Not the Monthly Post

What Is Art For?

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.


  1. John–

    Another purpose for art I’d like to suggest may at first appear to be a variant of the “self-expression” you first mentioned, though I’d argue that it is indeed distinct. Namely that artists are driven to create. Now, creating art that others fully enjoy and appreciate via the mimesis you describe certainly provides a positive feedback loop and also increases the chances that the art in question will be around for a good while, but I think there is an argument to be made that the sculptor sculpts because she cannot not-sculpt, the writer writes because the voices in his head demand that the stories be written (yes, I hear voices in my head, and yes, I’m learning to listen to them), the musician composes because the music must come out, the dancer dances because she must. Having an audience is useful, uplifting, and appreciated. But wonder if much that is truly artistic wouldn’t be created even if no one were watching…

  2. Just so you know, Love in the Ruins is the title of a Walker Percy novel. I’m assuming that this collection will be just as excellent of its kind as Percy’s novel is of its kind, so in the long run, this title is going to cause a lot of confusion. Then again, seeing as how the Percy novel is its own kind of postindustial future fiction — “after the car age” is how I think he put it — maybe using the same title will lead to fruitful cross-fertilizations.

  3. What is a window but sunlit portal?
    So the Arts exist on another plane,
    They can open to that beyond mortal
    Or show us much that is crude and insane
    But how shall I come to see this divide,
    Between these contrivances, good and ill?
    Must I rely on the feelings inside,
    To take me wandering where my heart wills?
    And then what is pleasure but a light caress
    Of Dame Venus so radiant and bright?
    And here we see the most important test –
    Does this window open to day or night?
    The Arts can communicate much divine
    Hither and thither flying mind to mind

  4. “SSV” seems an acronym worth establishing. Regarding mimesis, Tolkien had some words on it (On Fairy Stories) …

  5. JMG – I think there’s yet another factor at play in “what is art”, which is as a focus for social interaction. People arrange to meet for “dinner and a show“, because dinner alone either wouldn’t last long enough for good conversation, or wouldn’t be worth the risk of the conversation going badly. In my youth, I read some advice for catching fish in a small lake: “look for structure”. Whether it’s a dock, a wreck, or a flooded tree stump, fish prefer to hang around something other than open water. Similarly, people will gather around an artistic display (whether it’s acoustic or visual, whether it’s traditional or avant garde) as long as it’s novel enough. (By “novel enough”, I mean, it doesn’t need to be entirely new. A new exhibit of old paintings will do, as well as a live performance of old musical compositions.) Whether it endures for the ages or not, if it lubricates social interaction, it’s served its purpose.

    As I sit here, looking at a shelf of geraniums blooming in my west-facing bay window, I wonder whether the horticultural art may be useful, in the de-industrial future, to bring people together. The cash and technology demands are tiny, but a certain amount of labor and attention must be invested to get good results. (The ability to labor and to pay attention are desirable properties in a potential friend.) There is drama in what grows, and what withers. There is the opportunity for non-monetary trade, for those who can propagate their plants.

    At the high end of the art-industrial complex, acquisition (perhaps by commission) of expensive art is a signal that one has plenty of money. But it preserves some ambiguity, which a bare accounting exercise (“How much am I worth?”) would not. That is, when a $10 billion dollar account is compared to a $9 billion dollar account, it’s clear who is the “winner” and who is the “Loser”. But when one man endows the art museum, and the other the symphony, each can assure himself of superiority… on his own terms. (The quality of the art, or music, are of secondary importance.)

  6. I sat through a vivid illustration of the dilemma of contemporary artists last week. It was a concert of our local orchestra. The concert began with Emmanuel Ax performing Brahm’s Second Piano Concerto, which ended to a loud and delirious standing ovation from the audience, who insisted on at least three curtain calls. It ended with the orchestra playing a Dvorak symphony, which again produced a standing ovation and many curtain calls. In between, the orchestra premiered an 11 minute piece by a contemporary Canadian composer. Let’s be generous and call it a tone poem. It consisted of great swelling washes of tuneless noise. Imagine someone took a film score and inverted it. Something like that. The piece was met with polite applause and no curtain call, which was the more awkward as the composer came to the stage to take a bow. The orchestra’s music directors — because no one is a conductor anymore — have been trying to generate enthusiasm for this shapeless music for at least 50 years, and most of us still regard it as a penance. Still, I do feel sorry for the composer. If she hopes to have an academic career, which is the only reliable way to a salary, this is the kind of music she has to produce. And I blame teaching institutions as much as anyone else for their collusion in what amounts to a fraud.

  7. By chance, just a few days ago I was once again reading a fascinating short essay by someone named Thomas King Whipple, titled “Machinery, Magic and Art.” In it he writes:

    “Of late there has been some talk, and very interesting talk, too, about machines as works of art. Why not reverse the process, and look at works of art as machines? Such an identification of art and machinery is not unwarranted. In the beginning they were one and the same thing, they served the same single object, the gaining and ruling of power. This was in the days when they were both indistinguishable parts of primitive magic. As they have developed and differentiated, however, machinery has remained true to its original purpose, but specialized in handling only physical power. Art, on the other hand, which should specialize in conveying psychological power, has relinquished its office. Consequently, it finds itself in the doldrums, although it has vital work to do that can be done by no other agency. The world has urgent need of it; both the world and art would benefit if the arts could be persuaded to resume their original and proper business, to play once again the role they played in early magic.

    “The mention of magic ought not to be too surprising. It has long been recognized that in primitive magic lies a chief source of both science and art. Magic is the savage’s engineering, his technology. It is his effort to get command of power and direct it to his own purposes. By mimicry, incantation, and the other methods of magic he undertakes to control the wind and the rains, to induce fecundity in his tribe, to make his crops grow. Always he has in view, according to his lights, what Bacon foretold as the chief service of natural science, “the relief of man’s estate.” And it must be remembered that to him magic is in a sense not magic, and certainly not to be divided from science and art. To divert the waters of a stream to his cornfield, to sprinkle it with holy meal, and to make a song or a statue for the benefit of his grain are for him not only equally valid but similar means of attaining his end.”

    The entire essay can be found on-line here:

    It should be noted that Thomas King Whipple was a descendant of the old Rhode Island Whipples, who figure here and there in Lovecraft’s fiction, and thus he was distant kin to Lovecraft himself.

  8. James, of course! Titles are traditionally recycled — check out how many things have been titled “Love Among the Ruins” sometime. I plan on referencing Percy’s wry tale in the intro to the anthology.

    David, that’s an interesting question. For me, writing is an act of communication; if I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that nobody would ever read my essays or stories, I really doubt I’d be able to write them. Still, your mileage may vary.

    Vera, as I noted above to James, titles are traditionally recycled, and a good title that’s been around a while will typically have any number of books, poems, movies, TV show episodes, etc. carrying that name. “Love in the Ruins” is a fine title that deserves more use than it’s gotten, and of course there’ll be a nod to Percy’s novel in the intro.

    Violet, good. A little work on your iambic pentameter, and you’ve got a classic sonnet!

    S.T., “superior snob value”? As for Tolkien, he had a somewhat more theological sense of mimesis than the one I had in mind: “Man, sub-Creator, the refracted light” and all that. Still, it’s a fine essay and worth reading in this context.

    Lathechuck, good. There’s a brilliant and pleasantly strange science fiction novel, Wave Without a Shore by C.J. Cherryh, which among other things focuses on the way that an encounter with art creates a space within which people (human or otherwise) can interact, so your point’s well taken.

    Auntlili, I really feel sorry for the composer. He’s been taught that real music, the kind that a real composer should compose, ought to avoid at all costs everything that makes music appeal to its listeners. Then his music fails to appeal to its listeners, and he has no way to make sense of that — or to do the one thing that would help, which is to scrap what he’s been taught, return to tonality and classic harmony, and compose things that actually communicate something to someone other than himself.

    The irony is that I’ve been dealing with exactly this issue in the novel I’m currently writing, from the other end of things — my main (human) character is a young composer whose inspiration comes from baroque music, who writes new pieces in the classic baroque forms, and who comes in for all kinds of crap from critics and the music world because she’s not writing self-referential noise.

  9. Dear John Michael Greer,

    Thank you for this surprising and insightful post.

    My own favorite anecdote about the art world is of Siri the elephant’s paintings which received, from those unaware of their origin, high praise from high quarters in the NYC art world. I believe this was back in the 50s or maybe 60s. Anyone interested can Google it up.

    In recent years someone got the idea to raise money for elephant rescue by training their charges to handle a brush and paint a canvas a la Siri. I actually bought one, since I thought it good to support this elephant rescue organization, and it amused me. I had mine beautifully framed and hung it in the powder room. If I do say so myself it looks rather like a de Kooning, but bolder! Like a Pollack, but brighter! It makes me smile. By Jumbo, everything I put in my house serves me and/or makes me happy or else, out it goes.

    I shall be very interested to read what you have to say about productive investment.


  10. You gotta hand it to Duchamp though. Getting hundreds of people to gawk at a urinal and contemplate it as serious art, even getting people to pay big bucks to do so, is one heck of a prank. Abstract art works fine as a deconstruction of the concept of art, the problem arises when abstract art is all you’ve got. Postmodernism only works when it has something to critique, because it offers no meaning of its own. Left with only itself to reflect on and you get a mushy puddle of meaninglessness. Everything is right and everything is wrong. Everything is art and nothing is art. Like dividing zero by zero.

  11. Robert, good heavens — thanks for this.

    Millicently, you’re welcome. I understand that these days artworks by gorillas and chimps are being sold as such, for high prices, to collectors of fine art. I suppose that’s taking art brut to its logical extreme…

    Spiceisnice, oh, as a put-on artist Duchamp was supreme — I don’t think even Warhol equaled him in his ability to pull one over on the critics and the art scene. It’s just that somewhere in there, something called “art” got misplaced!

  12. JMG,

    Another thoughtful essay. I thank you for this weekly entertainment and challenge of contemplation that Ecosophia offers. In some respects is art also a mimesis of the age in which it is produced? And if so, is some of the modern art that fails to produce any sort of emotion in the viewer a reflection of the void of enchantment of modern industrial society? I’m thinking of course also of the barbarism of reflection and the flight towards abstraction. I look forward to your thoughts on where art is headed.

  13. Speaking as a ‘starving artist’ with a Master’s degree in my field, and thus a more than passing familiarity with what high-falutin’ university professors tell their students about this question (most of them are extremely confused and don’t have any sort of proper answer)… I think there is a middle-ground. Between your first two answers and your third, that is. This is my own, personal definition:

    “Art is a convoluted form of communication, either to others or to oneself”

    Communication doesn’t have to be enjoyable, but someone does need to understand it (even if that someone is simply yourself a month later; some art is simply akin to writing “notes to oneself” in a journal. Except instead of using words and sentences, you are stylizing your brain’s processing of the environment into images or sounds or whatever else).

    I see that you later write “Art is a means […] of enabling one person to share, in some sense, in another person’s experience of the world”. I very much agree with this; but I would say that that’s the PRIMARY definition, not an expansion of the “enjoyment” one. I can accept that something is art, but fail to enjoy it utterly (for example, because I really dislike the type of thinking that it’s allowing me to temporarily experience).

    Looking through my 8-year-old notes on the matter, when I was trying to figure this stuff out, I also wrote the following:

    “All art is representative. As it becomes more stylized/abstract, the possibilities for what it is representing broaden, introducing an element of uncertainty that can be attractive as it leaves room for imagination. Taken too far, it becomes incoherent.”

    Since you’re an author and thus more familiar with words, a good example of the above process would be “Finnegans Wake”. There is a minority for whom Joyce’s abstraction and the multiple ways that each sentence in his text can be interpreted makes for an absolutely exhilarating experience. For most people, though (those who don’t know multiple languages and don’t have huge amounts of patience), his book is largely incoherent and unenjoyable.

    With visual art, the process is pretty self-explanatory. A technical drawing is just boring. A realistic drawing in which there is some action or concept that’s happening outside the frame, or before/after what’s being shown, and thus has to be imagined on one’s own, can be more interesting for the viewer. More stylized images as in Picasso, religious iconography, Chagall… can be even more interesting, or become incomprehensible. Sometimes only the visual aesthetics are left, a rather “musical” way of enjoying visual art, and that’s not enough for many people…

    As for music, in music from around the world, you see imitations of people’s environment (bird calls, wind sounds…) and imitations of their own speech and sounds of emotion (the wailing of the Klezmorim’s clarinet, the aggressive grunts in African circle dance, the traffic noises in Gershwin’s “American in Paris”). True, a higher percentage of music than other arts is about intuitively-felt mathematical relationships. As a musician, it’s easy to get lost in that fact (and e.g. try to quantify everything like the Second Viennese School… or play aimless jazz solos that are technically brilliant but go nowhere and say nothing). But in the most-loved music, those other things tend to be present as well. Or lyrics, of course.

    Re: the second version, “art exists to produce assets for investment”…
    Yes, this is the underlying assumption not only among the rich investment class, but is also unfortunately the main way that our government (in Canada) justifies spending public money on the arts to taxpayers (“they’re a big and growing part of our economy!”). As if that was actually art’s main purpose and the primary way that the effect of community spending on the arts is to be measured…
    One of my favourite artists, animator Nina Paley, poked fun at the whole thing by making a huge quilt of a $10,000 bill, and pricing it at $10,000:

    Of course, the economy is not the point with arts (with communication). It is never the main point. On a nation-state level, I suppose the point might be to Export Certain Cultural Values for Make Benefit Imperialist Project 😉 (the job of Hollywood). Or internally, to foster social harmony (the charitable analysis) or foster conformity to the power structures (the non-charitable analysis). In either case, money would not be the main metric of effectiveness.

  14. I believe you missed the propaganda value of art, as another commonplace for the same elites who view art as an investment. Furthermore, this idea is quite old. Look at how the Venetians decorated St. Mark’s with the plunder of Byzantium.
    Art has always formed an important part of the hegemonic strategies of elites, and thus, I do not agree that you can expect to see some kind of “swinging of the pendulum.” What changes are the elite ideologies that reflect different realities, not the way that elites use art. As long as there are elites, there will be art that exists for the purposes of propaganda and investment. If that art is really stupid and ugly–perhaps that says more about the current crop of elites than it says about the work of artists.
    But here’s the thing: you can’t actually say anything about the quality of art based on the fact that elites use art for investment and propaganda. Plenty of fantastic art has been produced under a system of elite patronage–works produced by Beethoven and Mozart come to mind immediately.
    As an artist (composer) myself, I would suggest that great artists attempts to create artwork that (1) is well crafted, and attempts to rise to the standards set by previous great artworks, (2) pleases the individual artist (such enjoyment is POTENTIALLY but not necessarily actually universal), and (3) fits into the current marketplace, if the work is intended to be sold. Regarding point 3, a fairly universal pattern is that artists make a mix of work, some of which is more commercial, and some of which is made for more personal reasons. Great composers like Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven all did this. Likewise, we see a similar pattern if we look at the catalog of the great jazz saxophonist and band leader John Coltrane.
    The idea that art should be enjoyable is fine as far as it goes, but for me it raises more questions than it answers. Quite frankly, to be a good artists requires elite skills that change the way the artist perceives art. A highly trained and skilled artist cannot experience and enjoy art the same way that a person with no skill and training experiences art. In other words, all highly skilled artists are BY DEFINITION part of an elite. But it often happens that by making “elitist” music, great works with a wide appeal have been created. Again, I would suggest that the music of Bach, Mozart, and also Coltrane, all follow this model. At the same time, all this music intuitively follows principles found in nature, mathematically it is all quite fractal and scientists have now even measured those fractal patterns, and so there is a universal aspect to the music that is not merely arbitrary, but neither is it rooted in some speculative intellectual concept of what other people will enjoy. It is actually rooted in the physics of sound combined with the universal psychoacoustic experience of sound that humans have.
    Anyway, from the viewpoint of an individual artist, I believe that if one holds to high standards, and attempts to make work that meets those standards, than it is reasonable to assume that such work might also be enjoyable and have value for other individuals. The key determinant here will be the artist’s choice of models, and the artist’s sensitivity to art, powers of vision, and powers of perception. Another key is the ability to intuitively grasp the underlying universal principles that make artworks pleasing, principles which can be found across disciplines not only in books like Doczi’s The Power of Limits, but also in The Mathematical Basis of the Arts by composer Joseph Schillinger or A Theory of Architecture by phycisist/mathematician/architect Nikos Salingaros.

  15. So to dumb down the definition of what art is for, because mine is a simple mind.. art basically is a vehicle through which people can connect with the real emotions and experiences of the artist?

    I’ve always been attracted to poetry. As a youth, I enjoyed writing my own free verse, and attempts at making verse which rhymed and had some meter. I still do to this day. But I don’t share it with others, or expect some payment for my silly expressions. Insisting on money for that crap feels like extortion. It’s one of the reasons I haven’t bothered with much modern “poetry.” Some years ago as I was learning about modern druidry I stumbled upon some who praised a young woman in her writing ambitions, giving raving reviews of her excellent prose and poetry. I felt I’d support her, and get a new book. It was garbage. I don’t know where the book is now. And I’d rather find other uses for $10-$20. There’s a lot more artistic expression I can relate to in a bottle for that price than much of the modern art, literature, and poetry provides.

    On another note, it seems hopeful that there are people in touch with the reality of emotions many have had about the lack of jobs and opportunities for our youth, and how a college education isn’t needed for all.

  16. While I agree with John Michael about the quality of much conceptual art, I’d like to suggest a different reason that his elitist explanation. A strong strain in the modernist movement is minimalism. Artists, to understand what art is, eliminate traditional elements and see if it’s still art. Becket removed plot, and Waiting for Godot still seemed to be art. Albee removed sympathetic characters and most plot, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is still riveting. Nabokov made his hero a pedophile, and Lolita is still widely read. Conceptual art has removed craft and replaced it only with concept. To me, that goes too far; I like a few conceptual pieces but by and large not. Minimalist art can easily seem cold, because some of the traditional elements are missing. When it works, it can be almost religious.
    John Michael loved trashy fantasy novels as a boy, and still loves them, but now appreciates more literary fantasy. That’s natural. Boys don’t understand much but men do, and men can like books that say things boys don’t understand. For example, reveling in that specific dog barking at that specific horse, is not something that boys generally do. Both the boy and the man are right, each enjoying a story that has been carefully crafted for their enjoyment.

  17. I recognize art being a representation of all that is powerfully present.

    ○ In ancient times it was rather a representation of one personality, as well as ones status in society plus the roaming of the divine.

    ○ After the renaissance there was added the representation of ideas.

    ○ After the first world war there was an urge to represent the brokenness and ambivalence of life.

    ○ While I guess that representation of exclusiveness and an inflating need for collecting valuables became very strong after we hit the wall of the limits of growth. Since then those fake run for cornucopian good accumulation is increasingly represented by art the way you describe it.

    So, while I agree with you display of contemporary art, I see art differentiatedly through times. Also the old ways of art are still there in certain areas.

    And most of all, I am sure, they are the ones who will prevail!

  18. @Lathechuck, on horticulture: I’d definitely believe it! As a frequent reader of between-the-wars British comedy novels, I can testify that the interpersonal drama about gardening was apparently vast and multiformed at some point, and the interpersonal drama with *gardeners* second only to that involving cooks. Wodehouse wrote a number of short stories featuring Lord Emsworth either in conflict with his brilliant but stubborn Scottish gardener about roses and/or moss-lined paths, absorbed in rivalry with his neighbor over whose pumpkin would take an agricultural prize, or both.

  19. @ Violet, JMG, et alia

    ‘Cuz it ain’t all iambic pentameter, ya know 😉

    Rhyme and Meter,
    jewels indeed! Though
    I’d still champion
    Image, bright and
    warm, like summer’s
    dance or winter’s
    wine, as equal
    heir and claimant.

  20. “Ten, eleven, twelf I see
    Swordplay, sinews and grammarie…”
    Those lines have stayed in my mind since I read Eddison half a century hence.

    Art is grammarie: it has the power to change consciousness by will. The soaring of your spirit with the Fanfare for the Common Man is magic; helping a drunken Terry Lennox when his wife abandons him is magic; watching the light flicker across the leaves in Magritte’s Empire of Lights is magic. Grammarie indeed.

    Barnaby Evans was inspired to create WaterFire by the movement of art to an exclusive insider’s game. One encounter Evans loves to recount : he was thanked by a guy who said it was the first time his entire family had enjoyed something together from start to finish: the family always took two cars, because someone would always provoke a fight and leave in a huff. The man ended by saying: “…it’s like art, or something.”: he had learned the lesson that Art is not for regular people. WaterFire’s enduring popularity is precisely because everyone can like it, and it is proven by being as successful in the rust belt town of Sharon, PA as the university town of Providence.

  21. I forgot to mention: Whipple’s 1931 essay on “Machinery, Magic and Art” was reprinted in a modest posthumous collection of his essays titled Study Out the Land (1943). Other essays in this volume play with the notion that the land itself necessarily has a strong impact on the psychology of those who settle in it, including recent immigrants from the East Coast. He comes rather close to Jung’s insights on the same theme. (I originally bought a second-hand copy because of Whipple’s remarks on home-grown Californian nature religion or pantheism. But I found the entire book well worth my while.)

    The entire volume can be downloaded as a PDF or as text from

  22. David, by the Lake,
    And Violet too, if I may,
    Let’s fill this forum,
    With poems, both wonderful,
    And, if need be, trash!

  23. Dear JMG,

    Is it possible you could create an ever-running post here on ecosophia where we can display our artwork? Kind of like an online gallery. You could be the curator; all the art for the ecosophia gallery would be approved by you. It could run just like the comment section on any regular post. And you could mandate a theme for the artwork submitted each month.

    Maybe you would only chose to display 10 or so of your favorite submissions. We’re not all Davinci or Monet. But it’ll interesting to see what us mortals can come up with. Perhaps these paintings could be turned into a comic book anthology at some point. “Images from the Long Descent” perhaps.

  24. JMG,

    As I’m sure will be come clear this week, I’m fond of haiku and other syllabic poetry, so would that be a format you’re interested in for the contest?


    That’s might be of interest concerning art world turning into vehicle for investments. The author of the study over half million artist and the clear pattern emerges that the fine art world is more winner-take-all than Silicon Valley: six New York institutions—the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Gagosian and Pace galleries, the Met, and the Whitney—and one Chicago’s the Art Institute, dominate the space more decisevly than Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft dominate digital economy.

    ” It was devastating to unfold this map. Ninety-nine percent of all institutions scored low and there was only one route to success. If an artist was not part of the central hub, he or she was stuck in an island network, where only limited success is achievable and probability is low to ever cross the bridge to the mainland. No more than 240 artists who began exhibiting in an island were able to enter the central hub. That’s 240 of 500,000.”

    The other thing that come to my mind is that the art is not only a store for value, but probably a way to launder money at large scale for the uber-wealthy. I mean, it’s hard to imagine a business more custom-made for money laundering, with million-dollar sales conducted in secrecy and with virtually no oversight. And when I write “custom-made” I can bet that those loopholes that appear closely with better and better oversight over all other transactions are not coincidence.

  26. Very interesting stuff, as usual. A few stray thoughts from the somewhat academic perspective of a semi-professional thinker-about-books:

    – It seems to me that real distinctions can be made, even among the most abstruse and “non-representational” paintings. Following the thinking in your post, I would say that Pollock might be interesting to look at once, and Duchamp’s art-jokes were also interesting once, but that kind of interest – novelty and/or cleverness, mostly – runs its course quickly. Whereas Rothko, for instance, has something else, some hard to articulate depths that aim at the sacred, or the universal, or something like that. But when I am pressed on this distinction eventually everything boils down to taste…

    – Speaking of taste, I feel Edmund Wilson stands in need of defense here. While he may have been wrong about The Lord of the Rings (although the books aren’t to my taste, mostly for the reasons he outlined), he wrote many wonderful things, and grappled honestly with very thorny questions of taste and authority and aesthetics. And he was not a lover of difficulty for its own sake. He disliked Ulysses and Wallace Stevens, among other things. And To the Finland Station is a great. And he teaches one how to love Henry James (since, for some pleasures, education is required). And if he is due to be forgotten, well, how many literary critics are remembered?

  27. Mike, of course! A society that plunges into the barbarism of reflection and the flight to abstraction will reliably produce art that is both barbarous and abstract.

    Esn, I’ll agree that art is (or can be) communication, but I think you may have an overly narrow idea of the potentials for enjoyment. Just as bitter flavors can be enjoyable in the right context, a work of art doesn’t have to be pleasant to be enjoyable. Equally, pop-culture potboilers are works of mimesis just as much as fine art — it depends solely on how uniquely personal you like your vicarious experience.

    Cyborgk, yes, I’m aware of the political dimension of art; to my mind it’s very closely related to the economic dimension I discussed (wealth and power being usually pretty close to interchangeable). Of course artists of all kinds vary their works, making some more commercial and others more in keeping with their own interests — I do that myself, for what it’s worth. That said, I think there are issues with the present-day art scene that go beyond that — again, the deliberate cult of ugliness, the express avoidance of those structures that make a work of art comprehensible (in Western music, for example, tonality and harmony) as a way to deliberately exclude all but the cognoscenti — those are features that occur now and again in the history of the arts, and pretty consistently result in sterile art that is promptly forgotten. (When’s the last time you heard music from an opera seria that wasn’t by Mozart, for example?)

    Prizm, that’s one way to think about mimesis. Exactly what you share varies from art form to art form; in music, it’s pretty much pure emotion; in many kinds of visual art, it ranges from there to direct experience; in literature, thoughts as well as feelings get a look in. As for poetry, to my mind that’s the most bastardized of the modern arts, and most of what gets published as poetry these days isn’t worth lining a birdcage with — the poor bird! This is all the more poignant in that we used to have a very rich poetic tradition in English, and it’s been almost entirely chucked in favor of the kind of word salad that makes scrambled eggs look tightly structured.

    Terry, ah, but what was it that made minimalism fashionable? For a thousand years of Western painting, painters had the technical capacity to paint, say, a white canvas with a blue square on it. They didn’t, because other things interested them more. What drove the flight toward miminalism, the process of throwing out more and more of the things that make art enjoyable? I’d argue that it’s precisely the cult of elitism I’ve outlined. I’d also suggest that Waiting for Godot worked solely because it could riff off the expectation that a plot would come up someday; in its wake, there were a vast number of similarly plotless dramas, which have been swallowed up in merciful oblivion. There are a lot of gimmicks that work once by contrast with existing structures; when the structures go away, the gimmick no longer means anything.

    Hubertus, of course art changes over time, and it also changes from culture to culture — a point that Spengler makes with his usual incisiveness. I also suspect you’re quite right that older and less meretricious art traditions will indeed be around when the current flight from enjoyment has been utterly forgotten.

    David, of course there are other ways to write poetry. I simply have my prejudices!

    Peter, excellent. “He that would sup of the crab of Witchland must deal with the nippers ere he essay the shell!” To my mind WaterFire has set up shop somewhere in the overlap between art and ritual, which is another of its sources of strength.

    Robert, and thanks again for this. Clearly I need to read Whipple.

  28. Well, I’m only a couple of paragraphs in, but the only purpose for art that I can think of is to produce beauty.

  29. One definition of art I like is related to, but not the same as, your #4–“Art is a means…of enabling one person to share.. in another person’s experience of the world.” That definition is “an artist sees what everyone sees, and notices what no one notices–and makes it so others can notice it also.”

    I would suggest another role for art–not a definition, but a use of it. Art is frequently related to worship: think for example of the Athena Parthenos, or of Chartres Cathedral. And it’s not just display–although there’s an element of display; it’s not just representation–although there’s an element of representation. Somehow, some kinds of religious art make the world the kind of place where the gods are more present.

  30. Gordon, I hope she can handle the challenges that face any child prodigy. To my mind, her work, and the work of other neoclassical composers, are the last hope the classic tradition of Western music has left.

    Will, keep ’em on topic, please — and if they set off my Vogon detector, my pet black hole Fido will gobble ’em up and belch.

    Gallery, hmm. I’ll have to ponder that.

    Will, I’m willing to consider anything; I simply stated my prejudices.

    Changeling, that’s an excellent point. Yet another reason for artists to focus on those forms and media that can be sold to ordinary human beings rather than institutions.

    Adam, I’m certainly not saying that abstraction is bad. I pointed out last week that abstraction is a good way to avoid taking risks, if that’s what you want to do; I pointed out this week that abstraction is also a good way to make sure your work isn’t popular, if that’s what you want to do; but there are other uses for abstraction. That said, I’m more impressed by visual artists who do representational art and still achieve the “depths that aim at the sacred” or what have you. As for Wilson, I didn’t say he wasn’t worth reading; I said that he’s been mostly forgotten, which of course is not at all the same thing. I find him abrasive and annoying, but To the Finland Station was worth reading (and worth arguing with), especially when set side by side with the more impressive Fire in the Minds of Men by James Billington.

