[contd from below] and, since we saw the dome, i am pondering 'the apotheosis of washington' by constantino brumidi (1865). perhaps some of the people on our tour were a bit surprised to see washington approved of by roman gods rather than jesus, for some believe we live in a christian nation. but you'd have to say, looking around the mall, that the imagery is fundamentally pagan: consider lincoln enthroned in his parthenon like a trans athena. the tour guide did his little rap about roman republicanism, and how appropriate this fresco is to the next great republic after rome, etc.
but, when you get the whole thing straight, it's about elevating washington to the status of a god, and the best roman parallel would be...caligula and all those political leaders who claimed and enforced their godhead or that of their predecessors by decree. this sort of worship of human beings goes well beyond paganism into sheer groveling.
the iconographic program is likely based on vasari/zuccari's ceiling for the duomo in florence, which, like the italian renaissance in general, apparently represents a wildly incoherent new religion in which jesus cavorts with the roman gods.
in particular, 'the apotheosis of washington' subs in gw for christ enthroned at the last judgment, which appears at the analogous place in the (much larger) duomo composition. we've gone very far very fast from 'all men are created equal.'
one thing i believe we can safely say: this cannot be an iconography of republicanism.
so this has just fully struck me, but the italian renaissance really did develop a new syncretic religion. however, the combination of christianity with the classical gods is quite literally absurd, on so many grounds i am not going to enumerate them now. ummmm, what did jesus say in the gospels about your little warrior and sex gods etc? or how about the stuff on humility?
i say, looking at it squarely, that the religious beliefs of a michelangelo, as expressed in his work, are an unbelievable historical, conceptual, and spiritual mess. try his apollo/christ on for size. he's back! a big beefy sexy channing-tatum christ who's all geared up for that assignation with venus or mars, or an earth girl of either gender.
it's not that this didn't occur to people at the time, one way or another: martin luther was quite clear about it, i think. or savanarola and sandro botticelli: he realized after awhile that his art had been obviously incompatible with his professed christianity and that of his continent. of course, just seeing clearly the actual iconography does not entail that one starts burning its products. but the tensions would have been hard to miss for anyone, and the reconciliations took a lot of work. they'll take a lot more, because these things are irreconcilable.
this is part of what necessitated a counter-reformation, and one might look at caravaggio's work after the initial wave of pagan/homoerotic images. the depictions of christ and all the associated figures are relentlessly human, peasant, humble, and yet exalted. it is a rechristianizing of art and of catholic europe in the face of the new, flatly heretical religion (which was the religion, mind, of an ultra-corrupt papacy). at that moment, and until we get to the neo-classical phase, we seem to be less in need of flitting cherubim and all the accoutrements of the greek pantheon. the story of jesus is the story of god becoming human, not of humans becoming gods.
of course, just because the belief system underlying it is a farrago of irreconcilable confusions and bizarrely conflicted psychological complexes doesn't mean the art doesn't have something going for it.
spending new year's in my hometown, dc, with the lovely jane irish. we took a tour of the capitol, because irish is working on baroque ceiling-type paintings and she wanted to see the dome. when i was a kid, you could just walk in and wander around (indeed, when i was 15 or so we cased the joint as thoroughly as we could; the plan was a thorough stinkbombing, making the place uninhabitable.) now it's most regimented and security-oriented experience you could imagine. i really am a knee-jerk anti-authoritarian, and walking with me around downtown dc, i'm afraid, is listening to me make nasty cracks, vicious historical observations, and hostile remarks about each organization/building as we pass.
all the classical temples and the pseudo-classical concrete agency monstrosities have an 'ideological' quality, harped on continuously in our capitol tour guide's tribute to the greatness of our republic and its amazing institutions. but, it's quite like imperial rome: republican decoration and the overwhelming reality of worldwide deathdealing empire.
the headquarters of the fbi, however, is a classic piece of brutalism, and not pseudo-classical at all. it is the most repulsive building near the mall. and it is the only honest one.
