Cultural Conundrum

I’m having difficulty reconciling things again.

Well, at least its a different set of things this time. I just read this great article in the January issue of Poetry Magazine. The writer, Durs Grunbein, attributes what he refers to as the “infantilization” of poetry to the attacks of Greek philosophers. Since that time, he points out, the poet has been reduced to speak about himself and his art more than making social commentary. Ironically, Grunbein points out, the poet is alone is being able to connect the theoretical and abstract ponderings of the intellectual and spiritual realms with the concrete world surrounding us, moreso than theologians or philosophers ever can.

I would draw this comparison to art in general, whatever the expressive form. Theologians, philosophers, and psychologists are great and analyzing the underlying foundations of life and emotions and relationships. However, where our sociology, epistemology, and even Christology falls short is in its expression. The language of the emotional self and of the spiritual self cannot be expressed by analytical means. To do so falls hopelessly short. Artistic creativity is where the individual (and, Tillich would say, a society) express their love, their hope, the sheer angst of their human condition. Scripture is a great example. All types of men were inspired by the Spirit to speak of a variety of analytical topics, but all were expressed in beautiful writing of a variety of genres, from letters to poetry to historical chronicles (and, some have even argued, drama).

Before I digress, what I’m having difficulty reconciling is Grunbein’s point that analytical minds focused on the bettering of society cast aside artists as being hardly useful. Certainly, this is a trend that continues today. The industrial revolution forever altered the fabric of American culture. The only activities that are worth anything in the American marketplace are ones that contribute to material and financial progress. Case in point: peruse the employment possibilities in your city. Engineers can name their own salary. Poets, artists, musicians? Typically no more than $30 a year (in the case of a graphic artist working for a major firm), and, more often, starving for $150 per poem, in the case of the writer. Ministers of our spiritual health? They are paid almost nothing. Attorneys and physicians? Six figures. The composer who pens the song that transports you back in time to your first kiss, or the artist whose brush-strokes cause you to remember how much you love your father? Well, hopefully they have a day job to support themselves by doing something “important.”

Certainly, there are exceptions (although most popular culture icons sacrificed their artistic integrity to make money long ago). As a rule, however, I think we’ve gotten our priorities inverted, here. Why can assisting in the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual journeys of individuals not be a prized vocation in society? Why do the most important positions in society suffer from an inability to “make a living” doing what they love to do? Instead, the deep thinker, unless fortunate enough to acquire an academic position, is forced to toil away at a maddening job that prohibits him/her from doing what they love, what is important.

I can identify other areas where our culture has made this error. We’ve created a need for lawyers, so we make them wealthy, while our teachers and police officers (who should be wealthy for what they do) barely make ends meet.

And the contemplative artist? Well, she is dismissed as almost irrelevant, fighting to warn the rest of us what lies ahead as she desperately writes, dances, paints, sings, or sculpts her vision of the mechanical society we may already be doomed to become.

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