  31. More generally on art: Stephen King once described writing as a form of telepathy, and I think this makes sense for art on a broader level, as people have mentioned above. The thing is that, ideally, artists communicate more than their own opinions or perspective or life, because the balance between general and specific is really important. Draw too much and too blatantly from your specific experience, and you run the risk of your audience feeling like you’re trying to use the work as a soapbox or them as a therapy group, neither of which most of us like. (King himself slipped that way for a few years, when every book he wrote had a major character involved in an accident with an auto–“Did you hear that he got hit by a van? Because he…might have mentioned it once. Or twice. A YEAR,” was a rough paraphrase of readers’ reactions. Likewise, most people who watch TV know that Joss Whedon has Daddy Issues and Aaron Sorkin was once dumped by a blonde Christian woman and we kind of hate them every time they bring it up.)

    That’s also where the too-personal type of avant-garde art goes awry. Your poem or novel or interpretive dance or whatever may express your feelings really well, to you, but…nobody else actually cares about your feelings. (Modulo your friends or your parents, and even they are probably tired of hearing about your failed marriage after a year or so, JOHN UPDIKE, God.) Either an artist learns how to transform their feelings/experience/opinions into a form that the larger world can connect with, they remain writing for themselves, or they figure out how to tap into the exclusion/snob appeal thing and cast their inability to connect as Incomprehensible Genius. (A fourth possibility is that, by accident, their narrow focus happens to hit the right note for its cultural time and place, which says nothing necessarily good about the note in question: the popularity of Twilight and the Da Vinci Code*, and the number of eminently punchable young men who identify deeply with Holden Caufield, are good examples.)

    I would also nominate “incomprehensibility” or some similar as a defining feature of the more pretentious sort of art or art criticism–not only or even necessarily in the work itself, but in the creation and structure. I recall an acquaintance elseboard objecting to a website that categorized fictional tropes because “you’re hurting Art!” and I nearly rolled my eyes out of my head. Likewise, there was at least one girl in a college class who took distinct issue with Poe’s essay on poetry because poetry shouldn’t follow rules, it should be spontaneous and come from the heart and blah blah blah. (For a crowd as disdainful of happy endings or functional characters as the Serious Art people are, they’re certainly a rather precious bunch.**) I don’t think good art requires the creator to know how it got there or plan it in advance, necessarily, but I think an analysis familiar with the subject and techniques should be able to see how it works; honestly, that’s part of the fun.

    * I like pulp quite well myself, and I write romance, but Meyers and Brown fail wildly on the level of basic craftsmanship.
    **There was a New Yorker column on “well, romance seems harmless enough, but” a while back, which was insufferable, and I recall some discussion on Romance Twitter to the effect that, if someone actually convinced those people that brooding and navel-gazing and suburban nihilism are just as much emotions as love and happiness, they might have to take to couches with smelling salts.

  32. My mom always had Robert Frost sitting around as I was growing up. Later, in my first serious relationships, my partner confessed to reading Frost in the middle of the night when she couldn’t sleep. I found him in school textbooks and many other places one looked. He may not be one of the most eloquent of poets, but his sense of land and spirituality found a connecting thread amongst many Americans, and he did it in a way which had nice rhythm and rhyme. Since then, I’ve had enjoyable moments sharing “Evening in a Sugar Orchard” while staring up at the stars, or “Mending Wall” when doing physical work around the yard with family or friends, or “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” as days when the snow is falling, such as this one.

  33. Thank you for another great post! I would also like to suggest another great read: The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe. What a hoot! Highly recommended for those who are moving to New Yawk to do their art. As for your story contest, I’ve never written a romance story, but was immediately inspired when I learned there was a happy buck to be made and have just finished the first draft: “It was a dark and stormy night over the ruins but Oh God he was handsome devil she thought as she tumbled gurgling into bed.”
    (Okay, I’ll work on it.)

  34. I agree with petervanerp – a major function of art is as a tool for changing people’s minds. The best art opens people’s minds up to new ways of seeing the world, ways of seeing that empowers them or somehow brings out the best in them. Wretched art is degrading, contracts people’s minds to their worst dark corners.

  35. @JMG

    Re poetries and prejudices

    Granted! I’ve just always thought the trochee to be rather underappreciated, plus I’m an imagist at heart.

    @Will J (& @Violet, et al.)

    Consider, sir,
    the gauntlet cast
    upon the ground.
    To him (or her)
    who’s standing last
    goes great renown!

  36. JMG,

    Regarding the deindustrial romance story, is there a set limit as to what time period the story must take place in? Is something within the near future acceptable? Or should it be out in years more, say 50 years or greater?

  37. “Nabokov made his hero a pedophile, and Lolita is still widely read. ”

    That must be because Lolita is stunningly written, almost poetry.

  38. Tangentially related to this week’s post, quite relevant re: JMG’s predictions about the future of the Internet, and very relevant to those of us in the commentariat who like disaster rubbernecking and popcorn shares: Tumblr is committing seppuku as we speak, and it’s a spectacle we haven’t seen since Digg collapsed in favor of Reddit.

    The basics of the situation for people out of the loop: Tumblr has a number of communities – I pay attention mostly due to a group of people usually referred to as “rat-adjacents”, who are influenced by the LessWrong Rationalists but not part of them proper – but it’s best known for fandoms, LGBT issues, and being roughly to the idpol left what 4chan is to the Alt-Right. The fandom part is the tangential relation to the theme of this: fandom in general and fanworks in particular might just be the single strongest bastion of what JMG is calling art for the sake of mimesis. (Which makes sense: fanwork by its nature has less payoff for the non-mimetic reasons for making art.) Critically, that includes NSFW material. Also critically, smut (at least of the visual kind) is a paying market, and Tumblr had low barriers to entry, so you had a swath of semi-amateur artists who either learned to draw/paint because they wanted to represent their own fantasies and then found that there’s a paying market or realized that they could draw smut to pay the bills while they worked on more normal art.

    Into this mix, add two things: bad actors (in this case, on top of the usual pornbot infestation, apparently some people *were* running a child trafficking ring through Tumblr, and Tumblr’s staff proceeded to not do anything until the feds finally got involved) and a bunch of trends that have been predictable for ages by anyone who’s either familiar with the history of past communication revolutions or read the relevant post back on the ADR. For the latter case, file “existing authorities and now-established tech giants moving to bring the Web under control (using moral issues as a crowbar)” and “both now-respectable tech companies and advertisers not wanting to be associated with something unrespectable like smut”.

    So Tumblr’s staff took the move you’d expect during the “clean everything up to bourgeois respectability” phase and banned NSFW material, coupled with a new filter to block inappropriate content.

    Unfortunately for them, there’s three problems with the usual move:
    1) Tumblr’s staff is notoriously incompetent (this was actually something of a selling point in the right circles, because said incompetence meant Tumblr was less likely to pull off the Skinner boxing effects of Facebook/Google); true to form, they botched both the announcement (“female-presenting nipples” looks like it’s going to be a full-fledged meme in short order) and the content filter (probably a poorly-trained machine learning algorithm; the emblematic result here is Tumblr flagging a picture of their owning corporation’s stock price drop after the announcement).
    2) Tumblr has a heavy LGBT presence, and for some strange reason that couldn’t possibly have anything to do with LGBT eating the brunt of past decency campaigns the LGBT community in general and its older members in particular are really wary of decency purges.
    3) Tumblr has a heavy fandom presence, and fandom is not just skittish around decency purges but has a track record of up and moving in response to them – they’ve done it twice in the last 20 years.. Ironically, the second such move is why Tumblr had a heavy fandom presence in the first place (LiveJournal was the big fandom site before that); it’s also the reason Dreamwidth exists.

    Net result: it looks suspiciously like Tumblr just nuked their own userbase!

    There’s one last sparrow in this story, and it’s the most important one: If this report is accurate (yes, Vox, but I recognize the author and she’s relatively likely to be credible – she’s a full-fledged Effective Altruist, and I’d expect the EAs to be more patched-in than most when it comes to Silicon Valley happenings) then the primary cause of this was a push to make Tumblr profitable… which suggests to me that Silicon Valley’s venture capital funding is starting to dry up. (Somebody more patched into the 4chan ecosystem than I am claims that 4chan is trying to split its SFW sections onto a separate 4channel site, which would also be consistent with a push to make sites more advertiser-friendly.)

    If that’s the case, the next tech bust should hit sooner rather than later. (Astrology suggests first half of next year, given Saturn in the fifth house of next year’s Aries ingress [along with Pluto] ruling the fifth and conjunct the fifth house cusp? If so there might be some stabilization in the second half of the year, when Saturn [and Pluto] are still in the fifth house but trade off rulership to Jupiter in the fourth conjunct the fifth house cusp.)

  39. @JMG
    I can certainly enjoy sad things, too. I come from Russia, after all; that’s pretty much a given. 😉 On the other hand, can you honestly say that you enjoy ALL art? (that is what your definition seems to be implying)

    Yes, I know exactly what you’re talking about. They tried to get me too, but failed (fortunately I discovered cymatics, among other things, so their mantras of “all music is entirely subjective” did not ring true). The problem is that the old musical theories don’t fully explain all the scales and harmonies of music from around the world that has been discovered and become widely-known in the West in the past century (various Arabic scales, gamelan tunings, and others). Also, equal temperament tuning has made it difficult to discover and appreciate the foundations.

    This has made most academics currently in the field just throw up their hands and exclaim “we can’t figure it out, so it must all be relative!”. Academy-trained composers accept this lack-of-theory, and it is the direct reason for the modernist mess you heard at the symphony. The field is absolutely begging for a new synthesis. I hope that once that happens, the quality of modern composers will improve as well.

    Unlike JMG, I don’t think it’s possible to simply go back to the 19th century. There really does need to be a new synthesis that will include the other tunings from around the world as well. One approach that looks promising is William A. Sethares’ book “Tuning, Timbre, Spectrum, Scale”.

    More or less. Just like verbal or written speech is, but more convoluted. I forgot to mention, a great visual vignette about how art is a convoluted form of communication that resonated with me is Winston Rowntree’s “Sand Witch”:

    @David, by the lake
    Yes, I thought of that; that’s why my definition specifically included that the communication can be “to oneself, in the future”. Many artists create in solitude and for themselves, after all. Year-from-now-you is not the same person as today-you, and might appreciate the communication from past-you. If you have multiple personalities, it can be even more useful. 🙂

    This is a good point. I have noticed that the local Portuguese “carnaval” (folk theatre) traditions are specifically structured in such a way that the entire community of all ages has an excuse to be next to each other and interact as a multiple-generation group. The tunes are catchy, the dancing steps (for most dancers) are not too complicated or physically-taxing. It is not a process that’s made for “efficient use of time and resources”, but it seems extremely effective at building trust, relationships, and passing codes of behaviour between generations. For communities (humans as well as other animals, I gather), that seems really important.

    In cases like that, it’s still often possible to separate the art on display from the context, but you do lose quite a lot… I guess that’s what they call “decontextualization”. It allows some of us to focus more attention on the “artwork” without being distracted by the surroundings, like listening to a Renaissance mass on CD… but what this hides is that for a lot of the audience of some particular artforms, that form of art only makes sense in a certain context, and they won’t listen to it on its own (or if they do, it’s mainly because it triggers good memories).

    Yes, I come from a Soviet background, so I’m quite familiar with the propaganda element (which I mention in my previous post). Unlike most people in the West, I really do think that there is a prominent positive side as well, when the explicit goal is creating works for social harmony. The general quality of art created in the Soviet Union, even with the censorship (worse in some periods than in others), is almost universally acknowledged to be higher than that which prevails in modern Russia, particularly in fields which require a lot of organization & money (film, theatre, ballet). Many of the brilliant works which came out of that system could not have been created under capitalist conditions (for example, Tarkovsky’s films), and indeed, many of the best artists found that they could not continue to work in the 1990s. Candy is very profitable. Under capitalism, a lot of art is the equivalent of candy – bright and flashy, but bad for you and not at all nourishing. The drive for profitability can be, and often is, even more debilitating and soul-crushing for an artist than ideological and thematic requirements (which are there in both systems, in any case).

    Also, thanks for your book recommendations. I myself recommend Wooden Books’ “Quadrivium”, Maria Renold’s “Intervals, Scales, Tones And the Concert Pitch C = 128 Hz”, Graham H. Jackson’s “The Spiritual Basis of Musical Harmony”, the William A. Sethares book I mentioned above, and for a practical grounder, Bart Hopkin’s “Musical Instrument Design”.

    @Terry Brennan
    Funny, I always thought that modern artists love minimalism so much because it means they don’t have to work as much!

    Personally, I quite appreciate a good dose of maximalism…

    @Hubertus Hauger
    What it communicates has indeed changed over time… though that too can fall under my “convoluted communication” definition. The very beginnings of art are a rather interesting subject, probably intimately tied to the emergence of consciousness in modern man. Two of the most interesting books I’ve read that deal with the matter are Graham Hancock’s “Supernatural” (in which he posits, with quite a lot of evidence backing him up, that its emergence was sparked by drug-induced hallucinogenic visions, which had to be represented somehow because nobody else could see them… though the last half of the book is less convincing), and James Joyce’s “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”.

  40. To all and sundry 🙂

    Of what purpose be Art?
    To make one where two stood,
    from one’s mind and one’s heart,
    out of Netzach and Hod?

    Sublime Tiphereth to behold?
    Or the depths of Yesod to be delved?
    But in the end, when all is told,
    the point of the Dance is itself.

  41. RE: Minimalism, i.e., return of the drone

    I think Minimalism, in its musical guise at least, has very spiritual underpinnings. If you look at the “Father of Minimalism” La Monte Young, part of his own initiation into music was as a disciple of the Indian classical kirana singer Pandit Pran Nath. Instead of becoming lost in the kind of ornamental music that had become common in the west, they returned to the drone. Terry Riley also studied under Nath. Yet Minimalism is also distinctly American and through the musical psuedomorphosis of classical Indian music, refracts something of the starkness of our fields and prairies and farms. Minimalism is a music of the land. Besides there has been lots of “drone” music in the west too. As far as instruments go, think of organs or hurdy-gurdies, and even the plainchant of Gregorian style singing. Any instrument where you can make a sustained tone can create a drone. Often, in the plainchant singing of say Hildegard von Bingen’s settings, there would be a drone played on a monochord. The harmonies would be layered on top of the drone. The Lutheran’s used psalmodikon’s, a sort of fiddle type monochord because it was cheaper than having an organ in the church. Some had sympathetic strings that weren’t touched but vibrated from the sound waves of the principal string. And there really is something about these sustained tones that can affect changes in consciousness.

    Drones need not be atonal. There can be plenty of harmony in drones. In fact some of the harmonic material would come from the overtones created above the fundamental note due to the various vibrations.

    An interesting thing about La Monte Young was his beginnings in Jazz & Blues music and how these have been constants in his work, informed later by classical western music and then after his training in that field by his study of classical Indian music under Pran Nath. He continues to play Blues music, albeit with different tunings than most, using the principles of “just intonation”. And his blues might be played at a slower pace. Chord changes might only occur after five minutes or more, sometimes longer. His Forever Bad Blues Band played a mighty fine version of his “Dorian Blues” that last two-hours… just enough time to shift consciousness into new territories.

    I would add that this shifting of consciousness is another primary purpose of art, the same as magic, the craft of causing changes in consciousness to occur in conformity with the will. Art can be used to serve the purpose of magic. It can still be entertaining too.

    And I don’t think drone music or minimalist music is going away. There are dozens and dozens of record labels devoted to its promulgation. Brian Eno popularized it with his pioneering of the ambient music genre, a kind of sister or brother to musical minimalism. This was a natural progression, taking some of the more experimental aspects of avant-garde art music and applying them in a way that had more widespread appeal. The album Music for Airports just celebrated its 40th birthday this past October. The genre continues to attract new fans and artists. It’s still a going concern. It’s not necessarily easy to make this kind of music either. It’s possible to fail at it. The quality of the best, drone, ambient, minimalist music is just as subject to craft, skill at instruments, and knowledge of music theory and acoustics, and it takes musical practice. Just sitting down at a synthesizer and sustaining a key won’t necessarily make for a good drone piece.
    Shifting gear a bit, in my mind Minimalist music, rock music, and jazz form a kind of trinity of American music that occurred due to pseudomorphosis. Jazz and rock (and the blues which inform both) having origins in African cultures and music (as has been duly noted just about everywhere). Yet because of the pseudomorphosis are now distinctly American. Minimalism, in terms of repetition, can be seen in blues music, the various proliferations of rock music, and jazz.

    That influence from Africa is very important, because one of the things it values is timbre and rhythm over melody. Think of the way drums play such an important part in rap music. It’s all about the rhythm and the timbre of the sounds. There is less traditional melody and harmony. The success of the rapper also relies less on the mastery of the vocal techniques that would serve a Broadway singer and rely more on cadence, verbal acumen, rhythm, rhyme. This is just a generalization of course, but I think points to something happening to music here in America.

    P.S.: What you say about limited edition stuff rings very true! I see that not just in books, but in music, in prints, in whatever. One of my favorite post-industrial/noise/weird musicians, Nocturnal Emissions, in reaction to this, started putting out “unlimited editions”. Those limited edition books in the occult community, while really nice & wonderful in their way, are also subject to these economics.

  42. Lin Carter! Ah memories – I went on a huge fantasy search for pre-Tolkien books in the late 80s (scouring second hand bookshops in Dublin). Found E.R. Eddison & Peake as a result, Cabell, Dunsany, Morris, etc., and of couse Lin Carter’s anthology books, in which he cited all those writers, and never failed to mention his own novels about Grok the Thunderer or whatever the awful thing was. I think Michael Moorcock commented on Carter’s shameless lack of self-awareness in including his own work among them.

    BTW, kids these days can’t imagine that when you had a passionate interest in a subject in the 80s early 90s it often involved burning calories and shoe leather.

  43. I often think about how Jazz was destroyed as a major cultural force by the people who purportedly claimed to love it most. It was a wildly popular art form that grew straight out of the American soil that eventually got co-opted by critics and elites who insisted it was a “high art”.

    Suddenly it got the avant garde treatment, where making beautiful music was considered sentimental or old fashioned and the atonal and dissonant was lauded as being the cutting edge. In due course the public fled jazz for new popular forms like Rock & Roll and R&B and jazz was left with a tiny group of elitists trying to convince themselves that music that sounds like bickering seagulls really is fantastic.

  44. Marcel Duchamp would agree with your thesis. He was holding up a mirror to the Academy. They didn’t get it… Art is Alchemy.

  45. Hi JMG. – “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.”

    This idea of storing wealth in assets in order to provide you with notional claims on future wealth, is where I definitely must betray my “leftness” (not as a neoliberal Democrat, but in a somewhat more historical sense, which, using an ecological analogy, I might call a preference for systems that optimise for “flow” over systems that optimise for “accumulation”).

    It seems to me that when “wealth” looks for a place to be stored, which notionally provides a claim on future “wealth”, what that claim will ultimately be levied upon (after “storage” here and there) will be upon other people’s ability to produce, to provide or to resource-extract. (Providing the claim is successful, in which case it has ceased to become notional, and has now become all too real for the “other people” claimed against). And success in levying such claims upon OTHER people’s and stuff, is what seems to me to be at the core of all that is currently seen as “wealth”, although its success is generally underwritten by the enforcement capabilities provided by the various states (which it probably “owns” as a creditor). What happens when such enforcement stops will separate the “real” from the “notional”.

  46. JMG, you wrote: “I think there are issues with the present-day art scene that go beyond that [art’s propaganda/political dimension] — again, the deliberate cult of ugliness, The express avoidance of those structures that make a work of art comprehensible (in Western music, for example, tonality and harmony) as a way to deliberately exclude all but the cognoscenti — those are features that occur now and again in the history of the arts, and pretty consistently result in sterile art that is promptly forgotten. (When’s the last time you heard music from an opera seria that wasn’t by Mozart, for example?)”

    If you were making a general critique of the world of the European musical avant garde fifty years ago, and in particular the so called “Darmstadt School,” you would be correct. A cult of ugliness, within the music world, did in fact arise after WWII, for very specific reasons. First of all, the Nazis had used “Germanic” classical music as propaganda, and so the youngest composers after WWII wanted to throw out every aspect of the musical tradition and start from scratch. In simplistic terms, they couldn’t listen to Beethoven and Wagner without thinking of the Holocaust, and they were so disgusted they tried to purposely destroy every aspect of the European musical tradition and start over from scratch, supposedly on a more “scientific” basis. With some qualified exceptions, the result was mostly garbage.

    At the same time, the Darmstadt School was always, from the beginning, a kind of super-elitist ivory tower project. Neither the general public, nor most trained professional musicians, wanted to play this kind of music. So how did it become so popular?

    I would argue that the answer is absolutely political. The Darmstadt School would have been a mere footnote in music history, if it wasn’t for the meddling of the CIA in the art world after WWII. It only achieved hegemony because the US government funded it, because avant garde art was being used in a propaganda war against the Soviets.

    And in fact, the kind of avant garde music pushed by the Darmstadt School had already lost popularity in the eighties. What did it lose popularity to? Minimalism, neominimalism, neoromanticism, neotonality, postmodernism, basically, neo-everything. But these are not defined by a cult of ugliness, rather, they are defined by an “anything goes” permissive attitude, in a landscape where there are no clear criteria on good and bad; the general tendencies are towards pastiche, incoherence, or one-dimensional static minimalism. Thus, in such a landscape, you get both some people who are still in the “cult of ugliness,” but you also get plenty of “tonal” or neotonal music that is totally boring and without interest.

    I have a theory about this, but first of all I need to comment on “classical tonality.” Classical tonality the same as “consonant”, harmonious, or pretty sounding. A proper tonal structure integrates dissonance, but it does not reject it. Simple folk music, for instance, is not tonal in the sense of Bach or Mozart, because it is far too consonant. Today’s pop songs are even worse, often reducing the idea of tonality down to simply repeating an elementary, undifferentiated musical building block over and over again. But tonality in Western classical music actually represents a principle of overall fractal organization that is much more substantial than some simplistic idea of consonance or pretty sounds.

    Ultimately, classical tonal structures are fractal patterns of tension and release, operating at different scales to create very complex patterns out of apparently simple building blocks.

    And it is the sense of tension and release, a sense of actual motion, that I find lacking in most contemporary music. Whether it’s a “nice” sound, or an “ugly” one, the problem is that there is no attempt to integrate the sound into a fractal structure of resolving contrasts. Instead, materials are just presented, as is, incoherently, out of context. If there are contrasts, they are simply presented in a brutal fashion, one after the other, without being woven into the fabric of the whole.

    Compare this to Mozart’s great G minor quintet: listen to the interplay of consonance and dissonance, dark and light, the tension that is generated that constantly moves the piece forward in time; it’s this way of dealing with time that modern composers can’t replicate.

    As for why this is the case, I would point out that we experience time very differently in 2018, in a world where everyone is wired up to digital technology and lives in an eternal present. The fact is, if you try to compose like Mozart today, you are de facto composing only for yourself and a tiny elite. Mozart objectively goes over the heads of most people today.

    Furthermore, the world doesn’t have room for another Mozart anyway. On the other hand, there is a market for film scores, and if your only criteria is populist enjoyment, John Williams probably has more fans than Mozart ever will, and people enjoy listening to it (though his scores often sound too much like ripped-off Mahler for my tastes, JW has his inspired moments).

    And I would argue that even some of today’s so called “avant garde” music is objectively excellent, when it pushes beyond pastiche to grapple with the musical tradition in a more substantial way. I submit for your consideration, some of John Zorn’s string trio music from his Masada project:

    (By the way, for what it’s worth, I’m fairly sure Zorn is a serious, practicing occultist)

  47. In many cultures the purpose of at least some art is to please the gods. Greek drama was part of a festival to Dionysus, many worship services in all cultures include music and sometimes dance, and so forth.

    As for the cult of ugliness–particularly the cult of publicizing the uglier sides of one’s own personality and deeds. it seems to assume that the vilest confessions are most likely to be authentic. Who would say _that_ if it wasn’t true? I blame Rousseau, among others. But it is sad to assume that the ugly is the truest. An author I read as a teen, Beverly Nichols, wrote at length about his gardens, restorations of lovely houses and his cats. Years later I discovered a less pleasant bit of his autobiography–his childhood with a brutal father whom he actually admitted to having attempted to kill on one occasion. His father had passed out drunk and Nichols, a young teen, dragged him into the garden in hopes that he would die from the cold. But I like to think the the happy hours of planning and enjoying gardens and of stroking personable cats are as true as the horrors of abuse, although I know that some would dismiss the former as merely sentimental.

  48. @JMG
    Sorry, forgot to ask one thing:
    “I’ll agree that art is (or can be) communication”

    I’d like to ask you about the “can be”. It is my understanding from today’s essay that you would basically agree with the statement “if it’s not communicating anything to anybody, it’s not art” (a partial, rephrased version of my definition), but perhaps I understood wrong?

    If so, what is an example of something that you would consider to be art which doesn’t communicate anything to anyone?

  49. Buried near the end of “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,” Rebecca West has a definition of art that leaped out at me:

    “What is art? It is not decoration. It is the re-living of experience.

    The artist says ‘I will make that event happen again, altering its shape, which was disfigured by its contacts with other events, so that its true significance is revealed’; and his audience says, ‘We will let that event happen again by looking at this man’s pictures or house, listening to his music or reading his book.’

    It must not be copied, it must be remembered, it must be lived again, passed through those parts of the mind which are actively engaged in life, which bleed when they are wounded and give forth the bland emulsions of joy, while at the same time it is being examined by those parts of the mind which stand apart from life.”

    * * *

    I know someone pouring her heart into the work of galleries and exhibits…making no money but laboring for an “idea” of art among a set of people who are only viewing it as decoration or investment. I would love to share this article with her but I’m afraid it will either break or harden her heart. Those “art” communities which don’t make anything real are sadly ringed round by people full of hope, wondering when/if the “public” will finally understand the magical work going on there. (The public is smarter than that).

  50. I’ll weigh in on the side of the commenter who said that, for many artists, their art is something inside of them screaming to get out, and that won’t let them alone until it does. Learning the craft that underlies successful art, and learning what pleases an audience enough to make a living at it, comes later. There are a legion of stories about the 10-year old who writes after she’s supposed to be asleep, keeping it under the covers, and the high school student who appears to be studiously taking notes while he is actually writing a story.

    There are stories of writers who have learned the hard way that if they want to work on story A, and story B wants to come out, the result is writer’s block – story B will simply not allow them to write anything else until it comes out.

    I cannot imagine why anyone would go though the absolute torture required of classical ballet dancers unless there was an inner drive that simply would not stop.

    For these people, pleasing an audience is not primary, nor are economic concerns.

  51. JMG
    ‘Art’ is something of the human condition we must live with. I tend to think the fundamentals are external to our sensibility. In that sense it is discoverable and legacies are handed on, yet it is as you memorably record, unique, a reality. You write: “watching a dog—not a generic dog, mind you, but that dog, at that moment – ….catching that one of the countless subtle moods of a Paris morning…”
    I do not think Art requires a ‘civilisation’ – though if you have one of those it will acquire the appropriate conventions, and in its widest sense the vocabulary. It is akin to ‘beauty’, but not quite the same. As ‘property’, most artists of merit I have come across acknowledge they do not ‘own’ it, even if they invested much of themselves in its expression, and care for their offspring. Some just count themselves lucky when they get close.
    Many of us only success in life has been that we have seen it, been there, in life or in representation, and knew it and even shared the living experience – pretty directly, often enough – mind-to-mind. These contributions are not negligible. It can be fostered; sometimes it is a gift from others. Other times it comes from a mysterious realm to be honored. I am pretty sure trees ‘get it’ when we see them in this light.
    Yes Yeats took a great deal of trouble with what he was given, and we owe him for it.
    Phil H

  52. Thank you for this essay, it manages to bring true clarity into the discussion.

    Last week I added praise of Sigrid Undset’s “Kristin Lavransdatter” at the end of a long comment. Since it fits better this week, I will repeat it. Kristin is the best historical novel I know, and the reason is that you get to feel what it was like to be a 14th century European woman. You don’t get the wandering, bohemian, secretly atheist heroes and heroines of so many fake medieval novels. You get a person with desires that we also feel today, and at the same time with an unstoppable desire to plant and increase her lineage, to honour her father and set up her children as well as she can. Someone who can be completely set on her own decisions, but at the same time feels the faith she has been taught in her bones, who believes without a shadow of doubt in in folk magic, trolls and in the power of confession and penitence.

