I was curious about Adrienne Rich after I posted the poem 'November 1968' the other day, and had a look on Wikipedia today, while I was avoiding the statistics textbook that is my work downtime activity. You can read the wiki article for yourself – it's not long. She sounds an intriguing woman, though a bit unbending and extreme for my (English?) tastes. I will reserve judgement until I find some more of her poetry. But I found that she had rejected the American 'National Medal for the Arts' in 1997 on the grounds that 'the very meaning of art...is incompatible with the cynical politics of [the Clinton] administration'. A bit more trawling led me to an article called 'Why I refused the National Medal for the Arts', which she published in the Los Angeles Times Book Section on 3rd August of that year. A lot of the politics she expresses in the article I can't comment on, because they are of their time and place, and I don't know enough about either. She does, however, make a number of assertions for and about art that I'm better equipped to think about.
Parts of the article act as a manifesto for Art, with a capital letter, in the modern world:
'And what about art? Mistrusted, adored, pietized, condemned, dismissed as entertainment, auctioned at Sotheby's, purchased by investment-seeking celebrities, it dies into the “art object” of a thousand museum basements. It's also reborn hourly in prisons, women's shelters, small-town garages, community college workshops, halfway house - wherever someone picks up a pencil, a wood-burning tool, a copy of “The Tempest”, a tag-sale camera, a whittling knife, a stick of charcoal, a pawnshop horn, a video of “Citizen Kane”, whatever lets you know again that this deeply instictual (sic) yet self-conscious expressive language, this regenerative process, could help you save your life. “If there were no poetry on any day in the world,” the poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “poetry would be invented that day. For there would be an intolerable hunger.” In an essay on the Caribbean poet Aime Cesaire, Clayton Eshleman names this hunger as “the desire, the need, for a more profound and ensouled world.” There is a continuing dynamic between art repressed and art reborn, between the relentless marketing of the superficial and the “spectral and vivid reality that employs all means” (Rukseyer again) to reach through armoring, resistances, resignation, to recall us to desire.'
This is a subscription to a view of art as higher truth that seems to place it as a sort of substitute for religion. That's a connection other people have made – there is a distinct thread in modern literary theory that addresses the idea of the critic as priest. I'll dig up the reference when I'm next in the relevant loft with that set of files. Art has very often been used to interpret religion, and it might be argued that all that has happened is that art has become the thing in itself, with its own priest-critics doling it out to the masses. I have no problem with that necessarily. Rich herself, however, in the list of adjectives at the start of the quotation, suggests that 'pietising' art will reduce it to the dead 'art object'. So what is art? It is created out of the reaching for a 'more profound and ensouled world', but it is not to be understood or venerated merely as the means to such an end? In the text of Rich's letter to the National Endowment for the Arts published at the end of the article, she states, 'I believe in art's social presence – as breaker of official silences, as voice for those whose voices are disregarded, and as a human birthright.' The idea of 'belief', in this form, is more usually associated with religious faith, and it is almost a godly position in which she places art. It is anthropomorphised into something powerful and active in the lives of the disadvantaged. The idea that art might be the right of all humanity links also with the idea of God as accessible to all. I can't help but feel this claims a great deal for art – it is a product of humanity, rather than something external as any deitic figure is. For myself, I need there to be greater distinction here. It IS still a symptom of the consciousness of society, and its interpretation a tool for social change. Oscar Wilde's useless art is not useless, only useless to those who want to see a concrete result. There are distinctions between use, function and purpose. The preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, I think, attempts to look at a few of these definitions, but in a typically Wildean coded way, requiring the reader to interrogate the words and their response. That's my dissertation. Let me know if you're interested.
Later in the article, art is 'our most powerful means of access to our own and another's experience and imaginative life.' It is part of the connection between people, then, a means of affirming membership with a group and sharing history and so on. This I thoroughly agree with, but it begs questions about inclusion and participation – does every human being need to connect with art in some form in order to be a true part of civilisation? Does a lack of artistic interest or sensibility inherently prevent integration? It is here that Rich makes one of her most interesting connections, which suggests that art serves a democratic function:
'In continually rediscovering and recovering the humanity of human beings, art is crucial to the democratic vision. A government tending further and further away from the search of democracy will see less and less “use” in encouraging artists.'
Rich, like Wilde, dismisses any overt 'use' for art, but she does imply here that a truly democratic government will find art a worthwhile thing to support. The connections that are created through art have a direct effect on the workings of democracy – as a result of nurturing mutual understanding. This I think is part of what Wilde is trying to get at in insisting that art is useless; he, like Rich, sees that there art has a function, but that it has no tangible use. A sympathetic, and Rich would claim democratic, government will understand its function and support artistic endeavour; a government more focused on commercial gain will believe that it has no 'use'. Here, then, is a purpose for art for those of us that demand it.
There is more to this, though. Rich asks the Marxist question at one stage 'What is social wealth?', implying that the answer might well be 'art'. So is art the symptom of a 'wealthy' society? Or perhaps 'healthy' is an implied synonym here. Several times through the article she draws a link between art and adversity – she points out that 'there is a continuing dynamic between art repressed and art reborn', and later she states that she is writing about 'the inseparability of art from acute social crisis'. So no, art isn't the symptom of a truly 'healthy' society, since in an ideal (and indeed Marxist, as I understand it) society, all would be equal and a great many sources of adversity would be removed. A truly healthy society, then, would have no need of art? Human suffering in one form or another is without doubt a constant, but the concepts of 'repression' and 'social crisis' do not refer to mundane pain or even natural disasters, or any other form of ill except that perpetrated by one person upon another. So, is art impossible in a society where all are equal? I appreciate that such a state of affairs is unlikely to ever come to pass, so perhaps I am worrying needlessly, but it is surely an indictment of art that it can only be produced by suffering and can only accrete as a pearl around the dirt of civilisation. Is art produced in an excess of joy less valuable? I'm sure Rich would agree that art can be produced in such a way, and that such art can indeed be valuable. Beautiful music written to be shared in moments of true happiness is art. I take that on faith. Perhaps there is an argument that says that the art of joy is produced by those who have gone through suffering and thereby know the difference. That's an argument trotted out as a reason that an all-powerful God put suffering in the world. It reduces joy, sadness, art and God though, to suggest that good things only have power in balance with bad things. Or does it? Perhaps we should take a more Buddhist position, that all things have their opposite, and accept that the ideal is a balanced path. But on Rich's reasoning, the middle way would never produce great art. The Wordsworthian 'spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings...remembered in tranquillity' would never come to pass, because the excess would not exist in the first place.
So, art serves an educational purpose, adding to the store of society's shared experience and hence allowing us to act as a cohesive whole. But at the same time, art is produced of repression within society, acting as the opposition pole to the establishment by giving a voice 'to those whose voices are disregarded'. This is Edward Said's position (in Culture and Imperialism...? Will have to check.). But I can't help feeling a little like Oscar Wilde again when he says, 'We can forgive a man making a useful thing so long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admire it intensely. All art is quite useless.' Limiting art to being made for a purpose is exactly that - a limit. Art can be used for many purposes, but ultimately it must amount to more than these – it must amount to uselessness. It must be able to fulfil all of these positions, and sit easily in none of them. Art requires a complexity that allows it to transcend anybody's agenda. Excerpts can be used in illustration, but there must be internal conflict. It must slip away from facile interpretation. Any such must be recognised as a reduction. And anything that is not a well of questions is not art. At least for me. At least today.