People’s ideas about art can be very strange indeed. It is a religion, therapy, a cash point machine… and a symbol of class warfare. It is Van Gogh fighting it out with Che Guevara!
It is certainly true that art has been used to define the cultural borders of the rich and privileged, of the social climbers, and the emerging middle classes. Has been? It still is; but perhaps a little less so today – there has been a cultural leveling. So no longer is it socially unacceptable to enjoy TV programmes or watch football matches. Rather, it is positively encouraged.
But what is art? Above all, it is pleasure: both for the creator and the enthusiast. Here’s Pasternak:
To become a source of pleasure, and of such pleasure that, when addressed to someone, it has a nature and dimensions that presuppose not that individual at all but ‘all the four compass points’ whence pleasure comes – to send a wave of such pleasure and, thanks to its special quality, to experience it for oneself in someone else – to give in order to receive back again through one’s neighbour – in this lies the entire closed circle of creativity that rebounds upon itself. (from Christopher Barnes, Boris Pasternak)
His view, emerging from the Russian Symbolism background, sees art as a kind of divining rod, accessing the reality, or the godhead, underneath the phenomenal world. Creation, or creative engagement with a work of art, thus has an ecstatic quality (Barnes calls it the poet’s ecstatic consciousness) which comes from tapping this aesthetic energy. Here is the source of pleasure, of art’s purpose, when for a moment we stand under a shower of mentally sensuous excess.
So yes, there are ball gowns and dinner suits, and champagne at private views, but to allow this to define art? How strange. It is an outsider’s view, of course, of a life seen through a political lens; which misses the pictures by focusing on the fancy clothes.