the world's most unreadable magazine is artforum. obviously, i am interested in the relation of art and politics. but artforum is exclusively obsessed by it. well, it's particularly insanely bad in the summer 'art and identity' issue. look, whatever your admirable ideals, the magazine you're publishing is unreadably boring, hectoring, unbelievably repetitive. the politics is apparently entirely unanimous, the range of voices a millimeter wide, and it consists mostly of repeating the same words over and over ('neo-liberalism,' for example). it reads like the writers are all parodying each other and plagiarizing frederic jameson or something. for god's sake i can read actual political theorists; i don't need art and art criticism that is nothing but semi-competent expressions of other people's ideas. and just sayin: i've been bludgeoned by identity politics and neo-late-post-marxism in art galleries and museums for decades, and that's not really why i go. it is so, so tired, so uncreative, so boring, so self-righteous, so grim, so stupid.
my sweetie jane irish, who's in sicily at the moment painting interiors, was living and working on the lower east side in the 1980s, contemporary with, you know, nan goldin and robert mapplethorpe, cindy sherman and barbara kruger, basquiat and haring, koons and schnabel. i feel that her work in that period has been severely under-recognized. she was calling the style 'post-painterly nihilism' (her current work might be termed 'post-colonial rococo'). it is conceptual yet painterly, highly political and highly optical, beautifully rendered and hilarious, very of its moment and also traditional: it should be a paradigm of high post-modernism.
a number of works juxtaposed brutalist or banal american architecture rendered in egg tempera, with parodic yet lovely renoirish oil surrounds. it's a commentary at once on the history of painting and contemporary american culture, making you see both differently.
['It was the best of times,' 1989 36"x36"]
she was particularly obsessed with shea stadium (having gone to school at queens college), though i don't seem to have those images. i think one reason for the neglect is that she is a rather shy and unassuming person, though an incredibly bold artist. but she might have beeen a little hard to notice in a world of wild boys and girls and their big problems. still i think we shouldn't be narrating this segment of art history - now so central, the big figures sainted rock stars - without these paintings.
she used appropriation, text, grid forms, and so on - many elements that came to be understood as central to post-modernism - but folded them all into something resembling traditional painting, which might have been another reason people missed her perfect contemporaneity.
['Penn centre,' 1986. 5'x6']
she was often read through a half-assed freudian structure of phallic and vaginal symbols, masculine and feminine elements. gender is there - fundamentally in a comical way, though also feminist - but this was a sad simplistic distortion.
as much fun as it is to be floundering around with the alligators in the swamping problem, i think that beauty promises more happiness, whatever that is. what i actually want to blog about is art and books, it may shock you to hear. so i am re-opening a blog i had for a class in 2013: writing the arts. first entry: the hilarious book of the incomparable designer raymond loewy.
anyone who likes these and who wants to understand where they're coming from should read six names of beauty. one thing i'll point out: mountains are actually very large stones, and stones are very small mountains. the relationship is not like a picture to its object or motif.
i realize i have been studying and thinking about and teaching about japanese aesthetics for a quarter century. i've sampled calligraphy and ikebana, been seeing in particular all of very rural life in terms of a wabi sabi aesthetics, and i have been teaching about and in my own way trying to practice zen (or, for me, even more fundamentallly) taoism for a very long time very seriously. all these go together with what i think about myself as a cult of the ordinary, and a continuous cultivation of attention. the tao te ching is how i made my peace with the 'spiritual side' of 12-step programs. i call my higher power the tao! i hear the same thing in zen buddhism.
so i love about suiseki that it calls attention to things that are already there, rather than creating new ones. if you simply attend to things that are already there, your art can't be an achievement; you're not doing it in order to score; it's just happening through you. i want people to see these rocks as i do, and i could never in the rest of my lifetime design any of them, and they are just ordinary rocks. for me, they open up a peephole on how infinitely beautiful the universe is and how far beyond human capacities to describe or envision or see clearly. but you see more if you really attend. it requires no hand skills. i was always one of those kids who couldn't draw, had abominable penmanship, and so on. well i'm not drawing or painting here, just drawing things together from the world.
the best introduction i know to japanese aesthetics is mokoto ueda's book literary and art theories of japan, long out of print. get it on inter-library loan! he knows a lot more about this than i do, but i find myself intuiting it or using it confidently and spontaneously by my own lights, and my ability to do this is bringing me great peace and joy even in a time of wild emotional and practical swings.
