If there is a God, and a moral order to the world, making a 100 million dollar donation to Princeton earmarked for the arts will not get you into heaven.
Wandering through Princeton’s art museum the other night for the third time in seven years, I got to thinking again about art and its non-importance for anything worthwhile. My trip through the very nice exhibit of Russian art took all of ten minutes. For me, museum art is something that one looks at quickly. I end up saying things like “oh, that’s neat” and “hmm, very interesting.” For these moments the university invests so much money? Don’t get me wrong, I myself started out college as an art major, and still enjoy creating. I consider my work with Sympoh’s early shows serious art and would like to think we raised the bar for dance shows around campus. My beef with the arts is that so many resources are poured into their production with so little return. Is fleeting amusement the most we can hope for?
Call me a philistine if you must, but I can think of many better uses for 100 million dollars. How about starting a Princeton program in public-interest law? Advocacy work? Global health? Princeton is already one of the most endowed universities in the world. How about funding some social engineering for Trenton where most of the college age students have dropped out of high school? The list is long.
Why do we think that the arts are worth the investment? The arts, especially the installation art, poetry, and snooty fiction, only benefit our own privileged class. Meanwhile, our little campus seems to be doing just fine keeping itself busy with outstanding artistic productions. I’ve witnessed dancing and acting done by non-majors that was far and above anything I saw during my year teaching at arts-oriented Vassar College. So with all this money, all I can see is that we stage more and more elaborate talent shows for each other.
Which brings me to this avant-garde movie thing. This donation will no doubt allow our pretentious classmates to make more art movies, movies which only elites view and discuss.
The pretentious class warrior whines back: but art is critical of society! It is very important to critique the status quo.
I respond: Art can only change the world if it seen and if it is understood. The sort of movies that Sitney and Stout screen are neither seen nor understood by most people.
A few years ago, I attended Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle at the Guggenheim. Several reviews in the New Yorker and the Nation hailed Barney as the most important artist of our time. I was intrigued. Since I am not a connoisseur of gallery art, I thought I’d start with “the most important artist of our time” to see what he had to say to me. I spent nine hours in the Guggenheim with Barney’s art. Here’s what I found: several really boring movies (I slept through two of them), artifacts from the movies around the Guggenheim, pretentious comp lit types making wry and knowing comments about these artifacts and a video display. A sexy amputee athlete dressed up like a cheetah. Norman Mailer at some point. One movie filmed two vintage cars smashing into each other over and over. The whole thing must have cost a fortune, and, as I recall, the exhibit was sponsored by several companies including an airline.
Cremaster was very pretty at times, but it did not change me in any way worth the thousands of work-hours invested, the millions of dollars spent, and the nine hours I spent in the museum. I can’t imagine how it would change anyone or anything.
This year, after Katrina, we as a society should be paying more attention to what is really important. Avant-garde film, installation art, large donations for cute but insubstantial activities, all this should be washed away in the polluted waters of our times. Adorno famously asked if there could be poetry after Auschwitz. Sure, some poetry. But do wealthy Princetonians have to pay so much for it?