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Art as Band Aid

by Judith Ann Moriarty

Who in their right mind really believes that the arts will reduce crime rates, keep our neighborhoods intact, solve environmental issues, bring nations together, prevent teen pregnancies, or do anything other than provide a transient moment between the viewer and that which the artist has produced? Well, lots of folks, it seems, for art has for many years been cast in the role of easing all manner of ills, both social and otherwise. That’s asking a lot, isn’t it? It’s no big secret that both private and grant monies have long been available for those claiming art is the key to our general well-being. It’s doubtful, however, that art is any more stress relieving or spiritually reviving than a sweaty game of stick ball or baking a cake from scratch. But never mind, avid proponents of programs keyed to art urge us ever on. Bring forth art and it will save the day, for art is our personal watchdog, doting nanny, concerned social worker, and moral Church Lady rolled into one. One size fits all. Art is now one helluva band-aid, guaranteed to fix what ails us. That’s asking a lot, isn’t it? First and foremost, art must strive to please the general populace. What an odd idea. No wonder it comes wrapped in the guise of exhibits replete with hoopla and little else. Content (i.e. the “idea” behind the art) takes a backseat to those producing the show. On with the show. On with the show. Let the babble begin. It’s true — lining up the masses and telling them to take their art medicine (it’s good for you!) has more to do with agencies keen on distributing monies to artists and venues than it has to do with thought-provoking dialogue. And what artist out there hasn’t been tempted to shape the content of their works to fit the agenda of the grant agencies? Be honest, if you’re an artist reading this. Art is not elaborate text panels bent on “explaining,” nor is it numbing lectures or fluffy forums that go nowhere. It’s sure not The Next Big Thing. It is not marble halls, tours of arts’ spaces in old brick buildings. It’s not wine and hunks of cheese and salespersons gushing, “Isn’t this wonderful?” Nor is it artsy benefits to benefit those in need of saving. Somewhere out there is an artist involved in a dialogue with his or her particular medium. Upon completion, if the artist’s efforts are exhibited, they soon become a populist trinket — a charm bracelet with a bottom-line jingle jangle, a lure for the next grant deadline. Whatever glow the work may have had is more or less tarnished by the incessant chatter of folks who promise lives will be enriched just because they say so. When was the last time we were urged to think for ourselves? Here’s a tip: The next time you’re approached by a gushing docent or art dealer, or arty type who says, “Isn’t this a perfectly marvelous work?” simply turn, look them in the eye, and say, “No, actually, it’s perfectly awful!” During the ensuing dead silence, you can then get on with thinking about what art is. Be prepared to spend many years thinking about the question. Making marks, shaping clay, or various other fun art adventures may change a few lives for the better. Beyond those few are people, young and old, who can actually form their own opinions without the help of make-wells bent on curing the world’s ills via art. Is that asking too much?