    Of course the novel was written by a 20th century writer (who got a deserved Nobel prize in literature basically just for this book), but it somehow manages this feat – partly because Sigrid Undset was drenched in history and archaeology from childhood and partly without any explanation I can offer. As a reader you simply feel that you are not in the 20th or 21st century anymore.

    And that, as JMG said above, expands your thinking so you can better understand your 21st century life.

    It goes without saying that Kristin was almost forgotten by literature critics and other readers for more than 50 years.

  53. More directly related to this week’s post, I’d add art as craft to the list, where the purpose of the art is to prove that you can do a thing – mostly to yourself, since proving it to others verges on “providing enjoyment to your audience”. That can be testing yourself against an existing benchmark, so to speak – say, correctly using a demanding technique, or testing the limits of your ability to play your instrument, or the kind of working within limits you see in poetry forms like haiku and iambic pentameter (which in the early stages leads to the process you described back in “You See It Is Not So” back on the old blog).

    As for art sweatshops: I think you’re missing the deeper pattern there, JMG. A conversion from skilled independent craftsmen to menial unskilled labor and dedicated overseers? That’s the same process that happened to farming and cottage industry in the First Industrial Revolution and skilled craft labor in the Second, and it’s by no means limited to the art world these days; it’s happening in academia (where worker and overseer are spelled postdoc/grad student and PI, respectively), medicine, law, and other white collar fields.

    I suspect it’s rooted quite deep in Faustian culture; it occurred to me a few weeks back that the structure of the modern corporation is exactly what you would expect if you iterated the concept of an elect (spelled “boss”) bringing the correct way to the unenlightened masses (“workers”).

    Re: Waiting for Godot: That one seems pretty obvious to me – there’s a specific class of work that gets its power from a big twist, “the plot is that there is no plot” obviously fits there. The lack of successful imitators also fits perfectly; that kind of work gets its entire power from the twist, and stops working once the twist is out of the bottle. (The Sixth Sense is probably the best known work of that type these days, and Shyamalan’s filmmaking career is an excellent example of how that lightning has sharply diminishing returns.)

    (There is, of course, a closely related class of work – the one that “deconstruction” got borrowed to refer to in certain circles – that gets a similar effect by systematically turning a genre’s suppositions on their head; done correctly it kills the genre by making it impossible to take the founding suppositions seriously, though sometimes you’ll see a later work that rehabilitates said suppositions. Don Quixote is the classic Western example; Airplane! is a more recent version, and any anime fans in the commentariat will recognize the names Neon Genesis Evangelion and Puella Magi Madoka Magica.

    Actually, hmm. I wonder if the First Religiosity – Age of Reason – Second Religiosity sequence is just the same pattern on a civilizational scale?)

  54. I read tons of fantasy throughout the ’70s and ’80s. I didn’t think that much of Lin Carter as a writer, but he was a first-rate editor. He was able to recognize and appreciate great fantasy even if he didn’t seem to be able to write it.

    For the first half of the ’70s he edited “The Adult Fantasy Series.” This was published by Ballantine Books. It essentially resurrected some excellent but long forgotten novels and short stories, the works of William Morris and Clark Ashton Smith, the lesser known Hope Mirrlees and Hannes Bok and many more. All in all, the Series came to almost 60 books.

    And the person doing the cover art, Gervasio Gallardo was perfect for the task; the artwork reflected the awe and wonder the reader would derive from the story. One can Google “Adult Fantasy Series” and see the cover art of all the books.

    Antoinetta III

  55. When I was at the KC art institute in th late 50s Cezanne was our big influence . When you see Cezannes touches and brush strokes on the canvas you see they are a gestalt all their own. The motif was important to Cezanne but not as important as his” little sensation”.The ordering of the canvas.When you follow this historically for the last 100 years you can see that modern art which really began with Cezanne followed a recognizable path through the various isms to its present state which you have layed out pretty well Ive always enjoyed looking at modern art even though Pollack and co. was a dead end. When you take things to their conclusion you tend to conclude them.My favorites have always been the modernists of the Stieglitz circle Okeefe’ Dove.Marin.and marsden Hartley.etc.It takes a bit of looking to understand what things mean and what they meant to those who produced them.

  56. Dear ESN and John Michael,

    I have seen mechanical drawings that were totally exciting and therefore I disagree with you on that one minor point. Let me explain. Once I was called upon to assist in installation of a very large rectangular stainless steel chamber which was to be used for making therapeutic sterile formulations. The engineering company failed to “keep up” with the latest drawing releases. So they constructed a reinforced concrete wall opening that was about 87.5 inches high and about 12 inches thick, that separates the sterile from the non sterile side. And, into which that 29 ton machine was to fit with a small fraction of an inch to spare to allow for weld tolerances etc. The engineering firm did not realize that the chamber was really 106.5 inches high. When it arrived on that tropical isle and was placed next to the wall opening, it elicited an immediate call to me, and I was on a plane within hours to resolve this mechanical drawing dilemma. I was full of excitement for sure, the client who would eventually make sterile pharmaceutical drugs was also very excited! The millwright, a strapping middle aged man who had seen it all, was full of resignation, nonetheless excited by the difference between the drawing and the building! And, he and I were then pressed into activity that was aimed at fitting this enormous chamber into a too small wall opening. We red lined the drawing, meaning we made changes in red crayon pencil, we called in the little fellow with the very large jack hammer. There were many circles and arrows on the front of that drawing, which was maybe the size of a dining room table, Lots of noise ensued, many chips of concrete rained down on the floor and into the air, we then realized that we needed to cut off the legs on the chamber front! This put a list on the chamber which was probably enough to tip the whole thing on its face! We red lined the drawing once again, yep, we made another mechanical drawing, and we had FEAR mingled with anxiety: Would this work? The millwright and me sawed off the legs whilst the chamber rested on special jacks, and eventually inched the machine into the wall opening and the project was saved, The drawing had been modified, the issue resolved, and no one was bored, Far from being bored we were elated, relieved, and there was learning going on, We actually had FUN resolving this not so boring drawing-caused-debacle. Momentary happiness abounded when we looked upon our work.

  57. It might sound weird, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve found I’ve come to prefer abstract art. That’s not to say I don’t like representational art, but I find the play of pure form more enjoyable for some reason (no, I can’t see the point of Damien Hirst). I can’t be the only person like this. I guess I’m a modernist born 100 years too late.

  58. In defense of Duchamp, I believe pranks were a large part of what the Surrealists were all about. But yes, I agree with you totally on art for its own sake. I read genre fiction exclusively for just the reasons you mentioned – plot, characters a theme, a beginning, a middle, and an end.

    Genre fiction is about something. Lois McMaster Bujold wrote, some time ago, that murder mysteries were about justice, and science fiction, in the end, is about political agency. She concluded that after trying to write some in which there was no issue of political agency and found she couldn’t keep it out. Romance, she noted, is “about the genetic agenda of the human race” – seeing that people were well and happily mated. And so on.

    As for art – the circle I belong to, Sage Temple, is run by Jay Bainbridge, a poor preschool teacher with a genius for bringing out the best in people, with hard Midwestern common sense. He has also seen fairies – from his paintings, little nature spirits, though he certainly includes other beings – since childhood and definitely has The Sight. He paints from love – he HAS to paint. He has studied his craft and keeps improving it. His themes range from humorous to tragic to a self-portrait as The Green Man which I hoped to find on my computer, and I would rather have one Yule card from him than 99% of the art I see elsewhere.

  59. Fascinating! The reason I did not choose to become an artist was I had no proper definition of “art” from which to work. It wasn’t until the 12th grade that I had a teacher in literature who, unlike every other teacher I’d had, simply enjoyed the works we were studying and expected us to do likewise from our own perspectives. The definition she gave me was identical to yours, and I was happy finally to get it, but by then I’d decided to be pilot instead. She was one of four teachers that I recall for quantum leap they provided me. The first was an ex-marine who taught me to value and enjoy self-discipline. The second taught me math. He had Italian ancestry and I recall him with clenched fists declaring, “It’s simple, guys, SIMPLE! Why can’t you get it?” The fourth assigned tons and tons of reading, but imparted a deep view of linguistics.
    On art as an investment, we had a friend who passed away about four years ago who was very rich and an avid collector, building his own museum, who loved to brag about his treasures. We were not surprised when he died under suspicious circumstances. We were really surprised when it turned out he had an estranged son, who simply rolled his eyes when we described some of his prize possessions. Shinobu offered to provide a map of his enormous digs indicating where to expect valuables, and if those were missing, to expect foul play and get the police to investigate. He ignored us and his father’s art-dealer girlfriend, took the police’s word that it was an accident, and for about a thousand dollars from an antiques dealer, left the latter to deal with the whole lot. A conservative salaried worker, he wanted nothing to do with anything that might involve scandal.

  60. If you’ll forgive the non-artistic comment, but an article in the current Scientific American (page 10) isn’t happy with the concept of the “Anthropocene”. They reference one Donna Haraway who has proposed the “Chthulucene” as more appropriate. I’m not sure if her tongue was in her cheek or not.

  61. First of all I have to say, fantastic essay! I thoroughly enjoyed it! Thanks JMG!

    Even before I returned to practicing Catholicism, I found that one of the most common criticisms of the Church also happens to be one of the dumbest. It goes something like: “If the Church really cared about the poor, the Vatican would sell all of those expensive artworks and give the money straight to them.”

    For all her flaws, maintaining this cultural patrimony of Western civilization happens to be one of the greatest acts of public service that the Catholic Church is currently doing. Nearly all of these works (at least those that are in churches, as opposed to museums) are free to view, and a good amount of them you can even _touch_. Rich and poor alike do pilgrimages to various shrines around the world, among other things to view these great works of art.

    Whereas if they were put up for auction, chances are they’d disappear into the bank vault of some art speculator, the living room of some wealthy Arab price, the private collection of some Chinese tycoon; basically someplace where it disappear from public view, where the poor and even wealthy folk who are not in the new owner’s inner circles will never be able to see and appreciate them.

    Of course, this argument betrays the exact kind of snobbery that you describe in your post. Only the rich can appreciate art, or at least the poor should not be allowed to do so since anyway they have more pressing concerns like being able to eat.

    This also brings us to another purpose of art, one that is overlooked by this argument, which is the sacramental/magical aspect. Of course, to the typical “Skeptic ™” scientific materialist who makes these arguments, that counts for nothing.

  62. Justin Patrick Moore wrote:

    “I would add that this shifting of consciousness is another primary purpose of art, the same as magic, the craft of causing changes in consciousness to occur in conformity with the will. Art can be used to serve the purpose of magic. It can still be entertaining too.”

    This, too, is right on target, I think.

    Arthur Machen was of the opinion that art, in its finest form, necessarily alters mundane consciousness in those who encounter it. It conduces to what he sometimes labels “ecstasy,” sometimes “rapture,” sometimes “wonder” or “awe” or “mystery” or “sense of the unknown, desire for the unknown,” mystical inebriation. (See his book Hieroglyphics: A Note Upon Ecstasy in Literature, first published in 1902, and finally revised in 1913.)

    Though he was learned in occult subjects, Machen never connected this definition of his with magic, with the art of “causing changes in consciousness to occur in conformity with will.” Even so, his view of art meshes well with T. K. Whipple’s view that both the fine arts and the mechanical arts are essentially means of gaining power–though the artists and writers of Whipple’s day seemed to him to have lost sight of that fact.

    However … Machen was fundamentally a mystic and a contemplative and a quite passive personality, whereas Whipple placed ancient magicians at the wellspring and origin of all the arts, that is, active people who seek power.

  63. I’d like to echo Matthias Gralle’s high praise of Kristin Lavransdatter. I read it half a century ago; it definitely sharpened and refined my view of almost every aspect of human life.

  64. Onething, good. What do you mean by beauty?

    SamChevre, the reason I tend to shy away from that definition of art is that it reinforces the supposed status of the artist as uniquely perceptive. In my experience, that’s not even remotely true. What distinguishes artists is not that they perceive more than other people, but they’ve learned how to use the tools of art to communicate their perceptions to others.

    Isabel, fair enough. What I get out of, say, an E.R. Eddison novel has very little to do with his opinions (which I generally disagree with — he was one of those European intellectuals who got Nietzsche by the wrong end, and took N.’s sly questions for dogmatic answers) or his personal life (about which I know nothing), and much more in common with what I get out of the painting I cited — a quality of looking-at-the-world that’s different from the way I look at the world. Of course it’s easy enough for an artist to miss that and end up rehashing fashionable emotional poses or what have you; which is one of the ways that art gives way to kitsch…

    Prizm, good. I consider Frost one of the classic American poets, one of those who will be read as long as our national literature survives.

    Phil, thanks for the suggestion! As for your opening line, by all means work on it. 😉

    Jim, fair enough. How do you see the very broad middle ground of art?

    David, I’m reminded of that fine little mnemonic poem about the poetic feet:

    Iambus, King of all the North,
    Sucking trochees ventured forth.
    Galloping dactyls emerged from their nest,
    But he struggled and conquered this anapest.

    Prizm, any time from tomorrow night into the far future, as long as the decline and fall of our industrial civilization provides part of the visible backdrop.

    Username, I’ve been watching that whole process with a raised eyebrow. I wonder whose bright idea that was…

    Esn, good! No, it simply means that somebody has to enjoy it. There are entire art forms to which I’m basically tone-deaf — dance, for instance, communicates nothing to me. (I think that’s a consequence of my Aspergers syndrome.)

    Justin, fair enough. May I add something to your collection of American drone-based music? The Appalachian dulcimer aka mountain dulcimer aka lap dulcimer has two drone strings tuned a fifth apart, and a doubled melody string usually tuned an octave above the lower drone; in the classic styles of playing, the melody string is the only one that’s fingered. It evolved pretty directly from the monochord by way of French and German folk instruments (the scheitholt and epinette des Vosges, specifically).

    But music with a drone is not necessarily minimalist, and minimalist music doesn’t necessarily have a drone…

    Dermot, I did the same thing about a decade earlier in used book stores in Seattle, and got a fair collection of things that Lin Carter had either edited or written. “Grok the Thunderer” is close enough to pass!

    Grey, you’ve just earned tonight’s gold star for a perfect metaphor. “Bickering seagulls” — I think that’s the best description of your basic masturbatory sax solo I’ve ever heard!

    Justin, depends on what you mean by “paranormal.” I’d prefer to leave out sex-crazed unicorns and romantic tyrannosaurs, for example.

    Jade Dragon, that doesn’t surprise me at all. He really was a supreme put-on artist, It’s the deadly seriousness of the art scene in responding to him that makes me roll my eyes…

    Scotlyn, I ain’t arguing!

    Cyborgk, obviously I disagree. To cite only one counterexample, I’m recalling a production of The Magic Flute in Seattle some years back, sets and costumes designed by a children’s book artist, which had an opera house more than half full of kids absolutely mesmerized. The only reason Mozart is out of reach of many people these days is that it takes a little exposure to the Baroque idiom to learn how to listen to him, and the self-consciously elitist and exclusionary attitude so often found in the art music scene — not to mention the savage hostility our chattering classes direct toward anything that’s part of the western world’s cultural heritage — sees to it that too few people get that exposure.

    As recently as the 1950s, grand opera was a wildly popular art form in the US — the Met used to broadcast live on the radio every Sunday to listeners all over the country. What happened? It wasn’t that people stopped liking grand opera; it’s that opera companies convinced themselves that it was more important to be original than to be good, and backed away from anything too popular because it didn’t have the snob factor.

    If Mozart were composing today, by the way, he’d do film scores along with his other works — what do you think The Magic Flute is, giddily irrational plot and all, if not the late 18th century equivalent of a Hollywood flick?

    Rita, you’ve made an important point here. The notion that the ugly is more real than the beautiful is the essence of what Julian Benda was talking about in La Trahison des Clercs (“The Treason of the Intellectuals”); it’s as destructive as it is dishonest. An hour spent gardening is as real as an hour spent being beaten, after all…

    Esn, I think there’s some need for subtlety here. To my mind, at least, for something to be art it has to try to communicate — but it may fail in any given case, or in all cases. I’m the equivalent of tone-deaf to dance, for example; with very few exceptions, the effort at communication present in dance doesn’t reach me at all. So the attempt to communicate is one thing, and the success of that attempt is something else. I can easily imagine a valid work of art that just happens never to find a single person who can hear what the artist has to say…

    Mike, I get that. That same hope is common in subcultures very far from the fine arts; back in the day, for example, when fantasy fiction was a very rare taste, those of us who loved it — even the schlocky sort — had exactly the same feeling. My take is that they’re going about it bass ackwards, but no doubt they’d have the same opinion of me!

    John, can you see that there’s a difference between wanting to please an audience and wanting to communicate something to an audience?

    Phil H, certainly art doesn’t require civilization; any human culture, however materially simple, provides the common ground from which art can emerge.

    Matthias, thanks for this. I’ve had Kristin Lavransdatter on my get-to list for more than a decade now. I’m not sure when I’ll read it, but I know I’ll read it.

    Username, of course the artistic sweatshop represents the first step in the mechanization of the process of (pseudo)artistic production. That begs the question of whether that model of production can be applied to the arts without abolishing the artistic dimension.

    Antoinetta, no argument there! Carter was very nearly singlehandedly responsible for talking Lester Del Rey into launching the Adult Fantasy Series and bringing back most of the classic English language fantasy novels into print. He played an immense role in creating fantasy as a distinctive genre…and it’s one of the mordant ironies of literary history that the man had so much insight into other people’s talent and so little talent of his own.

    Keith, that maxim of yours — ‘when you take things to their conclusion you tend to conclude them” — is a keeper. Thank you!

    Lawrence, fair enough. That’s the thing, of course — “enjoyable” is a value judgment, and thus specific to each individual person. I don’t find mechanical drawings enjoyable, but if you do, your enjoyment of them is as valid as my enjoyment of fantasy novels.

    Lee, fair enough. I don’t share that taste, but there it is.

    Patricia M, that’s an excellent point. I think of genre fiction as being very similar to some of the traditional genres of painting — say, still life, or portrait. When a capable representational painter paints a still life, there’s not all that much variation in the subject — you’ve got a basket of fruit, let’s say — and so everything depends on how it’s handled, thus requiring great skill to make the thing work artistically. Mysteries, romances, fantasy, science fiction, and so on are the same way: within the narrow limits of the form, what can you do with it?

    Patricia, I can sympathize with the son, especially if he was already comfortable and didn’t want to get into whatever tangled mess his father had been involved in!

    Siliconguy, yep. I discussed Haraway’s turn of phrase back on the old blog

  65. John—

    Re the story contest

    I’m over 3k words into my offering. I’m appreciative of the 1May deadline, as once my first draft is done, I can set it aside for edits later. I’ve got the third installment of Lady Penelope’s adventures to complete yet if I’m to stay on schedule!

    I would like to take this opportunity, however, to thank you for these contests. I’ve been scribbling for decades, ideas building up with nowhere to go, and an internal editor that just wouldn’t shut down. While I wasn’t able to do anything for the After Oil contest, something happened for/to/inside me when Vintage Worlds was announced, and the logjam in my brain burst asunder with great force, unleashing a massive torrent. I’ve been struggling to keep up ever since. I, along with the voices in my head, thank you for that.

  66. @ JMG – Not entirely related to art per se, but in the microbrewing world, people have begun to collect and store limited release bottles of beer. Most of these collectors don’t drink the beer (I guess they forget most beer expires a lot faster than wine). I’m not saying microbrewing has entered a ‘beer’ bubble, but the same trend your describe in art applies to beer too. Sigh.

  67. David,

    It’s on! 😉

    Pretentious Username, it looks like it!
    Alas, tech stock is dropping, here and now,
    I think we are all about to get hit
    With the fall of the internet, oh wow!


    I have another thought: something like what you describe with the BNP is common for ghost writers. It’s fairly common knowledge that a lot of celebrities/politicians don’t write their own “auto”-biographies, but hire someone for it. This is having someone create something that really only has value because of the pretense that it’s someone other than the person who actually wrote it wrote it.

  68. Powerful art changes p+eople’s minds one way or another. The broad middle ground of art serves to prevent change, to reinforce or reassure people, to verify their ideas about the world and their place in it. Routine art, like posters of well known classic pieces, mostly just works by being a kind of flag. It doesn’t need to be interpreted or understood to function. The work has a known association or identification with some class, group, ideology, etc. You see the work, and all those associations come to mind.

    Art often works to reinforce identity or ideology through being interpreted and understood. That’s what advertising art does. It ties a product or service in with some image the potential customer associates with. Thomas Kincaid’s paintings mostly picture an ideal world, quaint and cozy. Ahhh, I can settle in to my comfortable ideas. Pictures of athletes or musicians work like that too. That’s my world there!

  69. I went to art school. I agree with everything you said about the art world.

    When I first started school, I had a knack for figurative sculpture. I can’t say anyone ever said I shouldn’t work on that, but there certainly wasn’t any classical art being made there. Early on I switched to working abstractly/symbolically. Looking back, I see that my art practice was lazy and self-indulgent. In my senior year, the teacher who I most looked up to, angrily told me in a critique; it looked like I was doing whatever I wanted and if I did that I would end up in the gutters! I was crushed. That was the first time that I had gotten harshly negative criticism. I had always prided myself on being an excellent art student and almost always received positive feedback in critiques. Although the way she put it led me to dismiss her feedback, looking back, I admit she had a point. And I also see that grade-inflation, the profit seeking education system, and post-modernism allowed and encouraged many atrocious artists to get straight A’s and think they were spectacular.

    I left art school very anti-academic art and didn’t enjoy making it anymore. Art made to be beautiful or please the average person was trash in art school. It’s all about what other people in the art world think, complete naval-gazing. Now, I enjoy making folk art.

    I haven’t decided, I might take a stab at the Love in the Ruins. It would be a very difficult challenge for me because I haven’t written any fiction. I had my brain rotted by hundreds of romance novels as a teenager and then switched to Jane Austen, and also spend way too much time thinking about thousands of years from now, so I probably should do it.

  70. Interestingly, you didn’t mention my preferred reason for art once in your essay, but instead mentioned it more than once in the comments.

    Art is supposed to communicate something. Whether it tells a story or portrays an emotion or offers social commentary, it is trying to say something. Certainly, a lot of people just want to say “Look how great I am,” and of course most people with any sense roll their eyes and walk away. Similarly, a lot of people just like to hear themselves talk and communicate (or fail to communicate) a bunch of nonsense or trite repetitions of something else.

    But your definitions of art are incomplete unless they account for people like Kathe Kollwitz, whose art is compelling and even beautiful, but it communicates the misery of war and would certainly cast a shadow upon the average dining room, or Banksy, climbing billboards with cans of spray paint not to write his name up there, but to point out the absurd materialism of modern culture.

    A lot of people are driven to create but have nothing important to say. There is a total lack of emphasis on the true messages of art right now, and it perpetuates this idea that it’s OK to babble on canvas. There’s nothing wrong with babbling through your paintbrush, but it’s not impressive, either.

    Some abstract artists are saying things, and not everyone gets the message, and of course, if you don’t get it you are a lot less likely to like it. I hated Gulliver’s Travels, because I could tell it was really about something else, not giants and seafaring adventures. I knew nothing about British politics at the time, and had no reference ppint when reading. I can certainly empathize with a similar person looking at a sculpture by Richard Serra, not realizing that the sculpture is about how people feel in spaces, and walking through it is important; you will never get the message if you only look at it from a distance.

    I do agree that much of what passes for art these days isn’t actually communicating anything, except perhaps reflecting the vacuous elite lifestyle right back at them.

    But if we forget what art is for we lose the ability to create it. Yes, some art is made just to increase the amount of joy, pleasure, and beauty in the world. But the greatest pieces of art do say something, whether it is “You would not believe the incredible sunset I just saw,” or “the nature of the Buddha,” or “I saw a mother holding her dying son today.” We should take this into account when we evaluate art. “What is it saying?” should be right up there with “What is it made of?” And “Who made it?”

    Jessi Thompson

  71. Greetings, all:

    For me, the primary value of art, both as audience and as producer, is that it lends itself very well to being the gateway drug to God. Art can function to some degree as the locus of divine presence. Of course not all art does this, but some can.

    For me, anyway, it goes way beyond enjoyment. It can heal, it can neutralize poison, it can banish the demons of despair, and give the courage to go do what has to be done.

    Josephin Peladan founded a magical order on the premise that art could be theurgy, and that works of art could bring divine influence into the human world. Art, like the prime numbers, can be dwelling places of the angels.

    That presence is like a fragrance; before I was at all articulate about these things, I tasted something in Debussy that was lacking Tchaikovsky, something in Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky that was lacking in Dickens; something in Leonard Cohen and Aretha Franklin that neither Elvis Costello nor Dionne Warwick could bring to the table.

    For me, music packs the most concentrated wallop, then literature, and last, visual arts, although they all can carry it, and they each release it into human life in a different way.

    The biggest jolt of celestial life-force I have ever gotten in one place and time came from a concert of the University of Illinois Black Choir, 300 members, singing rockin’ old-school gospel to several thousand rapt listeners. The energy level was higher than that of a Rolling Stones concert, but the quality of that energy was indescribably different, absolutely beatific. My feet did not touch the ground as I left the auditorium. That same blessed experience, scaled down, has come through singing with friends.

  72. “What is art for?” As an artist and a lawyer, I have to give the classic lawyer answer (and I think most artists would also endorse it): “It depends.”

  73. Will J, Pretentious Username:

    Thank you for confirming an impression I’ve had for a while now – that the Internet is about to die as a social center. Not sure what will replace it (if anything, I can easily see a void replacing what there was online), but what we have now doesn’t appear to be long for the world, as I see it.

  74. With regards to art as an investment – many times I’ve felt that our society doesn’t know how to value anything except in terms of money. So often it seems like we can only see forests in terms of the amount of lumber we can take out of them, or see Christmas in terms of the kind of bump consumer spending gives to the economy, or see a human life as a financial balance sheet.

    Or to look at it from another angle: Time, space, peace and silence often fall through the cracks in our society. For those who have been unlucky enough to be in the waiting room of a doctor’s office recently, consider the ubiquitous TVs blaring their garbage out. How hard would someone have to fight to get the TVs thrown out and a really good painting or sculpture put in their place?

    I can look at the paintings JMG posted in his last essay, but my first instinct is to glance at them and move on. The internet makes my mind too busy to soak in a masterpiece. It takes time and peace to appreciate a good work of art, and to develop the inner capacities necessary to appreciate it.

    With so many people addicted to their smartphones and surrounded by advertisements and machine noise, what else can art be but a few moments of distraction and a convenient token for our imaginary money games?

  75. Carlos, and of course the Catholic church has already had the experience, during what was arguably its most formative period, of preserving a great deal of art and literature through one dark age. I have my disagreements with Catholicism but that’s not one of them.

    David, you’re most welcome. While we have print-on-demand technology available, it seems silly not to make good use of it, by expanding the range of venues for beginning authors beyond the embarrassingly small range they’ve got at present.

    Ben, yeah, I think we’re approaching peak investment.

    Will, that’s an excellent point:

    A politician’s self-promoting screed,
    A starlet’s breathless tale of roads to fame,
    A rich man brandishing his family name,
    A market mogul singing hymns to greed —

    Not one of them has had the slightest need
    To struggle with a language hard to tame.
    Another bears the praise or, say, the blame —
    A nameless writer did the pointless deed.

    Far from the footlights dwells a mighty host
    Of writers laboring in penury,
    Filling the empty pages of the great.
    Those they serve, they neither love nor hate;
    They get their paychecks; others merely see
    The fame thus manufactured by a ghost.

    Jim, that still seems rather dualistic to me. You’ve got great art, sure, and you’ve got Thomas Kincade on the opposite end of the spectrum; is there a middle ground in your view, or is it all one or the other?

    Radha, I’m really sorry to hear that, I hope you can find your way back to your original joy in doing the art you like to do. Forget about what the art teachers told you; there are plenty of people outside the art scene who love representative art, and you may be able to find an audience these days as the pendulum begins to swing the other way. As for the contest, well, I hope you decide to give it a shot!

    Jessi,it’s a source of amusement to me that all the crude, ugly, self-referential art I referred to earlier comes with artist’s statements explaining in verbose length what it’s supposed to be saying. If it actually communicated something, it wouldn’t need an artist’s statement!

    KKA, mystics always say that. 😉 Seriously, the fragrance you describe is something that people of a mystical bent catch, and others don’t. (I don’t, which is probably why I’m a mage rather than a mystic.)

    Mike, a graceful evasion!

    Cliff, what else can art be? Well, that really is up to us to choose as individuals, isn’t it?

  76. Hi JMG,
    I’m no artist of any sort. However, I found this article interesting. It concerns the idea of comic strips as “art,” and whether or not the “art” aspect of the strips is diluted by commercial licensing. Bill Watterson, author of the Calvin and Hobbes strips, argues against commercialization. Charles M Schultz, author of the Peanuts cartoons, argues for it.

