I’ve spent a lot of my life on the outside looking in. This has been especially true in my career choices, which of course has affected my economic standing as well. There have been other mitigating factors that have precluded my participating in the mainstream, including health etc. but as they are not relevant to this discussion, I’ll leave them aside.
Being on the outside does two things. One, it gives you the opportunity to be an observer of trends and behaviours that wouldn’t be noticed by an active participant. If I’m to be completely honest, I have to admit that the other thing that happens is that you develop an attitude that affects your objectivity when it comes to passing judgement on those trends and behaviours.
In order to justify your “outsider” status, there is a tendency to elevate yourself into a position of superiority to those you deem as active participants in what you’re observing. This of course will play havoc with your objectivity as you’re constantly seeking to find fault in order to boost your own ego and to cover up any desire that you have for general acceptance.
In spite of the above corollary, there are certain observations that are true, and raise certain questions about the nature of mainstream society. If you never had any desire to be on the outside looking in, but your inclinations were such that you ended up in that position what does that say about society?
I’m not talking about abhorrent behaviours like rape or murder, or even anything criminal that would immediately separate you from the norm. I’m not even talking about sexual orientation or matters pertaining to race, creed, culture, or religion that could cause a distinction to be made.
What I’m addressing here is the way in which intelligence and artistic aspirations are looked upon. From our earliest days in the schoolyard at primary levels, intelligence was looked down upon by our contemporaries, and used as an excuse for being ostracized. Who didn’t dread being singled out for praise by their teacher in front of the rest of the class, knowing what sort of teasing would be the result?
The overt teasing vanished once you hit the higher grades of secondary school, but by then your “difference” was established and you were shunted aside from the mainstream of school life. Never to the extremes as depicted by Hollywood in their teen movies, but the position was still very real.
There was nothing wrong with getting decent, or even good grades, which was considered a status thing. The problem was in having individuality of thought, or formulating your own ideas. It usually came down to a choice of learning to keep your thoughts to yourself and fitting in, or developing a caustic attitude towards the mainstream, and finding your own way in the world.
The only thing that could guarantee isolation even quicker than intelligence was having any interest, or inclination towards, the arts. Even the simple act of picking up a book for no other reason than enjoyment could be looked on with suspicion. Going to a movie or watching television was okay, but the theatre, or ballet was considered a sign of real deviance. “Artsy Fag” was one of the more common epithets heard around high school during my sentence.
Perhaps by the end of high school open hostilities would have stopped as everyone headed off into their divergent futures, but it was only to be replaced by what seemed the universal scorn reserved for those both intellectual and artistic. (A point of clarification here. Please do not confuse the idolatry reserved for “Stars” as being acceptance of the arts. That’s a whole different scenario and circumstance that has nothing whatsoever to do with artistic inclination or intelligence.) If you had proposed a career in the arts, like theatre or writing, it would be invariable that people would ask you what you were going to do for a fall back when that didn’t work out.
Has anyone ever asked that of the people who have stated their intentions of going to law school, business school, or medicine? Aren’t you going to get a teacher’s degree so you can teach high school in case your degree in law doesn’t get you steady work is not a question you often hear thrown in the face of graduating law students? But those who have gone to art school, or theatre school are faced with a barrage of those and similar type questions.
Certainly there is more risk involved in embarking on a career in the arts than in law, but that is primarily because of the attitude people hold towards them in general. Culture is considered a frill in society. In the minds of most people, it doesn’t “do” anything so it can’t have any substantial value.
The same holds true for intellectual pursuits like philosophy, history, and other liberal arts fields of study. The fact that they don’t produce concrete results like winning court cases or saving lives or making a million dollars in a business deal reduces them to trivialities in most eyes.
Both the desire for knowledge for the sake of knowledge and the desire to create art lack an immediate pay-off in the eyes of the majority. Of course this opinion didn’t just spring up on its own overnight. It has to have been fostered somewhere, and than nurtured by someone, to stay alive.
If you look at both the United States and Canada and examine their founding cultures, an explanation is not hard to come by. Both countries have as their ruling establishment, monetarily and politically, people who are descendants of 17th-century Protestantism. Americans in particular take great pride in proving their lineage back to the Mayflower, the ship that carried over Puritan settlers to the New World.
You could not ask for more narrow-minded people when it comes to acceptance of deviation from societal dictates. Artistic and intellectual pursuits would have been considered sinful as they could lead to digression from the word of God, or their interpretation of it.
