“Poetry is a waste of time,” my roommate asserted, settling himself at the kitchen table, “it doesn’t do anything.” This sentiment, hailing from a political activist, wasn’t too surprising, but it was oddly reminiscent of a remark made earlier by my brother, a moderately liberal civil engineer. “I don’t know if I’ll ever respect what you do,” he had said unapologetically. No, he said, he had not read my new book of poems, nor did he intend to. “I wrote a book on traffic safety for work—would you like to read that?”
Like most American poets and artists, my life is full of people who believe that art and poetry—two practices I love—are utterly valueless. As artists, we are repeatedly told that our work is best relegated to periods of leisure or, perhaps, insanity. At least in the United States, we have become so accustomed to the idea that art and poetry lack value that it has become something of an article of faith, normalized and even naturalized. As artists and writers, we are so busy fending off blows that we forget to interrogate this assumption. Specifically, why is it so pervasive, invasive, and insistent? Why the need to tell artists and writers that our work is worthless, over and over again? Don’t we have enough trouble doing our work as it is? Whose interests does this assertion actually serve? And why, if art and poetry make no difference, the implicit hostility toward the creative process?
The fact that this belief is not, in fact, universal, is evidenced by a Nuyorican poet I heard read many years ago at the Folger Shakespeare Series. “In my neighborhood, everybody’s grandma writes poetry,” he affirmed. “It’s just something we all do.” As a young poet listening to him, this perspective seemed to me at once shocking and utterly logical. After all, the human drive to make art appears across cultures and throughout time periods. The desire to make, and to share that making, are arguably among humanity’s defining features. Witness cultures in which art-making is viewed as an integral part of life, as basic and unquestionable as the need to cook and the desire to share that meal with others.
It is perhaps only under the WASPy watch of industrial capitalism that art has come to be seen as “a waste of time.” According to this view, creative production is not “real work” unless it produces a tangible object with market value. “Oh, you don’t make a living from art?” I’m frequently asked. “So...it’s a hobby.” But art and poetry do not have to be devalued. Few people would argue that music, as an entire category of human activity, is a waste of time. Everyone and their grandma can still make music, even though it is usually ephemeral, its effects are amorphous, and it doesn’t necessarily net you a dime.
The ubiquity of the mass-produced object is one possible answer to the question of art's pervasive devaluation. Art and poetry are not only handmade, but also imperfect and hard to categorize; they aren’t “useful” in the sense of being utilitarian. Got aura? Why, yes, but art has yet to achieve the status of the artisanal. Moreover, unlike, say, the artisanal cheese, we are constantly told there is no pleasure to be taken in the consumption of art. Unlike music -- so the assertion goes -- art and poetry do not provide easy entertainment. Instead they are arduous, deliberately inaccessible, and generally a downer. They are games played by “elitists” for one another’s benefit or intricate puzzles too arcane to understand. This is one reason that they are best viewed as “hobbies,” though this ‘50s-era term seems strangely anachronistic. Does anyone even have time for “hobbies” anymore?
But the de-valuation of art in our current moment goes far beyond its apparent lack of utility, the fact that it doesn’t “do anything.” That only covers the wide reach of this view, not its insistence, its barely concealed anger. I would argue that, in fact, art and poetry do “do something,” and that it is this something, this cultural work, that poses an unarticulated threat. After all, if our work did nothing, there would be no reason to tell us so, no attempt to shut it down.
Beyond the reactions of specific individuals, the widespread belief that art is worthless has a great deal to do with the threat it implicitly poses to our American Cultural Imaginary. I refer here to the cultural reality created and reinforced by the media-industrial complex -- those companies whose reach is wide and whose work is to manufacture reality not through mass-produced objects, but through mass-produced perceptions. As Russian hacking of Facebook and Twitter have powerfully demonstrated, the wide-scale replication of false rhetoric can and does alter the perceptions of those who, wittingly or unwittingly, consume it. Consider the fact that our political discourse, as framed by the media, offers only two sides to any issue; both rehash the same set of well-worn arguments ad infinitum. Too busy and too distracted to pay close attention, we are pushed toward sound bytes, memes, and quick summaries. We sign on, loosely, to one platform or the other and increasingly lose sight of the fact that democracy should embrace the widest possible range of idiosyncratic viewpoints. Put differently, in a thriving democracy, political opinion should not be off-the-rack but homemade: weird and complicated.
