End Macalester's war on art

By Matt Won

The mainstream attitude of this college’s student body is profoundly anti-art.
People here are not very into music, but given our consumer-driven culture, most people are convinced that they’re supposed to be “in to” music. Hence the ubiquitous iPod, and the nearly as ubiquitous harboring of terrible music (I’m not actually a rockist, or an essentialist, but this is an editorial, and I’m going to have to indulge in some shorthand, so bear with me). That’s how affluent our students are: despite the lack of interest, we still have $250 music players everywhere (I have 100 gigs of music on my hard drives, and I’ve had 40 since my senior year of high school; I didn’t own an Mp3 player until this J-term).

How can I make such sweeping generalizations about our collective music taste? Because I’ve been invited to invade that most private, sacred chamber of the iTunes music library.
Of course, there are the usual suspects, the typical combinations of Dispatch, Ben Folds, “DMB” (I had no idea these guys were worthy of an acronym before moving to the mainland), and the Garden State soundtrack. But there’s another element here: what liberal musical dilettante’s library would be complete without a little Bob? Yes, that symbol of wanker disestablishmentarianism the world over.

“But that’s not fair,” the cry goes. “If music is supposedly so unimportant to people, then why are you judging people based on their taste? “FACEBOOK.”

If identity truly is a series of performances made for others, then Facebook is the presentation par excellence. Here, for public consumption, people are identifying themselves musically. The results are predictably ugly.
But it’s one thing to just not really be into art, or to have bad taste in art. Its quite another to actively and systematically promote the destruction and mutilation of art. This is a project undertaken by many in our community.

Everywhere, I see attempts to subvert and pervert art for instrumental political, activist, and moral ends. The violence of this movement is immeasurable.

This approach reaches to the most fundamental ways in which we experience, consume, and digest art. Metaphoric texts are reduced to little more than coded policy reports, as if we could want nothing more. There seems to be only one genus of meaning, the political, and we pin down, stretch, and catalog this meaning like so many butterflies.

Pregnant ambiguity must be aborted or birthed, eliminated at any cost. Can art survive in such an environment?
And what of the actual artists working in the Macalester community? They seem to work at the fringes, struggling to gain some recognition, some higher profile. Case in point: how many times have we passed the two self-portraits of those two young women on our way to the SPO? Nothing against them, but they’ve been hanging around there since the day I arrived here. They’ve been tokenized in a way Colin Powell never dreamed of. My high school rotated its art showcases more than that, and we specialized in math and science.

Better men and women than I have noted the reasons why we should have a new Fine Arts building before a new athletics center. Maybe the money was there, or the athletics people had their shit together more, but a project of this magnitude is a direct reflection of our priorities, and we’ve certainly made our priorities clear on this point.

I’m not trying to lionize every Mac artistic endeavor. I’m no theater critic, but I would hardly blame anyone who was checking a quick rundown of our last few plays for concluding that politics came before art in this corner.

But people seem to be interested in art only to the extent that it serves some cause.
In my Sustainable Develop-ment class, we watched a film, The Burning Season, about the life of environmental and labor activist Chico Mendes. Rife with forced dialogue, overacting, and general inattention to the basic principles of storytelling, the film did something incredible: fail to get me, as an audience member and person sympathetic to green and labor causes, emotionally invested in this character.

The in-class criticism of the film wasn’t nearly as harsh as I’d expected. One student suggested that those in the class unhappy with the film get out of our elitist Macalester mindset and just appreciate the film for what it was. I would submit that that student’s viewpoint is the epitome of the Macalester viewpoint on art: forget about the film as a piece of art—how does it stand up politically? Is it a nice piece of persuasion/propaganda? Does it raise awareness? Our class was even implored to name a piece of political art that succeeded as art. I offered the original Manchurian Candidate, an earlier work by The Burning Season’s director. Nuance, metaphor, characters that are not simply cardboard parable stand-ins, as well as burning questions about America, our history, and, of course, McCarthyism, all have a place in this film.

On the flip side, take Fahrenheit 9/11. Spike Lee voiced what I think were the hopes of many liberals: that this would be the smoking gun, that it would be a piece of art that would really have a political effect. Certainly, if that was ever going to happen, it would be here.

Of course, it utterly failed in what was presumably the goal people wanted: to influence the 2004 election against Bush. In fact, it may have had absolutely no effect at all. In the aftermath of ‘04’s crushing disappointment, few have a positive view of this film, faulting either its politics or its electoral impotence. Lost in the debate was the fact that the film is an artistic triumph for the documentary format.

Art is never going to change the world. Stop watching and waiting and searching for that one piece of art that finally does. Stop looking for art to influence other people.

But we can look for art to have an effect on ourselves. When we make an honest effort to try to approach art on its own terms, before imposing our own order on it, great things can happen.
How many papers and books do you have to read to realize that academia is never going to have the answers or the questions that are important to you, that change you, that give you something as a person?
I’m far from the weary, battle-worn academic, but I have come to that realization. Academic journals, the news, and books will never have the vocabulary to encompass something as big as globalization. The exhibit, which I visited for a Macalester class (one not in the Political Science or International Studies departments) that brought me to this realization, and my first real appreciation for contemporary art, was the Huang Yong Ping retrospective at the Walker.

For those with an open mind, that artist gave answers, or at least a vocabulary, for questions of identity, globalization, and humanistic knowledge that I would never find in the academy.
Don’t try to control art by bending it to your will, and don’t banish it as something useless in the real world. Art has a place, in our discourse and our identities, that should be privileged instead of eradicated. End the Macalester war on art.