The discussion of the foibles and failures of modern art that appeared here two weeks ago was of course not the last word on that vast and intricate subject. This week I want to take the discussion further, starting from a deceptively simple question: what is art for? What’s the point or purpose of all these odd, impractical aspects of human culture we call the arts?
In the contemporary industrial world there are three commonplace answers to that question, and a great deal of the absurdity and ugliness that passes for art these days is a direct result of the interplay between the first two of those answers. Let’s take them one at a time.
The first of them, the one you’ll most often hear from people who think they take art seriously, is that art is a vehicle for self-expression. Whose self, though, gets expressed? That’s a loaded question. On the one hand, you have the claim that there are certain very special people who are so bursting with creative oomph, or alternatively so tormented by emotions far more interesting than yours and mine, that anything they make is art, just because they’re the ones who make it. If a seven-year-old boy finds a discarded urinal and hangs it on a wall, that’s a prank, but when Marcel Duchamp did it, the result was a work of art. Why? Because he was Marcel Duchamp, that’s why, and undiluted artsyness oozed out of every pore of his body. This view is understandably very popular among professional artists, who like to think that all the student loans they took out to get their MFAs guarantee them a corresponding state of specialness.
On the other hand, you have the claim that everybody is an artist, that everybody ought to express themselves whether or not they have any scrap of talent or technical skill, and so we all ought to take turns politely applauding each other’s creations, no matter how awful those may be. This is the attitude that gives rise to the enthusiastic mediocrity of the Neopagan bardic circles we discussed two weeks ago: if everybody is just as much of an artist as anybody else, and making people feel good about their creative product is all that matters, then you’re pretty much guaranteed a race to the bottom in which everyone who values quality finds somewhere else to be, leaving the field to poetry that would gag a Vogon, with musical accompaniment to match. This view is understandably very popular among people who are bad at art, since it gives them an excuse to claim that their art really is just as good as anyone else’s.
Clearly, then, both versions of the claim that self-expression is the purpose of art have serious downsides. It might be possible to finesse the issue one way or another while still preserving the claim, but it’s been tried over and over again for something like a century now with very dubious results—I’m thinking here, among other things, of all the years Arthur Danto put into trying to craft a theory of art that would make room for disused urinals, not to mention Andy Warhol’s hilarious jokes at the expense of the art scene. However flawed the theory of art as self-expression might be, though, it’s a good deal less problematic than the second commonplace answer I want to discuss, which is that art exists to produce assets for investment.
In calling this a commonplace theory of art, I’m stretching the point a bit, because you won’t hear many people saying this out loud in public. On the other hand, it dominates the way that fine arts are actually produced and marketed in the industrial world today. Especially but not only on the high-priced end of the art world, paintings, sculptures, and the like are bought and sold in exactly the same spirit, and for exactly the same motives, as stocks, bonds, and other financial assets are traded. These days, people with money want to find something to serve as a store of wealth, and where there’s a demand, there will inevitably be a supply—even if what’s being marketed as a way to store wealth has no intrinsic worth at all.
So far, this way of thinking about art is mostly confined to painting, sculpture, and those other arts that typically find their way into art museums. A few musicians have figured out how to cash in on the same market—the group Wu-Tang Clan, for example, has recorded at least one album of which there is only one copy in existence, for sale as an investment asset at a stratospheric price—and of course writers have been turning out expensive limited editions of their work for a long time now. No doubt other arts will get into the market before the fad runs its course.
The entire contemporary fixation on finding ways to store wealth, mind you, is a sign of serious economic dysfunction. In a healthy economy, people with money to spare put it into investments that produce wealth, and thus get a bigger share of the pie by helping make the pie larger. One of the bright red flashing lights warning of severe trouble in the modern industrial world is that in many countries—the US among them—the barriers to productive economic activity have risen so high that most investment money goes into unproductive assets instead. Instead of helping to produce wealth, these assets merely store it. More precisely, they store a notional claim on wealth, which may or may not be convertible into actual wealth when push comes to shove.
