around these pages has been crackling of late with thunderbolts hurled from the Olympian heights of Berkeley’s arts community. No sooner does artist A praise, for example, the primitive power of the examples of art at the Albany Bulb than artist B ripostes with suggestions that they are untidy and barely accessible. The “Here-There” metal cutouts installed on the Berkeley-Oakland border, to the tune of $50,000, are either witty examples of post-modernism or ludicrous mis-spending of public funds. The only public sculpture, (as far as anyone can remember) which was ratified by a ballot initiative is still, many years later, the target of derision in some circles. In light of all this excitement, it’s hard not to suppress a smile at one writer’s comment that “visual arts coverage in the Planet is infrequent and often inaccurate, a tradition one hopes will be corrected before Berkeley’s vibrant visual arts community dies of neglect or goes elsewhere.”  

We’d be devastated to believe that the visual arts in Berkeley would wither and fade if not covered adequately in the Planet, but we can’t take ourselves quite that seriously. In fact, I’ve recently been having some difficulty taking any kind of art very seriously, since I’ve been reading What Good are the Arts?, a provocative book by British critic (and literature professor) John Carey. His premise, examined at great length and with many side trips into history, philosophy and science, is that the only credible answer to the question “What is a work of art?” is “Anything that anyone has ever considered a work of art, though it may be a work of art for only one person.” 

Further, Carey says, “the absence of any God-given absolutes, together with the impossibility of accessing other people’s consciousness, prevents us—or should prevent us—from pronouncing other people’s aesthetic judgments right or wrong.” So much for art reviews. His arguments in support of this conclusion are too long to reiterate here, but they persuade me, at least while I’m reading them. 

They take on particular importance when the question before the house is whether public funds should be devoted to supporting the arts. The $50,000 which was allocated to the “Here-There” sculpture is a substantial sum, generated by a “percent-for-art” allocation of funds provided for public buildings like Berkeley’s new public safety building.  

When I was in law school I interned for a semester with the Jerry Brown incarnation of the California Arts Council, which dispensed state support for the arts, at the time in generous quantity. It was a lively bunch, including people like Peter Coyote and Gary Snyder, and its most important product was spirited discussions of the role and function of public funding for the arts. I took one major conclusion away from listening to them talk: people—voters, taxpayers, spectators, whoever—absolutely detested large publicly-funded sculptures in public places, or at least the ones they’d been offered until then (the early ‘80s). I have no reason to think anything’s changed as I overhear conversations in Berkeley about recent sculpture installations downtown (slag column No No No, tuning fork Maybe). 

Back to Cary. He finds most value for the arts in participation. He looks at art programs for prisoners as being especially redemptive regardless of content, giving convicts the opportunity to do something they can be proud of for a change. He’s hard on those who support high art over mass art: “The characteristics of popular or mass art that seem most objectionable to its high-art critics—violence, sensationalism, escapism, an obsession with romantic love—minister to human needs inherited from our remote ancestors over hundreds of thousands of years. Activities such as women’s fashion, gardening and football can be shown to meet these needs in ways that high art doesn’t. Consequently when commentators such as Iris Murdoch set out to construct a philosophical proof of the superiority of high art, the result is catastrophic and self-deluding.”  

One might justifiably inquire whether fifty thousand dollars-worth of public pleasure in Berkeley might have been better generated by, for example, sculpture in a park which kids could also climb on. Or, even better, by spending the equivalent amount on protecting opportunities for citizens to create their own artworks. Arts programs in the schools are dying. Space in the East Bay to pursue art projects, especially large dirty ones, is being gobbled up by condominium construction. Free-for-all display environments like the Bulb are giving way to sanitized juried arts centers.  

Let’s give John Carey one last word: 

“If art is to be regarded as a collection of monuments it casts the majority of people in the drab and secondary role of monument-visitors, and negates the possibility of participation in art as a redemptive activity.” Rather than arguing about whether monuments like “Here-There” should be anywhere at all, the Berkeley arts community ought to focus its attention on broadening the possibility of participation in art for more Berkeley citizens.