That’s not an art. THIS is an art.

Letters of Note posted this 1960 letter from comedian Steve Allen to Village Voice writer Nat Hentoff, following Hentoff’s article questioning negative reviews of not-yet-legendary comic Lenny Bruce.

Steve Allen letter

A couple of things held my attention: 1) Art is taste to the public, but community to the artists; 2) Steve Allen not only promotes his autobiography “of sorts” at the end of the letter, but also does so in an abrupt way, not even starting a new paragraph.

To the first point, the modern era has certainly bred a layman’s discontent for abstraction. The “my kid could paint that” mentality permeates all levels of visual art, and the middle-brow dogma that current artists are less technically proficient than ever hangs over all other disciplines. And perhaps there’s some truth in that fact: that a greater percentage of artists arrive in their fields untouched by conservatories.

Perhaps we mostly are less trained. But modernism brought on strikingly new systems of creation from strikingly different cultures and philosophies, and the current über-post-modern era of DIY, user-generated economy has brought us past “my kid could paint that” into “look at what my kid painted.” This is part Utopian, sure, but it is still mostly a world in which we all struggle to understand what we can define as art. Obscenity and challenging religious imagery remain our vicious circles of controversy, as we cautiously, constantly step around the line where audience expectations meet artistic exploration.

Says Steve Allen: “The mass audience, which evidently will never learn, is not content to say ‘I just don’t understand this new jazz.’” Or I don’t understand this Christ covered in ants, or these Miami rappers who objectify women, or this comedian who shouts nigger, or this photo of a semi-erect dick. (And Rothko. Don’t get the commoner started on Rothko.)

But all of that non-argument pedantry aside, it should be noted that today is John Boehner’s first day as Speaker of the House, and a new day of obscenity debates and questioning arts funding has begun. Good luck to us all. I have nothing else to say on that.




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