When one thinks too long about art, the act of writing or painting or composing for an audience, even if that audience is never manifest, the act itself assumes all of its oddity, and embodies its queer position as both foundational to existence and utterly irrelevant. There is no question that, without art’s dialogue in chronological time, life as human subject could not exist as it does. We would have no record of our language in past epochs, no idea what conflicts our ancestors faced, no appreciation for manipulation of material to make buildings, technology, or even medicine. Art has been used as a catch-all term for the things which comprise the collective consciousness of a community. Without the memory function enabled by our cultural production, then, we would be a people without a past, and because artists construct reality, without it we would be a people with no future (in the temporal, narrative-based way we understand that term).
And yet, despite art being the vehicle for “culture” in the broadest sense (of human-centric life), the individual instances of art can appear so arbitrary, non-sensical, and even boring to most people who don’t know or care to know what it is. Indeed, even to someone literate in one of cultural production’s many artistic dialogues, if presented with an unfamiliar work out of context, may find it uninteresting, silly, and worthless.
I recently overheard two adolescents on a first date debate whether women should be allowed to wear baseball caps. Art can sound like that. Not every conversation is relevant or mature. Additionally, an academic once spent 45 minutes explaining to me Deleuze’s concept of the rhizomatic. Not every conversation is necessary. We can fool ourselves into thinking certain topics are important, but they quickly become dated. Not every pop song endures. It depends on the power of expression, and the relevance of the articulation.
These problems of art are metonym for the awkward, and even humiliating, position of human life: Can we honestly say that our culture, which is foundational to human existence, is worthwhile? Is it worth the time and effort it takes to preserve and perpetuate it?
Take a look around at the people today. Not the ones you hear about or idolize, but the ones you know intimately. Consider the things they do—make money and spend it, like things on facebook, take pictures of food at restaurants, throw plastic into the ocean, yell at customer service representatives, play games on their phones, buy dogs with smushed faces, protest at abortion clinics, sign petitions for legislation, wear make-up, get hair cuts, try on clothes, get tattoos, drink beer, visit monuments, comment on YouTube, and talk about people they know. Consider all of it and more: humanity as it is, of the things they spend time on, what they talk about, murders they commit and reasons they give for committing them. Think of yourself living with them, and take stock of all the ways you spend your time. After long contemplation, which person would like to tell me humanity—not in the abstract, but in its everyday actions—is indispensible or important? Who wants to bleat at me that our culture is worthy of preservation, perhaps so we can enjoy its excellent shopping?
If you aspire to more than present humanity can give, you must work for it. Not just in art, but within specific and local communities, engaging the people in your everyday life.
For let’s not pretend that art can do more than the culture it arises from. Human beings are condition and will, and though the will is strong, it cannot completely dismiss its surroundings. If art appears silly, it could be that you are looking at the expressive equivalent of the adolescent debating women in baseball caps. But, equally, it could be that you are that adolescent, and maturity will make the object in question more meaningful.