One theme that’s stood out for me in the recent posts, and in the live chat yesterday, is the idea of keeping the commercial in its place. Juliet has lamented the commercialization of childhood, Martha the commercial games that are played in the art world, and Simran the necessity for exchange even in an exhibit that was critical of commerce.
Though many human transactions involve money, not all such transactions are for money, such as the fee we pay when we go to the doctor or the tuition fees we pay to go to college—or at least that was the way these things once were. In our culture, more and more has been subordinated to the dollar, and we are much the poorer for it. It is hard to get along completely without money, but it is impossible to flourish without keeping money in its place. When it is not where it belongs, it tarnishes what it touches.
Art has multiple functions, but two of the most important are, first, to express the urge to create—something that drives artists, many of whom have little or no commercial success in their lifetime but whose works may sell for large, even fantastic amounts posthumously; and second, to help cultivate and elevate the human spirit. For this reason, there is a profound public duty to support the arts, be it on film or in theaters or museums.
The goal of broadening our hearts and minds is, of course, what civilization is for. But we no longer think about civilization as the most authentically human endeavor; rather, we focus on economic growth. We keep up the consumption machine not because many of us think it is good, but because we don’t what else to do. We lack an ethical compass—and this lack imperils the future not only of our progeny but also much of the planet’s commonwealth.
To fashion a compass, we can turn to recent findings in evolutionary biology, particularly the fundamental message of ecology, which stresses the connectedness and interdependence of everything. As I have suggested in two of my earlier posts, starting with this perspective leads us to a thorough reconsideration of who we are and where we are headed. Concepts like “property,” “value,” “the human person,” “fairness,” and “profit” need to be rethought. This is not the kind of thinking we are used to in our culture—but if we are to flourish, nay even survive, we must begin to do so and begin soon. In my view, Sehgal’s artwork and this forum have helped us move forward on this journey.