Art: What Is It Good for?

So a student came into the writing center with a poem in hand: Maxine Kumin’s “Henry Manley, Living Alone, Keeps Time.” Her professor had forced her to read it, and now she had to write an essay about it.

“And I hate poetry,” she said.

But as we talked about the poem, I could see that she knew how to read poetry. She had eloquent ideas about the theme—the poem’s inherent sadness about old age and the emptiness that is left behind as those we have loved die before us. She had unpacked each item that the author had planted in the poem—a coffee cup, a knife—“prunes” fallen from the old man’s pocket in his empty house.

Where, I wondered, had she learned to hate something she could so beautifully decode? And what good would it do her if she learned to love poetry? Now, while she’s in college, maybe she goes out to the club every weekend in her black mini-skirt, tight across the thighs, and men buy her shots. And then, she graduates and gets a respectable job as an accountant or a payroll specialist. What use is poetry to her?

This morning another student on the bus told me she was taking a class on Shakespeare. She had never read Shakespeare before, and this made me unaccountably sad—that someone born and raised in the U.S. might reach the age of 35 and never know Shakespeare.

“He’s interesting,” she said, and pursed her lips, and looked at me a little coyly. “I’ll say that.”

She told me that she appreciated the many layers, the nuance of his work. But she wasn’t crazy about Shakespeare. I got the feeling it wasn’t something she’d come back to after her class ended.

And then she told me how her professor had recommended that his class attend a production of Antony and Cleopatra produced by the Seattle Shakespeare Company. So she got her grandfather all dressed up, drove downtown, stepped up to the box office—I could see her there, the purse strap tight over her shoulder, a single mom, hard-up for money but she was going to have her night out at the theatre, by gosh—leaning in toward the glass a little bit: “Two for Antony and Cleopatra, please.”

And then the cashier told her it was $50 a ticket.

“Fifty dollars a ticket—are they kidding me? I don’t know what my professor thinks, but some of us can’t afford fifty dollars a ticket.”

So she turned back and drove home.

And I had to wonder then, too: What good is Shakespeare to her, and most people really? How does reading The Bard help her? These two intellectually voracious, sharp-minded women—they read these works of literature and experience for a moment their capacity for analytical brilliance.

And then someone says to them, “Fifty dollars, please.”

And they are pulled cold out of their potential and forced back into the everyday, dropped solid as a bag of potatoes on the asphalt. But that’s a week’s groceries. “Because,” the woman on the bus said, “I hope he understands, I buy that ticket, I won’t be eating for a while.”

Who can afford art? Why is art most accessible to the elite and least accessible to those who maybe need it most—or do they? Does anyone need art at all? So I ask you: art—what is it good for?

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