David and Art - "Is Art Elitist?"

Apr 27, 2020

*This segment originially aired October 22, 2018.

Is art elitist? Is there something in it that’s automatically exclusionary, reserved for only a few people, leaving everyone else outside, puzzled, irate or indifferent? 

I know a lot of people believe this but it bears very little resemblance to what art is really about.

To be sure, great art itself is elite.  Everyone can be creative, but that’s not the same thing. Many people like to draw, but most can’t turn out a masterpiece. I can hum and sing and even make up a tune now and then, but no one will mistake me for a good singer, let alone a composer.  There just isn’t a lot of really

great art. And artists who create it are few in number.

But access to the arts is something else entirely, and to confuse the two is to cloud our thinking about both.  While great art is elite in terms of creation, it ought to be egalitarian in terms of access.  By its nature it’s open to as many viewers or listeners as wish to partake of it. Everyone can get something out of it..

Yes, a fair amount of painting, sculpture, dance and music are hard to grasp without having some particular knowledge beforehand.   But does the necessity of doing a little background work really make something elitist? Is baseball elitist because the infield fly rule isn’t immediately obvious?

In 1946, art critic Clement Greenberg said that it’s one of the tragedies of our time that interest in and care for any of the arts “forces one to be a snob.” Not much has changed since then: There’s still a good chance that anyone who’s found himself defending the arts — particularly something like modern dance or abstract painting — has at one time or another felt like, as Greenberg put it, a snob.

Far from being exclusionary however, most artists I know would love to have their work before a wider audience.

Egalitarianism and democracy are, most Americans will agree, the bedrock of a sound and just political order. But despite our regard for them there, there’s really no reason to think that they would function equally well in every other field of human endeavor.  Professional athletes are elite.  So are artists.

“There are differences between us at birth that the civil order must ignore, but the esthetic order is beholden to,” writer Edward Rothstein pointed out in 1997.

We need a way to become comfortable with using the word “elite” to describe the arts. Because indeed they are.  But Great art enriches our lives because we’re human, not because we’re a bunch of snooty elitists.