    Not being an artist, it was sometimes difficult for me to follow the lines of argument. One thing stood out to me near the end of the article. Watterson is so set against commercialization that, if I understand correctly, most of his drawings since Calvin and Hobbes closed are seen only by him, to prevent them from being commercialized. If no one but you sees your art, is it art?

  77. Here’s a double dactyl–Or is it a double double dactyl?

    Trump and Pepe

    None can derail this Pepe-Frog Archetype.
    No one can knock Donald off of his horse.
    While they’re despising the
    China-Shop-Bull Trump continues his course.

    Archetypes rise from Collective Unconsciousness—
    Time for this Empire to be laid to rest.
    Futile the noises from
    Experts in speciousness,
    Face up to facts folks, we’re in for a mess!

    I think that sometimes archetypes rise up from Jung’s collective unconscious and express themselves through the arts–
    JMG, didn’t you say that your book, ‘Retrotopia,’ just bubbled up like this (vs. being an extensively pre-planned essay)? There are books that seem to have meanings within meanings within meanings–Such that you wonder whether the author really understood the totality of what s/he was writing.

    In a minor way, this happened with the poem above. Until I typed it, I didn’t realize that line 1 of stanza 1 relates to line 1 of stanza 2 and completes the thought–and so on down the line in a parallel structure that I did not plan or intend…

  78. To the extent that art can be transformative, it will work in some kind of context. Probably if you pick a random person and a random work of art, that art will not make any sense to that person because there is no common framework for interpretation. It’s like speaking a foreign language that the person doesn’t know.

    Here is a funny example. When I was in college I heard stories about this math graduate student. His homework had to be graded very differently from anybody else’s. He’d come at problems from such an odd direction that most folks couldn’t understand what he was talking about! The consensus of the faculty was that he was a genius, so they found people who could understand his approach.

    For people who are in some kind of traumatic situation, the calm comfort of a Thomas Kincaid might be just the right medicine. Yeah, we could judge medicine in a dualistic way, medicine that makes you healthier versus medicine that makes you sicker. The two puzzles here are, first, whether a medicine helps or harms depends of course on the dose but also on the disease. The second puzzle is that it can be tricky to decide whether the person after the medicine is actually healthier or not. For example, lots of medicines have strange side effects, so it’s a trade-off or compromise, do you like your original problem better or worse than the cure.

    So a given work of art will have a different effect on different viewers, even supposing that they understand the language of the piece. Maybe a photograph portrays say some endangered giraffes. For somebody who doesn’t care much about animals, maybe this photograph can open their heart a bit to value more the other species on the planet. But then some folks might be stuck at loving just these nice big mammals or something, and the work might actually be a bit indulgent for that person, failing to help them expand their attention to beetles or fish or whatever. This is all the first part of the puzzle: how does the work of art move the audience to a healthier mode of attention.

    But maybe the idea that we should value plants and animals in any way similar to the way we value humans, maybe this idea is abhorrent. We can flip the example. Maybe a work of art could portray say some brave hunter. Ha, Feathered Pipe Ranch in Montana is a yoga retreat. In the yoga room there is the trophy head of an elk hanging over the fireplace. Not really compatible with the vegetarianism generally associated with yoga! But the owner of the retreat tells the story of the hard winter back in 1910 or whenever it was, when folks in the neighborhood were starving. This big elk wandered into the garden so I think it was the local preacher who shot it. That elk fed folks through the winter. You might say that the elk sacrificed its own life to save the many lives. So they keep the elk head mounted in the yoga room to honor the sacrifice of the elk. Anyway some folks think hunting is horrible and some folks think hunting can have genuine positive value. A work of art that shows positive value in hunting, that opens up the audience to see positive value in hunting… does medicine make people healthier or sicker?

    Not a very concise response, sorry! But to get past the over-simplification of dualism… the space needs to be opened up!

  79. My take on this topic. I am an artist, it is only a secondary career, perhaps best described as a hobby which brings in some income. I generally stay with representational art, wildlife and landscapes of the colder parts of the earth, and a bit of sci-fi and fractals.

    Though I greatly enjoy both the artistic challenge of producing a pleasing work, and the technical challlenge of making that happen with the computer-generated art that occupies some of my time, especially 3D modeling; I make art because, not because I want to, but because I have to. If I go more than 2-3 days without engaging in some artistic activity or another I begin feeling antsy. Other artists I know tell me essentially the same thing about themselves.

    That being said, I think the real reason for my art is to make images that I enjoy looking at. Sometimes for stress relief from the day job, sometimes it is pure escapism; most often just because I like them even though I have never been completely satisfied with the results. I am not much into touch-feely concepts, but my art is very important to me. Maybe I am expressing myself for myself. That friends and family also like my work is also rewarding. That I have a small, but steady income from sales never ceases to amaze me.

    I find the idea of the Big Name Painter who does little or nothing to be extremely dishonorable.

    The saddest thing about much modern art is not that the public will buy it, thinking it is art; but that the artists themselves believe it to be art.

  80. AuntLili

    “…11 minute piece by a contemporary Canadian composer…”

    Would that be Zosha Di Castri?

    I looked her up on YouTube and listened for a few minutes. Very few.

  81. In regards to the first point about the quality of art.

    If you are doing art just for yourself, for the joy of creation regardless of talent and just for personal purposes – then I say all the power to you. Play every note wrong, rhyme “chair” with “floor”, pain with fish sauce. Make trash, it is your trash for your own consumption. The only people you will expose to it is yourself.

    It is when you start to present it to others that the public critic factors come in. As you said two weeks ago about bad poetry at Pagan festivals, it is fine at home but in public it is cringe worthy. When the artists intentions are presented in a public setting that the skill of execution becomes important.

    There is a somewhat interesting aspect to bad art from artists that are, for all intents, anonymous. ‘The Museum of Bad Art’ is a good example. A place where personal artwork with questionable talent is on show but without any of the artists intended context. Essentially intellectual schadenfreude but without the ego.

  82. Only tangentially related, but this for-profit Ed Corp is apparently shuttering about 1/3 of its campuses, this one nearby included.

    In other news, the “everything bubble” looks increasingly unstable. (Not sure why my thoughts are wandering to dried onions and poppy seeds all of a sudden…)

    Of course this is from a gold bug, but it’s interesting to see this idea pacing the meadow with a heavier tread of late. Can’t help but wonder if the art-as-wealth-storage bubble is among the candidates.

    Thanks again, everybody, for such a great open post last week!
    Tripp out (and back to bed, now that the fire is rumbling again)

  83. Isabelcooper

    “…eminently punchable young men who identify deeply with Holden Caufield…”

    Now that you bring that up, at sixteen Holden was my hero. I revisited him in middle age, and while the writing was still good, the novel still worked, Holden had become a spoiled brat who needed a kick in the pants.

  84. Is it essentially a mashup of a ‘fool and his money are easily parted’ and ‘the emperor has no cloths’ with regards to the commodification of art?

    In all fairness ‘a fool’ is probably too harsh and off the mark. Many if not all probably secretly don’t like the art their investing in, but they hope/believe that others believe that it has value. I remember a conversation I had with a friend who traded one step more abstract that CDOs squared (wtf!?!) and he openly omitted it was paper, backed by paper, squared, backed by paper. I remember seeing a group chat circa 2008 where the whole house of cards (squared? I loose track) came down and the ‘market’ for these product imploded. No one had any idea what anyone had, because no one had anything tangible. It was a huge mess of spaghetti IOUs. In essence it becomes a game of pass-the-parcel with a hand grenade until it blows up, with the imp-like brokers facilitating the mania. The main problem is that many (looking at you pension funds) had no idea this is what they were doing. AAA, seems good! Right…… 🙁

    An additional issue that is rarely talked about, is we all have to be speculators now. You can’t just leave your money in the bank, as interest rates (if your getting one) can’t beat the rate of inflation.Not to mention neither can peoples wages. I wonder if this and other ‘investments’ are more the noise surrounding the signal (wtf does ‘WhatsApp do that has any value, FB?) A sign of the endgame? It’s sad that many will left out in the cold oblivious to what’s happened, however, this is what were all supposed to do, and for many previous generations it worked. Most work hard and save, and don’t have the time to really understand what it is they’re putting their money in, and if they did, then what? Or worse, you do. and then your a social pariah. Bring this up in and outside of polite circles and it’s tumbleweed for days!! Knowing the path AND walking it WHILE still earning a wage. Doable, but not an easy road for many.

    Do you think at some point you’ll discuss other areas of investments? For example social capital, or learning new skills as we get dragged kicking and screaming towards the future we didn’t order, but are going to get anyway? (>_<)

  85. Great article.

    As a painter I have been thinking, for the last 50 years, about this question “what is art for?”.

    First as a general and ‘formalist’ principle I think that: “Without technique what we express seems unfinished and without meaning it is as if what we express were shallow”.

    Digging deep into the origins of art I discovered the following:
    1. visual signs are captured by the eyes and transmitted to the brain for analysis and decision making
    2. very early on the (wo)men of knowledge discovered that they could use this specificity of visual signs to transmit meaning in the minds of their fellow tribesmen
    3. to satisfy her/his prime task at ensuring the survival and the reproduction of the tribe over time the shaman, or (wo)man of knowledge, shared visual signs with her/his fellow tribesmen to induce a common vision of reality in their minds.
    4. the sharing of a common vision of reality by all individuals in a group or society is boosting its cohesion which is the prime ingredient ensuring societal stability and the reproduction of a society over time
    5. beauty attracts the attention of the viewer and so it maximizes the viewing by the members of a society
    6. the power of visual signs to convey meaning to the brain was used as one of the most important instruments in all societies — or to share the worldview of the (wo)men of knowledge of the day for the society to be cohesive, — or in the form of propaganda, for minorities in power, to control their large populations
    7. visual signs were labeled with the word “art” (in its presently know artistic and exceptionalist sense) during the European Enlightenment. So it is a recent European appellation that does not necessarily fit with the understanding of visual signs in the rest of the world (lets not forget; the rest of the world being 90% of the world population!).

    I observed that these principles apply all along the path of societal evolution to all its societal forms:
    1. in tribes the shaman shared her/his worldview (vision of reality) to her/his fellow tribesmen to ensure a maximized tribal cohesion. And so tribal (wo)men of knowledge and image makers were one and the same person in each tribes.
    2. in power societies, empires and kingdoms, the (wo)men of knowledge of the day were the priests who were in charge of the interpretation of the creed. Crafters of visual signs or image makers were then giving representations of the priests interpretation of the creed. In general religious (wo)men of knowledge and image makers were distinctive persons. Representations of the creed later came to be known as religious art. In parallel to visual art power societies started to use visual signs as propaganda instruments to further control their populations.
    3. in Early-Modernity the man of knowledge was the long distance merchant who commissioned image makers working for the church to illustrate their new values of individualism, the reason at work within capital and private property. As a result, along the whole of Early-Modernity (14 to 19th century in Europe), the content of art works were invariably one of 3 imposed subjects: — portraits of those living in the mansion, still on their tables, and landscapes around the mansion. Again we have 1 person imposing the content of the work and another person as image maker.
    4. in High-Modernity, with Modernism, the (wo)men of knowledge had disappeared from the scene and the artist was left on his own to devise the content of her/his work. This did not turn out well and confusion soon established “whatever” as a possible artwork.
    5. in Late-Modernity (1980-today) confusion still reigns supreme. Everyone has her/his own take on what art is all about. But some pearls are starting to peak out of the chaff that give early representations of what is coming our way societally…

  86. Dear JMG: About the pendulum swinging the other way: by that do you mean to explore the connections between mimesis, making art that is ‘not about you’, and the forces in the landscape (Tamanous and Sobornost)?

    Also, I wonder if today’s truly great art is hidden in plain sight. It may be, that if the long descent wasn’t a factor, some pop music would, in say 200 years, be seen to be as great as some classical music. Michael Jackson, to me, is a Mozart type figure: they seem to share a love of pure musical sensation that somehow feels similar to me, and Jackson’s music communicates his own perspective on music while simultaneously being enjoyable to many. I could imagine that music students might be learning about Michael Jackson music in several hundred years (again, pretending that the long descent doesn’t exist for a second).

    Obviously I can’t predict how history will sort out today’s art into the canon, but it seems to me that a lot of artists who are so popular that many nowadays almost take for granted will have a good chance to make it into the canon, and that they are taken for granted is a factor which will place them into it. Film composer John Williams also comes to mind as a candidate for the canon. But I could be wrong in all of this…

    @cyborgk2016: ‘Ultimately, classical tonal structures are fractal patterns of tension and release…’ What do you mean by your continued use of the term ‘fractal’ in this context? Just curious!

  87. After posting my comment I quickly Googled the connection between Michael Jackson and Mozart, and apparently it’s not a new idea. I must have read about it in the past and forgotten it until now.

    Also, in case anyone is interested, the pianist John Mortensen is running a series of monthly video lectures teaching historical piano improvisation in the Baroque style. I’ve been learning from them and practicing since he started in August, and they are great. There’s a small monthly fee, but it’s worth it. Here’s the link:

  88. Carlos M,

    I couldn’t agree with you more and I have also thought about the incredible architecture that is available, not only in churches although most often places of worship. I have seen buildings in India (on film) that are so magnificent; their beauty is uplifting to the soul and meanwhile very poor peasants are walking around, going about their day. Or consider a peasant living in a hovel but when they go to church they enter a beautiful cathedral. And that cathedral is THEIRS. I visited the gardens at Cambridge once and it was an absolute highlight of my life.

    That is one of my beefs against today’s crop of rich people. They leave no such legacies.

  89. @JMG and Keith:

    “Keith, that maxim of yours — ‘when you take things to their conclusion you tend to conclude them” — is a keeper. Thank you! ”

    That is a good one, but let’s don’t forget this one:

    ‘Conclusions are what you come to when you’re tired of thinking.’

    A fine tension there!

  90. @Phil Ayliffe

    Re “It was a dark and stormy night…”

    Your first draft brought up a flood of memories of an early childhood spent reading though a volume of collected Peanuts cartoons my family had (and which has since been passed down to my daughter). That subplot of Snoopy laboring endlessly at his typewriter was one of my favorites of the entire series. Thank you for that — it made me smile in fond recollection 🙂

  91. I’m starting a novel for “Love in ruins”. I’ve been brainstorming with a friend for a story, and we came out with a scenario in which people stopped worshipping progress, and came back to religions.

    So, in our story, some characters will be Christians, some will be Jews, and some will be Muslims.

    Is it acceptable? Or is the theme too sensible?

  92. “Onething, what do you mean by beauty?”

    I’ve been stymied for half an hour. It’s a question as big as life. Perhaps if I narrow it down. Is there art that isn’t beautiful? I’m thinking of a painting I saw of a massacre. That’s communication, too, but isn’t it also beautiful. The painting itself was very skilled but it’s goal was to communicate, soul to soul. If one brings to mind the moral problems of the human race, that painting may be a tiny step in the viewers’ soul journeys. If it increases the wisdom their souls contain, that is beauty.

    There is natural beauty, which is not human art, but who is immune to it? As a child, I thought all cities were ugly because the only one I saw was ugly. I thought humans only detracted from the surrounding beauty of nature. But I have seen many places, especially in Asia, where incredible architecture is set within a scene of natural beauty and enhances it. And when I see something like that, it provokes great love and admiration in me for the human race. I see our greatness, our ability to take the handiwork of God and add to it our own handiwork in a way that enhances and adds depth.

    Many people who have had NDEs say that there is a plane, perhaps like Plato’s realm of ideas, where things are of indescribable beauty. And when I think of those gardens in Cambridge, I felt that surely I was not far from the beauty of that plane. It was like being in heaven.

    One also hears descriptions of great music there. If it is true, and if we do reincarnate, then perhaps the art forms which so uplift us do so because they quicken our hope and faith in things unseen, yet dimly remembered and deeply longed for.

    There is of course skill, none of which provokes more admiration in me than sculpture. How can a person chip away at stone and end up with something like that? So perfect.

    The skill shows human intelligence, creativity, will. It was said that ritual is the poetry in a world of actions. Art is like that. The deliberate creation of beauty. Rituals are deliberate acts, repetitive acts, acts filled with symbolic meaning. Acts taken for purely sacred reasons. I imagine in heaven we will not talk but sing to one another, and it will rhyme, because our minds will be so unfettered.

    I’m not talking of the Christian heaven but the universal heaven, without dogma.

    So I suspect beauty is divine or reminds us of the divine. Beauty is what we want. It is a luxury that we want to have in overflowing abundance. It is true riches. That is why it is so important that the world’s people and the world’s poor have access to it.

    One time I was looking at pictures of Turkey, and ended up with a whole slew of photos of public baths. They were incredible! Amazing mosaics. Probably built by some rich sultan. And yet I was once visiting Manhattan and there was a very small park with a freestanding public bathroom in it. This bathroom had sculptures and mosaic tiles inlaid. It was one of the loveliest buildings I’ve ever seen! It stabs me to realize that such things are no longer being added to our world.

    Still I cannot define it, except to say I know it when I see it.

  93. @Robert Matthiesen: I like all of Machen’s works I’ve read. My library has the Whipple book you mentioned. It seems realy intriguing, especially what he has to say about the land, so I’m going to go pluck it from the stacks today and add it to my reading pile.

    @JMG: I would add a dulcimer to my instruments at home. And I like to listen to dulcimer music. My tastes in music are very broad, and somewhat akin to what you described as your reading habits. I like listening to indie guitar pop-rock, and my wife and I will be seeing a Prokofiev concert from the city orchestra in February. I like jazz, but generally lean towards trumpet or piano leads over saxophone (Alice Coltrane placing the harp as a lead in jazz was a stroke of genius), electronic music of various stripes, on to the far reaches of what was once avant-garde or experimental, but by this point, has become common practice for musicians. I like folk music too.

    I find in the Avant-Garde end of music, more connections to “speculative” music and it’s connections to magic, mysticism and hermetic/western traditions (as well as eastern esoteric traditions…but I’m more interested in western). The books of Joscelyn Godwin are a good place to start for those interested in pursuing this stuff.

    Avant-Garde visual art never appealed to me so much. Except surrealism. But then in a Max Ernst painting I can still tell what is going on and find it very moving.

    I’ve been doing a stint at the community radio station again (from this past August until January when my friend gets back from Colorado and can take over his show again). I invite anyone who is interested in eclectic styles of music to visit my website where I have some archived recordings of these radio shows.

    A few might be of interest to this discussion:
    Bootgazing! American & Hobo Music:
    Stillness & Silence: Ambient music episode:
    Folk music (including a whole set of harp music):

    & This one is an interview I did with Thomas Witherspoon of the Shortwave Listening Post website all about the shortwave radio listening hobby & amateur radio stuff:

    There are lots of other things there too.

  94. JMG, et al.–

    Lots of wandering thoughts today. Think what I’d rather do is popcorn them into separate vessels. First, Beckett. There is A LOT more going on with that guy than meets the eye. Check out his interesting short play “Not I.” It features a pair of lips seen in the dim light and a mysterious figure in black who raises their arms at certain points in this piece. It might not seem like anything to read, but boy is it powerful in performance. One’s eyes become absolutely mesmerized by this disembodied pair of lips speaking about “the buzzing.” People can fill in their own blanks. His last piece, which I think was simply entitled “Play” is really more a dance piece, and there are youtube videos of productions of it. It ‘s one of those rare pieces that actually translates well to youtube.

    Beckett, don’t forget, was James Joyce’s secretary for many a year, while the latter was an ex-pat in Paris. After the encyclopedic Joyce, the only place for a man like Beckett was in nothingness and absence. He had to have absorbed a lot of information and insights, yes? Indeed, lots of forgettable works have been spawned by this idea, but absence as a theme or tool to play with can provide some interesting experiments. Beckett actually inspired my favorite playwright ever, the recently departed Maria Irene Fornes. She saw “Godot” in French, and even though she didn’t understand a word of it, she knew what was happening, and went home and wrote her first play.

    A couple of worthy examples: “The America Play” by Suzan-Lori Parks has as its setting, “The Whole/Hole of History,” and plays on the contrast of those homonyms. The main character is a black guy who looks “just like Abraham Lincoln” and is part of a circus act where people can pretend to be John Wilkes Booth and shoot him at Ford’s Theater while he’s laughing at the comedy onstage. Jon-Robin Baitz did a play called “The Substance of Fire,” and the essential conflict of the relationships between the different characters is never disclosed. A hilarious play: “The God of Carnage” by Yasmina Reza is liberating–it dispenses with back-story and just throws characters into a conflict and at different points all 3 of the other characters gang up on the 4th, one by one. (I saw a production of the work that had just 2 performances. The night I saw it? We all were howling at how funny it was. The next night, everyone took it for reals, shedding light on their sad existences. That FASCINATES me that a script can have such wildly different responses! It’s a movie too, called simply “Carnage” with John C. Reilly, Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz.)

    In addition to the concept of absence is that of palimpsest. Adrienne Kennedy, another African-American woman writer from the 1960s, wrote “A Movie Star HAS to Star in BLACK AND WHITE,” which overwrote classic scenes from American movies with passages from the journal of a black girl growing up at the time. Strange to see a white woman, playing Bette Davis in Dark Victory, but uttering words of a 14-year-old black child. Overwriting bold expressions of dominant culture with allegedly weaker voices is a very interesting artistic technique. Gore Vidal called his autobiography “Palimpsest” which is a rather interesting point to contemplate. Parks also did one like that, revisiting Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter” with a play called “F*cking A,” where Hester Prynne’s A is for “abortionist” rather than “adulterer.” (Whoa!) FYI, Parks’s style for me is hit-and-miss. Sadly, there are plays where I think… “I could have written that. And thus? I don’t like it.” Which is more about me than the play, mind you. But on the plus side, perhaps I have some chops of my own? We shall see.

  95. There are two definitions of art that they teach at art schools, aside from the ones you mentioned.

    1. Art evokes an emotion.
    The emotion isn’t necessarily positive, and often these days something negative. The difference between the hum of your refrigerator or the thumping of your dryer and John Cage’s music is you have an emotional response to Cage. For me usually along the lines of ‘what is this trash?’ Same with Cy Tombley’s depiction of war done in crayon and painted over. He is making you go “what is going on here”, and so ta-da it is art.

    2. Art makes a political statement (fights for social justice).
    A lot of art schools want students who preach politics to go out and do their art in public. But it is only social justice politics. We’ve watched many a video for art schools showing their students doing art representing the struggles of let’s say lesbian women of color. Not shown is art representing the white rural workers of Alabama, except as a statement on how racist they are. MICA in Baltimore specifically has as part of their application process to submit a portfolio showing your views on political and social issues. I dared my daughter to submit a collage of Trump photos and tweets but she feared either being banned from every art school in the country figuring these folks network with each other, or being hunted down on social media or in person.

    Both the above definitions, along with yours on self-expression, explains why there is so much ugliness in the art world these days. It is much easier to evoke anger, repulsion, sadness, and confusion from people than awe, wonder, and inspiration.

    Didn’t Kunstler say that architecture is done for other architects and not for the people who live in and near the buildings? Art strikes me the same way. Art is done for other artists and not for the people who experience it.

    In our home, art is a conduit to put beauty into the world. There are not many ways to add beauty, although an endless way to take beauty away, so that is the definition we settled on. None of us care that the world doesn’t use that definition. It’s like our own subversive way to be in the world and our daughter at art school.

  96. As a screenwriter, we get schooled in genre, and that does have a lot to do with marketing. One must accept it that, if we are going to work with producers, we must consider how they play, and Genre is a key business decision. That being said, I feel this is a place where business and art can shake hands productively. I seem to be up for writing gay romantic comedies, though I’m now in a 30-day screenplay challenge where I am trying to write a cross-genre “action comedy.” When I was learning the craft of playwriting, I was grateful to work with a professor who was determined to teach “the well-made play.” His concept was that one should learn to write this hoary bird mostly because its structure still works. I don’t feel I’ve ever mastered it, but I do appreciate it. In grad school I took a class with former theater critic Michael Feingold on Modern Drama, and we had to read all of Henrik Ibsen’s plays, post Peer Gynt. All of his plays seem to have echoes of what was to come, and at the end of his career, he felt the breath of crazy August Strindberg in his rear-view. (“When We Dead Awaken” is an unintentionally funny play the Norwegian wrote in reaction to the insane Swede’s new direction. I for one am very grateful to have read that one.)

    Regarding art–I’m not exactly sure what I think it is. For me it’s evolving, It’s a moving target at the moment, but it involves so many things–including the economic and the political. And now the spiritual/magical as well. I’m beginning to feel the need to embed some magical ideas in my work. I’ve done it with poetry, and I’ll share a couple of poems soon. But this is a provocative topic. More to come!

  97. A few weeks ago I read and then reread _A Midsummer Night’s Dream_, laughing all the way through. Something I found very salient in it were the Mechanicals; Quince, Snug and of course Bottom. In the play there is literally another one, and in the finale all of the laughter comes at the cost of the earnestly bad theatre.

    Now fast forward a few hundred years; this genre of mocking earnest theatre has become perhaps the main genre; we can consider the play _Noises Off_ ( it pretty much inflates the Mechanicals into the entire show and needs a revolving stage to make it work. And it is very, very funny. Of course there is also the long running _Science Mystery Theater 3000_ which just mocks poorly done films. More recently still, an ensemble of British actors have put together _The Play That Goes Wrong_, in which the real star is undoubtedly the Set which so creatively breaks with comic hijinks. Rather than having Moonshine and Wall they have all sorts of tightly scripted technical malfunctions. Also, if you look at popular youtube creators, many of their stock in trade concerns little more than ridiculing earnestly bad videos.

    What I find interesting about this is the degree in which this ridicule is that it is very popular among people at large. Often in conversation people say they would rather see a bad movie they can laugh at rather than a good movie.

    One thing that I wonder is if the medium of theatre and film especially contribute to this mindset; in film you have the camera and the camera acts as the surrogate perspective of the audience. In this way the experience is very tightly curated, but also, consider that the camera doesn’t speak, and is rarely addressed. The audience then is treated mostly like a cipher. This is more true with better films than bad ones.

    Perhaps with film and theatre ridicule people feel in a small way that they reclaim agency. They talk back, they’re snarky and they prove themselves the wiser than the dupes on screen or stage who are constrained by the medium. Perhaps too the audience finds itself sick of ugly pretentious art and enjoys the revenge that their groans, boos, chortles and cringes entail. Of course ridiculing the earnestly bad does seem to walk a tight rope walk over being earnestly bad itself. Shakespeare could make something genuinely amazing and I’d argue so did Michael Frayn with _Noises Off_, but much of this derisive comedy genre seems to me little more than mean-hearted bullying of someone who isn’t there, which reads as more than a little insane. ‘Im curious peoples’ thoughts on this phenomenon, if they might be so inclined, since there are so many ways of reading it.

  98. Almost all the “artists” I know personally are in search of a lifestyle or scene or identity. Creating “art” for them seems to be secondary to being an “artist”.

  99. I want to stick a giant pin in the inflated argument out there that “artists are driven to create and it just comes out”. Yes, the PR and pithy bios we get on artists certainly make it look that way. The reality I’ve seen is much different. Artists spend long hours learning technique and perfecting it in the classical/traditional methods first. Ballet dancers spend 6 hours a day 6 days a week in the studio learning how to get each muscle in their body to respond in exactly the expected way. Studio artists are the same working and reworking their drawing, painting etc to figure out how to get what they see in their mind out in reality.

    Art is a discipline and a practice. It’s not a set thing that just pops out.

    There are a lot of working artists creating unique lines of greeting cards so people can send something meaningful to someone, partnering with authors to create children’s books, and the plethora of unique and delightful art work on Etsy – all ways that they infuse art into life and its completely underrated hard work.

  100. I just free-form much atonal wanted how to communication say abstract enjoy and forms of I!

  101. Read through the comments and saw you asked Onething what was meant by beauty. I used it in our definition of art, so here is our working definition (your mileage may vary).

    Beauty is present when we find ourselves expanding our view of the world to see more of what is possible for ourselves, others and the world around us. It breaks down barriers. It shows us how we are more than our physical beings, and connected to each other. It inspires. It holds people up. It warms the soul.

    Aside from art, religious practice is the only other way I know to get more of that definition of beauty into the world. We’ve degraded the traditional religions worship practices, and made “modern” art, dance and music. I find it no wonder we are so lost, suicidal and addicted to drugs these days. We’ve resulted to regulating and forcing people to be connected (diversity requirements, being on Facebook or else you’ll miss out). Where is the beauty?

  102. JMG,

    Of course there’s a difference between wanting to please an audience and wanting to communicate something to an audience. One is a more reliable way of making a living than the other, for starters.

    Is the desire for art and the desire to communicate the same impulse? As far as I’m concerned, no, although some people certainly combine them well.

