PREVIOUS MENTION OF SHERI’S RANCH BROTHEL in Pahrump, Nevada got me wondering. Could this be where Nevada’s annual Cowboy Poetry Festival takes place? Harry Reid was on his feet bemoaning H.R. I, which seeks to defund National Public Broadcasting:
It eliminates the National Endowment of the Humanities, National Endowment of the Arts. These programs create jobs. The National Endowment of the Humanities is the reason we have in northern Nevada every January a cowboy poetry festival. Had that program not been around, the tens of thousands of people who come there every year would not exist. [Harry Reid Cowboy Poetry video]
All those buckaroos are coming to Nevada just for the poesy, ya’ think? They’re on vacation, after all. What else is vacation for if not something out of the ordinary. Maybe a face-sitting session with a legitimate dominatrix? Or a foot-fetish worship party?
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So what does any of this have to do with art? Does Sheri and her ranch not take us a bit far afield? No, truthfully, it does not. Art has a way of lending piquancy, even charm, to unlovely realities. Herewith, a French watercolor of what looks wonderfully like a Sunday promenade circa 1800. Or a gallery reception at one of those industrial scale spaces in Chelsea, complete with columns:
The staging for negotiations, artfully arranged and absent all tawdriness, is infinitely more appealing than this:
Aesthetic distance is not just a useful phrase. It is a psychological force, one that blunts the immediacy of reality. It detaches us from full apprehension of the very object (e.g. an Aztec slaying stone} or event (in this case, sexual solicitation) we are witnessing. It is part of the reason that philosophers down the ages have fretted over the relation between art and morals.
Claims about the moral effects of art have hardly been confined to painting. Nowadays, they are more likely to arise in discussions of film, photography (including advertising photography), TV sit coms and popular music. Oscar Wilde, in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, denied that art is of any moral relevance at all. What he states about books can be applied equally to painting:
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all. . . . The moral life of man forms part of the subject matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. No artist desires to prove anything. . . . No artist has ethical sympathies.
But every artist is also a social being. And living men and women do, indeed, have ethical sympathies, preferences, antagonisms and convictions. The Picture of Dorian Gray is, itself, a great morality tale. Either art enriches our powers of rational reflection or it is simply decoration. We cannot have it both ways. And reflection, by its nature, has a moral component.
© 2011 Maureen Mullarkey