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Is Art Still Good For Us?

A few years back, I wrote some reflections on Joli Jensen’s, Is Art Good For Us? I had taken the book out of the library but have since bought a copy of that book as well as John Dewey’s Art As Experience.

The book is a very interesting look at the many definitions of the purpose of art throughout the history of the U.S. as well as the ideas about how art and democracy are related.

Reading Jensen’s work helped me flesh out my thoughts about the prescriptive model of the arts.

One aspect plays into the medicine metaphor quite well in the form of the old adage that it has to taste bad to be good for you. The value of avant garde art has always been in its power to shock and challenge. Just as consumers are always looking for a more pleasant tasting cough formula, a good portion of the public doesn’t want to pay for art that is foul to their senses. Nor do they want to be told that they will be better for it. In a way, like Mother trying to force big spoon of cod liver oil into the mouth, it treats people like children.

There will always be an audience for avant garde art. Like the pain of tattoos and piercings, its benefit is best realized by those who come to it willingly.

And as Jensen writes:

“If we gave up notions of art as social medicine, the logic of American cultural and social criticism would become unraveled. The arts must maintain their conceptual distinctiveness so that they can still be invoked as a fudge factor in criticism…”

“Invoking the arts as a fudge factor also allows us to avoid the hard work of directly defining what we value and what should be done…Current arts discourse allows us to be for all good things, and against all bad things by invoking the presumed good of the arts in opposition to the presumed bad of media, commerce and the marketplace.”

“Such a discourse has significant costs. It guarantees that our social criticism is vague, overblown, insulting and impotent. When we discuss our common life, what is wrong with it and what can be done to improve it, we need all the directness, specificity, clarity and compassion we can muster.”

There have been a lot of years of blogging since I first read Jensen’s work. I am interested in reading it again to see what new insights and understanding I may have developed since that time. I suspect (and even hope) that I may disagree with some of what I wrote in my original post.

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2 Responses to Is Art Still Good For Us?

  1. lindaessig July 19, 2012 at 6:15 pm #

    You might enjoy my take on John Dewey and audience development:

    • Joe Patti July 23, 2012 at 12:35 pm #

      Thanks Linda. Makes me want to get down to the business of reading the book.

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