Ars Brevis, Vita Brevis

NOTE: Thanks to the first commentator for the title correction. My high school Latin teacher, Miss Kibby, would kill me.

A National Endowment for the Arts survey on American arts habits, released yesterday, reveals what we already know — namely, that more and more American adults have stopped going to museums, movies, concerts, opera, dance performances, and the like. The number of Americans going out of their homes for the purpose of seeing or listening to art (of any kind) has sunk to a record low since the NEA first started tracking these things in 1982. At the same time, more and more Americans are making art (of some kind) on their own.

Reading literature was the only arts-related activity to show an increase since the previous survey (perhaps due to the rise in online reading). Yet reading for mere pleasure, as opposed to reading for school or work, decreased. For those worried about teenage reading habits, there’s some comfort. For the first time in 20 years, more 18- to 24-year-olds are reading literature — albeit online.

The handwringers point to the usual suspects. There’s the economy. There’s the fact that Americans are a busy, busy people who don’t like to smell the roses, or pause to contemplate existence, or sit down for such useless activities as listening to a piano concerto. And then there’s the death of a thousand cuts to our K-12 music and arts programs, which school districts, obsessed with reading and math scores, are now treating as so much disposable dreck.

Finally, there’s the adoration of the Internet — the god of the 21st century, who draws us to his altar 24-7, and devilishly reinforces our ever-increasing taste for bright, cheap, flashy Internet images, sounds, and virtual reality. Even as our darling new god has blessed us with YouTube, podcasts, Web casts, Facebook walls, and whatnot, flattering us by giving us interactivity, he has cruelly removed the joy we once found in turning to real art.

I see two additional reasons for the decline in American interest in actually attending arts-related events. First, we’re rapidly losing our sense of the public sphere. If we aren’t out demonstrating for rights of one sort or another, or watching a spectacle (a football game, the New Year’s Eve Times Square party, the lighting of the tree in Rockefeller Center), we just plain don’t see why we should rub shoulders with “our fellow man.” That “fellow man” idea no longer exists; even the concept that we should behave a certain way in public no longer exists. The “public sphere” is gone.

Second, we are infatuated with the sense of power the Internet gives us. Not only can we see Yo-Yo Ma’s face up close, we also can play along with him, or manipulate his music. And who needs to go to the Frick to see Rembrandt’s self-portrait when the picture can be had for two easy clicks on a keyboard? We can download it, play around with it on Photoshop, or use Form-Z to morph it into a chair. Schlepping far from our cozy, safe homes in order to passively observe or listen to someone else’s art? Forget about it.

Andy, you bleached-out, passive-aggressive son-of-a-gun. How did you ever get so smart? Everyone is now an artist — in the privacy of their Internet home, of course. No one thinks in terms of greatness any more. Greatness, too, is an idea that’s disappeared from our lexicon — and our minds. Nowadays we can directly possess and play around with great art from the past, making it bend to our will.

Some of this is for the good. Great art has often managed to crush young artists aspiring to make their own mark in the world, instead of inspiring them to reach ever higher. With the demise of greatness, we’ll all be able to enjoy ourselves more fully.

The whole world is driving somewhere I can’t quite fathom. Me, I’ve decided to head for the off-ramp. Not to worry. I know some really lovely back roads.

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