The Protestant work ethic, taken to its extreme, precludes doing anything that doesn’t yield tangible results. “Idle hands are the Devil’s playground” was not just a saying to describe children getting into mischief. If you are not working hard physically than the devil will control you and dictate your thoughts and actions.
Now, obviously that’s no longer the prevalent attitude, although it still does exist in certain places, but the hangover of distrust remains. It’s not expressed in the same terms; now it comes as an expression of monetary worth. Provincial governments in Canada look at funding universities based on perceptions of what a degree program will contribute to the economy.
Not only does this preclude there being value in accumulating knowledge for the sake of leaning new thoughts and ways of thinking, but it also ignores the impact that culture can have on an economy. Where would New York city be without it’s museums, opera, dance, and especially theatre? Can you imagine what would happen to that city if you took all of that away?
Well, you say, look at how well it does without any help. Yes but think of how much more of an impact the arts could have on communities all around North America if there was proper funding. Right now, it succeeds in spite of the obstacles put in front of it, and contrary to what you may have heard, art does not thrive in adversary any more than it does in comfort.
In fact, I’d bet someone with a full stomach could produce far better work than someone slowly starving to death. Anyone who has done any writing knows how hard it is to write at the best of times. Imagine, if you’ve not eaten properly how much harder it would be to be coherent.
It takes years of study for a doctor or an athlete to be become competent enough to work at their vocation professionally. The same goes for an actor, a dancer, an opera singer, a visual artist, or any of the other artistic careers. Yet we do nothing to assist them in the manner we assist athletes.
How many full artistic scholarships are given out by Notre Dame University every year? If one were to compare the economic spin-off from the arts to sports in New York City I bet you’d find that New York could survive the loss of its professional sports teams a lot easier than the loss of its professional arts institutes.
It has been said that in times of oppression that the first thing closed are the theatres, and after that the intellectuals are rounded up. The governments who are oppressive are afraid of venues and people who are capable of expressing thoughts that challenge the status quo.
In the nineteenth century, riots used to break out at operas because they were the first theatre that included common people as more than just comic relief or secondary characters. The Barber of Seville was considered incendiary because it showed the mistreatment of a regular person by the aristocracy. It was feared it would give people ideas above their station.
Nowadays governments do not move overtly against the arts or intellect; instead they plant the seeds of disquiet against them through their attitudes and snide remarks. How many times have you heard a pro-government voice make snide remarks about eggheads? They play on people’s schoolground prejudice against the smart kid, and do their best to make them seem different and therefore dismissible.
In their ideal form, the arts should hold a mirror up to society to allow us to take a good look at ourselves. They encourage you to think and form your own opinion. In this day and age, can you think of anything that would frighten governments that are so concerned with spin-doctoring more than people who are prepared to form their own opinions?
Artistic expression and creativity have been a natural means for humans to express their awe and wonder at the world around them since we first climbed up onto two legs. Look at the cave paintings and pictographs that have been found throughout the world for proof of that.
Without creativity and intellect, our development would have stagnated countless generations ago, yet in North America we are conditioned from an early age to look upon both those traits with suspicion. I don’t think there’s some government plot that created those feelings; they have been ingrained for far too long for the current crop of politicians on either side of the border to take the blame for this attitude. However, that does not mean they won’t perpetuate those feelings, and take full advantage of them to fulfill their agendas.
Many years ago when I was sill acting, the company I was with spent a summer doing free shows for neighbourhood children. It was one of the poorest working class areas in the city of Toronto. None of these kids had ever seen live theatre before. The first evening they bustled in and kept yelling out “when does the movie start?” They had no idea what theatre meant.
When the first actors came out on stage the audience was confused, and there was muttering amongst them. But in a very short time, they were enthralled. We played the same two or three shows for a month, but each night the same group of kids were back, and each time they’d bring more of their friends.
We would laugh backstage hearing them explain to the newcomers about how it was sort of like a movie, except the people were actually there, not on a screen. It was probably the only time in my life as an actor when I was recognised on the street. I think of those kids and I wonder how many others wouldn’t get the same pleasure out of that type of experience across North America, if we only gave them the opportunity.
It’s a shame that we have a society where so many people have been taught to fear and mistrust something that can so easily bring pleasure to all sorts of people. The arts are never going to go away; there are always going to be people for whom the hardships of a career in them are outweighed by the rewards. But it would be a lot better if it didn’t have to be that way.