If workers must own the means of production, citizens of a democracy must equally own the means of perception. When they do not, they risk not only self-alienation but a loss of critical thinking abilities. It is this capacity for independent discernment that is increasingly being hijacked by the devaluation of art and poetry in an otherwise media-saturated environment. The frenetic pace of work and its interpenetration with our personal lives mean that we have little time for contemplation. At the same time, we are flooded by prepackaged messages every moment of the day. Facebook is omnipresent; television blares at us even from the gas pump. Although an information-saturated landscape would seem to indicate a thriving discourse, it often seems that the opposite is true. The algorithms of Facebook and Google hold us in our own echo-chambers, where opinion comes prepackaged for easy consumption. Beyond this, the sheer volume of information is bewildering. As a result, we are not only distracted and stressed but also intellectually short-changed. Exhausted, lacking the impetus to explore beyond our bubbles, it is difficult to marshal a nuanced response to one’s environment. Retweeting a 280-character comment is not the same as crafting a thoughtful personal opinion, yet we increasingly view the former as interchangeable with the latter. Sheer information is not a replacement for contemplation. Both are required to achieve nuanced understanding.
The result of this distraction is that we lose the ability to divine our own experience, to give voice to its rough edges. We fail to pay attention to those places in our psyches where perceptions lie in wait significant but not yet fully articulated, like half-remembered dreams. The wilderness of our own thoughts and impressions is, or can be, like the wilderness of childhood, when one has strange ideas, misinterprets words, and can’t quite decipher the logic of the unwritten rules. “When I was little,” my friend once told me, “I wasn’t sure that what I thought was a headache was really what other people called a headache.” This wilderness of our own perception still exists, if only we can access it. But we forget not only how to do so; we forget even to try. Instead, we act out through equally off-the-rack forms of expression: exercise (preferably on a machine or according to the standardized regimen of a personal trainer), overeating (processed food), consumption of predictably-structured movies or sports (Netflix, ESPN), or taking “action” through the predetermined responses allowed on our Facebook news feeds. More and more, experience comes pre-packaged: all kinds of yoga packages, pre-planned meals, clothes tailored for one’s own predetermined sense of style—in short, every lifestyle marker we need to express our “true” identities.
I posit that sustained contemplation and complex response are the very real work that art does. Art and poetry register our perceptions of the world, processing its impingements. They offer unique commentary in the form of a response that, by definition, cannot be easily parsed. I am often struck by the fact that there is no better way to understand how someone’s mind is wired—her characteristic associative leaps, quirks, and pools of knowledge -- than to read her poetry. In other words, the value of art lies precisely in its individuality and complexity -- and in the invitation it implicitly offers for a response that is equally individual and complex.
To say that art is a waste of time is to say that registering our unique perceptions is irrelevant. In one sense, this is true: few people have the time, attention span, or critical skills to explore complex sets of associations. In another sense, nothing could be further from the truth: Facebook posts are nothing if not momentary records of our experience, solipsistically recorded and buried in a blizzard of other equally off-the-cuff observations. Snapchat, even more Orwellian, deletes our histories even as they are created. The difference between the registration of ourselves through social media and the registration of ourselves through art is the quality of attention we pay to the world around us, and the amount and quality of attention we ask for in return.
Art competes with media for the ever-more-rare commodities of attention and contemplation. It is for this reason that -- so we are told -- art should not be too “difficult,” but rather should be made “accessible” to the “general public.” In other words, while art is not mass-produced, it should nonetheless satisfy the mass market as a consumer object would. Only then can it become “universal.” Yet as Seth Godin has pointed out, all contemporary audiences are essentially niche audiences. “There is not such a thing cultural radar anymore,” he recently told “Krista Tippett. “There are only cultural radars.” Godin further asserts that the general public, as evidenced by supposedly definitive rankings such as the New York Times Best Seller List, is in fact an amalgam of many publics. Such fragmentation is one result of our media-saturated landscape. And, just as all contemporary audiences are essentially niche audiences, and there is only niche fame. So much for those of us who once hoped to become known for our creative work. In the era of Trump, there is no fame, only infamy. However, rather than mourning this fragmentation, Godin finds a kind of liberation in it: all you have to do, he asserts, is touch a few other people.