many of these - of different minerals, different sizes, and so on - are infinitely absorbing. basically one-hour random grab, and i have enough suiseki to last me the rest of my life. one of many miracles, of late.
when i was working on the wabi-sabi chapter of six names of beauty, i became obsessed with the art of suiseki. i was trying to at least sample all the arts i was writing about, but i wanted this one more than any other. my son sam (12, perhaps) and i had been taking 'nature walks' since he was little; he got excited too and we searched day after day for stones, perhaps came up with a couple of decent ones. i live about 40 miles away from there now, and i suddenly realized: every damn stone in latimore township is a suiseki. jane irish and i were at an abandoned 18th-century quarry yesterday and gathered 40 great stones of all carryable sizes in as many minutes, including wild fossiles and big chunks of petrified wood. but really, a characteristic rock of this region is rounded, glittering quartz in all colors, not geodes exactly but honeycombed with crystal caves. i cannot believe it, really.
i have always wanted to have some visual practice, and i have never been as attracted to any one as much as this. so, i am just beginning. but i am going to explore a latimore-style suiseki thing, with local stone and found trays. here is a very first effort, using some of the most humble stones, only washed, arranged in a minute or two. a foot wide or so.
if you're wondering why so much blogging: well, i decided to quit pitching to publications and just recommit to the blog. and then it just started flowing and i was writing again like i once did: a lot, with great pleasure. as zora put it: polishing my sentences with a soft cloth.
alright, even though i love lucinda inordinately, i hated the last album. let me give you my first impression of the ghosts of highway 20. it is incredibly beautiful and wonderful. right she is still sounding pretty depressed (well, the theme is death), but now that is deepening everything. i still want her joy very much, but maybe that's a quality of my fantasy marriage to lucinda williams (sorry, john rawls). (i was always going to heal her; let's say i tried that approach here and there and it wouldn't have worked out.)
on the other hand, speaking of zora neale hurston as well as people whose bodies have actually been in my proximity [let's make it five times altogether counting those two; those are my big loves] i have fallen in love with women because of their art, or partly, or inseparably. sometimes experiencing her music, or her prose style, or her painting, is looking deep into her eyes, but at the same time from her eyes into yourself, for a long time, seeing all the way in, and then you really might fall in love, you know, and it can change the way you hear or see or read things; that's when i've had the biggest changes of perception, as well as the most intense experiences of beauty. there has to be an opening in her art into her. she has to be there, be findable, all of her, in her art, and not even all good artists are, and then you have to be moved by what you find, what is emerging from her and into you, and then you have to somehow pour it back into the world too, toward her if she's really there and right around you both until you are embedded together in the same sweet and bittersweet life. that's when the loss begins.
good heavens lucinda, thank you so much for teaching me that. thank you for expressing it so completely.:
[among other things, that is a perfect country song, and the guitar just kills.]
you can't bring someone joy at a distance, or insist that she be joyful. but maybe being here will make joy possible again. oh my god this is so intensely lovely and sad. and i think she has made the decisive turn: she's pretty ok with the age she is now; she's inhabiting her body as it is now, and thinking about her life elegiacally. (i am a little worried though, because she keeps saying how ready she is to die. maybe those are personae, though. um, i want 16 more albums, so go right on.) man she is writing good poetry in her distinctive way too. i am so happy to be able to say this. maybe this is her best album, though that seems impossible considering what she has done before. she is making me cry again. harder.
i've had a lot of death. and now i can explore its implications for the mandolin. at the moment i first heard 'sweet old world,' my brother had just committed suicide. also i was really in love for the first time, and early in recovery. i was trying to change everything in my life so i wouldn't want to die. i listened to that song hundreds of times. i still love it so much and i can't stand it. i don't know whether to let it play. i might shatter. it is my favorite song. and it is my candidate for 'most beautiful thing in the world.' so when something like that happens it's hard not to start thinking about what the person who wrote that song knows that made it possible for her to write it, and the guts and self-knowledge it took to just write it and record it and let everyone hear it. she didn't make any big show about it, but in that song she just let people see who she was, kind of all the way down. i started thinking about her life, and how if she can say that she must have really been through the shit, something like the same shit, but she understood what it meant and i didn't. and it's not just a piece of writing; it is her actual voice embodying and conveying the life and my life. and it is a beautiful woman's voice, knowing you, healing you by tearing you to shreds. how do you not fall in love? when she is in despair on her next album, you just want to heal her back, with the very things she gave you. you want to teach her the melancholy but total affirmation of life she taught you, because now you can't live without it. plus the whole thing yielded the professional benefit of refuting kant's aesthetics once and for all forever; i got a theory of beauty from it. amazingly, there is a song about her little brother on that album that i swear could be a description of mine.
