A poet by the name of George Oppen once wrote, “There are situations which cannot honorably be met by art, and surely no one need fiddle precisely at the moment that the house next door is burning.”
Oppen is an interesting guy. He was a promising poet as a young man, published alongside the likes of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. But in 1936, faced with the two-fold catastrophe of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe, Oppen went silent. He wouldn’t write another poem for more than 20 years.
Oppen believed it was irresponsible to write poems while people starved in Hoovervilles. He first worked as a labor organizer; when war broke out, he enlisted and fought in Europe. After the war, he worked as a carpenter in Mexico.
Oppen’s life was consumed by the ethics of art-making, and it’s a dilemma that’s alive and well today. Why is it that opponents of gentrification picket, protest and occasionally deface art galleries more than any other type of establishment? It’s because there’s something selfish, something cruel, almost, about creating and consuming art in the midst of poverty. (Perhaps it’s also because the art world so often fetishizes poverty.) Painting a landscape while your neighbor starves — or, as Oppen would put it, your neighbor’s house burns down — that doesn’t sit right with most people.
Of course, this is an exaggeration. But most people would agree that there are quite a few problems in the world and quite a few people suffering on a daily basis. And most people would agree that art can do nothing to solve those problems, or cure those people of their suffering.
Art can do some things. Art can comfort people. Whenever I feel down or upset, I open a book. Reading lets me crawl into a different world, lets me feel the anxieties, hopes and despairs of others, and when I put the book down, I usually feel a lot better. It broadens my horizons of thought and lets me know that other people don’t always have it so good, either.
But at the end of the book, those problems are still there. Art can comfort, but it can’t cure.
What’s more, the consumption of art is tied up in class. Wealthy people can afford to consume art — they have the time and the money to read novels, buy paintings, go to plays. Higher-paying jobs tend to encourage creative thinking, while lower-paying jobs tend to stifle it.
A quote from Anthony Burgess, author of “A Clockwork Orange,” comes to mind. “It is painful to be an expert on Spinoza in the evenings and a machine operative for the rest of the day,” he wrote in the preface to “A Clockwork Orange.”
With that being said, I don’t think art is just another idle bourgeois pastime, like croquet or wine tasting. I think art is a powerful avenue of expression for all people, rich and poor alike. I think it can provide a great deal of comfort to some people, and show them hope and goodwill in places where they previously saw none.
But I think people need to be realistic about what art can accomplish. I think artists who see their work as transformative are misguided; I think writers who believe their books are literally life-changing are out of touch. Life, for most people, is grounded in realities — bills, mortgages, obligations to work and family. Art won’t transform any of that. A good book won’t magically take any of that away.
Gentrification is an enormously complex and contentious issue, one much bigger than the ethics of art-making. But art has a role in it. Art — or should I say, “fine art” — is foreign to many of these invaded communities. The concept of going to an art gallery to stare at a paint-splattered canvas or a heap of twisted wire hanging from the ceiling is strange to many working people.
Most people in the world lead lives driven by necessity. You work to pay the rent; you save to buy a car; you go back to school so you can get a better job and earn a little more money and have a little easier time at it. Anything that doesn’t satisfy these necessities is superfluous. Art is superfluous. And art galleries are strange because they set aside a space for the consumption of art separate from the routines of normal people.
But that doesn’t mean art doesn’t exist in the real world of normal people. There are murals that brighten the days of passing commuters and kids walking home from school, if only for a moment or two. There are paperbacks whipped out on buses or subways. There is music trickling out of car windows. There are photographs in magazines that take you to far-away corners of the world, places you never even knew existed. This is all art, even if it won’t win a Pulitzer or end up in an art gallery. This, I think, is art that George Oppen would approve of.
Matthew Ormseth is currently a student at Cornell University majoring in English. He seeks to give an honest portrayal of life as both a university student and member of the Millennial generation.