A Polemic for December
Abandoned Drive-In Movie Theater, Seekonk, MA, 1970 Image by upcoming guest. Henry Horenstein
From time to time there is a need for me to indulge in a little polemic, not too much, mind you, but just a little, or rather, just the right amount.
It occurs to me in this month that in our current moment the arts are in trouble. By trouble I do not mean anything Covid related, having to do with people no longer gathering in close proximity in buildings, or even being able to produce certain kinds of productions involving physical proximity, whether these be photographed or staged in person. Rather, I mean two threats to the arts, one part being cultural and as to the other part, I can only refer to the category of political economy.
A recent book by William Deresiewicz, The Death Of The Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech, lays out some of these problems in a very useful manner, including many interviews with artists across the widest stylistic spectrum.
Separate interviews with Deresiewicz can be found on Meghan Daum's highly recommended podcast as well as on the Bloggingheads website.
Now I want to state at the outset that art never dies, if we are to discuss art in a literal sense (ironic, I know, given what art is, but bear with me). For something like the death of art to happen, human consciousness itself would have to die, which might be an impossibility. (And for the sake of my argument let's assume that). But in the everyday facts oriented sense we need to take seriously what William Deresiewicz puts before us. As he accurately points out, the notion of art not being seen as a form of labor requiring payment is a relatively recent notion and was anathema to how the arts were seen for much of human history. And as the proverbial saying goes, the data doesn't lie.
As Deresiewicz says: "In the 1980s 80% of revenue in the music industry went to 20% of acts. Today 80% go to 1% of acts, and this is across all of the arts and not just music."
Deresiewicz is also conscientious enough to point out that the more romantic notion of art as a spiritual calling is in part a good one and we needn't reject it in order to respect the arts economically.
Indeed I would go further myself and say that the lack of economic support for artists or even for their very survival is intimately connected to the devaluation of the arts overall: the monetary surface is the expression of the underlying devaluation.
If you truly value the arts you feel not only that artists should be rewarded for their labors but rewarded generously. But I realize I am venturing into controversial territory. (I did call this a polemic)
I remember once having a debate with someone about education and I was adamant that people deep down didn't really value education all that much; the proof being that education was distributed unequally. If you don't love something proof of that lack of love will always come out in the fullness of time.
People are forever showing us who they are, in other words. Interestingly enough I was writing and warning about all of this at least twice before, and at least a decade or more ago: in my "Confessions of A Born Again Aesthete" from 1999 and my "The New Philistinism" from 2011 (both now out of print).
Two of the things I was concerned with were the dismissal of and lack of love for all of the arts.
I wanted to defend both commercial and anti-commercial artwork, still a fairly uncommon and radical stance.
One of the consequences of this is that I find myself defending artists who often don't like each other, to name but one effect.)
In "The New Philistinism" I pointed out that if the old philistinism, in the decades of the 50s though the 70s, to name the specific period, was the ordinary person in the street entering the gallery and saying about Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollack that "my five year old could do that", as a way to denigrate or dismiss that particular kind of panting, the newer positivism often took the form of highly educated experts trashing older works of art on moral grounds, or that it the artwork did not reflect current improved or superior beliefs about society and humanity as well as popular and commercial works merely because of their very popularity, as though popularity were proof of inevitable mediocrity at best, worthlessness at worst.
Of course I must emphasize that by using the word philistinism I don't only mean a rejection of art that is deemed offensive as to content. (Often in the form of mistaking the representation of the behavior of characters for outright advocacy of nay behavior - the most wrongheaded of responses and about which French scholar Laurent Debreuil has researched and written - sin his view as a crisis in understanding representation itself) but also a feeling that art itself is frivolous, unimportant, self indulgent and wasteful.
Indeed I think these two attitudes thought distinct from one another and held by different parts of society, are intimately related and part of a larger trend of anti-intellectualism in American life, as diagnosed by Richard Hofstadter way back in the 60s.
Hofstadter should be praised more than he is. He was prescient both about our political situation as well as our cultural situation and he saw himself as essentially writing about the present, that is the 50s and 60s and not the future.
An old quote of Jeannete Winterson turns all of this on its head: for her making art is a weapon in the hands of the oppressed in favor of more equal social relations and yet at the very same time a quest for excellence. it is a both/and proposition. Jeannete Winterson:
“I had better come clean now and say that I do not believe that art (all art) and beauty are ever separate, nor do I believe that either art or beauty are optional in a sane society." "That puts me on the side of what Harold Bloom calls 'the ecstasy of the privileged moment. Art, all art, as insight, as transformation, as joy.
Unlike Harold Bloom, I really believe that human beings can be taught to love what they do not love already and that the privileged moment exists for all of us, if we let it.
Letting art is the paradox of active surrender. I have to work for art if I want art to work on me.
In this podcast I do agree with Bloom's evaluations: not all at is good, of course.
But we also agree with Winterson's' corrective, the potential is that the comprehension and love for it is available to everyone.
Image by Henry Horenstein