also, it says that love redeems. you could have said that to me all day every day at that point and i wouldn't have believed it. when she sang it, i started trying to believe it; i knew what i needed to believe if i was ever going to wend my way back to joy. and i did actually fall in love with the person who showed it to me. she could play it on the guitar and sing it ok, and i could do something with it on the harmonica. we played it in the subway one time. then it was really mine and ours. it's the acoustics in there; it's like you're vibrating the whole planet. people threw money, and she paid her rent. at the time, her father was dying. the presents she gave me were clothes she made with her own hands, some of the few things i could never throw away. i don't know where she is.
i can't seem to get exactly what i want on youtube right now, so go stream/download etc 'death came'. ok? 'if my love could kill.' "can't close the door on love.' then go watch the videos on that first post.
[don't worry, i'm clear on the difference between really digging someone's novels and, like, dating her etc. i've never needed to talk to luci, but also have never not been. i've gotten quite a bit of writing out our relationship, though. i remember when i really couldn't stop writing about zora neale hurston; i had to swear off. well, sadly, you do sometimes! one good thing about loving the dead or distant star is that if you fuck around on her, or get a sudden crush, she doesn't even notice. dead women, or distant women you've never met, are polyamorous, which is good because you can't actually cuddle up with them anyway, and you might want that. so, every few years luci might put out a bad album and i might get pretty pissed off and turn to edna st. vincent millay or chrissie hynde for solace, or just to feel like a man. taylor swift would be wrong for an old man like me. i had my mid-life crisis long ago with one of the 5 - but still. dude, have you ever had daughters? that's pretty romantic too, and then you watch them begin to fill the space, and read and sing and write and play and paint and you do those things with them, loving them so much and losing them too as you do, and loving even that you are losing them; that's the job. i'm afraid i'm not going to be able entirely to avoid the cliches on this; sometimes that is what is most particularly true. maybe you don't think so, but i've noticed that all of taylor is in fact in her art. it's a different kind of art, but it has to be.]
i don't know whether i would think lucinda williams was beautiful if i just happened to run into her perched on a barstool somewhere. i have forgotten to think about that at all for the last 20-some years. i know she is beautiful. that is a completely unaffected and unguarded performance. and it is also masterful.
i think that art is one of the best ways we show that the human self is not contained in the skin, that it is assembled bits of other people and broken pieces of the world. maybe as you gather it, you haphazarardly or systematically try to mend. that's what zora kept trying to show us. it's notorious that you can't know what someone is really thinking or feeling; i feel that is false. right, there is no such thing as telepathy; but you're picturing the human mind as this mysterious little box inside the body. when you love a real artist, you see how her mind extends and is available, because it is reshaping and inhabiting the environment you share. sometimes someone's selfhood is remaking your visual environment or filling your house and head with sound. sometimes her words are running through your head, merging with your internal monologue in a kind of counterpoint. also it isn't just mind, is it? it's the physical activity, skill, craft; it's her body too. lucinda's body is singing. i think that's why i've found artists especially compelling and transforming, sexually and lovily and aesthetically and stuff. it's better than telepathy.
yes i'm sorry it is important to me that it is a woman and i think there's something a little different about the way women typically do art; maybe something a little more generous or true or sincere, or a little less filled with preening and ego and armor: those things are isolating rather than enveloping. i want to be enveloped. with the right person, that doesn't make you disappear, it makes you more. or, well, i'm fascinated by women, ok, irritated with men. picasso might be trying to blow you away, control you, or bludgeon you or something. not georgia o'keeffe. richard wright, but not hurston. i believe i know who were the better artists. obviously these are waytoobig generalizations. but i don't actually think anyone's aesthetics are entirely separate from their sexuality, and i think that's good as long as it isn't too oppressive or something. i just don't think it is that surprising that someone like me keeps gravitating back to the art of women - certain women, and i'm definitely not trying to establish a norm or something. i'm just trying to say what this heterosexual love thing is like for me.