  103. Someone mentioned rap music above. I had the related thought that its advent represented a craving for poetry. When the elite abandoned rhyme and meter, that left it wide open to be reclaimed by the street.

  104. Also a quick note to David and Will;
    Thank you both for such enthusiasm!
    Agreed! Some poetry gives quite a thrill
    But ‘tween the good and bad spans a chasm
    And my verse tends towards naiveté
    Since I am but learning details of form
    And editing meter can take all day
    So I could be reluctant then to perform
    That said, to write can only make better
    And thanks for the encouragements!
    With joy will I share this little letter
    For fear of failure should not undermine
    The bravery required to share a rhyme!

  105. Mr Greer and all the commenters here,

    Ah, the arts!! Love the subject; enough to spend a good part of each day immersed in the visual arts. As always, the comment section of this blog is rich with thoughtful opinion and more. Thanks to all for that.

    Here’s a couple of cents worth from my thoughts:

    Two years ago I walked into Argentina’s National Museum of Art in Buenos Aires. Quite a lot of interesting older works were in evidence and some, in my opinion, were quite good. The kicker came when I walked into a small alcove with several smallish paintings by Goya of the firing squads doing their work during the war of 1808 (?). I’m guessing these are a part of his series of works about the ‘disaster of war’. It took me not more than an instant to realize that I was in the presence of some great art. After some moments of just absorbing the power of these images I stepped forward and looked closely at the paintings. I saw that the people shown in these works were not more than small smudges on canvas when looked at from a distance of a meter or so. The closer I got the less I could see. So my technical curiosity satisfied, I just stepped back again and let the images and their message sink in. That’s for me the great paradox inherent in art; in particular, what we call realistic art. The paintings were so real I could almost smell the gunpowder and the attendant fear. Yet the realism proved to be somewhat non-detailed, almost abstract, as I looked closer. Well, that ended my visit that day to the museum. I had to get outside and let the sun and breeze dry my eyes. This was, for me, some very moving work. I recall thinking that if enough people could see works like this, in the original, few would have the stomach to pursue the cruelties of war ever again.

    Somehow the experience I relate above has a lot to do with the purpose of art. I am a visual artist, not a writer, so my sense of what this experience meant is for me ineffable. And yet, I do know what I felt that day and that it had a profound effect on me.

    Best wishes to all, Aged Spirit

  106. A few years ago, I stumbled across Icononstasis by Father Pavel Florensky. Writing in Russia in 1922, five years after the establishment of the Soviet Union, he argues that the icons of the Orthodox Church are not art as the West understood it. Rather, they are a way of direct spirtual connection between the holy person depicted in the icon and the devout observor, a kind of mystical Skype connection, if you will. This, he argued, is why painters of icons were traditionally required to lead lives of exceptional holiness, because the painter had to be in mystical communion with the subject during the painting. Thus it doesn’t matter whether an icon of the Virgin Mary is painted in a modern or a traditional style; “Is it the Mother of God?”

    But according to your defintion, JMG, it sounds like art is exactly what they are.

  107. @Violet

    Good comedy is true art. I haven’t seen a theatrical version of Noises Off, bu the film version made me laugh so hard my stomach muscles were still sore the next day. And A Midsummer Night’s Dream…I must agree re the Mechanicals. I’m not a joiner, but I did play one in college theater 😉

    So, perhaps one purpose of Art is to give audiences side-cramps?

  108. JMG and Rita

    Your exchange, I think, goes to the heart of a rather heated argument I had with a friend about “Lolita”, which I know something about but have never read and of course my friend had read it and lauded the writing. I told my friend I couldn’t see any point to reading about such an ugly subject no mater how beautifully written. She in turn responded that she had nothing to share with me because I didn’t want to read this or any famous literature. We had to agree to disagree.

    Rita, your post and JMG’s response made me think that beautiful writing is suppose to make an ugly subject more real/readable then it deserves. I couldn’t articulate this to my friend at the time. I wished I could have argued that less lofty prose about a beautiful subject is also valid and to me more nourishing if I spend time reading it then “Lolita” would ever be.

    Is it possible that Nabokov is pulling a reverse Marcel Duchamp here and with his oh so beautiful writing tricking everyone into believing that he has written the finest novel in the English language (my friend made that claim and she said that literary scholars also make that claim) instead of just an ugly piece of “true crime” fiction?

  109. @Ben Johnson on buying beer to keep – duh! Do they also preserve their bacon cheeseburgers, or their fish & chips?

    @KKA on angel music – Mendelssohn at his best.

  110. Re perception, class, and Art

    Violet, your mention of A Midsummer Night’s Dream brought up another memory of that collegiate experience. (My only other college theater was Samuel Beckett, so I kinda got the two ends of the spectrum.) The guest director we had was talking to the cast near the beginning of our rehearsal schedule and told us a story about a production he’d seen years ago. An upper-society mother and daughter (IIRC) he knew left the theater in the middle of the play. When he asked them why, they looked at him disdainfully and said: “The audience was laughing. At Shakespeare!”

  111. “grunt-and-squirt sort of detail…” Considering my past connections in the gay (San Fernando) Valley porn industry, I’d like to suggest creating the “Porn and Unconventional Relationships in the Ruins” group on Fetlife. (looking directly @ Isabel). How will the randy pre-Christian, polytheistic past guide sex in the post-Christian, post-industrial future as we continue to shed Christian industrial puritanism? What sorts of resources will be allocated to porn and “accessories” in deindustrial future shaped by scarcity and limits? Many “accessories” are a part of the industrial system, so what kinds of “accessories” can be available on a post-industrial resource base? How to insure that these things are preserved for the future adventuresome? What space will be carved out for unconventional relationships in the deindustrial future? How open or secretive will they be? Power exchange? Poly? Tantric? All topics to explore in our new group…

  112. I have been wrestling with a comment for some time. I may continue to midwife it into fuller embodiment later, but for now I’ll give the pithy verdion:

    What’s missing from this conversation is that Art is a form of life, and good art is full of it. (Whereas bad art is just full of it.)

  113. Well, since “Love in the Ruins” is taken, perhaps we should go back to “Love after Oil”–might fit better w/the deindustrial Fabio theme… 😛

  114. @ Kay, Rita, & JMG (if I may)

    Re Lolita

    I have read that work and it is masterfully done. To write something like that from the perspective of the perpetrator in such a way as to see inside the man even as he does what he does takes incredible skill. I recall that Nabokov said something along the lines that he wanted to write the story such that the reader would condemn Humbert to Hell for all eternity, except for one day a year when he would be allowed walk in the sun. And he pulled that off, I’d argue. (The Jeremy Irons film version, with Dominique Swain in the titular role, came close as well, IMHO.)

  115. @ pretentious

    “As for art sweatshops: I think you’re missing the deeper pattern there, JMG. A conversion from skilled independent craftsmen to menial unskilled labor and dedicated overseers? That’s the same process that happened to farming and cottage industry in the First Industrial Revolution and skilled craft labor in the Second, and it’s by no means limited to the art world these days; it’s happening in academia (where worker and overseer are spelled postdoc/grad student and PI, respectively), medicine, law, and other white collar fields.

    I suspect it’s rooted quite deep in Faustian culture; it occurred to me a few weeks back that the structure of the modern corporation is exactly what you would expect if you iterated the concept of an elect (spelled “boss”) bringing the correct way to the unenlightened masses (“workers”).”

    Well spotted, pretentious, and very well described. All that you are missing is the icing on the cake, wherein the “boss” is re-written as the hero of the day as a “job creator” (the previous destruction of the skilled craftsniche must not be noticed). I presume this icing will shortely be added to the new domains you mention in which the deeper pattern is manifesting.

  116. A picture of an aurora may look abstract to someone who has never seen an aurora. A picture intended as just color and form could resemble an aurora. Either way, the result is simply a beautiful picture.

  117. Ben Johnson- the craft beer trading culture, secondary resale markets and lining up for beer releases are such miserable stages in the evolution of American craft beer. But alas it is where craft beer is right now. I believe it will continue on the snob path imitating wine culture at least until the next recession when disposable income becomes a little tighter for craft beer consumers who are very low end luxury consumers. There are some glimmers of hope within the craft beer culture as some brewers are exploring the limits of their craft, harkening back to older methods and cultivating relationships with local farmers to began to formulate a terroir for their products. My hope is that current explosion of craft breweries translates into a more localized economy/culture of beer in a future with higher transportation costs and general decline.

    As far as aging beer higher alcohol styles like imperial stouts and barleywines taste great with a few years of cellaring on them.

  118. Bird, thanks for this. As usual, I find plenty of more interesting ground in the middle between Watterson’s somewhat prissy standoffishness and Schultz’ enthusiastic wallowing in lucre. Commercialization, after all, is one of the ways we as a society adopt an image as part of our collective imagination; it’s also one of the ways that an artist can make some decent money off his or her work — not a minor thing for those of us who have bills to pay! There are things I won’t permit to be done with my fiction if I can possibly prevent it, but if (let’s say) The Weird of Hali takes off and becomes popular, I’m not going to object to tee shirts, bumper stickers, tabletop RPGs (I’ve had some amused thoughts about how to stand The Call of Cthulhu game on its head), et al., and will almost certainly edit and publish a series of fanfic anthologies.

    Emmanuel, that’s delightful! Thank you. I’m quite sure that artists rarely grasp more than a part of what they’re creating — the roots of creativity go deep into the unplumbed corners of the mind — and of course some works have more of that quality than others; in my case, it was The Weird of Hali: Innsmouth and then The Shoggoth Concerto that boiled up out of nowhere, the former so forcefully that I ended up writing a 70,000 word novel in eight weeks. (Retrotopia was a much more consciously planned work, though there were scenes and details I didn’t expect until I got there.)

    Jim, good. A fuller answer was what I was after rather than a more concise one.

    Psyborg, fair enough. I really have no idea what would happen if I tried not to write for a week or two; my income depends so directly on churning out prose that I haven’t made the attempt in more than a quarter century, and given the state of the economy (and my very modestly sized readership), I don’t expect to stop writing until they pull the keyboard out from under my cold stiff fingers.

    Monk, not for a very long time.

    Michael, thanks for the Museum of Bad Art link! I’ve sometimes wondered if an anthology of Really Bad Fantasy Fiction would be worth doing — of course Jim Theis’ “The Eye of Argon” would have to lead the baying pack. The thing is, almost everyone starts out creating crap. My early fantasy novels are really, really, really bad. George Scithers used to say that every writer has a couple of million words of bad writing in his or her brain, and the only way to get past them to the good stuff is to write them all down. The point, as you’ve indicated, is that other people don’t deserve to be subjected to this stuff…

    Tripp, l’ve been told by people in the academic industry that there are studies circulating quietly that show that over the next ten years or so, due to economic shifts, something like half of US colleges and universities are going to have to shut their doors permanently — including some very big names. It occurs to me that if the stock market keeps plunging and endowment funds get hit hard enough, we may be on the verge of that right now.

    Lew, I suppose somebody had to say it!

    CAtonThemAT, a nice summary. I’ve talked at some length on the old blog about learning skills, and social capital isn’t really something you want to learn about from a guy with Aspergers syndrome, but I may discuss both of them at some point as we proceed.

    Laodan, your formalist principle seems pleasantly sensible to me. The historical analysis, maybe a bit less so — I’m not sure the power relationships in which art is caught up are as central to the meaning of art as you’ve suggested.

    Jbucks, I think some of today’s great art is hidden in plain sight; history shows how often works dismissed as popular trash end up being the thing everyone remembers a few centuries down the line. (Again, Shakespeare’s the great example.) The difficulty faced by Michael Jackson et al. is that their art is preserved in an appallingly short-lived medium, and unless something less temporary is found, it’s going to vanish without a trace. That’s what happened to Roman music; there was a vast amount of it, vocal and instrumental, and all that survives of it is one fragment of one melody that takes 25 seconds to play.

    Thank you for the news about John Mortenson! It’s really good to hear that someone’s revived the lovely, lively improvised music of the Baroque and is passing it on.

    Matthias, thank you! Yes, in fact, I did. Sonnets are easy; the rules are straightforward, and I highly recommend writing one a day as a good basic training in composition.

    There was a day when any honest wight
    Could shape a sonnet in a moment’s time,
    Weaving together lines that scan and rhyme
    For his own and his listeners’ delight.
    Just as musicians learn to read at sight
    To gain more skill, so those who hope to climb
    By practice to the poet’s art sublime
    Might try these rules to make their sonnets right:

    Five feet (ten syllables) gives each line’s scheme;
    A free iambic rhythm sets the pace;
    The octave of eight lines propounds a theme,
    The sestet, six more, shows a different face.
    The rhyme schemes vary; you may choose the one
    That fitly finishes what you’ve begun.

    Sgage, good. A fine dinergy, in fact…

    Marco, that’s perfectly acceptable. As long as your story is a romance set in a deindustrial future, you may make it as reasonable as you like — and using the return to religion as an element in your future history is quite plausible, of course.

    Onething, excellent. Words like “beauty,” while they represent realities each of us can experience, have immense ambiguities when applied to a conversation like this one. That’s the point I wanted to make by asking that question, of course.

    Justin, by all means. I simply wasn’t sure if you knew that the history of the mountain dulcimer actually supports the argument you made about the role of drone instruments in American music. If the Scots-Irish population of the Appalachians hadn’t been so desperately poor since before they arrived, the bagpipe might have caught on, too; as it was, the instruments you hear in Appalachian folk culture are all things that a local craftsperson with hand tools and local resources can make for next to nothing, and even a simple bagpipe is out of reach given those limitations.

    Richard, interesting. I wonder if some of the effect of plays like the ones you’ve mentioned depend on having an ordinary nervous system; I’m not greatly into drama in general — by and large, I’d rather read a play than watch it — but Beckett-esque theater leaves me baffled and bored. That may well be my own limitations, though.

    Denys, thanks for this. I suppose vague nausea counts as an emotion, too!

    Richard, genre’s important in the fields in which I work, too. It took me a while to understand that genre isn’t just a matter of marketing; readers have expectations and preferences, and use genre as a convenient way of packaging those up. A genre such as fantasy fiction, for example, came into being because a lot of readers liked certain kinds of stories, and writers who liked to produce stories of those kinds figured out that labeling them “fantasy” would get them into the hands of an appreciative audience.

    Violet, that’s a fascinating point. I wonder if it’s connected to the change from theater as a social event in which audiences were expected to talk, eat and drink, and watch the show as it pleased them — standard practice well into the 19th century — to theater as a couple of hours of silent attentiveness on the events on stage.

    Tude, eww. Yeah, I’ve encountered that too.

    Denys, true enough. An artist may be driven to create, but unless there’s some serious practice time put in, and some learning as well — not all technique can be found by trial and error — what comes out of that drive can be perfectly dismal.

    Thank you also for the Kekmas tree. I suppose for some, Pepe is the reason for the season!

    Tripp, nifuyn!

    John, glad to hear it. I asked the question, of course, because it looked as though you were conflating the two in your earlier comment.

    Rollie, I think you’re quite correct. I’ve suspected for some time that in rap, what we’re hearing is the ancestral form from which the heroic epics of the next dark age will take off.

    Aged Spirit, I’ve had much the same experience looking at paintings by the Impressionists — the actual paintings themselves rather than photographs of them, which falsify the experience much more than I’d expected. Up close they’re paint in random blobs; stand back fifteen or twenty feet, and the eye reshapes them into stunningly vivid scenes. It’s a reminder of how much of our experience of the world is created within our minds…

    Joan, I think there’s another dimension at work there. Tibetan thangkas are the same way — they’re art, but they’re art empowered by religious practice to serve as a point of access to the divine. That’s something that art can do, but not all art — not even all great art — does it.

    Kay, good question. I haven’t read Lolita, and am not at all sure I’ll get around to it; if lit-crit types insist that it’s “the greatest novel in the English language,” that’s the kind of warning sign that leads me to neglect a book.

    Shane, you know, I’m going to leave that to you and anyone else who happens to be interested. Call me namby-pamby and excessively conservative, but that isn’t something I want to get into. At all.

  119. John–

    Re the Call of Cthulhu (I mean, Weird of Hali) RPG

    I so totally volunteer to help play-test that game!

    The basic mechanics could be very much the same, except that instead of fighting extra-dimensional creatures, of course, one is combating the scientific materialists. And in the place of sanity, we could have a rationality score, which operates in the reverse: when you hit 100% rationality, you become a follower of the Radiance…

  120. Much of what we think of as high culture had a history of popularity beyond its own time. Scattered across the American West in gold and silver rush towns of all sizes there are buildings labeled opera houses. This was not just a high class term for a dance hall. Touring companies presented Shakespeare, classical music and educational lectures in these buildings. Sometimes the audience was composed of drunken miners and other ‘rude mechanicals’ who did not fully understand what was going on–but recall also that cartoons of the 30s ane 40s were similarly larded with classical references–Bugs Bunny in drag as a Wagnerian Valkyrie and so forth. References to Shakespeare were common; just as contemporary films aimed at children may contain sly references to the pop culture of the parents.

    Years ago I attended a performance by massed Gospel choirs at my local Unitarian Universalist Church. An audience of mostly white, middle to upper-middle class people politely listening to the African-American choirs the way they thought music should be listened to–sedately, with polite applause at the end of each piece. The only song they dared move with was “We Shall Overcome.” All the time I was thinking “you’re not supposed to just listen to this, you’re supposed to feel it–if you don’t let the spirit in the whole thing is pointless.”

    I would complain that cuts to arts and music budgets in the schools have killed appreciation of the arts; however my experience is that bad teaching of so-called art appreciation can be equally fatal.

  121. John, et al.–

    Re Lolita

    It is an exceptionally well-crafted work, but wouldn’t go so far as to call it “the greatest novel in the English language.”

    That title clearly belongs to Dune 😉

  122. @JMG,
    understood. Part of consent, IMHO, is not exposing people to things they wish not to be exposed to. (Still waiting for Isabel 😉

  123. @Robert Mathiesen

    Thanks so much for the T.K. Whipple link. Been reading all the essays and am enjoying them. Very apropos to the Vine DeLoria posts from few months back as well.

  124. @JMG: Exactly–I think what art manages, when it really works, is conveying a perspective that’s different from that of the audience, and also, in the best cases, from that of the author’s contemporary views or day-to-day life or backstory or whatever. (There are historical novels in which immersion in day-to-day life is part of the point, but I’d argue that the best and most memorable of even those go well beyond that in their more general themes.) Machen’s transcendence, as Robert Mathiesen mentioned, is part of that. I think Lord of the Rings is a good example of worldview going beyond the circumstantial, The Last Battle a great one of what happens when message and opinion really gets in the way of the story, and most fantasy lit falls somewhere between them. I haven’t read enough Serious Modern Literature to say either way, but my personal inclination is that it goes too far toward “care about my personal experience,” whereas the best of Dickens and Austen and even Hemingway got back to what you describe as a way of seeing the world.

    @KL Cooke: Ha! Yeah, I feel like the good ones grow out of admiring him. 🙂 I had to read it in ninth grade, and I wasn’t a fan even then–but I’d already dated one mopey borehole by that time, so I’d developed something of a resistance to the type.

    @ShaneW: I’d have to set myself up with a FetLife account for it, but I’m in!

    On poetry: I’m enjoying it a lot, but will not be contributing–the last time I wrote any, it was in the throes of the breakup with aforesaid borehole, and it did not end up well. Picture the worst of country music crossed with the dregs of Lilith Fair. One day, gods willing, I’ll drink enough to kill the brain cells that still remember some lines of it.

  125. John–

    Re the “why” of Art

    I suspect that the answer ultimately is that there exists a set a different reasons, not all of which apply to each case. And I’d certainly agree that communication is a member of that set.

    In the instances to which I referred initially, where the artist is for whatever reason “driven” to create, would it be a plausible to think that in those cases what we might have is something from a higher plane (e.g. the Mental Plane) “pushing down” through the intervening planes and forcing itself into manifestation via the artist in question?

  126. My view of what is true art comes from I think Rupert Spira.

    He told a story of a famous painter living in the countryside who had spent the day painting a landscape and was heading home. On his way the painter met one of the local farmers and the farmer asked to see his painting. The painter obliged and and the farmer marvelled at the painting “I have never seen such a sight!”. And the painter answered “But don’t you wish you could.”

    I believe true art teaches us to see the world anew. It explores the aspects of reality not yet accessible to the common man or even the artist himself except via his medium. Jordan Peterson said something similar when speaking about the great composers who wrote music that addressed things we perhaps still lack the words to express, but we feel the meaning in the music.

    However, self-expression is still an important part of it, though perhaps not the personal self.In discussing Ukhtomskii’s concept of the dominant, Dr. Peat wrote the following:

    “In the United States, Manfred Clyne (a pianist and
    computer engineer) has demonstrated that feelings are
    recognizably expressed by movements as simple as
    pressing a lever with one finger, and that listeners will
    make a characteristic expressive gesture for compositions
    by a given composer, whether they have previously learned
    who composed them or not: What they are sensing and
    expressing is apparently the “dominant” of the composer,
    his “life-gesture.” Ukhtomskii used the term “the
    interlocutor” to describe the contact that occurs between
    people, whether it is direct, or through music, writing, art, or
    other work. It is this which allows a person to develop in
    himself a “dominant relative to the visage of another person,”
    and by means of this to enrich himself with impressions of
    the other’s internal life, to get new impulses for growth, and
    to get new understanding of himself. “

  127. “Love in the Ruins” would have been a fitting name for my short story, which I called “A Crack in the Wall”, as it hails from the theme of Pyramus and Thisbe, though differently.
    As it seems, it answers to every condition you mentioned above, only my “Ruins” are not those of the future, but of the ancient past. Does it matter? Ruins may look remarkably similar, be they from 2500 C.E., or from 500 A.D. In the end, people have to cope in the same fashion.
    Follow this link for some antique romance – 13 p.p.:

    Ronald Langereis

  128. A bit banal but I do banal very well. Art generally probably serves many purposes. One is to reflect on the environment of the artist (has someone said this?). Jeffrey Smart’s work appeals to me because it is so spare. Is this a push against the clutter we have created in so many ways on so many levels? Also abstract art comes from a time when the whole idea of boundaries was being questioned. Including art in this perspective is to be expected. Good to have the opportunity to reflect on this.

  129. Well, there’s the product of the creative impulse, and there’s the product of skilled craftsmenship. We can get quite decent novels, say, from a skilled craftsman, but while entertaining and informative, they don’t catch that spark.
    We can get horrible results from the creative impulse without craftsmanship, but sometimes you can see that spark in it, which explains the terrible quality of some runaway popular books, that I look at and think, dear God, could they not find someone with a second grade command of English grammar to edit this?

    A person can learn craftsmenship. The creative impulse is more elusive, but I’ve seen folks who dedicated themselves to craftsmenship sometimes suddenly attain it when they didn’t previously have it, so persistance in pursuit is not at all futile.

    It’s at the marriage of the two that we get Art.

    What is Art for? I don’t know, but without Art we would not be human. A friend says that humanity is where the rising ape meets the falling angel, which seems accurate enough to be useful, and perhaps the infiltration of the divine into the material is the cause of which Art is the symptom. Speaking from a Christian perspective, all which exists is the Art of the Creator, and being created in His image, we also are driven to create.

  130. “To my mind, at least, for something to be art it has to try to communicate…” Hmmm. If I come home to an empty house and improvise at the piano, I’d still call it art. I can certainly see art as a kind of magic – “change in consciousness in accord with will” – but perhaps the consciousness being changed does not need to be that of another human being; one could be trying to communicate with the spirit realm, with non-human consciousnesses in nature, even other parts of one’s self. Would that qualify?

  131. Pavel Florensky (whom Joan mentioned) was enormously insightful, and is widely respected in Russian Orthodox intellectual circles. To the best of my understanding, icons do indeed work for the baptized faithful as a sort of skype or videochat link with the Saint or Person depicted.

    And this brings me to another point. The centuries of Orthodox Christianity in Russia and the other Slavic countries produced an enormous body of what we would call art: icons and frescos, liturgical music of all sorts, lives of varying lengths devoted to Saints, likewise elaborate works of verbal art which were often, but not always, meant to be sung. Modern scholars have produced a very large body of critical editions and assessments of these individual creations of one or another artist.

    But there is a thing that most of these scholars have overlooked (with honorable exceptions among those who were or are traditional, practicing Orthodox themselves). With rare exceptions, each one of these individual creations–verbal, musical, painterly–was created specifically to be read or otherwise performed *in a certain precisely specified liturgical context*, not at random or as some person’s whim seized him. (The closest thing we have to this in our culture is Christmas carols, which it feels somehow “wrong” to sing outside of the Christmas season.) And most of these individual creations “nest” within other original creations by other artists of other times and places, which themselves “nest” within other, larger creations. (The manuscripts and early printings of these works, as a rule, state at the outset precisely where and when they are meant to “nest.” Modern scholarly editions often omit these few words, since the scholars themselves have no sense of their significance.)

    As a result of this, pretty much the entire body of pre-modern artistic creation–verbal, musical, painterly–in Slavic Orthodox lands is actually a single gigantic Gesamtkunstwerk, a single comprehensive, ever-expanding work of art created by many hands in the course of many centuries. Moreover, the sites where nesting occurs are dependent to a certain extent on the details of the Orthodox liturgical calendar and Easter-date patterns; as these details change from one year to the next (depending on the date of Easter), this gigantic Gesamtkunstwerk behaves somewhat like an enormous kaleidoscope, shifting its components from one year to the next as the calendar turns slowly from one year to the next. And the entire pattern repeats on a cycle that is 532 ( = 19 x 28) years long.

    So no single human as ever lived sufficiently long to witness a complete “performance” of that vast Gesamtkunstwerk. (So far as I know, there is nothing even remotely like this in Western art.)

    And so it is indeed a work of art, but a work of art beyond the capacity of any human to appreciate in its wholeness. Any definition of “art” that depends on a viewer’s (or listener’s) response to it, or an artist’s conception of it, cannot encompass a vast work of art of this sort.

    Anyone who wants to read more about this might loo at part 2 of this paper of mine:

    (You’ll need to log into to access it, but anyone can do that through facebook or gmail.)

  132. @JMG,
    in response to your response to Auntlili, does there ever come a point when we get a rebellion, whereby people rebel against the norms and say, “enough! I’m not doing this shale anymore!”

    well, elephants are among the smartest mammals out there, so, it wouldn’t surprise me if they could do good art…

  134. I was thinking about your attempt to define art. There is actually a definition of art that covers everything we see today. Consider that art is only a side effect of how our brains process information and that our brains are evolved in the service of survival/reproduction. To achieve these goals any mean is fair game, so faking it is as good as real art if you get money/sex/fame etc.

    Yes, this definition is way too broad but I wonder what do you think about the sources of art. I can think of the social glue (like a national hymn equivalent for a tribe), the biological drive (it’s been suggested that peer selection in humans was based on music/dance/painting similar to some birds) etc.


  135. Three times in my life I have seen the price of classic cars hit the stratosphere then crash, tens of millions lost by those that could afford the loss , one day the value of everything will crash , only if it has utility will it be worth anything , as my grandfather told me , ” buy land ,they cant make anymore of it “

  136. I encountered a recent example of (at least one of) the modern composers you refer to. My wife and I have been to several operas here in Los Angeles over the last five years or so, and we tend go (once or twice a season) to the better known operas – Puccini, Mozart, etc. Highlights include Placido Domingo in fine form as the titular lead in Gianni Schcchi, and a truly remarkable performance of The Magic Flute by a British company, 1927, where the Opera was portrayed in twenties era silent movie style, with most of the staging and background projected as animation onto the stage. (a trailer video ).

    This year we went to Satyagraha, by Phillip Glass. The best thing I can say about it is that the performers were magnificent, and the set and stage design were world class. The music and composition was at best interesting, and at worst a chore to endure. Glad I went and experienced it first hand, in a first class staging, but will probably swerve any other opportunities to see his work again,

    Recently, I went to see Michael Tilson Thomas conduct a performance of a work of his titled, Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind, and Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony (perhaps my favorite work of classical music). This was hosted at The Walt Disney Concert Hall – a much beloved auditorium locally, and certainly very striking looking from the exterior even if it isn’t ones cup of tea architecturally. The auditorium interior is beautiful with acoustics near perfection.

    To get it out of the way, the performance of the 6th was fantastic. The 3rd movement was outstanding – you could see how much the musicians and conductor were enjoying it, an absolutely barnstorming performance. They received rapturous applause and a long, standing ovation. Really happy to have been fortunate to have been there to experience this.

    On the other hand, the performance of Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind was more polarizing. The music was somewhat discordant and seemed to lack a clear melodic theme, and while the musicians and singers were first rate, the whole work seemed somewhat disjointed. The work was inspired (and named after) a poem by Carl Sandburg. It’s theme struck me as very apropos for one hosted in a city just as this, giddy with hubris and self important pretensions, at the cusp of imperial decline. I’ve copy pasted the prose here. Given my interest in your work, Mr. Greer, and the themes and narratives of the topics hosted here and on the archdruid report, it felt kind of unsettling. I’m not sure it all tied together for me as a work I would say “I enjoyed”, but it certainly gave me pause for thought and reflection.

    Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind
    Carl Sandburg, 1878 – 1967

    The past is a bucket of ashes.

    The woman named Tomorrow
    sits with a hairpin in her teeth
    and takes her time
    and does her hair the way she wants it
    and fastens at last the last braid and coil
    and puts the hairpin where it belongs
    and turns and drawls: Well, what of it?
    My grandmother, Yesterday, is gone.
    What of it? Let the dead be dead.

    The doors were cedar
    and the panels strips of gold
    and the girls were golden girls
    and the panels read and the girls chanted:
    We are the greatest city,
    the greatest nation:
    nothing like us ever was.

    The doors are twisted on broken hinges.
    Sheets of rain swish through on the wind
    where the golden girls ran and the panels read:
    We are the greatest city,
    the greatest nation,
    nothing like us ever was.

    It has happened before.
    Strong men put up a city and got
    a nation together,
    And paid singers to sing and women
    to warble: We are the greatest city,
    the greatest nation,
    nothing like us ever was.

    And while the singers sang
    and the strong men listened
    and paid the singers well
    and felt good about it all,
    there were rats and lizards who listened
    … and the only listeners left now
    … are … the rats … and the lizards.

    And there are black crows
    crying, “Caw, caw,”
    bringing mud and sticks
    building a nest
    over the words carved
    on the doors where the panels were cedar
    and the strips on the panels were gold
    and the golden girls came singing:
    We are the greatest city,
    the greatest nation:
    nothing like us ever was.

    The only singers now are crows crying, “Caw, caw,”
    And the sheets of rain whine in the wind and doorways.
    And the only listeners now are … the rats … and the lizards.

    The feet of the rats
    scribble on the door sills;
    the hieroglyphs of the rat footprints
    chatter the pedigrees of the rats
    and babble of the blood
    and gabble of the breed
    of the grandfathers and the great-grandfathers
    of the rats.

    And the wind shifts
    and the dust on a door sill shifts
    and even the writing of the rat footprints
    tells us nothing, nothing at all
    about the greatest city, the greatest nation
    where the strong men listened
    and the women warbled: Nothing like us ever was.

  137. Thomas Roberts in _An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction_ (1990, U. Georgia P) has some interesting things to say about genre fiction. He sees entire genres as an ongoing conversation with readers and fellow writers rather than as a collection of individual works to be valued for uniqueness or originality. Frequently, he notes, the question is addressed within the works themselves, as when a character in a detective novel says something like, “If I were Sherlock Holmes I would know what you ate for breakfast from the way your umbrella is folded.” He also notes that the atypical works that are chosen by critics as being almost real literature are usually not good examples of the genre in general.

  138. I recently graduated from an old and pretentious University in New England, so I’ll offer a report from the trenches regarding literary criticism: The sort of lit-crit snobbery that–as far as I can tell–was still predominant even five or six years ago has almost completely given way to something else. In my experience, literature classes consist mostly of evaluating whether or not a given work is useful as ctrl-left propaganda. More specifically, they consist of about 20% congratulating a given author for the number of minority categories “xe” fits into, and 80% of making accusations ranging from “heteronormative-racist-crypto-Nazi” to “literal Nazi” against even the authors previously being congratulated for not being ctrl-left enough.

    This appears to have been a rapid development, and although a number of professors are totally behind it, a majority, including many of the old-fashioned lit-crit snobs, are still reeling. Multiple professors faced disciplinary action ranging from “investigation of allegations” to firing for thoughtcrime in the four years I spent as an undergraduate, and I had more than one professor admit to me in private that they had a certain amount of trepidation regarding their job security.

    Since this flared up so fast, it’s possible it’ll die down just as fast and classical snobbery will again reign, but this remains to be seen.

    I had limited interactions with the visual art and music departments, but as far as I could tell, they’re still just as committed to ugliness and incomprehensibility as JMG describes, and they simple get extra points for including the terms “intersectionality” and “systematic exclusion” in their artists’ statements.

  139. Tude, JMG and all,

    “Almost all the “artists” I know personally are in search of a lifestyle or scene or identity. Creating “art” for them seems to be secondary to being an “artist”.”

    My goodness, this was my biggest block to becoming an actual artist (and -cough cough- magician) for some bitter years. Not lack of money, not lack of opportunity but this attitude about what the artistic identity was supposed to be. Wrestling with what I thought I was supposed to be in order to be a “real artist” took a long time to deconstruct. Before then, well, let’s just say that my productivity and the quality of my work was less than stellar.

    It wasn’t until I was more than a decade out of art school that I returned to art making. I figured out via craft that hard work, persistence, and practice, practice, practice was the thing that made an artist. And as you said earlier, JMG, struggling with something that ISN’T ME is key. The not-me place makes space for some frequently uncomfortable stretching of self and skill. Worth every bit of that discomfort, too.

    I wish I could have had that realization in school. Now I am perfectly happy with my practice, though I’ve not been part of a gallery show in years and am only bringing in enough money from it to continue to buy tools and supplies. The individuals with whom my pieces find a home really enjoy them and are not shy about saying so. I have no shame about that.

    I’ll never be making “investment pieces” according to current standards, I suck at that game. That’s fine.


  140. JMG said “social capital isn’t really something you want to learn about from a guy with Aspergers syndrome,” but I disagree. I heard something back when I was a student-retiree at UNM to the effect that the best teacher of a hard subject is one who struggled with learning it, but mastered it. S/he knows where all the bumps in the road are!

  141. re: Art as an investment. I’ve seen ‘payment options’ on more than one website that deal in art, and/or collectibles & antiques. One in particular, let’s call it ‘$ucker’, offers payment plans with 0-30% APR.

  142. OT:, but Oh, !@#$!%^^&*! From the Washington Examiner:

    “Climate hawk Bernie Sanders spent almost $300k on private jets in Oct.”

  143. Art is simply a mirror of the world in which it was created. Of course the mirror is not perfect. It embodies all of the distortions, limitations, worldview and personality of person who creates it.

    The beauty lies in the fact that it points brilliantly to the way our minds function…reducing the unknowable into bite size symbols, myths, narratives, etc.

  144. @CAtonThemAT

    Re: investments. Definitely a first world problem and possibly not for much longer, but I struggled to find somewhere ethical and productive to invest. One solution would be to just collapse entirely and go live full-time on my in-laws farm, putting faith in my herbalist skills to support us ala Tripp. For various reasons we haven’t done this. Leaving the excess from our salaries in banks just abdicates responsibility as it facilitates the notorious predatory investments of the banks. I’m increasingly suspicious of charities and the art/wine/collectibles scene seems the definition of non-productive (as outline by JMG this week).

    It required learning the skills to dance through the maze of local planning, building, tenancy, tax, and accounting laws but my solution is to invest in quality housing projects in my working class neighbourhood. The shoddy ex-government housing stock is self-destructing and the planning laws are very restrictive but the blocks are large. Of course most developers just want to turn the place into slums or gentrify into mansions on subdivided postage stamps. However, it’s not that much more expensive to build a quality, energy efficient, user-friendly, attractive, compact, double story apartment building (eight bedrooms across four flats) with each flat having access to gardens with lots of perennial food plants. Our design is very adaptable for a low energy future and works in the now for the elderly, disabled, small families, extended families etc.

    By living modestly in one of our own flats and doing our own property management, we can hold rents low enough for ordinary tenants and identify and get rid of the few truly bad eggs. We can also facilitate people starting small home businesses (prohibited by most landlords). We plan to invest any profits in local improvement projects and fun neighbourhood events rather than luxury holidays. Of course, this goes against all the investment advice about diversification etc but I don’t really care about earning a financial profit, for me it’s more about facilitating the flow of resources in a way that benefits my neighbourhood rather than parasitising it in order to afford to live somewhere else.

  145. @ JMG, that may be, though I correlated it more with the rise of skepticism; so that tearing holes in the logic of things extends to people forgetting what to do with their plate of sardines or the lift-lines not working right. I consider these comedies based on technical malfunction and self-parody to be very much the sort of dry, highly technical works that would mark the end of a civilization.

    Taking the topic of theater a bit further, something that people get out of plays and perhaps especially musicals is the sense of being a part of something. So you have scenes like the finale of _Into The Woods_ where all the characters are dancing about with each other and singing all of their little melodic parts in a huge harmony. The effect is that you feel like you could be right there dancing with the characters. A very similar sense of “being a part of something,” happens in _Rent_, especially in the number, “La Vie Boheme” in which most all of the ensemble sings about the culture that ties them together. From what I’ve heard, _Hamilton_ has a similar effect — when people see it they feel like they are a part of something, something urgent, important and revolutionary.

    I find this interesting on two counts; first it seems to come directly from the druggy monist aspects of 1960’s counterculture. The whole idea that if everyone just takes enough drugs then we’ll see…we’re all one! I wonder too how much this monist tendency contributes to bad art; in _Rent_ the main character, an aspiring filmmaker named Mark, at some point declares, deadpan, “now I shoot without a script.” Of course this means that his film would be, at best, home movies. This though makes a great certain sense within the internal logic of the counter-cultural zeitgeist in which distinctions are blurred into a hazy of oneness.

    Although I’ve never seen the ethos of the 1960’s zeitgeist and sequelae fully articulated, I get the sense there was a real sense that distinctions could not be meaningfully drawn; that is art and not art was a meaningless distinction; different genres are meaningless distinctions; different classes and cultures are all then meaningless distinctions; ‘We’re all one.’

    Bob Dylan serves in the phantasmagoria of his lyrics also tapped into this participatory monism; watch how the mythical beings, literary characters, high society, and random people from the streets of New York City are hanging out irrespective of time, place or anything else.. I think part of the reason people enjoy his lyrics is that they can imagine that they could pop up in one of his songs. That is, they imagined participating somehow, or that they could. Also Dylan had a sense urgency and revolution; listening sympathetically to the blistering paranoia of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” gives the sense of being part of his gang of anti-heros Fighting the Man. I think this is part of the reason Dylan hung out with Warhol at the Factory as well as so many contemporaneous celebrities; they were, at the very least, marketed as being part of some sort of something that was open to…anybody! or at least this is the sense I got thumbing through old Life Magazines. So likewise Mark from _Rent_ when he speaks of shooting without a script perhaps communicates to the audience, “you’re such a lovely audience that you could be in one of my movies, heck! you could be in the society pages!”

    I’m not sure how this sense of mass participation compares to prior art forms. With live theatre the audience does participate to a certain extent, and likewise with live music. Still, I think this emphasis on the Happening tends to preclude a filtering mechanism like talent. If it’s all just about having groovy people together than why worry about skill, formal composition or hard work?

  146. Thinking about art as a kind of mimesis brought to mind a poetically brief essay by Borges, about Don Quixote. Paraphrasing from memory: The crux of the drama and humor of Don Quixote is the clashing juxtaposition of the fanciful tales of chivalry in Quixote’s imagination, with the prosaic mundane real world of late 16th century Spain. But the centuries wore away that distinction, because to more recent readers the “prosaic” reality of La Mancha and windmills, as well as Quixote himself, feels as romantic and poetic as anything in those older tales Cervantes was (in modern parlance) deconstructing. Borges presents this as a sort of trick time played on Cervantes, and as a parable on the relationship between story and myth.

    This is an intriguing insight, but in the end I don’t really agree with Borges. The novel has lost none of its artistic quality for the supposed change, and one reason for that is that it expresses Cervantes’ love for that setting. Whether that place comes across as prosaic or romantic, it comes across as beautiful and loved. That constancy trumps the tricks of time.

    I make a similar assessment of The Lord of the Rings. Yes it’s about language and myth and heroism and all that, but it’s also a thousand-page love letter to the Shire, which is Toklien’s surrogate for an already disappearing (at the time of its writing) English village lifestyle. Tolkien’s viewpoint was more or less from Rivendell; we, ensconced in our steel and concrete Minas Tiriths or our electronic Lothloriens, have a different view. But via Tolkien’s affection we can experience the same regret for what was left behind, and apprehend the looming darkness we must pass through to get something like it back.

    It’s a cliché, but I think most or all good enduring art is all about love. Deeply enjoyable art is deeply enjoyable because it effectively conveys the artist’s love for some aspect of the subject matter. A place, a person, an experience, a way of life, a god. The representation can be complex or indirect, such as something broken or missing. But we don’t have to wonder whether Sarazin de Belmont loved Paris, at least on that particular morning.

  147. I have read Lolita. My tastes are quite idiosyncratic, but to me it was banality of evil in 300+ pages, and not something I care to take up again.

    Best novel written in English? My nominations, keeping in mind my rather oddball tastes.

    Weymouth Sands
    The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
    Dombey and Son
    The Ambassadors

    Mr. Greer, I wouldn’t be too hasty in assuming that opera seria has no interest. The same was said of the operas of Handel and Vivaldi; now they are performed and recorded worldwide and give intense pleasure to aficionados of great singing. There has been rather a lot of exhumation of previously disregarded music in recent decades. For a time, the classical “repertoire” seems to have been whatever Toscanini wanted to conduct and not much else. “Bel canto” was represented by Barber of Seville, transposed for famous sopranos and heavily cut for Verdian tenors and a handful of operas by Bellini and Donizetti; now almost all works of the three are performed and recorded, by singers trained in the correct style.

  148. I had always imagined the “purpose” of art was to challenge the perceiver to reflect on the human condition. What does it “mean” to be “human,” to be a participant in a specific historical or cultural moment, etc. What is “meaning” anyway? Granted, a great deal of “art” does not actually address these questions, but I tend to dismiss these as mere entertainments when I encounter them.

  149. @ all, re Thomas Kinkade,

    Ok, I’ll stick my head up above the parapets to say that I really like some of Kinkade’s early work – before he went all maw!Maw!MAW! with the misty effects, glowing light and krazy kolors. It causes an odd acquisitive, aspirational pang in my colonial heart to see those warm little cottages nestled into deep forest/mountains with SO MUCH moisture around (the ponds, snow, lush vegetation, mist etc). For a second, I irrationally want to emigrate and go live an Amish-like life in one of those cottages. Very effective propaganda, I guess.

    Australian forests are infinitely drier, more hostile, more subtle in colour. The few natural ponds are infested with poisonous snakes. Our cozy wood and rusty corrugated iron pioneer cottages, nestled into the deep forests, are widely acknowledged as death traps waiting for the next bush fire – still romantic but in a doomed and decaying settler society kind of way.

    I’m afraid my tastes in all things art, alcohol, music and literature slide deeply into the area of plebian kitsch but it is what it is.

  150. Funny enough, I just yesterday saw someone post an image exhorting anyone to ‘Make your own art and ignore what anyone else says about it.’
    It is true that many masters were innovative and ridiculed in their own time, becoming recognized for their genius only later (Van Gogh comes to mind). So encouraging people with talent to pursue their passion even when discouraged, is no bad thing.
    Your point, however, is quite correct, that is quite different from encouraging everyone to go ahead whether or not they have any skill.
    That kind of in-your-face attitude is, I think, a natural extension of the ‘everyone-gets-a-star’ pedagogy I mentioned in my last comment. A pedagogy one that mistakes the idea that everyone has some worth, which is true, for the concept that ‘everyone is equally worthy of praise’ which is manifestly not true. Are you at all familiar with Steven Pinker’s 2002 book “The Blank Slate – The Modern Denial of Human Nature” which explores this attitude?
    The book has a number of weaknesses, typical of books in the nature vs. nurture debate, but he is not wrong in pointing out that the failure to acknowledge innately different levels of skill mitigates against the general idea that excellence should be pursued, even for its own sake. His chapter on the degeneration of art is very much the same as your view. You may recall mine: as I said, I expect to be able to detect three aspects in any work, viz., a clear evidence of skill, dedication, and imagination.

    To that second point, I’d like to amplify, or clarify, my own agreement with ‘David, by the lake’ and challenge your response. Every artist I’ve ever spoken with sees the world through the prism of their calling. I’ve known painters who paint daily and cannot imagine themselves not painting, photographers who see everything as if they were taking a photograph, writers who write every day whether it’s short stories, novellas, or columns for a paper. (I think that if someone is truly passionate about something, then they will care about improving, even if they have no ‘natural’ talent and keep at it until they acquire skill, no matter how long it takes, even if they never show their work to the world.)
    You responded that you only write when you have something to say that you think someone will read, but I’d suggest that your art is not writing, per se, but rather thinking about the world-as-it-is and pondering how-it-could-be; that Writing is simply your medium of expression, rather than, say, presenting via YouTube, or lecturing to a classroom; that if no one read your work, and your wrote nothing, that you would not stop thinking, you’d simply stop sharing. The question I put to you is, can you picture yourself NOT observing, thinking, and drawing conclusions about the events of the world?
    I’ll bet the answer is no, and in that case, I’d say your art is philosophy. Sharing that with the world through the written word is secondary, although it is very welcome to those of us who read your work.

  151. @ David, if I may;

    So you performed as Snug, well-spoke fierce beast
    Of Quince’s band of Mechanicals?
    And with the lines with which Thisby must leave,
    You freaked out snobs and Puritanicals
    Who couldn’t face Shakespeare’s naughty funny jokes
    That to this day still give us smiles and laughs
    To be fair though I can get why some folks
    Fear how love can change one into an ass!
    And yet we bray, Shakespeare’s still’s on the stage
    He mixed his truth and farce to fine degree
    The genres cast with his pen strokes to page
    Now form context for much dramaturgy.
    Bottom abides, you know what I mean
    Earnestness, served, absurd, with some sardines!

  152. Thanks JMG and everyone for another great discussion. JMG, re. your comment on the cult of amateurism and (in your words) “the enthusiastic mediocrity of the Neopagan bardic circles”–this is a big problem in the circles I move in too. (And I have been part of those Neopagan circles.) A rubric I find useful is that of the vertical and the horizontal aspects of human culture. The vertical aspect carries tradition, honors the elders, dispenses wisdom and rules of deportment, and, in the artistic realm, establishes standards and canons for aspirants to study and emulate. The horizontal realm seeks to include the outsider, empower the individual, and question (what may be) outdated authority in order to push through to new influences. Too much of the vertical realm and you’ve got a nightmare like North Korea, or, in a more benign form, a stuffy old academy. Too much of the horizontal realm and you’ve got, well, the current scene you are critiquing. These people think that if their work is critiqued, or if the work of a recognized master is privileged over others, it means that their inherent worth is brought into question. Quite the contrary–it is always possible to recognize someone’s inherent worth while requesting that they go back to the drawing board and try again.

    I don’t know if you have explored the work of philosopher Ken Wilber–I imagine you would concur with some of his theories and not with others. A while back he came up with the term Boomeritis to diagnose the generation born between 1940 and 1960. He was calling out ways that the “do your own thing” ethos went wrong, devolving into narcissism and self indulgence. There are stages of maturity that an artist (as well as a human being) has to pass through in order to make a decent contribution, a stage which can be elided by claims of individuality and the cry, “Nobody tells me what to do!”

    A little while back, I met a woman who told me she was writing a book; thinking I might invite her into my book-writing group, I asked her what authors influenced her and what she liked to read. “I don’t read,” she replied. I was speechless. And–oddly–offended. Not for me, but for all the great writers she thought she didn’t have to study.

  153. David, duly noted! I’d handle the RAT score differently, though; you start out at 100, meaning that like most people you believe in an ordered, rational, materialist cosmos, and every encounter with some eldritch reality or other whittles away at that — and as your score drops you become able to do things. Early on, you start being able to make sense of cryptic passages in strange books; then you start picking up on moon paths and other subtle forces; and if you slide far enough, you can begin to practice sorcery, and eldritch beings start showing up to say hi…

    Rita, exactly — that’s a measure of how the elitist influence in art has isolated most of us from the western world’s cultural heritage. When Bugs Bunny was doing opera parodies, the producers could assume that everyone knew enough about Wagner and Rossini to catch the jokes. Now? The failure of mimesis is almost total.

    David, I foresee a knock-down, drag-out fight over that title. Me, I don’t think there is or can be a best novel in English, just an assortment of very good novels!

    Shane, thank you. I wield a delete button now and again with that in mind. 😉 As for the Fabio cover, exactly — I’m frankly more interested in characters without airbrushing anyway.

    Isabel, you aren’t missing much by staying away from Serious Modern Literature. I’ll put in a good word for Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann, and also for Somerset Maugham, but I suppose they aren’t really modern any more, are they? My exposure to recent literary fiction has pretty consistently left me convinced that you’d probably be better off reading the products of a random word generator.

    David, that seems quite reasonable, but it’s only one possible source of the feeling of being “driven to create.” The ego can produce that feeling, too, and so can unresolved psychological problems of various kinds.

    Tony, I’m going to push back on the idea that self-expression has anything to do with art. My take is that art happens when you get your self out of the way and express something that isn’t you. The painter in your story paid attention to the view, not to his self. If he’d shown the farmer a Jackson Pollock splatterfest, do you think the farmer would have responded the same way?

    Ronald, nope, it won’t do. It’s got to be set in the aftermath of our civilization, dealing at least peripherally with the specific problems that will be faced by people living in the wake of the industrial age. Will there be parallels to previous dark ages? Sure, but parallel does not equal identity…

    JillN, fair enough.

    BoysMom, you probably know already that your Christian perspective was very ably discussed by J.R.R. Tolkien in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.”

    RPC, to my mind, that’s not art, that’s magic. Valid, that is, but different.

    Robert, fascinating. It seems to me that Orthodox art could equally be described as a gesamtritualwerk, one vast ritual action on a far more than human scale.

    Shane, I think it’s more that people walk away, stop feeding the beast, and do something else instead. As more and more young people stop attending college, I suspect the whole shebang is going to crash to the ground, because the academic industry is very nearly the only thing propping it all up at this point.

    NomadicBeer, current notions of human evolution can best be described as origin myths — I forget who it was who showed that if you examine academic treatises on hominid evolution, you’ll find they have every single element present in Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. Since we don’t actually know how it happened — all we have are our own inkblot projections onto the equivocal evidence of the prehistoric past — all attempts to explain anything by way of prehistory are simply circular reasoning in which you put a set of modern presuppositions in and get a set of modern presuppositions back out.

    Daz, fascinating. I wasn’t aware of the booms and busts in classic cars!

    Angelino, I adore that poem — I used it as part of an oral interp performance in high school debate club. I’m really sorry it got subjected to maltreatment via modern art music.

    Rita, that seems very sensible to me, right down to the way that some conversations bog down in an endless reiteration of the same points…

    RohanKishibe, thanks for the data points. I frankly doubt that the university industry will survive that sort of hogwash.

    Bonnie, delighted to hear it! Thank you.

    Patricia M, the thing is, I haven’t mastered it. I’ve got a series of workarounds that allow me to fake it in certain restricted settings, and a well-developed habit of avoiding social contexts where I know I don’t have the skills to function well. Thus I stand by my comment.

    PatriciaT, there’s Ben Franklin’s maxim again!

    Patricia M, yep. The reason nothing will be done about climate change is that the people who talk the loudest about it are consistently part of the problem, not part of the solution.

    Matt, I suppose that’s one way to think of art. It strikes me as reductionistic and dull, but if it works for you, by all means.

    Violet, I saw a lot of the backwash of the 1960s, and yeah, that makes sense of a lot of it — in particular the profusion of really lame art and music.

    Walt, good. I’m not at all sure that love is the only thing that will do it — Goya’s paintings in the series “The Horrors of War” aren’t motivated by a love of what he was painting! — but for art to achieve something great, it has to go beyond the intellectual and touch on deep passions.

    Nastarana, well, we’ll see! There have been several attempted revivals of Metastasian opera seria over the years, and none of them got very far.

    Zach, are you sure you’re not simply saying “this is my definition of the art that interests me”?

    TamHob, fair enough! His work doesn’t do anything for me, but my tastes are emphatically not the last word in art. 😉

    Renaissance, using similar logic, you could probably insist that breathing ,eating, and sleeping is my art. I doubt anyone in the world fails to observe, think, and draw conclusions about something or other, even if it’s something as banal as a football team or the supposed villainies of one’s political or personal enemies. Have we not at this point passed outside the limits of art?

    What I’d suggest instead is that there are various ways for people to relate to the arts that their practice; that some people certainly do feel, for whatever reason, driven to create; that others don’t experience their relation to art that way; and that one-size-fits-all explanations, here as elsewhere, don’t work too well in practice…

  154. @JMG – I think of art in the same way that I think of tomatoes.

    Botanically, a tomato is a fruit. Ask any botanist, and they’ll tell you that it’s a fruit.

    But in the US and in most of Europe nowadays, we usually treat it as a vegetable – it’s not used to garnish sweet tarts, it’s not usually eaten on its own, it’s way more likely to be the core component of a meal (think spaghetti sauce). That’s not a given across all cultures, though – some cultures use tomatoes in sweet dishes more often than in savory ones. It’s not even true across all times – a few decades ago, it was relatively common to just cut a tomato in half and it on its own like an apple or some strawberries. Tastes change.

    The botanist isn’t excluding those laypeople when they define the tomato as a fruit. They’re not saying that you must not enjoy using it as a vegetable, or that you’re wrong to use it in that way. They’re just operating on another level (and not on a better or worse level but just a different level). They’re speaking about tomatoes botanically, not culinarily, and it may be difficult to understand the language and reasoning they use or the stuff they write without some background knowledge of botany. It’s a good thing that we have those two different ways of talking about tomatoes as well – we get very good things from both levels of operation.

    I think that there’s a similar distinction to be made in the art world. You can approach art in the way that Duchamp or Picasso did or you can approach it art in the way that your illustrator friend or someone like Brent Comber do, and both levels can give us good things.

  155. Martin, thank you! That’s charming.

    Roberta, the idea of vertical and horizontal dimensions seems very productive to me; thank you. I haven’t read much of Wilber, as some core aspects of his philosophy rub me very much the wrong way, but it’s good to hear that he’s made some useful points as well. As for the would-be writer, I don’t know what it is that makes that sort of attitude common among people who think they can write; I’ve never met an aspiring painter who won’t look at art, or a wannabe musician who doesn’t listen to music, but I’ve met quite a few people who claim to be writing a book and literally haven’t read anything since their school days. I’ll let you guess how many of them ever get published.

    Spicehammer, fair enough!

  156. JMG,

    Regarding the Asperger’s an social interaction, my best friend is on the spectrum, though he was only diagnosed a few years back. He is highly functional to the point where it is very hard for a neurotypical to detect any deviating patterns even if he is looking for them. But still, none of it comes natural to him. It is all manual work, which is taxing. For me he had always been the strange one, the unique one, the brave one, the creative one, the persistent one. He is also very intelligent (which he tested, of course). His is not the life for the ordinary ones.

    Anyway, since he got diagnosed, he also joined a support group and made some new acquaintances (friends are hard to come by). He seemed to connect on some level with Mr. A. So one time he took me along to see him. Before entering his domain, I took off my boots as well as a plethora of facial expressions, tones of voice, hints, attitudes and the like. I knew he was a little further along the spectrum than my friend is, or at least not at all as well adapted to the neurotypical world. I decided to speak the truth and take everything I hear as the truth. I did not shy away from any topic, but asked and answered without a slightest regard to whether or not a topic was appropriate or not, if it was something that mr. A had brought up.

    I got to see worlds I had not imagined. But it was hard work for me, consciously trying at all times to remind me that the between the lines messages that I was receiving were not actually being sent. I had to push really hard to switch off the intuition suited for neurotypical social interaction. At times I failed knowingly, and I am sure at other times I failed unknowingly. But I tried to the best of my ability to meet him on his terms. And what a world it seemed to be! Having some background in the theories of neurotypical interaction, I tried to explain to him some of the mechanisms, which left him shaking his head in frustration. “Why don’t they teach us these things!” he wondered. “And since this comes easier to the neurotypicals, why don’t they teach them how to adapt to us, it’s not fair!”

    In this life of deception and uncertainty, it is wonderful to have a friend who always tells me the truth about how he sees the world, me included, and is not shocked by anything I might happen to ponder. I do not want to romanticise the condition, but I wonder whether or not alliances between neurotypical and those on the spectrum might not be something that should be actively encouraged and sought after.

  157. “Tony, I’m going to push back on the idea that self-expression has anything to do with art. My take is that art happens when you get your self out of the way and express something that isn’t you. The painter in your story paid attention to the view, not to his self. If he’d shown the farmer a Jackson Pollock splatterfest, do you think the farmer would have responded the same way?”

    Obviously not. But I would question if that is even art.

