Is Art for Art's Sake Enough?

Yesterday’s post gained a bit of traction in the theatre world (thank you all for the RTs!). Hopefully this one will cause some conversations!

I used to direct a dance collective that had a 2-pronged mission: one for performance, one for education. Last year, the foundation where I work funded a different dance company. Again, their mission included outreach with performance. I work at a theatre where creating works of theatre, new and classic, are part of the mission. And so are educating the community and pre-professional interns in various aspects of theatre-making.

Now, I believe these dual missions are great. People creating good art should be passing along the skills of that art. Otherwise, there will not be a next generation of art makers and art appreciators. However, not every arts organization should be doing this. Just because you are a good performer doesn’t make you a good teacher. Just because you can create does not mean you are able to distill that process into helpful steps for others.

And, maybe, sometimes, you don’t want to! I mean, we all got into this business of art making and performance because that’s what we like, right? Not everyone wants to teach. And not everyone should. Some people just want to create art.

And the problem with having an education and performance mission is that it almost forces you to create PG or PG-13 rated art. At least if you’re a small organization, as most of your audience and your students come from the same base. And that sort of art isn’t always appropriate. Or fulfilling to your desires as an artist. Ugly can be beautiful. Sometimes harsh is necessary. There doesn’t always need to be a happy ending. Taking risks is really a requirement of art making.

Used by Creative Commons license by the Norman Lear Center

Many believed that the righteous could be brought to tolerate the theatre so long as it inculcated morality or taught an edifying lesson. This attitude persists. Funding organizations in the United States still prefer to bestow their largess on institutions that profess social betterment; “art for art’s sake” or “mere” entertainment is insufficient inducement to open their purses.- Laurence Senelick in the Introduction to his The American Stage

Now, the audience participation portion of the program:

Have we created a situation in American arts where art for art’s sake is no longer acceptable? Or, as according to Senelick, was it never? Does this contribute to our #supplydemand problems? Are the only arts that are valued those that teach skills or moral lessons? And where does leave those of us not doing that?

What if art was viewed as I called it yesterday, via Seth Godin: “Art is what we’re doing when we are doing our best work”.

What can I, as a foundation employee do to support art? Here’s your chance to tell a foundation your thoughts about the grant application process in general and how it could work better for art organizations.! Give it to me! As we are still less than a year old, our process is very adaptable. I’m open to suggestions!