[i just watched that 17 times.]
i want to tell you why i am able to do this now. it's because i am loving and being loved by jane irish. she is a painter. we met here and there a couple of times; i liked her vaguely but didn't form that much of an impression. she's kind of a quiet person. then i went to her place. it was filled with art, a whole life, +minimalist sculpture by her lover, the late bill walton, and other stuff. a whole lifetime was in there, like i was surrounded by it, inside it, and it is so beautiful, but so pointed and smart too. then we made love. since then, my taste in visual arts - which i love - has broken wide open. she is taking me to museums and helping me see. for forty years my approach was "if it doesn't look like a vermeer, it sucks.' even i was getting tired of myself.
i'm writing this at a rest stop on pa turnpike, on my way to see her. i don't know what it will be like, because i have spent the last 48 hours crying, listening, yearning. like this is where i always thought i might get, but now that i'm here at the rest stop i don't know whether i'm having a breakdown or reaching the peace i never could have. i could feel this bit by bit. but i could not let myself feel all of it at once. then suddenly after 57 years i couldn't not feel it all: the adam part (fuck, two other brothers too). the judith part. the marion part. the jane and emma part, and the jane part. here it all is in the truest thing i ever wrote, ok? now what?
i really did just set out to write a record review, but every time i have had a new idea, and many times i have had a new feeling, i was actually at that moment typing. writing and thinking and feeling are sort of the same thing for me. the most genuine, most sustained, most various example i can think of like that - the person in all of history who i think thought and felt about writing the most like i do - is zora neale hurston.
they are playing 'passionate kisses' here at the rest stop. i am not kidding. oh dang now they're on steely dan. on the way here my random ipod was hitting everything i couldn't take in just the order i was imagining, like emmylou's version of 'sweet old world' or lucinda and emmylou on 'greenville.'
[update: the second i got down there i knew it was more of a breakthrough than a breakdown. i am in an excellent mood. love redeems, bro! ok i can listen to it now,]
[this entry, really quite the swoon, might be yinyanged with this one.]
i feel the link should be forwarded to all female artists and writers. love.
right now, i'm teaching both the analects of confucius and the republic of plato, as i often do. i think it's worth saying that both of these texts, and the 'golden ages' of human thought in which they emerged, were characterized by extremely fragmented prolitical situations, situations of wars and struggles between small states in close proximity and quick transition. without having done any very elaborate research to try to back this up, i'm going to say it's my impression that periods like that are characterized by creativity and innovation, whereas periods of well-consolidated large nations or empires have the opposite effect. another case: renaissance italy. really, even to try to understand the political landscape of 15th and 16th century on the italian peninsula is crazy. well you get machiavelli and humanism, michelangelo and leonardo and raphael, etc etc.
the roman period in philosophy is often undervalued for its interest and even its originality, but there is no denying that in many ways they were basically ramifying greek ideas and arts. or once china consolidated into an empire, there was far less creative thought, etc. in some ways the reasons are obvious; i do think that both the greeks and the chinese of the spring and autumn and warring states periods had to grapple with different social/political/aesthetic arrangements in close proximity. and if you don't, i don't think you start asking questions like, what is the best political system? also these big nations think they should be running the arts and philosophies, and characteristically take direct measures to establish an official ideology and crush outliers.
so, i'd say, if you want to make, profess, think, create, etc, you should pursue decentralization of political power everywhere all the time. or try this: the state is a force inimical to human thought and art. the more thorough state power, the less thinking and creating takes place. i say i could show that historically. that would be an argument for anarchism, y'all. and if you are casually contemplating a worldstate as our inevitable future, just let it occur to you that that's sort of the end of philosophy and art.