    My argument here that art is a medium of self-expression is based on Ukhtomskii’s concept of the dominant, and the observation that people react in similar ways to the same artist. I am not an expert on music, but I notice a certain distinctive feel when listening to Chopin vs Mozart vs Tsaikovsky. These people are not expressing their personalities or some stupid little ideas they have in their heads, but rather their expression is filtered through their invididual conciousness and thus takes on a certain feeling, kind of like it is being coloured by it.

    Also, since I am quoting Spira I want to note I am not talking about expressing your personality or story or anything personal but rather yourself as an individuated aspect of consciousness reaching for the universal conciousness that is all there is.

  158. In one of the previos posts, John Michael Greer mentioned a pediction of Oswald Spengler that art will in future be representational art, building on a set of fixed motives on which variation is built. That reminded me unwittingly of Socialist Realism in the Soviet Union and of official and popular art in the Third Reich. I can well imagine at the end of the current crisis of Western civilization a situation, where populist and authoritarian, right-leaning governments are common, whereas the contemporary, faux-left art scene with their preference for abstraction and incomprehensibility has dissolved and give way to a mid-21 century version of Socialist Realism.

    That art is not necessarily about expressing beauty is clearly shown by some artworks of Otto Dix; for example his work “Der Schützengraben” (The Trench) and “Kriegskrüppel” (War Cripples).

    Regarding the fight against climate change: During the US elections in 2016 I feared that Bernie Sanders, if he were elected, would cave in to the mainstream Democrats and do a third Obama term. The cause for this was his endorsement of Hillary Clinton. Patricia Mathews remark about the frequent flyer miles of Bernie Sanders added fuel to this suspicion for me. Currently, is full of articles against climate change by people clamoring for putting the Western world on something like a war economy to prevent a supposed apocalypse. Their newest antics are headed unter the label “Extinction Rebellion”.

  159. Hi John Michael,

    Brilliant insights and very clearly argued!

    And I never thought that I’d live to see the day that you mentioned the Wu-Tang Clan. Nice one. 🙂



  160. In the spirit of the poetry, I wanted to leave a couple of my own self-published Doom Sonnets here. (Published through Troy Book Makers in 2011).

    Doom Sonnet #8

    Now people start to split inside themselves.
    A fractious disconnect, vigorous,
    takes hold. Realities push us to delve
    into muck. Oh, we like it less rigorous
    than what’s been demanded hence. Each, every
    one gets called forth. No exceptions, no
    passes. Eyes long protected from heavy
    awareness, minds fogged denial, brought low
    from their high-flying dreams of world-beating
    princes of commerce, celebrity. “What?”
    I can hear shrill mewling sputters, bleating
    “You can’t mean . . . I’ll have to actually chat
    honestly with other . . . Humans… Save us
    from this indignity, this most grievous.”

    Doom Sonnet #9

    There’s pain, and then there’s suffering. Those wise
    Elders who’ve been tempered in life’s fraught fires
    share this astute witnessing ‘gainst our cries
    of “Why me, why now?” Our Earth never tires
    of throwing our actions back to us. Cause
    and effect. Simple really. Our egos
    would have us know perfection. No Flaws
    Allowed. We have ourselves, God only knows,
    to work with, to shoulder our burdens
    through the triple crises besetting us.
    The way we’ve known thus, offers no furth’rance:
    A mound of garbage blocks that path, brings us
    full circle to grasp essential difference
    misery’s optional. Pain’s hidden inference…

  161. There was a time back in high school when I approached a fork in the road and had the opportunity to pursue the path of a fine arts career. I chose another path. I have never once felt it was the wrong decision.

    I was too young to understand or describe it, but I knew there was something about the fine arts world that made me uneasy, and I just couldn’t stomach it. Some sort of detachment from reality, is probably how I would have described it. Also, (this may sound weird) I would have described a disregard for healthiness. Maybe a spiritual healthiness? I’m not sure. Something was sick, I knew that. And it seemed to be by design.

    Thank you for articulating the current troubles of the art world so well in these few posts.

  162. @Rohan and JMG

    Re lit-crit, art, and language

    Relevant to the extent that one links language and art as modes of communication.

    Is it just me or does there appear to be an effort to herd and control the words that one is allowed to use in public spaces? (And by doing so, to control not only public discourse, but also the thoughts that are attached to those words.) Again, relating back to my two-year stint on PoliticalWire, I found that certain words and phrases elicited severe reactions. I couldn’t say “globalism,” for example, without being hounded as a purveyor of Nazi ideology. (I reached a tentative compromise with one particularly outspoken commenter with “economic globalization” but that too garnered push-back later and I flat-out accused him of bad faith, but that incident was shortly before the final straw I spoke of previously and my departing the forum and deleting my profile.)

    Controlling the set of approved writers, artists, thoughts, forms, expressions, ideas, etc. I suppose this would be a form of magic, as well, seeking to change consciousness by an act of will.

    Regardless, the whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

  163. Hi JMG & all;

    Re: Lolita, I would second David by the Lake on this: greatest novel, no, but I would certainly submit it for having some of the most beautiful passages of any English language novel, and well worth reading.

    I read the novel when I was 15 and was fairly stunned by the power of some of the language, but maturity and further reading has put some distance between me and its technical approach. I still admire it though.

    As for its subject matter, and Nabokov’s return to that theme in several other novels, I like to recommend this essay by the novelist Martin Amis, who nearly worships Nabokov, where he tackles the issue head on as being cumulatively problematic. This being Amis it meanders a bit at the start but it’s worth reading through.


  164. I’ve been thinking a lot about these posts on art since it’s a subject very relevant to my life right now. I’ve always been drawn to quality art, whether music, the fine arts, folk craft, you name it. Participation with an artist’s creation is a spiritual experience for me, and I’m so grateful for it.

    Over the last few years, I’ve also started feeling the desire to be creative myself. The problem is that I’m one of those people who has no natural talent. My gifts lie elsewhere. So I would never consider using anything I’ve created for “performing for others,” as you put it last week. I wouldn’t subject anyone to that, even within a Druid community accepting of that kind of inclusive public display.

    I simply want to be creative for my own sake, as a way of expressing my inner life and communing with the Divine. But the problem for me is this idea that art be measured against an objective standard. When I apply that standard to my own efforts, I’m naturally appalled by most of my creative attempts. I know that I’ll never create quality art, no matter how long I practice.

    Last week you said, “the kind of success and failure that strikes me as useful is the kind that involves measuring up to some objective reality.” Would you say the same is true for art created for personal purposes? Is repeated failure some kind of character-building exercise? If so, I have enough character!


  165. An OT thank you for writing ye olde ADR. So glad I read it. I saw a conversation on fusion power and people saying “see, the technology will save us”, and I immediately remembered your talk of all the times people who build fusion reactors say that. Then I pulled up an article and it says:

    “MIT’s Sparc team predicts its reactor could be capable of producing 50-100 megawatts of fusion power as soon as 2025. That’s still a far cry from what a modern nuclear fission plant can produce — those are often measured in thousands of megawatts. Still, it would be a significant step toward making fusion power viable.”

    So its 7 years away (again) and they really haven’t made any advancement. Yeesh.

    Then CNN let’s us know that there is a mammoth (!) likely the biggest ever (!) found in Texas. See, there is nothing to worry about. America will continue to be an energy exporter.

    They post this on the same page as their dire, catastrophic warnings on climate change and how Trump is such a fool for not believing climate change yada yada.

    If we pump that oil out and use it we make the climate situation worse. How do they not see the contradiction in their reporting?

    And every time the media says “we need to do something about climate change”, they really don’t mean using less fossil fuels. So what do they mean? I can’t figure it out? I ask people what they think we should do and the answer is consistently – “the government needs to take action”. What action? Say that the climate is changing. OK, so those words are said, what does that do exactly?

  166. Thanks David for your reply.

    What you said about “Lolita” is just about the same argument that my friend made. Masterful or not, exploring Humbert’s mental life isn’t something I care to do. If he had been a real person, I could condemn him to Hell based on his actions, I don’t feel I have to understand his motivations or empathize with them. His actions speak for themselves.

    I did read a synopsis of “Lolita” and it seemed to me that Nabokov had a pretty heavy hand in contriving his story to allow you even more opportunity to explore Humbert’s head. I have found that with a lot of fiction of any kind that many times I feel the author has manipulated me in a dishonest way to meet the agenda of his story. I really dislike that when I detect that in fiction. If Nabokov’s idea was to get you to condemn Humbert to Hell forever except that one day a year, then I would definitely have felt manipulated and that usually makes me angry. I just can’t see how calling this art, beautifully written, makes me want to waste my time with such an ugly subject, especially if I am going to have felt manipulated.

    My question still remains how does beautiful, masterful writing make such an ugly subject art? Of course everyone will have a different idea about what art is, so I guess if it meant something to you and my friend
    then the book accomplished it’s task and for you it can be called art.

    Aged Spirit’s comment about Goya’s paintings made me think that perhaps I am willing to look at a painting of an ugly subject and be moved and willing to call it art, but with the written word, perhaps I am less willing to go where the writer/artist leads. I will have to think about this some more.

  167. @JMG & all: I can see getting a dulcimer…and how that might be useful for economic drone music in the lean times ahead. A little squeeze box might be nice too. I love the bagpipe, but I hadn’t given much thought to how it would be a harder instrument to make. My last living grandparent, in his upper 80’s now, was a country musician, and had a hobby of building dobros, dulcimers & guitars. I got the love of music from that Kentucky side of my family. I can easily picture a drone music ensemble built around folk instruments. That would be a way forward when there is less electricity, and money for expensive synths, used to make electronic drones.

    @all… I think the romance novels & other genre fiction are much better than the genre of contemporary literary fiction, which claims not to be a genre. When I see books where the dialogue doesn’t use quotation marks, it’s a safe bet not to read it. (Though I think Cormac McCarthy doesn’t use quotation marks, and he might be worth reading, this trend, in place since Joyce I guess, puzzles me.) Perhaps I’ve commented on it here before but the subject matter of literary fiction holds no interest for me: dysfunctional relationships, struggles with identity. Professors having affairs. Married people having affairs. Affair this. Affair that.

    I think the continuing popularity of Philip K. Dick is because so often his main characters were people like janitors and the like. People can relate.

    & though my tastes in music do encompass the avant-garde, in poetry, it couldn’t be less true. I’d been involved in poetry scenes on and off since highschool. I was lucky to have a good teacher there, Richard Hague, who is part of the “Appalachian” school of contemporary poets. Yet at readings and events, because they were often open mic, suffered from the same horizontal problems that Roberta mentioned & you mentioned in regards to Neopagans. I was always on the outskirts of the local Neopagan scene here. My path in the mysteries has been more traditional/hermetic, etc. even though it started with Thelema and initiation into those currents. I never felt at home on the Neopagan side of things, even as I mingled in those circles at times… poetry has a lot of weed trimming ahead of it. I pretty much dropped out of the poetry scene, though I’ll be participating in one reading this spring at the request of a librarian friend for a program he is doing. At least I’ll get a stipend for that one, which will help with enduring the other readers. As there is usually at least one who is fluent in Vogon.

    Anyway, as usual, I’m loving these discussions here.

  168. Hello,

    @Cyborg, Matthias and JMG

    I too must flag up John Zorn, and another composer/guitarist who has worked with him a lot, Trey Spruance, as ostensibly Avant Garde musicians who are in fact dedicated in their separate ways to making beautiful, communicative, pleasure giving music.

    Spruance is formerly of the hardcore bizarre genre-fusing thrash/ska/jazz metallers Mr Bungle (first album produced by Zorn), and is currently of the even more bizarre and esoterically inclined Secret Chiefs 3.

    If I didn’t happen to think Secret Chief 3’s (and Zorn’s) music was frequently great, I might be inclined to dismiss them both as Avant Garde posers. As it happens I think what they are instead is experimentally minded musicians who feel exactly the limits of the Avant Garde dictum of breaking new ground for its own sake, and have instead turned their talents consciously toward using traditional and classic forms for their proven quality and effects. They do this in radically different ways however: Zorn hops from Jazz to heavy metal to string trio album by album and does each one often brilliantly, “ringing subtle changes on established forms” as our host has put it, whereas the Secret Chiefs 3 are hardcore genre-and-influence mixing experimentalists, but always with an ear to communicating something (albeit something rather esoteric), to mimesis I think.

    Your mileage may vary especially with the Chiefs, who are very very niche, but Zorn has something most people here ought to like I would have thought. All their stuff is on Youtube if anyone is curious, and I can give my recommendations. Zorn has produced a ridiculous number of recordings of which I have only heard a fraction.

    My 7 year old even loves Zorn and some of Secret Chiefs’ quieter tracks, if that’s anything to go by….

  169. Thank you JMG for this reflection on the vacuity of art produced as an investment. However I feel that this type of art has a virtue, that of its relatively low ecological footprint which may be less detrimental to the biosphere than productive economic activity. It goes in the direction proposed as a solution to the ecological crisis that Vaclav Smil proposed, that of delinking social status from material excesses. In that sense Christian Andersen’s Emperor’s New Clothes would be the optimal symbol of social status.

  170. Daz-

    My dad was a cautious, frugal man and he had two bits of advice I’ve never forgotten:

    – Nothing is ever worth more than somebody else is willing to pay for it.
    – Wealth isn’t real until you can hold it in your hand.

    As explanation for the second, he firmly believed that electronic numbers stored in some computer and sent to you monthly in a bank statement was not real money and could disappear in a moment; he only trusted banks as a place to park money for the short term. He also encouraged all of his children to develop practical skills that they could fall back on in case the college thing didn’t work out – and he lived it. He worked in pharmaceutical research as a biochemist, but could build almost anything by hand and could side and roof a house in a snap.

  171. Must admit some trepidation when I saw the topic of this week’s post, but the article and ensuing discussion have been marvellously thoughtful and wide-ranging. I find nothing to disagree with, but rather a cornucopia of perspectives, all of which shed some light on this vast subject.

    A small contribution:

    In a very long career as a musician, I have played the entire range from deeply traditional to cutting edge avant-garde. What I’ve found is that the kind of music is nearly irrelevant to how an audience responds. What seems to matter most is whether I can make them feel included in the enterprise. If I create trust in the room, and then don’t abuse it, I am free to do virtually anything, and people will always come up afterwards and tell me that the experience was anywhere from pleasant to transcendent.

    My most memorable example of this was an evening of computer-interactive, largely atonal free improv jazz that we did for an audience of “little old ladies” from the local YWCA. Without the copious attention we paid to explaining what we were doing and why it was fun, interesting and revelatory for us, I would have expected and understood if they hated it. But they didn’t. They loved it, and even demanded an encore.

    I was also deeply impressed by a New Yorker article from many years ago on the subject of cave paintings. The author noted (in a very poetic passage, which I sometimes read aloud at performances) that certain styles remained unchanged for 25,000 years. This certainly put modernism, indeed all of civilized art “progress” in perspective, and I never again needed to concern myself with being new or original (which is largely impossible, anyway; everything has been done before in some way, but modernism placed a high value on this self-deception, and I bought it for a long time.)

    In conclusion, here’s something from a wise mentor from long ago undergraduate days:
    Paul Lansky is a serious musical explorer, who is also a great teacher. He, somewhat tongue in cheek, promulgates “Lansky’s Law”:

    “For every true statement about music, there is an opposite and equally true statement.”

  172. @ Tamhob – If I may. I very much like your investment plan. Much respect! Especially as it emphasises flow over accumulation… 🙂

  173. JMG, Thank YOU.

    My motives for being an artist had little to do with making art. I wanted love and acceptance, I wanted to “rate”, to be good enough a maker and conceptualist to be included in whatever fantasy clique seemed to “matter”. And not least of which, I wanted to go off into territory far, far away from some mean people in my former social circle, to go into territory where they couldn’t follow, and excel at a thing they couldn’t do (art). I wanted to prove to myself that I was better thank them in some measurable, social way.

    Anyways, apologies for the confessional, thanks for listening 🙂

    My motives, unsustainable as they were, got me to the place where the Muse burned them all down and showed me what it really takes.

    Now I make art that is alive, that is a collaboration with the materials. That speaks and moves and goes its merry way in the world when it’s completed.

    My current opinion on what art is for? At this stage of development, if art is doing its job:

    -Art takes us outside of ourselves, gives us an experience of a wider world and broader spectrum of being while simultaneously awakening some of the most intimate aspects of self.

    -Art lives in memory, and adapts itself to our personal histories and ideals to support, challenge, or shape those memories. Some say that art is primarily experienced in memory, though I don’t know that i entirely agree with that.

    -Art is part of our world-making capacity, and is a microcosmic part of the greater process(es) of world-creation and destruction in the macrocosmic Great Circle. I understand a little about the making part. I am still meditating on the destruction part.

    Just a few off the top of my head.

    On this topic, I am fond of a book by Zeami (1363-1443) called the “On the Art of the No(h) Drama”. His treatise on Noh theater addresses in elegant precision this very question. Who is the flower for?

    With thanks,

  174. Years ago I read a book on modern art titled The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe; it’s a short book that’s candid and funny, with Wolfe’s dry humor.

  175. Dominique Krayenbuhl,

    While the scale of even large-run series art production is miniscule compared to industrial pollution, production of many of the production supplies and processes, tools, and materials are highly energy-intensive and toxic. It’s difficult to get away from without some serious searching and experimentation, if you want to produce works in commonly recognized (i.e. saleable) media.

    As the scale increases (think large scale sculpture), so does the difficulty of keeping its toxicity and waste generation low.


  176. Addendum to my response to Domnique –

    I suppose some forms of performance art, or high-concept / materially minimalist works would fit your description.


  177. @JMG: That’s my impression, for sure! I have a friend who gets the New Yorker for other reasons–I suspect the cartoons–who will occasionally send me a story all “…can you figure out what the point of this is?” Neither of us ever can. Most of them seem to involve people being miserable and/or dying.

    @Kay: My friends and I used to call that the “Trainspotting” or the “Requiem for a Dream” problem, after two movies which…well, they were very well done, and very good at conveying their point of view, but their point of view was exactly nothing we wanted to spend time with.

    My own perspective on such things is fairly simple: I spent eight years having to read bleak, depressing fiction. Now I’m an adult with a job, and I’m going to use my paycheck and free time on things that leave me feeling good about life, which means nothing that leaves me bummed out, no matter how good the technique is. I do like horror and crime, but those seem different somehow.

    @Justin Patrick Moore: Agreed. And–I say, as someone who was a side-piece a few times in her youth–affairs are *boring* to uninvolved outsiders.* Particularly affairs in literary fiction. Either they end badly, in which case you have pages of characters either doing stupid things or moping about not doing stupid things, or they don’t, in which case you have a romance novel, albeit one most of the standard publishers won’t take on, and which is a little too angsty for my tastes. In other genres of fiction at least you can have one party in it to steal state secrets/sabotage the alien invasion/give birth to the dragon-king of prophecy/whatever.

    * The only reasons they’re an interesting source of gossip involve being a moral busybody–which I dislike in people, fictional or otherwise–and speculation, which isn’t there if you, as a reader, actually know what’s going on. (Arguing for gossip as an art form would make an interesting essay, maybe, but I don’t know that I can actually do it.)

  178. ” I haven’t read Lolita, and am not at all sure I’ll get around to it; if lit-crit types insist that it’s “the greatest novel in the English language,” that’s the kind of warning sign that leads me to neglect a book.”

    Something like that is partly why I neglected to read Moby Dick, and boy was I wrong.

  179. @David, by the lake

    Interesting story about the word “globalism.” I’m usually pretty reserved about talking politics–a necessary skill to survive in an American University–but I was once talking to an avowed socialist and figured that making a critique against global capitalism would be well received. Now, I don’t consider myself a socialist anymore, but I had spent some time in that scene only a few years before in highschool, so I figured I was still up to date enough on the lingo that there wouldn’t be any problems and we could find some common ground around trade protectionism.
    So I’m talking to person A, and it’s going well enough, particularly with regards to criticizing worker exploitation facilitated by globalized capitalism–although, of course, he’s much more sympathetic to the plight of foreign workers than to the American poor. Then I let the word “globalism” slip, clearly referring to our topic of global free trade, and he informs me that I don’t really care about “the workers” and he won’t talk to me anymore because I want to gas Person B, a mutual friend who happened to be Jewish.
    Yes, he said that in exactly those words–the fact that I said “globalism” meant not only that I hated Jews, but that I wanted to execute a specific friend by means of poison gas.
    I attempted to clarify that I was referring to international free trade and that specific groups of people, which I hadn’t mentioned at all, had nothing to do with it. He said that only “alt-right Nazis” say “globalism” and their new strategy was to pretend to not be Nazis in order to trick other people into agreeing with them, so obviously I was lying.
    As far as I could tell, he was serious, and we never did talk after that.

    Socialists being unable to criticize global free trade without breaking down into accusations of Nazism against their potential allies seems like quite a win for the Neoliberals . . . .

  180. If one would like to explore and interact with the art of 17,000 years ago….


  181. How do I get the link I posted above to turn into an active, clickable hyper-link?

    Antoinetta III

  182. Remember the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and his controversial photographs? He was partly funded by federal art dollars. According to Wikipedia in 1989 – “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment,” the show included photographs from his X Portfolio, which featured images of urophagia, BDSM and a self-portrait with a bullwhip inserted in his anus. It was going to be shown at the Corcoran Galley on the Washington DC mall.

    I haven’t looked at the photos because I don’t care to see photos of naked people with objects in their orifices, and under the definition of “evokes an emotion”, its art.

    Do you think the show would be funded with tax dollars in 2018?

  183. It seems that the greatest power the elite have over the populace is to erase or isolate out quality, value, and satisfaction from our memory so we get used to uniquely impoverished options. That offers us an increased challenge in seeking out our affinities and discovering who we are and what works for us, which could be considered a strengthening crucible for those inspired by that challenge. Perhaps the elite’s role during decline is to provide such a depleted standard for anti-mimesis that they unwittingly egg on new and different standards and values from what the old cannon reverenced.

    Despite so many of the offerings in the universities, museums, and concert halls being depressingly uninspiring, old-fashioned blues and jazz are still being composed and performed – likewise great art and literature. I don’t think our declining decadence is likely to create the kind of frenzied bubbling, experimentation seen when the Faustian age’s worldview was first being explored in the Renaissance. Yet I am hopeful of the new aesthetics I see birthing, pheonix-like, out of the ashes of our drearily bankrupt consensus. The great god Kek? That is an oddly creative, obsessive, living idea.

    Perhaps another benefit of John Michael’s recommendation of “collapsing now to avoid the rush” is getting out from under the oppressive burden of soul-destroying standards. As clifford geertz wrote: For creation to take place, a wholeness must first be shattered.

  184. Hi JMG,

    “Goya’s paintings in the series “The Horrors of War” aren’t motivated by a love of what he was painting!”

    True. And Tolkien didn’t express his love for the Shire and all it represented by leaving it in peace.

    I can’t speak for Goya, but art that conveys primarily e.g. fear, anger, or hate seems more like propaganda to me. And even if that was what Goya had in mind I don’t think any of those emotions are at the core of what gives those paintings their enduring power.

    Also, those works were at the dawn of the modern movement, when such indirection in meaning (akin to figure-ground reversal, in this case) was coming to the fore. (Not that it was completely new. So many of those Renaissance deluge paintings, for instance, somehow failed to properly convey irredeemable sinners getting their rightful divine comeuppance; instead, those naked figures clinging desperately to rocks could almost be mistaken for people meeting a regrettable tragic fate.)

    I’m not going to try to defend a position of “it has to be love, only love, ever and always, love is all you need, yat dat dadda dah” (it’s way too sappy a hill to die on) but I think it takes you pretty far where art is concerned. I like to think I have enough in common with the painters of the Lascaux caves to see some of what they were trying to convey, and if that doesn’t include something like love of those magnificent creatures then those artists are lost to me.

  185. OT, but everyone’s been talking about various busts in the works, tech, education, etc. You think we’re on the verge of the big “megabust”? They are talking recession right now…

  186. “it’s not usually eaten on its own” Speak for yourself! There’s nothing I like more in the middle of summer tomato season 😉

  187. JMG: Art as self expression or art as getting the self out of the way so that something greater could come through: If Guernica was self expression the only thing one could conclude was that Picasso was having a very bad day.

  188. It may be. But here, roughly, is the process by which I arrive at my definition. At a minimum, an artwork is an arrangement of materials, sounds, words, that is consciously constructed and not merely “found.” Duchamp actually not to the contrary, because what he was doing was framing, which is a form of construction. Okay, then, constructed to what purpose? Several here have mentioned “to communicate.” But to communicate what? The specifics vary across time and genre, but it seems to me the substrate is “meaning” of some kind. And if you knew almost nothing about the historical or cultural circumstances under which the work was made, you are left with examining “what choices did the artist make in shaping these materials, and what might those choices imply.” Which brings me pretty close to the definition I gave. You are brought into a sort of communion with the creator of the artifact, and you are left to contemplate what it is about the human animal that is expressed here.

    In my initial comment I was perhaps dismissive of “mere entertainments” but of course these do also express something. In those instances in which the only or primary expression is appeal to a consumer market, I admit I am less interested. Though I might still be entertained.

    The value judgment I seem to be making has to do with whether the artist herself saw what she was doing as a creative act of communication, and whether she took some care in selecting and shaping her materials. But even in the most attentively constructed works there are inadvertencies, which is also a part of their charm.

  189. This strikes me as a good analysis thus far. I think you’re right that an artist should try to give his/her audience as good an experience as possible. But it seems to me that pleasing a mass audience cannot be the most important or definitive aim of art; if that were true, then photos of puppies and kittens would be the best art on the internet. Still, it is not agreeable to hear, say, a self-indulgent saxophonist who goes off on some improvisatory riff that is actually rather annoying to listen to, just because he can. Some consideration for your audience is important.

    That said, in my experience most people don’t much care for an art work that challenges their worldview. They tend to prefer those which confirm it. Also, the audience for works that are intellectually challenging is generally smaller than that for those which are not. More people are likely to prefer a painting of a wagon wheel leaning on a whitewashed fence in front of an old barn than the works of, for example, M.C. Escher.

    Surely communication is an essential goal of art; yet here again I’m not sure that it’s the core. I think one can make a good case that it is at heart a spiritual activity. In her novel “The Mask of Apollo,” Mary Renault places her ancient Greek protagonist on top of a temple, driven there by extraordinary circumstances. Here he observes fine detail on sculptures which can never be observed by people looking up from ground level, the normal viewing situation. Why then does the sculptor create excellence that is practically never seen by humans? Nikias concludes: “he does it for the god.”

    The mimesis you describe sounds similar to the conclusion Tolstoy reaches in his essay “What Is Art?”, if I remember it correctly (it’s been a long time since I read it). Yet even here I’m not convinced we’ve gotten right down to the ground of things. For one thing, art doesn’t merely express or replicate emotions; it generates them. I am not convinced that Beethoven, for instance, experienced a sequence of feelings and then sought a way to communicate them in his Fifth Symphony; I think that rather, he created an emotional, intellectual and psychological experience that did not exist until he wrote it.

    I hope to follow up later with some good lusty modernism-bashing. Cheers! And keep up the good work.


  190. I’ve had a slightly odd and dysfunctional relationship with ‘the canon’. I didn’t really read much as a kid but I did acquire a sense from somewhere that there are certain books that I ought to enjoy, with the result that I couldn’t properly assess my own reaction to them because it was so bound up with what I felt ought to feel. I still remember reading a novel when I was university (Effi Briest, as it happens) and being totally absorbed in a particular passage, to the extent that I’d lost any sense of me reading it. I’ve come to crave that kind of total immersion in an art work but I don’t it comes easily or frequently and it certainly doesn’t come through conscious effort. I think must be like the end state of some forms of meditation, but that’s beyond my knowledge and experience (ein zu weites Feld, for anyone who’s read Effi Briest 🙂 ).

    I hope that makes some kind of sense…. Thank you in any case for the insightful discussion!

  191. Dear Mr. Greer – Art. What a topic. Hmm. Where to start. Back in the 1960s, I was working on a degree in art history (U of W, no less), but never finished. Life beckoned, the world beckoned. I had to take a certain number of “studio” courses. Basically, you just had to figure out what the instructor wanted, and produce it to get a good grade. But I’m still intensely interested in art. I have a lot to say about it, but will break it into nice bite sized chunks. First, books you or your readers may find interesting.

    A recent one is “Old in Art School” by Nell Painter (which is almost a pun.) Nell Painter was an African American professor emeritus of American History at Princeton University. At 64, she decided to toss it all in and become what she’s always yearned to be … an Artist. And not just a Sunday painter, but a real “artist.” MFA, and all. So, back to school she went. It’s a pretty good read and you get a peek at the current state of art schools, warts (many warts) and all. And, at how the art market works.

