In art and politics, 'elitism' gets unfair rap


Mark Swed, classical music critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote a great column recently in which he challenged the negative connotation associated with the word "elitist," especially as it relates to the arts.

As a classical music writer, Swed no doubt encounters this issue frequently. People who like pop music and pro sports and Hollywood movies are likely to view classical music as "elitist." But Swed makes a good point when he notes that a ticket to an orchestra performance typically is a lot cheaper than one for an NBA playoff game or a Broadway show.

"At [the] Disney [Concert Hall], we are a democratic audience who sit together," he writes. "In the supposedly populist Staples Center [where the Lakers play], luxury suites resemble nothing so much as the royal boxes in European opera houses of old."

Also, elitism seems to be a bad thing only in certain areas of endeavor. We have no problem calling Kobe Bryant an elite basketball player or Tiger Woods an elite golfer. "Anyone who rides a bicycle knows that a cyclist able to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour de France is no mere mortal," Swed writes.

"Elitism" also is being sullied in the political arena, where Democratic candidate Barack Obama has been accused of thinking he's smarter than the average guy. To me, this is an astonishing attack strategy. Do we not want the president of the country to be smart? We want our rock 'n' roll heroes to be guitar gods, we want our movie stars to be brilliant actors, we want our surgeon to be tops in his or her field -- but we want our president to possess average intelligence?

Alas, it seems to be so, and not just because roughly half the electorate voted for George W. Bush in the past two presidential elections. John Derbyshire, writing for National Review magazine, points out that being smart is considered un-American.

"We Americans are easygoing about inequalities of wealth, much more so than Old World countries," he writes. "There is something about inequality of smarts that just sets our teeth on edge, though."

All this talk of elitism came to mind last week when I spent an hour in the company of Libby Lumpkin, director of the Las Vegas Art Museum. She gave me a tour of the museum's current exhibit, "Las Vegas Collects Contemporary," and discussed the challenge of educating Las Vegans about the merits of modern art.

Modern, or contemporary, art often is put in the same category as classical music: "elitist." In an essay in the museum's most recent newsletter, Lumpkin tackles the issue head on:

"It has been said that today's contemporary art community is an elitist society. Indeed it is. As elitist societies go, however, the contemporary art community is a peculiarly democratic one since anyone who wants to may join. Members come from almost every nation and ethnic background, and include nearly all income brackets, education levels and age groups. Only two essential criteria are required for participation: an openness to the concept that ideas are embodied by the forms artists create, and a willingness to confront objects that may challenge conventional wisdom, reshape cultural values or test assumptions about how we see."

Contemporary art is often derided as "elitist" or even "dumb" ("a little kid could draw that!") because of a basic lack of that "openness" Lumpkin describes.

In fact, I think it's an understandable first reaction. After all, most of the art that people encounter in the course of their lives is best described as decorative art. It's a pretty picture or drawing or quilt. It's a photograph of a beautiful or exotic place. It matches the drapes.

In order to appreciate contemporary art, you have to set aside that mind-set and adopt another. For the most part, contemporary art isn't about attractiveness. It's about life, death, politics, commerce, love, hate, joy, despair. It questions things, pushes boundaries, tries to make the viewer see the world in a new way.

With a modest effort, it's not difficult to make this mental transition. I appreciate visual art, but I'm embarrassingly unsophisticated about it. After one hour with Libby Lumpkin, however, I gained a profound appreciation for the works on display at the Las Vegas Art Museum. I didn't love everything I saw, but I was challenged intellectually by all of it. And that's the point.

Another key point of the exhibit is to show that Las Vegas isn't a cultural wasteland when it comes to contemporary art. It's not just Steve Wynn who is buying and appreciating fine art around here. All the pieces in the exhibit -- most by world-famous artists and worth many thousands of dollars -- are owned by Las Vegans. Everybody from the Fertitta brothers (owners of Station Casinos) to magician/comedian Penn Jillette loaned works from their private collections for the exhibit.

"The exhibit demonstrates the caliber and sophistication of local collectors," Lumpkins says. "Local collections are growing exponentially. Fine art is happening in the city."

You don't need a high I.Q. or a snooty attitude to appreciate contemporary art or classical music, just as you don't need a perfect SAT score to be awed by the talents of Eddie Van Halen or Martin Scorsese.

The Las Vegas Art Museum aims to become an international contemporary art institution. Lumpkin wants to raise money to build a permanent, stand-alone museum. For a variety of reasons, the museum's current home at the West Sahara Library isn't going to achieve its ambitious goals.

Lumpkin & Co. face a long road to get where they want to go, in part because only a small portion of this community has embraced the merits of modern art. But this is changing, as the content of the "Las Vegas Collects Contemporary" exhibit attests.

Las Vegas should look to cities such as Chicago for inspiration. For decades, Chicago was widely regarded as a "blue-collar town," known for slaughterhouses, bushy moustaches and Dick Butkus. But today, Chicago is nothing less than a world center of art and culture. As a city, as a community, Chicago has made major investments -- public and private -- to earn this status. It takes money, work and time, but Chicago shows that a workaday city can have and achieve lofty aspirations.

 

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is publisher of Las Vegas CityLife, an alternative newsweekly owned by the same company as the Review-Journal. He also is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue." His column appears Sunday.