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  • Writer's pictureLaura McBride

Teach art or reap idiots. Our choice.


Pencil drawing, Renaissance Woman, c. 2013 by LH McBride

It has been at least 30 years since a friend of mine, a maritime attorney in New York City, told me he could hardly stand talking to the young lawyers the firm hired. Legal hotshots they were; cultured human beings they were not.

My friend, although not the child of a wealthy family, had studied piano and made money in college by playing in pubs. Later, he worked for President Nixon, for which I forgave him, because he really was a lovely person. And his conservatism was not of the current obnoxious variety. Plus his wife was a Liberal Democrat (US, that is), and they were cultured human beings.

So I guess that makes me a snob; I like cultured human beings, and so did my friend. But there's more to it than that. People lacking a grounding in the arts are unable, far more than most of us I think, to synthesize the factors in an increasingly complex world. Without a bank of knowledge of human cultural history, they are unable to frame a context for things that, out of context, can make you crazy. How does one view Banksy if one has never studied either art or civil dissent? How does one understand the enormity of the sea change from oil paint to computer graphics programs through which anyone can create an image without training in art? And how are they then to appreciate the hands-on aspect of traditional arts?

Some it gives the jitters to; others simply walk away, but, having been caught out lacking knowledge, they often walk away derisively, and draw their understandable ignorance about them like a war cloak that little can penetrate. In short, not having a grounding in culture causes some people to become aggressively uncultured. It's simply human nature to dismiss things one doesn't understand; the more one doesn't understand, the more one dismisses. The more things one dismisses, the deeper becomes one's ignorance. And the problem is compounded.

A recent opinion poll revealed how deep this lack of art appreciation goes in the UK. An article in The Express noted:

“The poll of more than 1,000 people, by the Affordable Art Fair revealed 23 per cent has never visited an art gallery.

“And almost two-thirds (61 per cent) describe themselves as not knowing anything about art, while nearly half (47 per cent) admit they find the art world intimidating.”

One poor soul thought Botticelli was a retired footballer.

I suspect that's about par for the course in the United States as well. Indeed, I'd be surprised if things were not worse there. When I was going special assignments for a newspaper in Virginia about 25 years ago, I told the executive editor I wanted to do a roundup of local art galleries. When he stopped laughing, we discussed it. He didn't want any corn husk dolls, nor did I. Or god knows, crocheted toilet roll covers.

That was the most difficult Sunday feature I ever wrote. I put hundreds of miles on the car visiting the three—count 'em, three—galleries in a 100-mile radius. What's even sadder is that theatre, in that area, is quite well-known and quite well-liked, possibly because a world-famous local theatre was founded on totally egalitarian principles in the 1930s.

A local man, Robert Porterfield, who couldn't find acting work in NYC decided he could use empty buildings in Appalachia to house actors and create a theatre, and have people bring produce and such to get in to see a show. Ta da! Barter Theatre. (I admit to some bias; I reviewed the theatre for the above-mentioned newspaper.)

So how does one learn something from the experience of Robert Porterfield in professional theatre in the 1930s, and apply it to visual arts in the UK?

For a start, getting arts education back in school all the way to the sixth form would help. Hosting painting sessions more than once a year as a nationwide public event might help. Adding a gallery function on those days—even if it had to be a moveable gallery—is a thought. Taking the hush factor out of museum and gallery visits would probably help as well. I admit, I prefer to view art in silence. But if it is helpful for people not to have to feel as if they're in church, in the presence of something they don't understand, I'm for it. At least, perhaps, have family days at art museums in which affable docents present information and entertainment. Indeed, adding an entertainment factor—Music for Victorian Art, Garden Talk about Monet's Paintings and so on—might entice people who otherwise wouldn't visit galleries and art museums.

Enhancing public knowledge of and interest in art will require marketing, of course. People—especially those who are not kindly disposed--won't find things unless they're enticed, and in a way they won't forget. When I lived in Baltimore, Maryland, US, the opera company needed to expand its audience. Baltimore is an odd combination of Paris (for beauty in some sections), Calcutta (for poverty) and the most ignorant town in the most ignorant state you can name. Anyway, their theme during the promotion was: “Opera. It's better than you think it is. It has to be.” I think it worked. At any rate, the opera company and its historic theatre, the Lyric, both survived.

Back to my friend the maritime lawyer.

What was it that got his goat about the culturally ignorant young lawyers? It wasn't just that their lunchtime conversation was limited to law and People magazine. It was that, in practicing law, they had no context into which to put that law. It was easy for those who did to win points in negotiation. It was easy for them to annoy some of the better-educated clients to the point that my friend had to apologize for their ignorance. It was, in short, an uphill battle to make them presentable in the arena in which they worked.

This was particularly obvious in NY in an international setting. But it is likely to be problematical in lots of other venues, too. And yet, the simple solution is to stop making the entire school experience little more than job training, entirely too targeted too early, and make the school experience one of education, classical education to a point, in which both the arts and the sciences get equal attention.

Unless we do, we will have a society of people who can make sense of nothing, eventually. And that's fairly scary.

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