We’ll talk another time about how the barriers to productive economic activity got there and whose interests they serve. The point I want to make here is that in an economy such as ours, where people are trying to store wealth rather than produce it, anything that in theory will keep its value over the long term can be turned into an investment asset. That’s not simply a theoretical statement, either; right now, just about anything collectible that has a price worth noticing is being snapped up as an investment asset by somebody or other. My guess is that this entire process is following the familiar dynamics of a speculative bubble, and a vast amount of the modern art, antique furniture, old baseball trading cards, and other alleged stores of wealth will end up being worth far less than their current face value once the market for stores of wealth peaks and the panic selling begins; still, we’ll see.
Here again, though, I want to focus on the impact such shenanigans have on art. The Big Name Painter we discussed two weeks ago, who presides over an artistic sweatshop and does nothing to the paintings that are supposedly his but sign his name to them, is a successful manufacturer of investment vehicles, not an artist in any sense that matters. Even in terms of the definition discussed above, that of art as self-expression, he falls flat; the only thing being expressed by his artistic sweatshop is that memorable maxim of Ben Franklin’s about a fool and his money. There are plenty of other people busily expressing that same maxim, in and out of the arts scene; I admit to a certain preference for those who don’t pretend to be artists, as by and large they’re less pompous about their moneygrubbing than those who do.
Let’s move on to the third commonplace answer about the purpose of art. The first two are by and large found among professional artists, those who buy works by professional artists, and those who aspire to belong to one of these two categories. The third is found among those—the great majority these days—who have no interest in the highbrow world of artists and art critics, who don’t claim to know art, but simply know what they like. Their thesis, as often as not expressed in so many words, is that the purpose of art is to provide enjoyment to its audience.
That’s a theory of art that professional artists and their academic hangers-on love to denounce, but it’s honest, and it reflects a straightforward reality. Outside of the narrow confines of the fine-art industry and its clientele, most people who buy a painting do so because they think they will enjoy looking at it. The vast majority of people listen to the kinds of music they do, read the books they do, take in the plays and movies and other performances they do, because they enjoy these things. What’s more, they very often spend as much as they can afford on these things, and since they outnumber the clientele of the fine arts by myriads to one, their theory of art has serious economic consequences; a painting by a Big Name Painter costs a lot more than a cheap paperback novel, but only the highest echelon of Big Name Painters can count on equaling or exceeding the annual income of a reasonably successful author of popular novels.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the enjoyment theory of art is that it applies just as effectively to highbrow as to lowbrow art. There are, after all, indirect as well as direct means of enjoyment. The truck driver or waitress reading a trashy novel gets direct enjoyment out of it, and the same can be said of the very few readers these days who can honestly take in avant-garde literature for the pleasure of it. For those who can’t, though, avant-garde literature offers an indirect enjoyment, in that its readers can preen themselves on not being the kind of people who enjoy trashy novels. Snobbery is a source of enjoyment, after all, and a great many works of art these days are explicitly designed to provide serious snob value to their purchasers.
The difficulty with this theory is simply that it doesn’t explain enough. It’s an interesting fact of the history of the arts that many of the best creative and critical minds of modern times, people who had or have a keen enjoyment of the highest end of artistic creation, also have had a robust appetite for lowbrow trash. William Butler Yeats is a favorite example of mine: one of the greatest poets in the English language, and the winner of a well-deserved Nobel Prize in literature, he also delighted in cheap detective thrillers. I don’t think anyone has ever suggested that he valued them as much as he valued serious literature, or that he confused the two; he enjoyed them in different ways. More precisely, he got one kind of enjoyment from both of them, but a second kind of enjoyment out of the serious literature alone.
This isn’t an uncommon experience, and it happens to many readers as they get older. I’ll use myself as an example. As a boy and a young man, I adored trashy fantasy novels, and got a vast amount of enjoyment out of even the trashiest. (Lin Carter, I’m looking at you.) The literary end of the fantasy genre, by contrast, baffled me and left me cold. These days, after another thirty years of reading, the former is still true but the latter is not; I still delight in the trashy fantasy of my insufficiently misspent youth, but these days I can also take down a volume of E.R. Eddison’s Zimiamvian trilogy, say, and lose an evening in that very literary work of fantasy fiction. What’s more, I get something out of Eddison’s richly developed tale that I don’t get out of a volume of the adventures of Thongor of Lemuria.
