A common refrain in our current time is the bleating that proclaims the interpretation of art, whether music or literature, to be personal, a sort of “it is whatever you want it to be” proclamation. While to an artist this is laughable, the average person is so steeped in the parent philosophy of this illusion that to them, it seems a natural assumption.
We live in a time where the physical reality we share, whose responses are the same for all of us, is deprecated in favor of a new “humanist” reality in which broad political-mystical concepts like equality and freedom are thrown about as a way of basically justifying personal self-referentiality. We are locked into our personal interpretations, thanks to our domination of the natural world and thus removal from direct effect of our actions; all of our transactions occur through other people and bureaucratic social apparatus.
For this reason, we rarely see direct consequences in the way a caveman who forgot to build a fire in winter would; we turn up the heat. As long as we can hold down some sort of a job, or remember to apply for welfare, we are able to be in some place where a small dial controls temperature. It requires the IQ of a dumpster to survive.
Because the quest for survival is thus so far removed from us, we are responsible to no one but ourselves for our values, and can therefore create “lifestyle choices” in which even insane behavior makes sense. You can spend your entire day watching television and, when night comes, turn up the heat and order a pizza, and no one will point out that you’re wasting your life. Surely, some day as you sit in an old age home wondering what it all meant, the weight of mortality will bend your spine, but in the meantime, hey, Seinfeld’s on.
Our politics emphasizes the “empowerment” of different lifestyle choices, which means that society is expected to bear any burdens incurred by the behavior in the name of the individual as king of its own domain. The greatest good is seen as allowing the individual to make whatever choices it desires, so long as it goes back to its simple job and earns enough money to buy products and keep the economy going. The economy? Such a thing does not exist in nature, but for us, it is higher than the law.
There are no right answers, except the “foundation” of modern civilization, composed of technology and economy and “freedom,” which is assumed as absolute – everything else is a choice, and there are no consequences publically admitted to these choices. This course of life is devoid of a goal, but what goal is there besides individual comfort, when there is no differentiation between a symphony and ten minutes’ use of FL Studio to make a techno track? It’s all a choice; all choices are equal; nothing matters except comfort and, of course, your job.
In this light, it’s easy to see why art has been emasculated, because the perceiver and not the artist interprets what a work means (excepting political works, which are designed to reinforce one’s sense of stability in a time with no demonstrable “right” outcomes). If you listen to a symphony and think it means that sitting home and watching Seinfeld is the highest use of a human being, why then, it must be “right,” since the individual is the king of all determinations of this sort.
This attitude guts art, and reduces it from something which can bear content – meaning, experience and feeling – to something which serves the same purpose as interior decorating supplies purchased at Wal-Mart. If you like pastels, pick pastels, and you’ll have that ambience as a product which makes your life more comfortable. Similarly, when choosing art, you do not pick the most profound, meaningful or well-executed, but that which matches the decor. Ew – Beethoven clashes with my pastels and the laugh track on TV – better switch to something more universal like techno.
Naturally, this is to the benefit of those who own the means of production, and not the artists. Artists now must struggle to make decoration, and must discard all of what attracts most people to art in the first place, which is its emotional effect, since there is no longer an audience which can receive that communication. When everyone interprets a piece according to their preconceived notions of what it would be, and reads nothing into it but a surface appearance, the only common denominator among the audience is literally the decorative value of art.
In the case of music, this means that producers must use the latest technology and find “new” combinations of already-known factors in order to provide sonic decoration; in visual art, it means that painters must find quaint or “unique” scenes to portray inoffensively in the colors favored by Martha Stewart and Christopher Lowell that season. Literature is even more destroyed, since people now buy books to affirm their particular lifestyle identity: gay literature, drug literature, feminist literature, republican literature, etc. This isn’t about learning something new, it’s about accessorizing.
There’s only one way to fight this, and it is to be much more aggressive about what you consider “art.” Recognizing that most music, for example, is decoration and not profundity allows you to not only discount its importance, but to bypass it – every CD you fail to buy is $15 in your pocket that you can apply to something of real value, like land in the country where you can set up a mini-civilization that does appreciate art.
When you expect more than decoration, you move up the ladder of evolution and transcend the mass of lifestyle choicers who will never contribute anything to civilization (but will gladly enjoy its comfortable, reality-free lifestyle). Art isn’t “whatever you want it to be”; like philosophy and science, but in a different form, it discusses the issues that give our lives meaning.
Meaning makes for a bad product; you can’t mass produce and sell it in a range of pastel colors. This alone is reason to adore it. While everyone else anaesthesizes themselves with the unreal, you can choose art over decoration, and be stronger for it.