Tattoo the Rich
Matthew Arnold divided society into three classes. The Barbarians, that is the aristocrats, who cared only about hunting; The Philistines, meaning the bourgeoisie, who cared only for money; and the Populists, who, um, cared about surviving the Barbarians and Philistines.New York writer Fran Lebowitz divides society into three classes as well. The Celebrity class, the Audience and the Underclass. Lebowitz felt that celebrity -- in our society -- is a substitute for aristocracy. In other words, now we've got Arnold without the Matthew.Lately, I've been thinking more and more about the haves and have nots and the whys and the why nots? Yawn, a cliche, I realize, but if you are going to be dumb enough to think about our society, for me this is the number one topic to ponder.Fortunately there was the really fun fantastic movie The Relic which really got me thinking about the rich and the poor. A movie in which the rich get eaten by a horrible monster at a gala art opening at the Chicago Museum. (Hooray for horrible monsters, and I don't mean the rich in this case.)Now how is it that art got put into art museums and associated with the rich (when it is so often produced by the poor) anyway? I mean big gala art openings are classy events are they not?This could not be clearer to me than when I saw Linda Hunt of The Year of Living Dangerously as the gala organizer in The Relic. Or as she says to the pudge-faced street smart detective-detective: "Do you like tiny pieces of salmon on round crisp toasted bread? Because if we don't have this gala opening there will be 300 pounds of salmon to be eaten." Indeed. Indeed. The "but enough art, eat" school of thought -- I fully support this.I thought I heard the detective mutter underneath his breath: "Give it to the food bank."The truth is, art has been used to reinforce the power of political rulers and states since the ancient Egyptians (work executed by slaves). There are three primary demands which power usually makes on art and which absolute power (dictatorships, think Adolf, think Mussolini or MGM), makes on a larger scale than more limited authorities. The first is to demonstrate the glory and triumph of power itself, as in the great arches and columns celebrating victories in war ever since the Roman Empire, the major model for public art. The second major function of art under power was to organize it as public drama (i.e. gala openings). Ritual and ceremony are essential to the political process and with the democratization of politics power increasingly became public theatre, with the people as audience and -- this was the specific innovation of the era of dictators -- as organized participants (i.e. gala openings).A third service that art could render power was educational or propagandist: it could teach, inform and inculcate the state's value system. Before the era of the peoples' participation in politics, these functions had been left mainly to churches and other religious bodies, but in the nineteenth century they were increasingly undertaken by secular governments, most obviously through public education.The dictatorships did not innovate in this field, except by banning dissident voices and making state orthodoxy compulsory.Power clearly needed art. But what kind of art? The major problem arose out of the "modernist" revolution in the arts in the last years before the First World War, which produced styles and works designed to be unacceptable to anyone whose tastes were like most people's, rooted in the nineteenth century (Think of Pound, Piccasso, Elliott and think of why no women in the official history. Think Gertrude Stein, think again). They were therefore unacceptable to conservative and even to conventional liberal governments. The surrealists tried to make a way of seeing political for a while.One might have expected regimes dedicated to breaking with the past and hailing the future to be more at ease with the avant garde. However, there were two difficulties which were to prove insurmountable. The first was that the avant garde in the arts was not necessarily marching in the same direction as the political radicals of right or left.The second difficulty was that Modernism appealed to a minority, whereas the governments were populist. On ideological and practical grounds they preferred arts that would appeal to the public, or at least be readily understood by it. This was rarely a top priority for creative talents who lived by innovation, experiment and quite often by provoking those who admired the art displayed in official salons and academics.We now live in an age where art is irrelevant to government (sport and film as part of the celebrity class holds government interest: i.e. The corporate GM Place and Planet Hollywood.) But we still have those institutions with their columns supported by a nineteenth century taste for art. The "But is it art?" question -- gets boiled down to "But is it marketable?" (Not terribly shocking, it just underscores the limits. of the relation between art and commerce. Commerce and true human dignity. Commerce as merit.) In the movie The Relic the Chicago Museum presented the Disneylike show "Superstition". In Hollywood North Vancouver, the V.A.G. this week has a gala opening recently for "Pierced Hearts and True Love, A Century of Drawings for Tattoos."A populist show of a once low art form which fifty years ago never would have been considered art, whatever that means. And of course it is, whatever that means. So naturally the powers that be at that time were out to lunch (probably somewhere expensive).But they'll be at the opening Friday night and in the great populist spirit I say, "Tattoo the Rich" (Rumour has it --"Relic"-like -- there'll be tattoo artists on hand to perform the task.) Don't miss out.