Art as a medium of exchange is the gift in the hand of its creator, alive in the mind of its beholder, converting the private to a public good, and thereby adding it to the common store of human energy and hope. It’s the embodiment of the spirit in the flesh to which Leo Tolstoy refers as "a means of communion among people…the capacity of people to be infected by the feelings of other people," by "feelings, the most diverse, very strong and very weak, very significant and very worthless, very bad and very good."
The supposition that art is a gift as opposed to a collectible, something that doesn’t try to sell you anything, runs counter to our contemporary notions of what constitutes a meaningful exchange. If I couldn’t deduce that fact from the price paid for Damien Hirst’s shark afloat in formaldehyde, I was reminded of it some months ago when asked by the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan to mount a discussion about the role of the artist in postmodern American society.
The Y’s auditorium serves as a trendsetting display case for the city’s high-end cultural merchandise, and the booking agent requested participants–an author, an actress, possibly a musician or a film director–deserving the cost of ad space in the New York Times. I offered the names of several individuals apt to say something of interest on the topic, but none was deemed fit to print. What the participants said or didn’t say was of no consequence. What was important was the magnitude of their celebrity, and the names on my list were rated as low-burning flames unable to convene a gathering of moths.
I can’t say I was surprised. To a young writer who had asked for advice about advancing his literary career in the late 1960s, Gore Vidal had provided clear directions to Mt. Parnassus. "Never miss a chance," he said, "to have sex or appear on television." Forty years have passed, and these days a young writer applying for consultation with the muses assembled on East 92nd Street probably would be better advised to combine the two initiatives.
Not Learning to Read Finnegans Wake
The record shows that, throughout most of the country’s history, the circumstances haven’t been much different. John Adams associated the arts with "despotism" and "superstition." "To America," said Benjamin Franklin, "one schoolmaster is worth a dozen poets, and the invention of a machine or the improvement of an implement is of more importance than a masterpiece of Raphael." The Nobel Prizes awarded almost every year to American chemists and economists suggest that the inspired play of the American mind takes place in the theater of the sciences and the concert halls of money.
My own great expectation of the arts is an accident of birth, in San Francisco in 1935 in a household filled with books. At the age of 6, attracted to the Rockwell Kent illustrations in the Lakeside Press edition of Moby-Dick, I persuaded my mother to read the novel aloud by agreeing that, if on any subsequent evening I couldn’t remember where it was that the story had been left off–Queequeg sharpening his harpoon, Ahab steadfast in his quest for vengeance–she would close the book and move on to the travails of Peter Rabbit. The reading took the better part of the same year in which the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and by the time we’d come to the end of it–the Pequod sunk, Ishmael tangled in the shroud of the Pacific Ocean–I could imagine, sometimes almost see, if not the great goddess on the page, the looming of the great white whale in San Francisco Bay.