Listening to the Diane Rhems Show, which has Billy Collins and another poet laureate on. It’s awesome.
However, I was struck–not in a good way–by an e-mail written in, which said that poetry had become too academic and poets need to stop writing for other poets, and that it’s their duty, like Sandburg, to write so that everybody can enjoy poetry.
At that point I found myself standing on my chair and yelling at the radio "GET BENT!"
It’s not that I think poetry should be a pursuit of the intellectual elite alone, by any stretch. Billy Collins is absolutely my favorite poet. (I quite like Rumi, too, mind you.) When I reacted to, rather viscerally, was the notion that any artist–poet, writer, sculptor, poker of pixels–has a duty to make art of a specific kind, be it art for the masses, or art for other artists. That there’s something inherently wrong with writing poetry that your literary poet buddies will enjoy.
This sort of thing makes me want to grab the writer of such e-mails by the lapels and yell "WHERE DO YOU GET OFF!?"
I think it’s great when people write poetry that everybody can get into, because god knows, I’m no English major. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man gave me nosebleeds. But nobody anywhere is obligated to temper their vision just to cater to me. That’s for politicians, not artists.
As an illustrator, people tell me what to paint all the time, and I have mostly resigned myself to this fact. But nobody–NOBODY–tells me what NOT to paint. (Yes, now we see why all those snarky "Aren’t you over this yet?" comments about the phallic rocks leads inexorably to more phallic rocks.)
My art is, I think, pretty approachable. You have to have a weirdass sense of humor for some of it, I grant you, but still, it’s mostly fairly accessible. A little way into left field, but not completely incomprehensible. Random strangers at conventions get drawn in by it, anyway.
And that’s fine and wonderful. But if I want to get up in the morning and paint something completely opaque and inaccessible and maybe even downright disturbing, some in-joke only comprehensible if you happened to study a particular Flemish master’s student work, some still-life full of objects that hold no significance to anyone who didn’t spend time in Mr. Aguirrez’s fourth grade class, some symbolism that only Catholics get, that’s FINE.
It doesn’t make it better art to be obscure or difficult or not for everybody. But it doesn’t make it any worse, either.
There is no obligation on art to be understood.
There is no obligation on art to be approachable.
There is no obligation on art to be elite.
There is no obligation on art NOT to be elite.
There is no obligation on art to be ANYTHING, except to be art.*
*Even this may be negotiable.