Art isn’t Necessary
I’m a musician, songwriter, and producer. I hold two arts degrees (ew) and I’m here to tell you this:
Art is an important part of many of our lives, but it is not an essential part of it — I mean that in the strictest sense possible. We need certain things to live: Food, Water, Shelter… Not poetry*.
*Although, I look forward to the comments telling me that without insert movie/book/song name they wouldn’t be alive.
You might feel that life is not worth living without the respite or therapeutic value of music or film, and that is totally understandable and relatable but doesn’t change the fact that ART IS A LUXURY; something that can be enjoyed once we have satisfied the basic requirements of biological existence.
That’s not a bad thing (IMO). It's actually pretty cool that it is possible to devote so much time and energy to something that is essentially frivolous (although I understand that the word frivolous may make some people very nervous here, see note at the end of this essay for more on this).
I don’t know if this is a hot take or not actually, but I suspect some people won’t agree with me— likely those who make a living directly from the arts, since they would most benefit from making art seem to be an inarguably essential element of life. Others, who don’t profit financially but still dedicate much of their lives to entertainment and the arts, may also be reluctant to admit that what they are doing is not exactly crucial — although it may be an indispensable part of their personality.
Why am I even bringing this up? Oh right…
Art is exclusionary. The desire to elevate some things to the status of art and not others is not a design fault, it is intentional and necessary. Some things must be less than for others to be greater than. There are both economic and cultural-power components to this — one example of this hierarchy (which I discussed in an earlier essay) is the idea of cinema vs movies.
My specific academic interest is in comedy and…
One of the things that tend to get aesthetically downgraded is works of humor — which are often seen as a borderline (if at all) case of art. There are a few reasons for this:
“All jokes are bad if they are any good.” -Moira Marsh
- Superiority theory and the murky morality of jokes: Superiority theory states that all jokes have a butt; something that you are laughing AT and many aesthetic theories assert that art must be morally good. Therefore if you are laughing at something it probably isn’t art.
“With all the ways in which laughter and humor involve the loss of self control and the breaking of social rules, it’s not surprising that most societies have been suspicious of them and have often rejected them.” -John Morreall
- Laughter’s association with play and the loss of control: Humor is often seen as childish, something that you grow out of or learn to control. It is also bodily. Jokes have a way of bypassing our cerebral facilities and resulting in laughter without our “mental consent.”* Laughter may also make you cry, fall down, or lose control of your bladder (this is a mature way of saying pee your pants btw). How can we trust a phenomenon that has this much power?!
*Here is an example of what I mean: Have you ever been told a particularly offensive but well-crafted joke? When the punchline hits, you can’t help but immediately laugh. Almost instantly after that, once your brain has time to process why you shouldn’t be laughing, you apologize to no one in particular and try to regain composure. Additionally, some humor, because of its corrupting abilities was regulated strongly (or even banned) at various times by the Christian Church, Communist China, Soviet Russia, and Hitler’s Germany.
“Imitating art more than life, parody self-consciously and self-critically recognizes its own nature.”- Linda Hutcheon
- Meta-humor is art about art: Much humorour art (like parody and satire) is referential and derivative to/of other work. While exceptional works in these genres show how sophisticated and interesting these techniques can be, there is a general tendency to praise more-wholly original art. I believe that humorous art, even when it isn’t parodic, tends to be misidentified as parody; implying that REAL art is unfunny. This also ties back into superiority theory, because if you are laughing at something which is parodic then you must be looking down on the original work that it is based on.*
*This is, of course, not necessarily true. Humorist George Saunders has said that in order to properly satirize something you need to spend a lot of time looking at it and thinking about it which indicates some kind of reverence or “love” for it”.
By excluding comedy or other forms of entertainment from the “higher arts,” you can make a more compelling case for “serious” art as being important/necessary and possibly removed from the realm of the frivolous entirely.
Entertainment is a loaded word in this discussion as well: Is there a fundamental difference between art and entertainment or is art just the cultural works that happen to be particularly good? Or maybe just the ones that make you feel smart? If you really buy into this idea that art is tangibly or fundamentally different or more important than some alternative category you’re ignoring how entirely arbitrary* this distinction process can be.
*I think arbitrary is the right word. It certainly isn’t random, although these characteristics may appear that way out of context. There is a logic to it, but not a natural law — It’s entirely constructed.
If you truly want to make the case that Art is an indispensable element of life you may start by being strategic about what you call Art…or more importantly what you don’t.
By admitting that art is essentially frivolous*, we can all perhaps be more categorically inclusive and less of a pretentious A(rt)hole.
- The argument that art is frivolous is unfortunately one that has been made by people like politicians arguing against funding public works or school boards trying to cut music and arts programs and who want to, instead, fund (super essential things like) sports stadiums or new uniforms for the junior varsity foosball team — my goal is not to defend these sad jerks. Fund the arts — the stupid, stupid arts!