last week jane irish and i went arthopping in nyc, cutting it a bit short on account of the storm. i finally saw the whitney 2; i see why architecture critics have rolled over for it. however, the frank stella retrospective left me (trying to keep it positive here) indifferent. i'll just skip the polemic and say people are really going to have to take some time to explain to me what is actually worthwhile about stella, especially everything after the '50s. jed perl (in nyrb) and others have entered into an alleged issue that allegedly arises because stella insists that items like this are paintings.
first off, who cares? but second: no, man, words don't mean whatever you want them to mean. that's a sculpture; look it up in the dictionary. fortunately nothing turns on this: the work is what it is whether we call it a painting, a sculpture, a relief, an installation, a watchamacallit, a thingummy, mistah charlie, etc. oh stella, like maybe serra, is in the grand gigantic swaggering dicky ego phase, kind of the last gasp of modernism: he still dares to be meaningless! if that's a painting, it's manspreading like a motherfucker.
but we also saw an amazing exhibition in chelsea of a person who i think is one of the most underrated artists of the last many decades: yoko ono. many still know her as the woman who broke up the beatles or whatever, but i think that if she did, that was a service to the world. but artistically, it is unfair to associate her with 'glass onion'. anyway, the thing reproduces a truly lovely and decent and radical 'conceptual' work from 1966 (in general, yoko is among the earliest and the very best of the conceptualists). in one room there are river pebbles, cushions, and a network of string dangling from wall to wall, something like an eva hesse or faith wilding string piece (i've been thinking about fiber arts).
[eva hesse, from 1969-70]
but people are encouraged to mess with the string, and even though chelsea was pretty darn dead on a mid-jan wednesday, a number of people were ducking around the string like limbo, or retying knots, or tacking string designs to the walls, or writing on the walls, where the penciled lines appeared as extensions of the string.
in the back room was 'mend piece' which is a table with shattered crockery, string, tape and glue.
you sit around with people mending - and people were - then set your mended assemblage on a shelf on the wall. this is first of all a critique of a million aspects of modernism and western art, and also the whole thing was beautiful and poetic and decent, and the gallery spaces so active and spirited and conversational.
a lot of conceptualism is clever or even intellectually deep, though rafts of it are not. i still remember living for decades (no wait, it just seemed like decades) near bruce nauman's neon sign on the baltimore museum, flashing "violence, violins, silence'; conceptual art as hyper-familiar and trivial pun, way up there on top of that building.
that is some lame-ass shit. but yoko's best stuff is not only really very intellectually deep (there is a much more sophisticated critique of the artworld in yoko than in nauman), but it also actually means something, and what it means is something good, something wholesome, something that changes the way you feel in a good way. that itself makes it suspicious as art i suppose. but heavens what are you doing to yourself if you reflexively, much less reflectively, respond to decency with suspicion?
i was in pittsburgh over the weekend and went to the warhol museum. i might state my view of warhol as follows: really it's impossible to do the history of art of the last half century without him; he's foundational. now, on the other hand, i would say that i have experienced the images as sometimes amusing, but not interesting as images; just kind of a trick to very quickly change photos into paintings. it's very repetitive and the swathes of color thrown over the image never struck me aesthetically. (also of course the style of his images is utterly ubiquitous; has been for decades. i don't need to ever actually see one again.)
at any rate, i've heard several people say that they were converted finally to warhol by the museum, which is pretty darn cool, in an old dept store etc. and to a limited extent, that would be true of my experience. i would say, for example, that like a lot of people i was favorably impressed with the pre-pop materials, and they have paintings and drawings going back to the 40s, a fair amount of his fine commercial design, book jackets, and so on. he's very fresh and amusing and he can really draw.
now the weakest floor, by far, is dominated by the celebrity portraits of the 1970s. these are mechanically self-imitative; they lose all the sharpness and freshness and conceptual interest of the early pop images. i'd say that in this period, warhol was continuously fawning on celebrity (for example, that was the tone of interview magazine). the man's values are revealed in all their glittering emptiness, his mediocrity as a draughtsman etc is obvious. just speculating now, but the word 'cocaine' comes unbidden to my brain. it's like the most banal disco music, but you can't really dance to it.
but i will also say this: moving back from the 70s/80s to the 60s makes you realize how sharp those early marilyns and elvises and jackies and maos were. it shows how well he was doing the style of warhol in the 60s, and actually i was more impressed with both the visual and conceptual quality of the earlier work than i would have thought i'd be.
