When you've worked in and around the arts for most of your adult life you get used to the occasional odd glance from people when you tell them what you do for a living. There's still a great deal of suspicion on the part of the general public as to the legitimacy of the arts, and not just as a career choice either — the whole idea of creative expression unsettles a good many people.
Now I can't really blame them, especially here in North America where we don't have the cultural traditions of Europe. Sure we have art galleries that display some of the finest work in the world, and North America has produced and continues to produce artists of the highest calibre in all media. But those people, for the most part, have succeeded not because of their environment, but in spite of it.
Our antipathy to the arts is deep-seated; it's not something that just sprung up overnight. It is an ingrained aspect of North American society, deeply rooted and firmly embedded since the first Puritan set foot upon our shores.
The story we're told is they came here seeking freedom from religious persecution. What's probably closer to the truth is that not that many people were thrilled with their brand of austere Christianity. Puritans were probably the originators of every cliché you've ever heard about the merits of hard work from sun up to sun down (except on Sundays, of course) until you died and went to heaven to receive your eternal reward.
Life on earth was not meant for pleasure or for fun. We're here to repent for the sin of Adam and Eve so we can pass muster to get into heaven. The idea of doing something for purely aesthetic reasons wouldn't even have occurred to the Puritans and they would have thought anyone who did so misguided at best, an evil sinner at worst. To people who genuinely believed that "idle hands were the devil's playground," the idea of taking the time needed to think about writing a poem or contemplating the play of light and shadow in preparation for a drawing would have been as foreign as cannibalism is to you and me.
This belief system is at the core of North American society to this day. Why else would people work themselves into early graves by slaving long hours at jobs they hate or don't really care about? Sure, now they don't have to wait until going to heaven for some of their reward and there are all sorts of material gains they can accumulate. So doing something just for the sake of doing it, with no guarantee of a tangible payoff, is just as strange and alien to them as it was to their Puritan forefathers.
Of course, suspicion of the arts has gone beyond that by now and has become so deep-seated that most people don't even have a rational explanation for their disinterest. "Only fags do that shit", "It's stupid", "What's the point", and "It's boring" are more likely to be the response these days. Which, although far preferable to being burned at the stake for being a witch, means that the arts still have a way to go before they gain a measure of general acceptance.
L'art pour l'art, the art for the art — or as we have transliterated it, art for art's sake — is a motto that even a good many artists have trouble accepting in our society. They still feel they have to justify the fact that they are creating something unique by applying a symbolic meaning to it for people to hold on to. Even if it is something ridiculous and inane: "The white on white is indicative of the stark realities and choices we face in everyday life – look at the texture of the brush strokes – their agitation reflects the anxiety we feel…" — well, you get the idea.
Certainly artists create pieces of work to evoke an emotional or intellectual reaction from the reader, the listener, or the observer. But no one can predict how different people will react to the same object. Everyone will have a different reaction based on their own life experiences and backgrounds. That's the beauty of art – its innate ability to evoke spontaneous, nearly instinctive, reactions from people.
It's also what people fear the most about art, its ability to speak directly with anybody and everybody who comes in contact with it. Whether it's an entire audience being moved by a stirring anthem like Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, or a single person reading a line of poetry that moves him or her, their understanding of humanity's potential will grow.
Art makes a lie out of the expression the sky is the limit. It has the capability to expand and extend our horizons to the furthest limits of our imaginations and beyond even that. Is it any wonder that in totalitarian states artists are tightly controlled, if not forbidden to produce work? Books are burned and paintings banned because they are said to be a corrupting influence on the minds of the populace, as if people can't decide for themselves what they like.
Art needs to be a communal experience, with the artist offering up his or her vision to the audience for them to appreciate and interpret on their terms. Together they define not just a particular piece, but the premise of artistic creation. Because for each of us the experience will be different, the totality of the community is maintained. Removing our right to reach our own decision on what a piece of art means takes away one of the key elements of the experience, trivializes the process, and ends the life of art.
"The art for the art" is already an alien enough concept as it is in North America. If we remove the area that involves the observer from the process it becomes just another static form of entertainment that does nothing for us aside from providing a distraction.
For an environment that has not been the kindest to the arts, North America has produced some brilliantly talented geniuses in all media. By simply allowing them to be and continue what they've started, by allowing the nascent community of art to continue to take root within our cultural soil, we will ensure, at the least, that we always have artists, art, and people wanting to view it.
Any moves that curtail any aspect of it will surely cut it off at the roots or worse. We've already got enough to answer for as it is; let's not also have the death of art laid at our door.