What is Art Good For (Even Now)?

It’s been a rough week y’all.

A couple weeks ago, one of my classes was having a discussion about the role of art in society, and we wrote statements about what it means to be an artist and citizen. Now, as I see other artists are trying to figure out their position and purpose in America moving forward, I thought I would post what I came up with.

(I’ll have more to say about politics and elections later…once I get my life slightly more together.)

What is art good for?

Sometimes, I wonder how I can justify spending hours in a dance studio instead of trying to cure cancer or negotiate a peace treaty. After all, most standard economic frameworks would consider the arts a luxury to engage in once the more practical concerns are taken care of–a pleasant way to blow an excess of resources and energy–but not a worthwhile focus in a society which still has issues of poverty and disease and violence to deal with.

But if this were the case, we would expect that art only emerges from great economic conditions and positions of social privilege. Historically, that doesn’t seem to be true: music and dance and drawing and poetry have been created and consumed in palaces and cushy ivory towers, but also in war zones and prisons and plantations and deathbeds. Somehow, our hierarchy of values must have got something wrong: issues of surviving don’t always take priority over living and creating and communicating.

Art, especially dance, doesn’t always fit so well into modern capitalist society, which encourages us to value our lives according to productivity and efficiency. Perhaps that mismatch of values is what makes it particularly needed, offering a form of resistance, or at least a bit of balance. Dancing is by nature unproductive. We can refer to pieces and performances as “products,” but only in the metaphorical sense: dance rarely results in more “stuff.” To take time for dance (moving, creating, or watching) demands that we value being and doing in itself, apart from producing. It demands that we value the moments of our lives, apart from the stuff we leave behind.

Dance also has the unique ability to challenge the artificial mind/body dualism (with an assumed inferiority of the body) which is so ingrained in our culture. Dance asserts that the body is meaningful. It’s not dirty or shameful or a source of evil. It’s not an irrelevant sack of meat whose only purpose is to carry around a brain or a soul. It’s not something that needs to be ignored, rejected, or overcome to become an intelligent or worthy being. It’s not exclusively an object of sexual desirability. Instead, it can be an impressive and versatile mechanical system, a means of communication, a tool for active thinking and problem solving, a site for sensations and emotions of all sorts, and a sight that can be publicly observed and appreciated with respect for it’s owner.

But as much as I like to see the liberatory potential in dance, it would be naive to assume that all dance or all art is inherently revolutionary, or even socially positive. Art can be a powerful medium, but the direction and scope of its impact depend on how we use it. The impact of art can easily become limited and circular when it stays within a small circle of elite, educated, art people making work to impress each other according to an inaccessible school of aesthetic and philosophical values. And of course, the assumptions and representations that we bring into our art can just as frequently help to reinforce social hierarchies as subvert them: dance, for instance, can often uncritically reproduce restricted gender roles, exclusive standards of beauty, and racial/ethnic caricatures.

Thus, recognizing the power of art must mean that artists should take responsibility for the impact of their work. This isn’t doesn’t necessarily mean creating “activist” art–with a deliberate social goal at the center–but simply being a responsible citizen who considers and cares who might be affected by the images they put out into the world.

Finally, in line with the principle that the method is the message, I believe that artists cannot genuinely and confidently claim that their work offers a positive social impact, unless principles of ethics and social justice are applied in the practice of its creation. In dance, this includes prioritizing livable pay for dancers, ending the tacit acceptance of abuse in training and work environments, increasing the economic accessibility of dance education and performance, and developing more environmentally sustainable performance and touring practices. These are not easy fixes, but it is inconsistent to offer our art as a solution to problems in the larger world without tackling these issues in our own field.

So rather than argue that art is good for society, it might be more appropriate to identify the ways in which it can be good for society–and take responsibility for making this the case.


Academia: a Fairy Tale

Once upon a time there was a princess who lived in a shiny white tower which stretched above a big forest called The Real World. She had entered the tower when she was young so that she could escape from the scary market forces and tax monsters in forest.


Of course not everyone could get into the tower. To get through the gates, she had answer a very long set of riddles sent from voices higher up.

Every so often, she would have the opportunity to climb one story higher in the tower if she followed the rules. And she did. She would answer more long sets of riddles. She would do a special kind of magic, turning very small ideas into very big books. She would create perfect illusions, appearing to know everything when she didn’t. She would learn to speak in peculiar tongues so that no one below her could understand. And of course, she would worship the voices above her. And so, over the years, she steadily rose higher and higher.

