Is Art Sacred?

Reading Abbing’s Why Artists are Poor is forcing me to think a lot about why people pursue art at all.  It seems almost insane when framed in economic terms: terms like investment, return, reward, etc. According to Abbing, artists buy into a myth that art is sacred, they convince themselves they receive other, more fulfilling rewards than the monetary, and they persevere in the hopes that they will win big in the end (fueled by stories of starving artists who finally made it—later in life or even after their death.) There is the paradox between the anti commercial tendencies of artists, the need for survival, and also the promise of enduring fame, impact, and extreme financial success. All of these factors combine to create an economy that is rather unique in its paradoxes, and lead to a way of life that is very difficult to maintain.

I want to write a bit about one of Abbing’s “myths:” the myth that art is sacred. He feels this sacredness is a central factor in shaping the arts economy. In using the term sacred, he frequently compares art to religion—and implies that many feel it operates on a higher plane than other professions might. I must confess, a part of me buys into that “myth.” Though Abbing certainly challenges it when he argues that aesthetic or artistic value is really just conferred by those in power—I still can’t quite let it go.

Eric Bentley has a rather delightful essay—What is Theatre, written in 1956—in which he addresses what he feels is the fundamental characteristic of art, and is perhaps a clue as to why we consider it sacred. In this essay he is confronting the attitude that playwriting is a craft:

Two mistakes are made. First, playwriting is regarded simply as craft. Now, clearly, playwriting is a craft, just as fiction is a craft among other things. It is another question whether it is advisable to isolate the craft from those other things, thus in effect replacing the playwright with the play doctor, which is rather like replacing fathers and mothers with midwives (905*).

The second mistake is made by playwrights who are more concerned with catering to their audience than the story they want to tell. And while he does not dismiss commercial theater, he does feel the commercial theater has created an environment in which these two mistakes are often fostered. Here in Bentley’s attitude we see Abbing’s paradox: that the commercial manages to corrupt the artistic and that the artistic is somehow elevated above, or more sacred, than the work of the craftsman. He goes on to discuss what he feel playwrights should be concerned with (in a rather zesty little paragraph):

I have been maintaining that the “serious” modern playwright is, or should be, engaged, along with other modern writers, in the search for the human essence. If it is possible to state in a word what moral quality the artist engaged in this quest needs above all others, I should say that it is audacity. Conversely, the artists who are not searching, not reaching out for anything, but working comfortably within their established resources, and who are completely lacking in daring, who never “cock a snoot,” “take a crack” at anything, “stick their necks out”—for them should be reserved the harshest adjective in the critical vocabulary: innocuous. In life there are worse things than innocuousness—forms of rampant evil which render praiseworthy by comparison. But the Devil doesn’t write plays. And when Moussolini wrote them he didn’t succeed in projecting anything of the force of his iniquity. Like many a better man, he only succeeded in writing innocuously. But that is the worst type of writing there is. (910)

I include that whole passage in part because I really enjoy how opinionated he is and am delighted by the level of sin he considers innocuousness. But I do think it also touches on why we might feel art is sacred—the searching quality. What else is religion but the search for meaning?  Art doesn’t provide as many answers as religions attempt to, but it does engage with similar questions, questions about what makes us human, whether and how our lives have meaning—questions that supersede the economy. Perhaps it is the largeness of the questions asked, that value systems get challenged that seems to exist so incongruously with the market economy.

*Selections from Dramatic Theory and Criticism: Greeks to Grotowsky, edited Bernard F. Dukore. 

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