Is Art Dead?

It says something about the power of poetry that it took 131 more years to kill it off than it did to axe God. As a proponent and practitioner of the art, I don’t believe it’s been extinguished, nor that it will ever be, simply that it’s been pulled back like a slat on a folding fan, to make room for new horizons.

Poetry’s fate is brought up in due part to The Washington Post writer Alexandra Petri’s ill-advised claim that poetry is dead. Or to make a bad literary joke: is six meters underground.

After poet Richard Blanco framed the narrative of his life story within the context of the American dream, no less while performing on President Obama’s second inauguration, Petri decided to take a jab at poetry. She questioned its legitimacy based entirely on its ability to enact change, which by her structurally loose terms, signifies as widespread societal change or perhaps fleeting visions of a global community sitting around a campfire singing “Kumbaya.” Critical of poetry, and certainly no less critical of Mr. Blanco for anchoring his identity and life’s work on it, Petri says, “[Blanco] has overcome numerous obstacles, struggled against opposition both internal and external — in order to excel in poetry, a field that may very well be obsolete.”

Petri soon discovered that for an “obsolete” art, poetry has many lively supporters. Not long after, she partially rescinded her statement.

There won’t be any mention here of her shaky criteria for making such a sweeping conclusion, or that when other marginalized arts like the Blues and Opera are put through her litmus test, they, too, would have to be checked for a pulse.

Poet Reading On The Beach / Via Gunnar Wrobel, Flickr

Yes, Petri’s stance is a short-sighted generalization, but one brought up to make note of an important point: art is only as marginalized as we allow it to be.

When Petri says that “the medium might not be loud enough any longer” to affect real change in our society, it exposes the marginality of her own concerns. Although poetry might no longer take the place of food and clothing in the bags of rebel troops, like was the case for Pablo Neruda’s Spain In Our Hearts, it certainly carries with it a power to mobilize and oppose. A deeper look would be needed, but it wouldn’t be surprising to discover that the Librotraficante movement has received less media attention than Allen Ginsberg’s obscenity trial did some fifty-six years ago. So is it that poetry (and with it, art) is failing, or that those charged to share it with the world, like Alexandra Petri, are?

The Late Poet Allen Ginsberg / Via Carlo Margani, Flickr

That’s not to say that Ginsberg’s trial didn’t deserve adequate attention, only that the Librotraficante movement, which has stood in opposition to Tucson, Arizona’s banning of Mexican American Studies and related books, is a vibrant example of what marginal thinkers swear no longer exists. Along with writers and poets, like Sandra Cisneros and Martin Espada, that had their work banned in Tucson, The Librotraficante movement has engaged communities in six cities to oppose anti-outsider and anti-intellectual rhetoric much like Ginsberg did in his heyday. What’s troubling is that the movement exists at a time when the right kitten video can be seen by 20 million pairs of eyes, and yet get only moderate attention from established media outlets.

Tony Diaz, Leader Of The Librotraficante Movement  / Via Sampsonia Way

Although mediums of art usually take a backseat to newer forms through a natural, age-old process, I can’t help to think that other factors come into play. A recent graph by NPR, puts Americans at three very different income levels ($15,000-19,999, $50,000-69,999, and above $150,000), spending about 5% of their income on Entertainment. No category was allotted for the arts, let alone poetry, but one can only assume that they must be included within that field.

Since 1959, Americans’ spending on recreation and miscellaneous purchases (listed as ‘Other’ on another NPR graph, and which we can assume houses some costs on the arts) has gone up from 5.0% and 6.7% to 6.0% and 10.2% in 2011. That would indicate good things for those who operate in art fields, since economic activity usually keeps a “dying art” from dying. But Petri’s guillotine impulses, and increasing cuts to arts education funding and government grants for the arts, would suggest that art deserves to be marginalized when it doesn’t qualify as a changemaker. Perhaps that’s the case, but only because changemakers have come to be associated with money and their ability to procure or extend it. If something doesn’t return a sky-high profit, its value is demeaned.

Visual comparison of spending in 1949 versus 2011 /  Via NPR

As Americans’ standard of living improved over the last few decades, their leisure time should have increased accordingly. Leisure time, whether dedicated to Whitman or The Wire, oftentimes is occupied by the artistic. But instead salaries have stagnated, costs of living have skyrocketed, and most will complain that they can barely afford rent, let alone purchase a Monet for their powder room.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has still to recover from its mid-1990s budget cuts, but yet poetry continues to operate on slam, stage, journal, and Internet circuits like never before.

In the midst of housing costs that total 41% of an average American’s spending?a stark increase from 1959, when it only stood at 26.1%?it’s surprising that the U.S. continues to have such a varied and vibrant arts community. The recent increase of socially engaged art might even be a subconscious way of protesting these stark financial realities.

Operating within a framework that commodifies it, art is forced to spread its wings in a sardine can. As a symbol of how Americans have themselves been marginalized by the outer workings of capitalism and consumption, art has become a dunce cap for those “too dumb” to realize its growing obsoleteness. But what Petri, and sadly many others, fail to see is that art isn’t something that thrives on a petri dish. The show-and-tell model has proven faulty and outdated. Beyond the fact that art shouldn’t be something relegated to leisure time and pocket change, it seems fitting that socially engaged art is thriving in a time when people have less time to enjoy the fruits of a capitalism that has failed them.

With artists having a harder time surviving off their art and less outlets to be buoyed up by, they, like the average American, are bypassing the powers that have increasingly confined us to a space?whether our overpriced living space or office?to become a part of disenfranchised communities. The same communities that have been marginalized by those responsible for the suck of artistic capital.

A country, and surely a world, where the arts are allowed to flourish, and not ridiculed for failing in a system that has it in a chokehold, is a place armed with insight and accountability. Insight and accountability that would make their increasingly marginal share of the American dream a point of contention.

So is it that poetry, and art, is dead, or that people have tried to kill it for a reason?

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