Each story of the tower was narrower and narrower, and fewer and fewer people would rise each time. Sometimes, people wouldn’t pass the tests, or the magic drained all their energy. And some would choose to leave. Either way, they would be sent tumbling down, scraping their skin as they brushed the thorny treetops of The Real World and bruising their bones as they found themselves at the very bottom.

But those who rose had their eyes on the tower’s tiny top floor. If you made it to that level, the prize was that you got to stay there forever and never leave.

The towers had windows where the princess could look down upon the people in The Real World. With each level she rose, the people became smaller and more distant. The higher voices said that the further away you were from people, the better you could understand them. This seemed true enough: she could see wider and farther than ever, noticing their numbers and patterns in ways she never did before. But most of all, she could see how small and faceless these people were, and feel bigger herself.

columbia princess

But one day, as she looked out the window, she could no longer see people, only a mass of tiny dots. She thought about the floors above her with fewer people around and tinier people below. She was starting to miss seeing faces.

She began to sit on the windowsill, thinking about what it might be like to live outside. One of the voices above warned her: “When you’re down there, you’ll be just as small as all those people. They won’t care about your crown or your magic tricks, and they won’t listen to your funny words. But if you stay here and keep climbing, I think you can make it all the way to the top.”

But as she imagined getting higher, lonelier, and further from the ground, she wondered if she should make the jump before it got too far.


She hit the bottom and it hurt. The market forces blew away her crown and the tax monsters chased after her. She started crying “Take me back to my ivory tower!”

Yeah, I guess I’m feeling kind of cynical right now. 

The Pretend Knowledge Trap

Universities describe themselves as great centers of knowledge. That may be true, but I would argue that they’re even greater centers of pretending-you-have-knowledge.

I’m not the only one here who has ever felt compelled to pretend to know . . .

  • What constructivism is
  • What the tendu combination is
  • More than two songs by that cool/obscure indi band someone just name-dropped
  • The difference between fancy and non-fancy wine
  • Enough about international political conflicts to have a decisive opinion
  • Whatever was in the last chapter of the assigned reading

. . . among other things. With practice, you figure out how to pull together a (sometimes) convincing act of omniscience based on your vague impressions, social referencing, and cool head nodding, all while feeling as clueless as ever.

So how do we get out of this trap? For inspiration, lets turn to one of the pioneers of Western Philosophy:

“I know one thing: that I know nothing.” -Socrates

Nah, just kidding. I’m pretty sure that Soc was just trying to humblebrag about his self-awareness here. Because he sure seems to act like he knows he knows a lot.

What we actually should acknowledge, though, is that we don’t know everything. No one does. No matter who you are, you inevitably know more than average about some things, an average amount about some things, and embarrassingly little about some things.


So why don’t we just stop pretending that we’re all experts on every subject and ask someone who actually knows?

Let’s be real, there are people who will find it absolutely ridiculous that you don’t know what they consider to be “common knowledge.” Sometimes I find myself surprised by some people’s lack of basic knowledge about modern dance or feminism. But then I remember that they might be appalled by how little I know about basketball, Indian politics, or EDM. And more importantly, I answer the question anyway.

Because here’s the thing about “common knowledge:” at some point, whether you remember or not, it was learned. And if something is really that important to know, it’s much more productive to be encouraging of someone currently learning it than to be angry that they didn’t learn it in the past.

We might claim to detest ignorance, but pretend-knowledge-culture (yup, I just labeled yet another thing a “culture”) is just collective ignorance held in place with extra layer of pretentiousness. So it’s time to drop the act and ask the questions: we might not all seem so effortlessly cool, competent, and educated, but hey, we can actually start learning stuff.


Concert and Commercial Dance: A View From Under the High Horse

Recently, I was talking to some friends about the difficulty of finding funding for dance companies. One of them, who is currently a company manager and studying non-profit management (you can check out her blog here), was saying that she wished the commercial dance industry (dance in film, TV, music videos, etc.), which does make serious money, would give back to the concert dance world.


That’s a really good point. Why aren’t dance TV shows, which are raking in the big bucks, on the list of donors for dance companies which are just trying to stay afloat? After all, if these shows claim to do the dance world a service by exposing the public to small, easily-palatable slice of it, why don’t they feel compelled to support the majority of less-exposed artists who have long been developing the techniques and choreographic ideas that they like to sample from?

But it’s not just a one-sided issue: the non-profit dance sector could benefit from a closer relationship with its for-profit counterpart, but not until concert dance people (I include myself here) get off our high horses and drop some of our snobbism toward commercial dance.

“But I like my high horse,” you protest. “It’s my favorite kind of horse! And what if I care about the integrity of the art form?” I feel you, but as fun as it is to claim the status of a “true artist” and look down upon the flash and trash of the world’s lowly entertainers, maybe we need to consider the possibility that commercial dance has something to offer us—and not just money.