Both stories give me the basic enjoyment I expect to get from good fiction—the temporary immersion in imaginary but vivid and interesting lives (i.e., there are characters) where the sequence of events makes sense (i.e., there’s a plot) and moves toward some kind of emotionally satisfying resolution (i.e., there’s a denouement). Both stories also give me the distinctive enjoyments that I expect to get from a fantasy novel—the sense of wonder, the delight in a rousing tale, the peculiar rush that comes from taking in an imaginary world where all the rules are different. Yet there’s something else present in the Eddison novel, something that’s present in the best fantasy novels—and also in the best of other kinds of literature—that’s simply not there in Lin Carter’s endearingly clunky retreads of the pulp-magazine fantasies of his youth.
What Eddison’s stories have and Carter’s lack, if I may slap a label on the experience and then go back and explain it, is a kind of mimesis.
Art is a means—the only one we’ve come up with so far, despite a vast amount of tinkering on the part of assorted mad scientists—of enabling one person to share, in some sense, in another person’s experience of the world. Think of the statue of Dainichi Nyorai, the Great Sun Buddha, we discussed two weeks ago. The unknown sculptor who carved it was almost certainly a Buddhist monk, and likely belonged to the Shingon school, one of the two branches of Japanese Buddhism that get into the mandalas and esoteric teachings most people these days associate with Tibet. His carving was an expression of the soaring spiritual vision at the heart of the Shingon school, the sense that this very world with all its follies and vices, just as it is, is the expression of the infinite enlightened consciousness symbolized by Dainichi Nyorai. Sit in front of the statue, open yourself to it, and you can sense something of what that unknown monk experienced in his meditations, reflected in the work of his hands. For a moment, you’re not limited to thinking your own thoughts—you can experience at least a dim echo of another’s.
Turn to the other example I cited two weeks ago, the Paris morning streetscape by Louise-Joséphine Sarazin de Belmont, and the same principle applies. There are plenty of paintings of Paris that are right down there with Lin Carter’s fantasy novels in their enthusiastic deployment of pre-chewed clichés, but this is not one of them. It’s not Paris seen through your eyes or the lens of a generic camera; it’s Paris as Sarazin de Belmont saw it that morning, gazing out through a window of the Louvre, watching a dog—not a generic dog, mind you, but that dog, at that moment—run out barking at that horse, seeing that sun through those hazy clouds, catching that one of the countless subtle moods of a Paris morning, and capturing it in paint on canvas.
The distinction between cliché and personal vision is also the difference between the two categories of fantasy mentioned above. Read a volume of Thongor of Lemuria and the thoughts that you’re experiencing are utterly familiar, the generic mindset of pulp fantasy, replayed in an endless loop with only the most minor variations. Read a volume of the Zimiamvian trilogy and the thoughts you’re experiencing are unique to Eddison. You get to see how someone else thinks and feels and experiences life. In the process, the range of thoughts you’re capable of thinking and feelings you’re able to experience gets expanded. That’s what I mean by mimesis: the experience of a work of genuine art guides you toward new ways of being in the world.
I don’t get that experience when I look at the bland, technically crude, utterly self-referential product of the current artistic avant-garde. Neither do the vast majority of people these days. It’s fashionable to insist that this is because the vast majority of people are incapable of appreciating real art, but let us please be real: until the last decades of the nineteenth century, that wasn’t the case anywhere in the western world. Painters, sculptors, composers, dramatists, poets, and other producers of fine arts had the kind of fandom that rock stars have today, because they turned out brilliant works that ordinary people could understand and appreciate.
That changed only when artists bought into the notion that you can tell how good an artwork is by the number of people it excludes. That’s when the visual arts fled from representational themes into abstraction, when avant-garde music abandoned tonality, when poets ditched rhyme and meter, and when the fine arts generally embraced the pursuit of deliberate ugliness as a central strategy. If your artwork’s supposed quality, and (more to the point) its chance of being approved by critics and snapped up by investors, depends on making sure that most people don’t like it, removing everything from art that makes it appeal to audiences—well, other than the snob value discussed earlier—is a great way to fake artistic genius.
