Art is a powerful thing. Its definition is hard to pin down, and many people disagree on what Art actually is. (I am capitalizing Art because I want to differentiate between what you might see in the funny papers and something you’d see in a gallery) One might not think that taking a shit in a can is Art, and yet Piero Manzoni produced that exact piece, and managed sell his cans of poo for hundreds of thousands of dollars. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artist’s_shit)  I’m not saying that someone willing to buy something as Art defines it as such, but merely trying to point out that there are wide ranges as to its definition. I believe Art to be something that inspires or evokes emotion or debate. However, I’ll add the caveat that it must also be labelled Art. A sunset can evoke emotion, or a freezing homeless person could provoke debate, but unless somebody refers to it as Art, then it will never be considered as such. I’m not going to say that Art must be created, because I believe that you can come across something that moves you in some way and decide for yourself that even if it wasn’t man-made, it could be Art. Just because the sunset isn’t photographed doesn’t make it any less beautiful, so why would it be any less Art?

I started off by saying that Art can be incredibly powerful. It can be used to convert the viewer to the artist’s point of view, or ignite the convictions of someone who already agrees. The Death of Marat is an example of such a painting created by Jacques-Louis David that helped fuel the French Revolution. It depicts the assassination of a French revolutionary leader, if you don’t care to peruse my upcoming link.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Marat) David was an ardent member of the Revolution as well, and his paintings were great propaganda against the monarchy. This painting in particular made a martyr out of Marat, and in the end, the Republic was triumphant and King Louis XVI was killed. I’m not saying that David single-handedly overthrew a king with his artwork, but his paintings certainly helped inspire the revolutionary spirit of the Republicans.

Art is obviously more than just propaganda for revolution, but I believe The Death of Marat to be a prime example of just how much effect Art can have on the world. Today we exist in a culture where Art has been confined to the gallery. Powerful, provocative work is being produced, but the Art world has become more elitist than ever. Through the creation of Modern Art (a term that often evokes scorn and derision with comments along the lines of “my five year old could do that!”) the messages being created are not being received by the general population. Today’s Art is perceived as pretentious, or dreck, or incomprehensible, or without effort, or even as not-Art.  In short, it is inaccessible to most people. Think about it: how many contemporary visual artists can you name, and compare that number to how many Renaissance artists you can name. Remember, if you can name the Ninja Turtles, you know at least four. This obviously doesn’t work if you studied this stuff with a focus on contemporary artists, but even you might appreciate the layperson’s ignorance of today’s Art scene.

There are theories as to what caused the shift from the representationalism of the Renaissance to the abstract, post-modern Art world today. For example, when the camera became commercially available, painters could no longer compete with the realism of a photograph, so they began to experiment; playing with form, colour, process, etc.  and thus was born the Expressionist movement, to Cubism, etc. until Art evolved into what we see today. Also, up until recently, artists were trained by masters in a traditional apprenticeship, so their artwork would generally turn out at least similarly to their teacher’s. Today, the focus is on doing something new and unique; experimentation instead of traditionalism.

Whatever happened, the general population is no longer taking part in the discussion that Art creates. That discussion now takes place in an echo chamber filled with fellow artists, art critics, and those with so-called “high-brow” tastes.

The rest of us are left with the dregs. The everyday consumption of art today consists of television, music, and film. While some might argue that there is still meaning to be had in these mediums, I would argue that that is not the case due to the emphasis of entertainment over content.

Even those films that manage to sneak some meaning into their plots cannot have as much effect on the population as true Art (Yes I realize how pretentious this sounds. Shut up). Since a film is seen in the context of entertainment, the meaning is taken far less seriously. For example, the movie Saving Private Ryan was considered by some to be an anti-war film with strong messages against violence. However, it certainly did not lead to any sort of paradigm shift in American culture. At best, films today with messages will cause viewers to chew their popcorn slightly more pensively, but they will inevitably go home unchanged.

Music is in a similar boat. Popular music today is created for the purpose of dancing. Rather than lead to any sort of revelation, music is created to have a narcotic effect on the brain, causing listeners to lose their inhibitions on a dance floor. Yes there is underground music that has meaning outside of cheating boyfriends or the great love a man has for his truck, but it is far enough away from the mainstream to not have any particular effect. The closest example I can think of off the top of my head might be Same Love by Macklemore, but it has been criticized as simply being a marketing ploy. Again, even if there were a legitimate message, because it is within the context of entertainment, it will be scrutinized and watered down until it is rendered meaningless.

Television merits little clarification. I’m pretty sure it’s common knowledge that the brain is more active during sleep than it is while watching television.

Capitalism has also had its dirty little fingers in the destruction of Art. It is not necessarily the fault of these mediums that their production is devoted to meaningless content, but what is being produced is being produced to be sold, and that has a distinct effect on what sort of messages are being conveyed.

Don’t get me wrong. I love music, movies, and even television. The world needs distractions, because too much activism can lead to despair and nobody wanting to talk to you at parties. But the world needs Art too.

Art is meant to be the lens that focuses the eye of the viewer on the world, not to distract from it. And as that lens, Art can affect the world in ways that no other method of communication can.

Think of it this way. Say you wanted the rights of the disabled to be at the forefront of political discourse. You want to know the easiest way to do that? Go and shoot out the lower spine of every single person in the country. If literally every single person were disabled, those ramps would be up by the end of the day.

But you don’t have to shoot out the spines of everybody, just a loved one of everybody. When people feel an intimate connection with somebody, they are willing to fight for that person. Plus then you’d only have to hit every family instead of every person, and it would save you a great deal of time.

Or whaddia know, without resorting to massive amounts of violence, Art is a means of evoking strong emotional reactions in people. Connections can be made, convictions can be forged, and passions can be brought to the surface simply by creating the appropriate piece of Art. If enough people are influenced by it, it could change the world.

So. The question is: how the fuck do you make Art that everybody can relate to? How can an individual even put out something that will reach the millions of people that make up our population?

The obvious answer is the internet, but even the internet has its own problems. That piece of world-changing Art being put on the internet would be a beautiful unique snowflake… caught in the middle of a blizzard.

The problem with the internet is the deluge of information that is created and put out every day. Rather than being placed in the context of entertainment, information on the internet has its own disadvantage of being seen in the context of trivialness due to overabundance.

So how? I honestly don’t know the answer. Street Art is one solution that I came up with, but I don’t know how effective that might be. It would need to be provocative enough to get people to stop and pay attention, but tame enough to not be alienating.

If anyone reading this has any suggestions or ideas, I would love to hear about them. Either in the comments section, or just get in touch with me if you know me personally, as most of the people reading this do.

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