[further notes: the 80s collaborations with basquiat are incoherent. the room of floating silver clouds is wonderful. my favorite work is probably the three-d packaging things: the brillo boxes etc. arthur danto wrote about them obsessively for decades, and i could see how one might (he also held that they killed art forever.)]
people really need to think about the globally transformative power of literature and suchlike. it would be nice to have a realistic assessment of such things, rather than a bunch of obviously false hyperbolic catch-phrases. in particular, people are extremely nostalgic now for modernism, which could be anything from yeats and joyce to allen ginsberg and picasso and de kooning and bob dylan. it is a territory infested by superduper stupendous geniuses, and one vaguely misremembers about it that in it half-cracked egomaniacs remade the entire universe. or maybe everyone's just nostalgic for that moment when they were 17 and some poem mattered.
an excruciating example of all this is an essay by joyce carol oates in the august 13 new york review of books titled "inspiration and obsession in life and literature". it's a very pretentious and yet half-assed journey through plato and wittgenstein, with plenty of yeats and updike and virginia woolf. that the whole thing is pseudo is nailed by the the end bit, which is a compressed little collage of cliches. her readers can be expected to nod along and think that finally someone's saying what they've been thinking; that just shows you the sad decline of the average aging dinner-party where the guests are quasi-intellectuals.
Without the stillness, thoughtfulness, and depths of art, we would have no shared culture - no collective memory. As if [sic?] memory were destroyed in the human brain, our identities corrode, and we "were" no one - we become merely a shifting succession of impressions attached to no fixed source. As it is, in contemporary society, where so much concentration is focused on social media, insatiable in its fleeting interests, the "stillness and thoughtfulness" of a more permanent art seems threatened. As human beings we crave "meaning" - which only art can provide; but social media provide no meaning, only this succession of fleeting impressions whose underlying principle may simply be to urge us to consume products.
The motive for metaphor, then, is a motive for survival as a species, as a culture, and as individuals.
that is, instagram is the apocalypse. lord knows how or why social media is incompatible with art (i'd say it demonstrably is not), making it impossible to write poetry or paint. perhaps it is itself a set of mediums for art. if you think facebook is incompatible with our survival as a species, as a culture, and as individuals, i think you've lost your marbles, if any. also, what a wretched bit of writing that is.
and if you think the modernist novel is a fundamental source of human memory or meaning, you have very little acquaintance with our species. relax and let the girls take their selfies or whatever. there are a number of threats to human survival (oh, the state, nuclear weapons, capitalism, perhaps climate change). that we haven't produced the next updike (if indeed we haven't) is not among them.
i say this to people all the time: your entertainments, and even your most moving experiences, do not have to be the meaning of everyone's life. even if the human species could survive perfectly well without the modernist novel, or indeed the novel, that does not show that a good novel is not a good thing. what you yourself do doesn't actually have to be the most important or the only important thing to be a valid activity, etc. also, read over what you write or think over what you say, and try to be sure it isn't just obviously false, even if your friends nod along.
if i said what she said, but i said it about philosophy, you might get suspicious that my lament had a certain self-serving quality. but what she says about lit is no more plausible - or in some cases it would be considerably less plausible - than saying the same about the discipline of history, or economics, or psychology, or for that matter seamstressing, or farming, or transportation, or trade, or statecraft, or religion, or residential construction, or etc etc etc. none of these are the only important thing, or the singularly most important thing, and though we lived for millennia without the novel, it's been a long time since we've gotten by without farming.
taking the thing where it goes after that: we are no more (and, to be fair, no less) the story-telling animal than we are the animal that calculates or emits polemics or navigates or plays games.
as people age, they often get disaffected by their grandbabies' culture and crank up the jeremiads and prophecies of doom, based perhaps on no real acquaintance with the alleged horrors being lamented. don't let that be you. the culture has never not been in a disastrous decline toward the end.