Every pendulum has its return swing, though, and the movement back the other way is already taking shape. True to form, it’s not taking shape among the habitués of the art scene, who are still caught up in the trends just outlined. It’s taking shape elsewhere, among artists and audiences that have embraced the third definition discussed above—the idea that the point of art is to provide enjoyment to its audience—and who are moving in various ways toward the fourth definition, as artists in any number of popular media achieve the kind of personal vision that makes the experience of mimesis a source of delight for their audiences.
It’s safe to predict, in fact, that no one a century from now will remember the producers of the highbrow trash that currently clutters up art museums, conservatories, literary bookstores, and the like today. It’s safe to predict that, in turn, because we’ve been here before. Plenty of Oxford and Cambridge graduates wrote masques for the English upper classes in the sixteenth century; they’re forgotten by everyone but a few academic specialists, while William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, who wrote popular drama for the mass market, are still having their plays produced today. Many people alive today will recall “Oo, Those Awful Orcs,” the 1956 essay in which the immensely influential critic Edmund Wilson dismissed J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as “juvenile trash;” Wilson is all but forgotten today and the fantasy writer he preferred to Tolkien, James Branch Cabell, more thoroughly forgotten still, while Tolkien’s trilogy is on track to be remembered as one of the 20th century’s great works of literature.
Where the pendulum’s swing might lead is an interesting question, and one that circles back to themes I’ve been discussing on this and previous blogs for some time now. We’ll discuss it further in posts to come.
Meanwhile, with an eye toward moving from contemplation to action, I have the first of two new writing contests to announce. (The second will be announced in a couple of weeks.) The conversations that followed last week’s open post here revealed the fact that several regular readers and commenters are successful writers of romance fiction—the most unfairly despised of modern popular fiction genres—and I half-jokingly suggested an anthology combining that genre and the kind of deindustrial future explored in the four After Oil anthologies. I promptly fielded a flurry of requests from writers who wanted to submit stories, and so we’re going to do it.
Love in the Ruins will be an anthology of short fiction in the romance genre set in the kind of future we’re actually going to get—a future shaped by the slow decline and fall of industrial civilization, brought about by the depletion of the natural resources on which it depends and the disruption of the ecological systems on which it’s equally dependent. Space travel and the rest of the panoply of shiny new technologies with which people these days like to stock their imaginary futures? Forget about it. Instead, think economic contraction, the abandonment of high-end technologies, all the familiar processes through which civilizations slowly give way to dark ages and dark ages give way to the rise of successor cultures. (No, stories about apocalypse aren’t of interest either—those are just as hackneyed and unrealistic as the shopworn Star Trek fantasy of perpetual progress outward to the stars.)
In an age of decline and fall, or the ages of turmoil and rebuilding that come after it, people will still fall in love. That’s the basic theme of the romance genre: two people fall in love and, overcoming whatever obstacles stand in their way, live happily ever after. Stories accepted for this anthology will follow that basic outline. Please note that I’m not specifying genders or, for that matter, species for the two romantic leads; that’s up to you. Sex is fine, though please leave out the grunt-and-squirt sort of detail; if you want to do an old-fashioned romance where the curtain comes down as the protagonists kiss for the first time, that’s fine too.
I’m looking for fifteen or so short stories between 3,000 and 8,000 words, and will also include one or two novelettes of up to 15,000 words. I’m also looking for four to six poems, and it’s only fair to note that I’m seriously prejudiced in favor of short poems rather than long ones, and of old-fashioned poetic forms rather than shapeless free verse—write a sonnet, a villanelle, or something else that rhymes and scans elegantly and your chances of acceptance will go way up.
We’ll be using the same submissions method that worked so well with the After Oil anthologies. Once you’ve got your story written, post it on a free website and then make a comment on the most recent post of this blog, letting me and other readers know where they can read it. Payment will depend on the contract I work out with the publisher—yes, this is going to be published, and yes, it’s going to be a paying gig; I’ll post the details here as we work them out.
So get to work with the long sultry glances in crumbling cities and the feverish kisses in sheltered glades in the tropical jungles of 30th-century Pennsylvania. All submissions must be received by May 1, 2019.