Are the Arts Essential?
(NYU Press, 2022)
Straight off, Alberta Arthurs declares that this book was slow in its growth, and we can certainly see why—from the magnificent display of thought in many parts, from many places and many celebrated persons—it could scarcely have been rushed into print. Twenty-five contributions, mostly essays, by twenty-seven professionals in the arts are right here, announcing the problem. As Arthurs puts it, in addressing ideas and “challenging our systems” we have been more easily in awe of the arts than activated by them. To begin with, I am greatly in favor of the “we,” for this convergence of intelligent minds and pens speaks for all of us, wherever we are meeting it. I shall borrow the words of Catharine R. Stimpson about our need for “cultural interpreters who can tell the story of this brilliant pluralism” and affirm that we have exactly those here.
Wonderful it surely is that the first image we confront is Romare Bearden’s The Street with its assortment of lively faces, right-cornered by a bald head with one eye regarding us. I feel we are reading all these essays under this regard as it ascertains what we make of them. How the world has changed, exclaim Jesse Rosen for the musical realm and Daniel Weiss for the visual arts, and now how to define the public interest? All along the length of these chapters, we see the importance of that question—indeed, of each issue raised—such as that brought before us by the significant thinker K. Anthony Appiah, reminding us by way of Duchamp that what signals a piece as a work of art is its demand for “a certain sort of attention.”
Now any volume that takes account of Roger Fry on “the quality and quiddity” of the experience of art, as does Mariët Westermann and quotes, as does the poet Edward Hirsch, Wallace Stevens’s “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm” in which “the reader became the book” gets my vote and my attention.
Imagine reading Elizabeth Streb and seeing her drawings on the grammar of motion! And Karen L. Ishizuka on the concentration camps for American Asians during World War II, and Jeffrey Brown, whom we watch on PBS NewsHour, and the stories he chooses to tell; and Karol Berger on that “moral consciousness” deliberately provoked.
We could spend many an evening of a fierce consciousness dwelling with Richard Sennett on “Darkness and Light: the powers of performing.” He reminds us how “Art deceives. But the theater is also place in which life can be put on trial.” So Hamlet has two stages, for deceit and for revelation. Those of us haunted by Goya’s “Black Paintings” (oh to have time and the talent to translate Yves Bonnefoy’s tome on them!) as was W. G. Sebald, and by his visit to the great translator poet Michael Hamburger, relish not just Richard Sennett’s 2008 The Craftsman, but—right here and now, in 2022—Sennett’s gift with words.
This entire collection of massively well-crafted thoughts replies to the title with an overwhelming positive yes indeed.