None of this is to say that art is necessarily a catalyst for political change. This was in fact the heart of my roommate’s wholesale dismissal of poetry, and on this count I partially agree. Despite the wishful assertions and noble aspirations of many artists, art cannot spur political action unless there is a politically inclined audience willing to pay attention. This is still the case in many African and Latin American countries, where poems can still become part of the popular election campaigns. In the United States, an audience willing to engage with serious art of any kind is increasingly rare. Viral videos and shared memes can achieve political change, covert or otherwise. But art and poetry can perhaps be a precursor to political action insomuch as they provide a space of independent thought and reflection. Art demands that we think deeply, but does not specify how. In a democracy, grounding ourselves in our own perceptions is a necessary precursor to acting on them.
The standard rejoinder to the idea that art is a form of thinking is that the “elite” art world is silly, too rarefied for the public to understand. National Public Radio, in other respects a cultural beacon, rarely showcases poetry; when it does so, the poems being featured are invariably story-like and “accessible.” Art and poetry, so it’s believed, must be made pleasant and easy to digest, even for a well-educated audience. But to assert that the public is incapable of accessing conceptual or experimental work is to underestimate that public. Of those to whom little is given, little is expected.
As any docent will affirm, even children can respond to art when they are encouraged to approach it thoughtfully. Public schools could offer curricula that teach students how to approach art and poetry without fear. Secondary education could equip Americans with the critical tools to think about these art forms. Instead, arts education is cut within schools and, increasingly, even within colleges and universities. This devaluation of art leads to a vicious circle in which art is viewed as even more irrelevant or intimidating, and, in turn, even less worthy of study. When funding to arts education is cut, children are deprived of joy of making, sharing what they have made, and exploring others’ work—in other words, of a basic human experience. By the time they become adults, these same citizens lack even the most basic tools to access the art around them. It is no wonder that art-making is viewed as an activity fit only for children and the grossly irresponsible. It is no wonder that the idea of “value” is limited to economic value. It is no wonder that the public views poetry with a mixture of intimidation and contempt: as my students often tell me, art and poetry “make absolutely no sense.” In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Art and poetry do, quite literally, make sense. As I tell those same students, the sense that’s being made is simply not the sense we are used to.
Unlike other workers, artists and poets by definition not only own but are the means of production. Unable to seize physical control of our tools, industrial capitalism hobbles us by devaluing our work. In addition, it systemically denies us the means to survive economically through our artistic vocations. As we all know, the need to work a day job, to get health insurance, to buy materials, impinges on the ability to do our real work -- that which takes place in the studio and in the study. Within this system, a few “lucky” artists are able to make a living by producing art for public consumption, a process that necessarily takes off the rough edges. Not only Thomas Kincaid, but a knockoff of Thomas Kincaid will sell. Artists who are seen as highly successful become “bluechip.” Like the stocks they reference, these profitable names are admitted to the high end of the art world, where wealthy collectors may buy their work, only to secret it to private collections or warehouse it as a commodity. Indeed, the wide-scale warehousing of art—art as financial asset—means that it is made even less accessible to the broader public. It is a testament to the depth of our drive that we, the little people of the art world, persist in making our work anyway.
Despite the cultural messages with which we are inundated, art and poetry are valuable, precisely because they “waste” time paying attention. Like music, they help us process experience that otherwise threatens to bewilder or flatten us. They are, in fact, a form of thinking—thinking through and with objects, movements, images, words. The broader culture of capitalism would also have us forget that art is not a solitary activity; it speaks and, in speaking, invites an equally deep form of attention and response. The value of art and poetry also lies, fundamentally, in the fact that they cannot be easily parsed. Art thinks idiosyncratically and, in doing so, challenges us, too, to think for ourselves. This is why crucial to continue our work, even if our scale, scope, materials, and audience are constrained. When we, as citizens, are deprived of making, of attention, and of complexity, we suffer from an impoverished sense of humanity as well as an impoverished view of democracy. And that, my friends, is—to quote a president—sad.