If It’s Not Boring, It’s Not Art

One of the PDF-only studies that I complained about earlier is a hand-wringing report from the NEA on how public appreciation of art is on the decline. As summarized by Inside Higher Ed:

Compared to the NEA’s 1982 survey, the steepest decline was in ballet, which that year was seen by 11.0 percent of college-educated adults, but in 2008 was seen by only 6.3 percent. Declines were seen in every type of art considered: jazz (from 19.4 percent to 14.9 percent); classical music (33.1 percent to 20.1 percent); opera (8.0 percent to 5.2 percent); musicals (40.5 percent to 32.7 percent); non-musical plays (30.2 percent to 19.8 percent); and art museums (49.2 percent to 44.5 percent).

I have a number of problems with the study, but the biggest one is that this seems like an awfully narrow definition of what counts as “art.” And if you’re going to define “art” that narrowly, it’s not surprising that attendance is on the decline.

Conspicuously absent from their lists is pretty much any art form that is currently active. Jazz and classical music are on the decline, but rock/pop type music is not considered at all. Which means that there’s no tracking of the main musical form that has been widely popular in the last fifty-odd years.

“Yeah, but popular music isn’t art,” you say. But that makes no sense– if popular music isn’t allowed to be considered as “art,” then what is Jazz doing on the list? The modern definition of Jazz includes lots of music that was popular a bit more than half a century ago. Certainly within the lifetimes of the people who still go to jazz concerts.

By their definition, the Richard Thompson shows I’ve been to at the Egg in Albany wouldn’t count as art performances, but the student jazz performances on campus that I’ve stopped by do. That makes no sense at all.

And this goes on through all the categories. They lament the decline in attendance at opera, ballet, and theater performances, but there’s no tracking of film. They complain that the making of art is on the decline, even with the Internet providing more opportunities for distributing art, but their list of art forms does not include any kind of video, an art form that has absolutely exploded online, thanks to YouTube and the like. And while their data do show a sharp increase in the number of people doing photography, probably attributable to ubiquitous digital cameras and services like Flickr, they don’t talk about it in their summary of the results.

So, yeah, art appreciation is on the decline. Provided you define “art” as “art forms that used to be popular, more than fifty years ago.” But then, why is this surprising?