another privilege of age (along with gaining the right and responsibility to judge everyone) is that you've seen many moral panics and apocalyptic rants and can do some inductive reasoning: oh, this one's going to be okish too. television was the end of all things good and decent and artistic. so were comic books, for that matter, rock 'n roll, hip hop etc. we came out of them sucking no more or less than always.
one thing i'd say about our cultural moment: people hate to argue, or even disagree. they don't want to argue about politics, or art, or anything else, and the sheer fact that you disagree with someone threatens their self-esteem. now people do still want to insult and berate people but only in the company of other people who agree with themselves. no one wants to have an actual exchange. i am going to be uncomfortable in a world like that, and really it's not a world conducive to philosophy, for example. i do think it's a chickenshit moment: people are scared that they're going to be harmed by a well-turned phrase; if you live in fear of words and ideas, i think you need more grit. i grew up among extremely combative and definite adults, arguing all the time about everything. most of the time, this was good: straight up fun for all concerned, even when they were turning red in the face and exploding with insults. if disagreement is prohibited, we'll merge toward completely unjustified consensus within groups and a total incomprehension and ignorance between them that is the last straw of polarization. people are making themselves stupid cowards on principle. also people are credulous to the point of emptiness within their own little spheres of fake consensus, merely subordinated, and by their own choice. you might think that arguing pulls people apart, while agreement pulls them together. but in politics, this approach is liable to leave us in two camps, bristling with hostility toward one another and totally disabled in communicating with one another. arguing is what keeps a democracy unified.
i do think philosophy is pretty essentially agonistic. many would deny that, or seek to overcome it, or connect it to the male-dominatedness of the profession, etc. but usually people who have thought that a consensus must emerge merely fantasized that everyone would eventually agree with themselves. (i don't know why people would think that women can't argue or are always agreeable or something.) but anyway: plato vs. the sophists and aristotle v plato, right? all those hellenistic schools against one another. empiricists against rationalists, and each against each other. an important source of kierkegaard's philosophy is his loathing of all things hegel. nietzsche against everyone. quine against carnap or austin v ayer. or even: confucius vs. lao tzu and mo tzu, etc. people want the issues to be resolved; i'm especially interested in those i think never will be, which are wide-open contexts for debate. seriously, i just wrote a big old 'system of philosophy' a la schopenhauer or something. do i think that it will set things, or anything, to rest? i hope not, even if i do think (right now, provisionally) that my positions are right. i know my fantasy of owning the future with my philosophy is just that. i'd like to be read, but i'm as happy to read with hostility as with agreement, though i'm happy about that too if i ever get any. but without my extreme rejection of plato, kant, hegel, rorty, etc, the thing wouldn't exist at all.
i bet i have said this before, but my favorite contemporary writer on art, by a good long way, is dave hickey. such a bold and wild and and combative and hilarious writer, and also so sharp and right on many matters. (he doesn't have to be right about everything according to me to be my favorite writer.) i'm teaching his invisible dragon again in my beauty course, though i love some of the essays in air guitar even more.
If I said, "Beauty," they said "The corruption of the market," and I would say, "The corruption of the market?!" After thirty years of frenetic empowerment, during which the venues for contemporary art in the United States evolved from a tiny network of private galleries in New York into this vast, transcontinental sprawl of publicly funded, postmodern iceboxes? During which the ranks of "art professionals" swelled from a handful of dilettantes on the East Side of Manhattan into this massive civil service of Ph.Ds and MFAs administering a monolithic system of interlocking patronage (which, in its constituents, resembles nothing so much as that of France in the early nineteenth century)? During which powerful corporate, governmental, cultural, and academic constituencies vied ruthlessly for power and tax-free dollars, each with its own self-perpetuating agenda and none with any vested interest in the subversive potential of visual pleasure? Under these cultural conditions, artists across this nation are obsessing about the market? Fretting about a handful of picture merchants nibbling canapes in Business Class? Blaming them for any work of art that does not incorporate raw plywood?...
During my informal canvass, I untangled the "reasoning" behind this presumption. Art dealers, I found, "only care about how it looks," while the art professionals employed in our institutions "really care about what it means." Easy enough to say. Yet even if this were true (and I think it is), I can't imagine any but the most demented naif giddlily abandoning an autocrat who monitors appearances for a bureaucrat who monitors your soul.