After all, why are we still trying to maintain a line between “high art” and “low art”—as if that distinction wasn’t largely arbitrary, historically shifting, and rooted just as much in classism and elitism as in merit? Before we claim that what we do has nothing to do with “entertainment,” let’s not forget the first ballets were made to spice up parties or that Martha Graham started out as a vaudeville dancer.

We have to admit that, as much as we might like to dismiss commercial art and entertainment as silly or insignificant, it is inevitably influential in shaping culture and determining how most people experience the world. (Personally, even as someone who has an intellectual and artistic appreciation of music across genres, nothing is so deeply and emotionally tied to my conception of time and change throughout my life as stupid pop songs.)

And if we insist that dance has inherent humanistic value, we have to consider which humans we’re making dance for. If it’s mostly small urban, educated populations with either a lot of money or dance training themselves, that’s arguably the people who need it the least. As much as we don’t want to determine our worth as artists based on ratings or box office sales like those *Hollywood people,* maybe we should consider that building the sheer size and scope of an audience is not totally without artistic value.

And what about sometimes paying attention to the wants and needs of these people watching? Sure, commercial media may go overboard with their target demographic research and focus groups, engineering content into a mere reflection of the viewer’s own interests. But must we go so far in the other direction, turning dance into a one-way expulsion of personal expression with no regard to who is receiving it? If these two sides combined forces, could we make some dance which functions as a two-way conversation between artist and viewer?

And hey, we might even end up with some people making art and money.

Who and What Belongs In a Theater?

The other day I went to the ballet (it was NYCB’s New Combinations Evening, which, by the way, was pretty amazing, with Mauro Bigonzetti’s Vespro being by personal favorite). But the audience got me thinking just as much as the dancing did.

As the house lights went off and the performance began, there was one person in the front of the section still on his iPhone. Which is annoying. But the reaction was worse.

A few people started whisper-yelling (getting less whisper-y with each comment) “get off,” “turn it off,” “now” (prompting some other people to start chiming in with “just shut up!”) and then the real kicker: “Idiot! You don’t even belong in a theater!”

That one made me cringe a little. Because I don’t like to think that anyone doesn’t belong in a theater. Looking back how racial, class, and gender exclusion has been enforced upon theater audiences throughout history, the assumption that only certain people belong in a theater is a pretty loaded one. And given how difficult it is in current economic conditions to get enough butts in seats to financially sustain a performing arts organization, along with the public perception that classical art forms especially are elitist, no one who actually likes ballet should want it to become more exclusive. Plus, if we want to claim that concert dance is an important part of our shared culture and humanity, and something that enhances quality of life, then excluding people from that sounds pretty problematic.

That said, I don’t want to be blinded by your phone when I’m trying to watch Sara Mearns. We can say that certain behaviors don’t belong in a theater, right?

I’ll admit that have a little trouble putting my phone down. Sometimes it’s a crutch to keep me from the enlightening boredom of being alone with my own thoughts. And sometimes its a useful tool that keeps me connected with all the wonderful people I have met throughout my life, regardless of geography. And sometimes it’s just fun. I like getting little red, numbered notifications. They make me excited. It’s classical conditioning, okay?

But I can put it away for a few hours to watch an amazing performance that I paid to see.

This is the part where most nostalgic dance writers will lament that today’s instantaneous, remote communication technologies have left audiences unable to appreciate the more pure and nuanced communication of live, moving bodies. I’m not sure how true this is, at least for a company like NYCB. During the performance, I saw a fast-paced series of images, all fleeting before my eyes and leaving me only with an impression of the moment and my response to it. That’s basically what Snapchat is, right?

Now maybe I should give the phone-using audience member the benefit of the doubt and assume that his behavior was due to some emergency situation rather than a lack of respect (wouldn’t want to make the fundamental attribution error). And by that reasoning, the person who made the “idiot” comment was probably just really upset that his performance experience was being compromised and didn’t actually mean to make a statement about exclusivity in arts audiences.

But the relationship between live performance and high-tech communication truly is a tense one that deserves some discussion.

Maybe if we realized that these types of communication are not all that different–that there is at least some similarity in your emotional and visceral response to a breathtaking partnering section and a new text from a crush; that the essence of human communication spans across mediums–we could find a little more peace and respect. If the phone-hooked crowd knew that live performance is not such a foreign world, that they do belong in a theater, maybe they would be comfortable enough to put away their information security blankets (phones) and take in the performance.

What do you think? How should we respond to phones in theaters?