The following passage is an excerpt from a 2004 essay that discusses the decline in artistic awareness, appreciation, and taste in America.
While many of us express disdain at the declining condition of artistic awareness, let alone appreciation, in this country, we cannot honestly express surprise. This general decline in tastes has not escaped the commentary and analysis of cultural critics who have warned us that we may be turning into a nation of Philistines. These same critics have pointed to a pair of causes for this cultural decline. Perhaps, they note, the decline is due to the crumbling state of our educational system, or to the media’s focus on pop culture and the general decline of taste this breeds. Nevertheless, this type of scholarly discussion about the roots of the decline, while relevant to sociological and cultural historical analysis, does not change the sad fact that the same country that gave the world film noir, jazz, and abstract expressionism now mostly concerns itself with teen movies and boy bands. We must use our understanding and analysis of the causes to address the problem of artistic decline in America.
Before we can begin a discussion of artistic decline, we must first define the word “art,” an endeavor that has proven problematic, especially after the introduction of modern art forms during the twentieth century. Indeed, some may argue that the entire debate about artistic decline in this country is flawed due to our exclusion of modern forms of art such as pop music. Many claim that such discussion can be seen as snobby, even culturally imperious. Without entering the debate on the validity of the post-modern conception of art is an idea, the question of “what is art” must be addressed. But it should be addressed expeditiously. Far too much time has been spent arguing over whether a teen movie is more or less art than Citizen Kane is, or whether the music of a boy band is more or less art than are the works of Sondheim. To be fair, society should not adopt an exclusionary definition or attitude. Indeed, history has proven that today’s pop music can be tomorrow’s great art in retrospect. Thus, we should accept all artistic endeavors as art. Individuals and critics should judge the quality of such endeavors. But this does not change the fact that today people are unaware of and uneducated about the classics, or even about recent movements in art apart from cinema, television and pop music.
Think about a United States of America in which artistic education, and thus appreciation, flourishes, a place where parents read books on art and listen to classical music and opera as well as pop music. Children observe these adult activities and mimic them. Parents read to their children and educate them. These parents also give their children art books, classical recordings, and plays as gifts. These parents underwrite, with their tax dollars, public art, public broadcasting, and community art groups. In school, students receive an education in art history, classical music, and opera. This curriculum can also include pop culture such as the music videos, teen movies, and pop music students enjoy in their free time. In fact, a better education in art will better equip them to judge the artistic merit of these newer, more trendy art forms, or at least place these art forms in historical context and analyze them as an outgrowth of societal and sociological trends–an important aspect of artistic knowledge that has been lost by the general public. When these children grow up, some may produce their own art, which could likely be higher in quality than the pop music and movies produced today. Imagine a land of such developed artistic production and taste! How can we achieve such a society?
Having noted that the proliferation of low quality art in pop culture can be addressed effectively by education, there remains one fundamental cause for the decline of artistic taste: the crumbling state of our educational system. The society dreamed of above can only be achieved by sustained efforts to improve the American educational system. Unfortunately, with tightening budgets due to increased levels of government debt, often the first programs cut are those that provide art and music classes. Often these cuts are viewed as easy ones by the public since they do not compromise the fundamentals supposedly required for an adequate education: reading, writing, history, science, and math. However, what the public often misses is that art, music, and culture are inextricably tied to literary and historical developments that themselves stem from changes in society and culture. A holistic approach to the arts would both redefine their role in education (thereby subsuming the argument of those who want to focus on fundamentals) and improve the state of artistic education by teaching students in an intertextual and multidisciplinary manner. The first step in improving artistic awareness and taste in this country will be not only to reinstate and improve art, music and other cultural classes but also to restructure the curriculum to provide a more holistic education in which art, music, and culture become a part of the fundamental education in history, literature, and society. This system would require more funding, and most likely higher taxes. However, such an investment would pay dividends by ensuring a more educated populace, one which is better equipped to analyze its surroundings in an analytically balanced manner and one which appreciates all forms of human artistic endeavor.
Remember, I did not write this!