A core, elite group of aesthetes once determined what art was “important.” That’s no longer true By the end of the twentieth century, an educated person in the United States, and increasingly in Europe, no longer had to know certain authors, certain artists, or certain composers. The former elite arts are still enjoyed; a few million still attend the opera; many millions go to art and history museums; collectors pay astronomical sums for famous paintings. According to the American Alliance of Museums, there are approximately
850 million visits to American museums of various sorts each year, more than sporting events and theme parks combined, and arts and cultural production combined account for 4.32 percent of GDP. Claims are still made for the importance of various arts, but these claims only hold within a given community (however large or small) of patrons and practitioners. Economic arguments made for the arts (such as the GDP statistic quoted above) in fact
indicate the uncertain status of the arts in our society today: why should it be necessary to justify the importance of the arts based on their contribution to the economy? The rest of our patchwork culture of groups, tastes, and practices pursue their own interests. Some, like the founders of the art-sharing site deviantART, will generously claim that it was created “to entertain, inspire, and empower the artist in all of us”—in other words, that all expressive practices are arts and all are important—but this is still to deny that our culture
has a center.

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