We should think of art as an activity and not a product. The value of art to a culture comes from its work in illustrating and communicating symbolically the meaning and importance of a culture’s way of life. Art should be considered both literally and symbolically, as it works simultaneously by substantive representation and by implication and suggestion. What is suggested and therefore inferred is not comprehended literally but unconsciously, both in the individual and in the collective consciousness of the culture. Art provides thoughtful but also inconsiderate access to the unconscious and subconscious mind. It does this through pretending or pretention. All art is pretentious. Art begins with the childlike acting of let’s pretend.
The monetary value of a work of art, hundreds of millions now paid for a painting, does not speak to the value of art as it works in a culture. Anyone can engage in art, and everyone does. If we think of art as an activity (and not a product), we see the audience engaged in the work, not just watching or listening, but as part of its ongoing creation, and we see the work as a work in progress: vibrant, aging, deteriorating, fading. That is beauty.
To say that all art is pretentious works as follows. One year, I went to a local barber to get my hair cut. As Ring Lardner explained in his short story “Haircut” (1925), the participation in the activity of art makes the audience part of the work’s creation. (Sometimes, a visit to a barber can be as bad as having to go to a dentist.) In the barbershop at the time of my haircut, there happened to be three of us: the barber, myself, and an apparent friend of the barber. On the wall opposite the barber’s chair I sat in, hung a small, representational painting of a snow capped mountain. The barber proceeded to explain the painting’s merits. He said, “Put a photograph of that mountain next to that painting and I defy you to tell me which is which.” Of course, neither the painting nor the photograph was the mountain, but a pretension of the mountain. What the barber as art critic appeared to value in art was literalism. But in spite of his efforts, no mountain filled his barbershop.
Also implicit in my barber’s criticism is a theory of value and values. What we value, as individuals and as a culture, is simply what we want, what we desire, both consciously and unconsciously. But what we want is not always good for us. And by good here we mean healthy, life affirming, balanced, unpolluted, not harmful to ourselves, others, or to our environment. Cars, for example, in that context, are not good for us, yet most of us want one and can hardly imagine getting around without one. We might even say that all means of transportation are bad for us, even walking. Transportation is fraught with risk. We should sit at home and do nothing. But when the asteroid hits, it will hardly matter where we are or what we are doing. And what we value is transportation, and we work, ostensibly, to make the modes safer.
When we engage in activities that are not good for us we experience the irrational or nonrational. What the barber valued in art was more than simply representationalism, but rationality. He apparently felt that art that expressed or provided access to an irrational or nonrational experience was bad art. By the way, throughout the entire haircut, the barber enjoyed a cigarette that in between puffs sat in a green ceramic ashtray and emitted a wavering column of smoke that from my vantage point produced in the mountain a volcano effect.
We value looking inside of things. We want to see inside a mind. Thus we undergo psychoanalysis or some sort of therapy. We want to see inside our body. Thus we undergo a colonoscopy or get an MRI or an X-ray. We want to see inside our psyche – thus we read and write poetry. But notice the metaphor may not work there. The psyche is not inside, but outside. It’s all around us. And is it good to see inside of things? Are not these things closed up for good reasons? What happens when we intrude? Is that the purpose or effect of art – to look inside of things, to see what has been covered, hidden, kept secret?
There is no hierarchy of values. When we speak of family values, we point to what a unit of culture wants, and, again, that want is not necessarily synonymous with good. We value high school sports, football. Football is, at least arguably, not good for us – it’s not a healthful, balanced sport. It’s not a good investment. But football is a family value, of much importance economically and emotionally, of current US American experience. But we might think of football as an art form. As an art form, uncovering the irrational, we might find in football some of the hidden expressions and meanings of our culture.
When we speak of the value of art, we want to avoid a hierarchy of values. All values are equal. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, often illustrated in pyramid illustration, as useful as it might be, underscores the culture’s competitive nature, which art undermines. For art is not competitive. And where there are art competitions – they have nothing to do with art.
A long married couple, having worked hard lifelong, now retired, would like to spend some leisure time in appreciation of a bit of what they think of as high culture. They buy tickets, from an ad received in the junk mail, to the local opera, where they experience the same family arguments they’ve live with these past 50 years, and hear the same folk songs they grew up with. They don’t understand a word of it, but they know someone is pissed off and another is beside themselves with grief and regret. Still another gloats, and another is mean and prods. And the couple, dressed to the nines for the experience, enjoy a glass of champagne in the lobby at intermission. They look around at the other opera goers and don’t recognize anyone. They each visit their respective lounges where they see someone in a full size mirror, a person they hardly recognize. And suddenly the value of art dawns on them, in the latrine at the opera.