    There’s also a graphic novel, floating around out there, about going to art school. I thought it was “Art School Confidential”, but it’s not. “Art School Confidential” was a four page comic that took off, and was later turned into a film (1991). I managed to find a copy in the dollar DVD bin at a flea market. It’s a hoot.

    Thomas Hoving wrote several books about the internal workings of art museums. They are eye openers. There’s a book about the expansion and collapse of the Bennie Baby bubble. Also a book about the rise and fall of sports cards. There’s a biography about Thomas Kincaid (sp?). “Billion Dollar Artist.” The artist Eric Fischel wrote a biography about the ins and outs of the modern art world.

    I watched an interesting series, last week. “Art of the Heist.” Mostly about famous art thefts, forgers and the looting of ancient antiquities. There was one segment about some Rubens (Titian?) oil sketches, that were stolen. It tuns out the oil sketches are sometimes more desirable, as he did the sketches, and then turned them over to his studio assistants to finish the paintings. Lew PS. I’ll provide citations of the books I couldn’t remember the details of, if anyone is interested.

  192. Mapplethorpe! There’s a name I haven’t heard in a while! I remember when the gallery was shut down in Cincinnati and enhanced Cincy’s already conservative reputation and earned it the nickname “Censornasty”

  193. JMG: as a person on the spectrum myself, I would LOVE to read about building social capital from another aspie. When socially adept people talk about it at all, it is nearly incomprehensible to me. But listening to older, wiser, aspies talk about what they’ve “kenned” about social interactions is quite helpful.

  194. While I wouldn’t expect you to have time to watch the entire exchange between Camille Paglia and Jordan Peterson the first fifteen minutes of her wonderful tirade about academics and art is very apt and very much in accord with what you’ve been saying for a long time. So if you do have a quarter hour (or more if you’re enjoying it) you’ll find the video link here

    Thanks as always for everything you do.

  195. Oh dear.
    I was tired and did not make my point clearly at all. I apologize.
    When I refer to ‘art’ it is in the sense of a highly developed skill.
    Just as there is a distinct difference between merely applying paint to canvas and producing art, so too there is between the normal processing of information by the human brain and actually thinking about the world.
    I find most people are able to easily do the former in both cases, but not usually the latter.
    The concrete example you have chosen to explore, painting and sculpting, generally lumped together under the rubric of ‘art’ illustrates exactly this. Just as you can walk through your art museum and see that there are paintings hanging on the walls it is clearly that many are just that: paint on canvas versus art. The difference is evident because the former can be done by anyone with the tools and cannot be truly called ‘art’ (although I think that the actual art is the skill of persuading people with money to part with it and still feel smart, but that’s not where I’m going), but the latter can only be done by someone who has worked diligently at gaining the skills to achieve a (I dislike the metaphor, but, again am rather too exhausted to think of a better phrase) ‘higher’ degree of quality, more subtle, more refined, more encompassing in its result.
    Those painters put exactly the right colour of pigment on the canvas in exactly the right place in exactly the right amount, and this is not achieved by accident. The sculptor removed, or added, exactly the right amount of material in the right place and shape to produce a fine work.
    They achieved this because they were driven by passion to work at their medium, and eventually, inevitably gained their skills at it.
    But that, alone, is not enough to create art, into that must come some innate imagination that cannot be learned, in the way that Dr. Gachet contrasts with Van Gogh. It distinguishes the master artisan from the true artist.

    What I mean is, while everybody processes information, everybody uses their mind to conceive of ideas and immediate plans, like what’s for dinner and do I need to go shopping, but when I go to the food store, I look at the citrus fruits from 1000 miles away and cannot help but ponder the infrastructure that we collectively built to allow that transport, its current state, and then wonder what will happen as it degrades to the point where oranges become a rare luxury item again. I’m pretty confident that none of the other shoppers around me are thinking about that. As I walk through the aisle to get my eggs, I ponder what policies might ensure a continued supply without the industrial agribusiness model and how to induce the necessary changes to maintain a reasonably prosperous society in a world without coal or oil again. I’m pretty sure that’s not what other people are thinking about.
    Now the general awareness that the way we abuse fossil fuels is problematic economically and the unfair distribution of wealth is socially dangerous, your writings and those of writers you recommend helped me to clarify and crystallize those ideas.

    I cannot help that, and from your writings, I suspect you do the same, because you write about it. Furthermore, I suspect you would continue to think deep thoughts whether you shared those or not. I choose not to, usually.
    And I find that the majority of people, particularly those who are convinced that a red square with some thin blue streaks on it or something that looks like a housepainter’s drop-cloth is “art”, do not actually think about the world.

    That is why I would categorize your philosophical musings as akin to a form of high art, and would submit that you produce these writings because you are compelled to think deeply in ways that the vast majority do not.

  196. Oskari, thank you for this. For what it’s worth, there are employment agencies that concentrate on finding people with Aspergers syndrome and placing them in certain classes of jobs — including some very high-end computer jobs — because the traits that come with Aspergers tend to make people with it very successful in certain fields. (I think we’ve got a hammerlock on the high end of mathematics, for example.) I suppose it could happen that the same principle finds wider application…

    Tony, fair enough — and if you’re going to suggest that Jackson Pollock’s splattered canvases aren’t actually art, I’m not at all sure I can find a good reason to disagree.

    Booklover, it’s a source of wry interest to me that people so often equate a comment like Spengler’s to advocacy of something like socialist realism. I’m going to propose an alternative: the painting of the European Renaissance. That also was representational; it had a relatively fixed stock of motives, on which individual painters rang changes; do you consider that equivalent to the art of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union? I hope not.

    Chris, the only reason I even know about them is because Martin Shkreli, who made the news a while back as America’s number one corporate jerk, had to sell the one-of-a-kind Wu-Tang Clan album he owned to pay the fine the court slapped him with.

    Richard, thank you for this.

    Blue Sun, interesting. That’s a good description of the reason why I chose not to go to graduate school and become an academic, for whatever that’s worth.

    David BTL, it’s not just you. The current climate in a great many public forums reminds me forcefully of George Orwell’s Newspeak, to say nothing of the obligatory Two Minutes Hate directed at the familiar targets…

    Morfran, duly noted.

    RavenWillow, talent is optional. You don’t need it; anything you can do by way of talent, you can also do by way of the skill and sensitivity you develop through steady practice. (In occult teaching, talent is understood as what you get from practice in a previous life — if you have a talent for music in this life, it’s because you spent a lot of time playing and practicing music in your previous lives.) Thus I’d encourage you not to worry about whether you have talent; get to work on whatever art appeals to you, whatever that happens to be, and when you get to the point that you like the results, show them to a friend or two who you can trust to be honest, and ask for their suggestions for improvement. Go from there.

    Denys, good. And of course the MIT team has every reason to insist that they can too make a fusion reaction produce net energy, even though there are solid physical reasons why it won’t. Their jobs and careers depend on maintaining the illusion that fusion power is viable. I’m sure they’ve convinced themselves of that, for that matter — but as the saying goes, you can’t make a man understand something if his job depends on his not understanding it.

    Justin, give it a try! The dulcimer’s a very accessible instrument; it takes about fifteen minutes to learn how to make music on it, and they’re also very cheap, partly because they’re unfashionable (other than the banjo, there’s no more definitive an instrument of the deplorables) and partly because they’re easy to make, having no complex internal structure at all. My personal favorites are McSpadden dulcimers — I have two of them, as well as a Blue Lion bass dulcimer — but your mileage may vary.

    Dominque, fair enough! Not all art is ecologically sound, and some investments have an even smaller ecological footprint — a derivative contract, for example, only involves inconveniencing a few electrons — but you’re right that having investors buy bad art is better than having them buy real estate or oil leases.

    JP, fascinating. It may be, then, that the thing that makes a lot of avant-garde music inaccessible to so many people isn’t the music itself, but the snot-nosed arrogance of the composers and/or musicians, who insist that if you don’t understand what they’re doing you must be a lower form of life.

    Bonnie, you’re welcome and thank you! I know the feeling; I got into magic with a similar collection of silly motives, and got the nonsense knocked out of me in a similar fashion.

    Goedeck, thanks for the heads up!

    Isabel, I have no idea what happened to the New Yorker. Once upon a time it used to have interesting stories and poems — for the gods’ sakes, that’s where Ogden Nash published much of his poetry! But you’re right — a waste of ink and paper, at this point.

    Onething, fair enough.

    Phil K, dear gods. If somebody had proposed that as a parody, I’d have considered it too improbable to work.

    Antoinetta, fascinating! If you want to post a link here, you can do it using simple HTML — here’s a good primer. I can’t post the specific code here, because it’ll be read as a command, but if you replace [ and ] with < and > you can use [a href=”internet.address”]the link text you want[/a].

    Denys, my view is that the government has no business funding the arts. I recall Robert Heinlein’s comment: “A government-supported artist is an incompetent whore.” If an artist wants to be paid to do art, he or she needs to produce something that people are willing to pay for. If not, why, starving in a garret is an old and honorable tradition — and I say this as a writer whose fiction is not especially popular or well regarded. The National Endowment for the Arts, in my view, should be defunded, and the money put to something that actually does some good for somebody.

    Christophe, thanks for this. Your comment strikes me as one of the most hopeful things I’ve read in the last several months.

    Walt, if art inspired by love is the art that moves you, I’m certainly not going to tell you that you’re wrong. I’m simply pointing out that there are other passions that inspire art that, in the view of many others, is also great. Robert Frost’s mighty poem comes to mind:

    “Some say the world will end in fire,
    Some say in ice.
    From what I’ve tasted of desire
    I hold with those who favor fire.
    But if it had to perish twice,
    I think I know enough of hate
    To say that for destruction ice
    Is also great
    And would suffice.”

    Shane, one of these days we’re going to notice that not every common or garden variety economic crisis is a “megabust,” whatever that is. (The term somehow makes me think irresistibly of Dolly Parton…)

  197. @isabel,
    geez, I thought you mentioned Fetlife in a comment a while back? I distinctly remember it b/c I commented on it, thinking THAT would never come up here. Keeping w/my general social media free stance, I never use mine, but, a Deindustrial group might be just the thing. Since technology is going away, I wonder if people in Star’s Reach time will pay to see live porn? Was there ever a culture in the past in which live porn shows were a going concern? Traveling porn troupes? Food for thought.
    OT, but have you ever considered traveling to Mexico or Central America to get a better idea of where people come from? I’ve heard that the most authentic way to travel in Mexico is by bus, and it’s been on my bucket list ever since. Most of “our” Mexicans come from Veracruz, Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Aguascalientes, so those are states I’ve always wanted to see.

  198. Michael, excellent! I recall a story about that painting. Supposedly a German officer met Picasso one day at wherever it was that the painting “Guernica” was on display. The German officer gave Picasso a disdainful look and said, “You did that?” Picasso met his gaze squarely and said, “No. You did.”

    Zach, fair enough! Acknowledge your value judgments as your own; once you do that, I have no further quibbles. It’s the attempt to turn a value judgment into a statement about objective realities, to evade the barrier between facts and values, that makes me raise an eyebrow.

    Kevin,no, there I think you’re wrong. M.C. Escher is (or at least was) immensely popular. When I was in college, every third dorm room had one of his pieces as a poster on the wall. Most people love things that challenge their worldview — that’s why J.K. Rowling is the richest woman in the world these days. What people don’t like is art that treats them and their worldview with contempt — you can challenge a worldview without despising it, and you can despise a worldview without effectively challenging it. Robert Mapplethorpe, for example, doesn’t challenge anyone’s worldview — he just urinates on it.

    Ollie, understood! The canon too often gets turned into an obstacle course you have to get past, rather than a banquet laid out for your enjoyment! I’d never heard of Effi Briest — American cultural tastes tend to be very narrowly Anglocentric — but I gather from a brief glance online that Thomas Mann thought highly of it, and that’s enough of a recommendation for me.

    Shane, because it takes so much more carbon to extract a barrel of oil than it used to…

    Lew, many thanks for this.

    Methylethyl, hmm. I’m still trying to figure out how it works, but if I come to any conclusions I’ll post something about it.

    Susan, do you know if she’s put something of the same sort in print? I really, truly, honestly don’t do video. Little jerky colored shapes on a glass screen do not interest me.

    Renaissance, it seems to me that you’re stretching the term “art” a good deal further than it ought to go, or needs to go. There are other words — for example, “philosophy” and “thinking” — that are quite commonly used to describe the sort of thing I do. Still, that’s not the central point. The central point is that you seem to be stuck on this notion that there’s a compulsion involved, that artists (or philosophers, or thinkers) are driven or forced or compelled to do what they do. I don’t pretend to know why that claim is so important to you, but I reiterate: what you’re saying does not correspond to my lived experience. I could quite easily do something else with my time. I don’t choose to do so, because — having surveyed the various ways I could make a difference in the world, should I want to do that — I’ve freely chosen to do what I do. There is a difference between compulsion and will, and it’s as wide as the difference between slavery and freedom.

  199. JMG What part of your work do you consider to be art?
    Second why does our chatering class have such low regard for our cultural heritage?

    David by the lake. I really like Dune as well

  200. JMG et al.,

    Regarding Nabokov’s Lolita,
    I can’t say if it’s the best novel in English, but I will say that it’s the best novel that I’ve ever read. As a novel, it’s brilliant. As a work of writing, it contains much of the most beautiful language usage that I’ve ever encountered in prose or poetry.

    Would you like it? I don’t know. If you prefer straightforward prose to highly ornate prose, then it might not be your style. On the other hand, I think Nabokov was sufficiently self-aware of the excesses of Lolita’s prose that he managed to play right to the edge without going too far. The commonly quoted first paragraph is a good litmus test: If you find anything about the word play, the style, or the allusions to Poe’s Annabel Lee enjoyable, you’ll probably like the book. If not, you probably won’t:

    I first read Lolita when I was Dolores’ age when HH first encounters her (12), a coincidence that amused me. I was quickly convinced that no human could match Nabokov’s brilliance. As I got older, I tried to do the high-brow literature thing and was relieved to find that my opinion of Nabokov didn’t diminish. Eventually, I started hanging around a bunch of Neo-Primitivists who had an ethic of orality (writing, along with agriculture, were the original sins). I wasn’t totally sold on their ideas, but I was sold on hanging out in the woods, so I basically stopped reading and spent a few years banging rocks together instead. Eventually, I got back into reading, but by then I had developed a distaste for lit-crit snobbery and plunged into the low-brow. When I eventually made it back to Lolita, I was delighted to find it still held up. Then again, maybe I’m biased since it’s basically the founding work in my personal literary canon.

  201. Umm, Tripp, I’m still inspired by your post last week. I’ve wanted to go about something similar, which is to buy an old, abandoned property and fix it up but NOT reconnect it to the grid. Maybe I could discuss that somewhere else, like Green Wizards or something, IDK…

  202. RohanKishibe–your comment about socialists being unable to discuss globalism without being accused of being Nazis reminded me that a similar thing has taken place in feminism. Because contemporary gender studies embraces an essentialist view of gender it is no longer possible to challenge those views without being labeled a Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF) and accused of wanting to kill transgender people. It is ‘violence’ to challenge anyone’s self declared gender. A recent feminist article has pointed out that earlier feminists identified gender as a hierarchical system of oppression, but that this new definition leaves it as a matter of ‘identity’ and disables political discussion. As “church lady’ on Saturday Night Live used to say “how convenient.” It is rather amazing to see the common understanding of gender for thousands of years labeled as radical. It is also ridiculous to accuse women who challenge the new order of being responsible for the murders of transwomen–it is men, usually men confused about their sexual orientation, who kill transwomen, not aging feminists. To bring this back to art–the San Francisco Public Library recently featured an exhibit of art from a trans and allied group that call themselves the Degenderettes which featured baseball bats painted light blue, white and pink (the trans colors) labeled as being for smashing TERFS. Some of the most offensive bits were removed upon public complaint, but the fact that such an exhibit was allowed in the first place says something depressing about the state of things.

    Just in case anyone is getting ready to jump me as a terf–I have supported trans rights since most of these people were in diapers; can’t say more without possibly ‘outing’ some people..

  203. I love this topic. I’ve spent 3 days reading book reviews, watching videos, and searching images. Thanks to all for the references. @cyborgk2016 I particularly loved your description of “classical tonal structures are fractal patterns of tension and release, operating at different scales to create very complex patterns out of apparently simple building blocks.”. Yes! What a beautiful description. Beethoven’s 5th comes immediately to mind.

    Is performance art? I spent decades studying classical piano and classical ballet. I was compelled. When I first encountered these art forms, they were so many orders of magnitude more beautiful and hypnotic than anything else I’d ever experienced, it was if I had no choice but to pursue them. I did not feel like an artist, however, but rather more like a monk. I dedicated a large part of my life to honing my skills to be able to present this art. It only exists when it is performed.

    Later in life I started dabbling in my own creative pursuits, in crafts, painting, song-writing, gardening, and dance. It’s passably good, I’m not embarrassed to show it, but I describe myself more as “crafty” or “creative” rather than artistic. I think I’m having many of the same experiences as a real artist – the flow and concentration, the endless hours of practice, the ideas that spring from seemingly everything I look at or think about. The creative urge is constant and often ridiculous. It’s wonderful, spiritual, but sometimes maddening. If only I had real talent! I would love to be an artist. Oddly enough, the art I love has pathos, melancholy, or the macabre as its dominant theme – but the “art” I make can be quite happy and fun.

    For me, great art is something that astonishes me – mimesis for sure – and even when I get over that, I find more and more to unpack. I never tire of it. I may not even like it, but I am never bored by it. I admit I’ve had trouble untangling what is art that speaks to me personally, from what is art, so I have no idea if this is useful.

    For those like me who enjoyed all the recommendations, and don’t mind video, may I suggest:
    American Ballet Theatre: A History – free on Amazon prime. A lovely and insightful look at what makes ballet special, and history of the art form as it moved from its aristocratic origins to an art for the common man. Also, on netflix – Monty Don’s French gardens episode 3 – Artistic gardens. He visits the gardens of Cezanne and Monet and others and discusses the impact of the art on the garden and vice versa.

  204. @JMG: And I’m very fond of Thurber and Trillin as well, so–yeah. Definitely got lost along the way, particularly where fiction is concerned.

    @Shane W: Oh, I’m definitely familiar with it, and browsed around there a fair bit, so I probably did mention it. 🙂 These days, while I’m not social-media-free, I’m not letting myself even window-shop for guys until I’ve finished this novel and been six months at the new job, so I haven’t actually been on as a member in a long time, if ever.

    Good question! Could definitely see something like the burlesque shows of the past (or the more explicit version, what used to be called “kootch shows” at carnivals), or the still photographs of the Victorian age, which were pretty explicit.

  205. I apologize for having forgotten your dislike of video. The good news is I have been able to find a transcript of Modern Times: Camille Paglia & Jordan Peterson . I hope you enjoy reading their exchange as much as I enjoyed listening to them. I knew I was going to like it when she said all the leftist intellectuals she knew well removed themselves from the universities as soon as they could. When she told them she planned to attend graduate school one friend suggested she go to the University of Buffalo rather the ivy league.

    Anyhow, the transcript is here.

    ps: I hope you’re enjoying Providence. I lived there for sixteen years, read HP in some of his favorite haunts and have sat in front of the RISD Buddha. My son is still there.

  206. Will O., my fiction is art, and so is some of my nonfiction — encyclopedias aren’t art and neither are instructional handbooks, but those of my books that are extended essays meant to move people as well as instruct them (for example, my peak oil books) are at least intended as works of literature. As for why the chattering classes loathe their own cultural heritage, I think it’s because they sense the decline of our culture and, since they can no longer surpass the works of the past in quality, seek to erase them to hide from their own incompetence.

    RohanKishibe, duly noted.

    Loon, thanks for this. I’m the equivalent of tone-deaf for most dance, but I certainly won’t contest the inclusion of ballet as one of the western world’s great art forms.

    Shane, yep. I’ve been watching that closely for a while.

    Susan, many thanks!

  207. Mr. Greer,

    Reflecting on this week’s essay a couple of things occur to me from my day to day experience that speak to your points. In addition to my work in the politics department of the Prestigious Local Research University, partly out of financial necessity, partly out of taking your advice of having a skill hedge vis a vis parabolic collapse, but also partially out of sheer enjoyment I am also an optician. Which means I cut and set eye glasses for a coterie of Optometrists and Ophthalmologists. Like many things, Optician work used to be a noble skilled profession. Over the years the discipline has been, shoddily in the extreme, automated. Nonetheless, there is still some demand for a skilled optician. In guild terms I would place my skills on the higher end of apprentice. Thus, I would still classify myself as an artisan. Which brings me to my point: fashionably artistic people I know are astounded, even annoyed, by my trade. I used to think that it was pure class contempt, but now, in light of your essays, I am beginning to wonder if they are hostile to my profession because, unlike theirs, if my craft does not make you see any better, then it’s trash.

    Amusingly, also, my interest in hand grinding lenses, and parsing the history of making optics from pre-petrol based materials, baffle my fellow tradesmen. Lately, I have been tinkering with the idea of learning to set prescription crown glass lenses in animal horn for Rennaisance Fair enthusiasts. If, for no other reason, than if the sudden collapse of civilization does occur in my life time then I have a valuable skill I can offer whatever holdout community I find myself in. After all, the bare bones concepts of optics have not changed all that much over the last thousand years or so. All I’d need to find is a good glazier.

  208. JMG, by mentioning Socialist Realism or Nazi art I didn’t mean to endorse these art forms. I simply thought these are the kinds of art form that a Caesarist government might endorse. Alternatively, as you said, it might happen that there will be in the future a subculture which is characterized by the desire to preserve classical art forms. But I’m not sure out of which classes of society that subculture would recruit itself. At the moment, it is a bit difficult to imagine classical art to become popular again in non-marginal parts of the population, but we will see.

  209. Dear Mr. Greer – To continue a review of “Old in Art School,” the only drawbacks that bothered me was that there was a lot of family stuff (but, you can skip those chapters.) And, I was a bit … disappointed when she caved in to “the system” and moved away from realism. But, I don’t live her life and she had her reasons. Lew

  210. @ Shane – The Romans had live shows, but mostly at home. Not live, but they sure did splash a lot of sex on their walls (frescoes.)

    Just out of curiosity (Inquiring Minds Want to Know), which side of the camera did you work on, during your sojourn in the San Fernando Valley? Did you work for any particular studio? Lew

  211. @Robert Mathiesen
    Thanks for your link to your paper:
    Quote: “They lived out their lives within the common patterns and rhythms not only of Orthodox liturgy and ritual, but also of daily life. They worked in similar circumstances, albeit in different centuries and lands. And thus they made similar choices independently of one another.”

    Thus renewal in daily life and a steadiness of thought. I remember seeing both the kissing of the Saint in modern day, and the not-so-old iconography that was still being created in the early 19th Century in remote parts of Macedonia, then part of the Ottoman Empire.

    Phil H

  212. JMG,

    Funny. As it happens, my best friend is in the field of mathemathics. He finds it easy. I have settled with simply aknowledging that what he sees with those formulas and what not is something that is quite beyond my grasp.

  213. @RohanKishibe

    Re language, “globalism” and “Nazi”

    Yep. What you described is eerily similar to my experience. Refining terms so that one cannot discuss certain things in any meaningful way does appear to be a tactic that is in use here. Not to mention forcibly cramming people into certain pigeonholes, regardless of any other characteristics. (I’m a Nazi? The guy who’s arguing for free speech, self determination, freedom of religion, legality of same-sex marriage—as well as plural marriage—seeking to reestablish small family farms, support higher worker wages, and less consumerism. That kind of Nazi?)

    The result is, of course, that communication breaks off completely, which is not terribly useful in attempting to actually address the challenges confronting our society…

  214. After thinking about it for some time, I’ve long had the impression that art is an expression of what a person and a society value. With our current art scene, it’s no wonder that abstract art has become so common. Our society, as many in decline before, has lost touch with reality and now values the process more than the product. This idea can be seen across our society. Education now is concerned with and only values getting people through the doors. Our economy depends on services which produce nothing. It’s a whole society based on abstractions and not results. This idea all sunk home when I was sitting in training at work for 7 hours, listening to people just trying to waste as much as time as possible so that they didn’t need to go back and actually get something done. During the training, a question arose about how the money paid for health services didn’t match the allowed amount. There were no number of theories to explain how it worked out to the amount actually charged. In the end, I left with only one thought: everything is made so complicated to justify yourselfs having a job, to express your value, but it is all so abstract.

  215. @Lew,
    oh, no, I never worked directly, but I knew a lot of directors, stars, and others who worked in various studios. Just one of the things of living in SoCal and running in the circles I ran in.

  216. Globalism, TERF’s, etc. My gods, the whole SJW thing is rapidly imploding into insanity. Who woudda thunk Trump would’ve played the role of Edward R Murrow in the implosion of this form of McCarthyism?

  217. @Lew,
    a lot of the more uptight don’t seem to realize this, but porn stars and other sexually adventuresome people are people, too, and you really realize this in SoCal when you’re picking over the produce at a local market next to a porn star…

  218. I am interested in reading all of the comments, but before I do, I’m going to chime in because this subject is near and dear to me. I am an artist, (small ‘a’) in the vein David By The Lake describes. I can’t seem to not create stuff. As a child I was always in trouble for painting or drawing, (lipstick, crayon, spaghetti sauce…) all over every surface in the house, my sister’s school books, (they had blank pages at the front and back!!), the bathroom mirrors, etc. Whether or not I’m a good or worthwhile ‘Artiste’ is irrelevant and I agree with your analysis in this essay. I think for me therefore, it is simply problematic that this appellation, (Artist) has come to mean for so many people one who is a Master of the craft and visionary in mimesis. I get as much ‘feels’, (mimesis) from some of the housewife-crafters on my Dollar-Tree-Crafters-Club as from some high-brow art. I’ve sat in tears for hours at the National Gallery in front of Da Vinci’s Madonna of the Rocks because I find it so moving and tender and beautiful & I don’t care a whit if it is considered too saccharine to be ‘his best’. Thomas Kinkaid leaves me cold, but I can certainly empathise with people for whom his work touches their souls as the Madonna does mine. Same in respect to the unknown artists who painted those Home Interiors Victorian gardens. If it touches some people, good for them. I do like a lot of abstract art as for me it circumvents rational thought and heads straight for the emotional, but there are some I don’t ‘get’, don’t care for and don’t care that I don’t.

    1)There was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC called Kirk Varnedoe, his book High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture that I would recommend. I think you’d agree with his take, but he goes into a bit more depth. I was lucky enough to hear a lecture of his once.

    2) My eldest son, now 20, has inherited my defective ‘must-do-art’ gene and I wanted to share this snippet: 2 years ago, as he was applying for Art Colleges, we were seeing as many exhibits as we could, found two from graduates of his top choice, (top-rated/designer brand/big name/no-way-we-could-afford) schools. They were absolute lazy poorly thought out and poorly executed rubbish, TBH. He looks on many websites for graduates’ work from his choice schools, looked frustrated and said, “UGH! You know Mom. I’m just having a hard time finding a place. I just don’t want to go to a place, no matter what the NAME, that will….. You know….teach me how to stick my head up my own a**. I don’t want to be one of THOSE artists”. I knew exactly what he meant, and agree. LOL He is now a freshman at Florida State University in their Film School, which has a very workman-like approach to combining theory and actual product, (and, therefore, tangible employment in the industry). They have a good success rate so far and as an in-state school, we can actually afford it debt free. I think he made the right choice. In my experience, Film, (and often theatre) tend to keep their heads out because they are also required to be ‘entertainment’, they won’t survive if the majority of people actually don’t like them.

    3) I think this essay is leading into a more impacting topic of the economy, with the establishment Art trade as but one example. (?) I hope so, and am really keen to read that in the near future.

    Now I’ll finish the comments, and may post again. 🙂

  219. Dear Rita Rippetoe, They really have gone a long way, Baby.

    I am old enough to remember when feminism was about civil rights, access to jobs and professional opportunity and money, not sex. , It was about women being able in law and custom to be financially independent of men The fundamental insight feminists had was that the work done by women within their homes created value for which women were not being paid. Nowadays, marriage, far from being a preservative from want, is way more expensive for working class women than the state of singlehood. The reason we see so many single Moms, Cheetah Moms is what I call us, is because we women simply can’t afford to underwrite the excesses and pretentions of Baby Daddy and his friends and relations.

    I would guess that the SF Library put on the exhibition because someone paid them to do so. That is pretty much how things are done these days. You might remember that the Sierra Club rather foolishly accepted a large donation on the understanding that they would not publicly oppose open doors immigration policies.

  220. JMG,

    A bit of a tangentially related question. You state, “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.”

    Certainly one of these stores of wealth with no intrinsic worth is real estate. I’m not suggesting that real estate can’t have intrinsic value but, the overvaluation of property is getting to the point of ridiculousness. I’m thinking of the folks with two or three extra homes that are squirreled away in name your remote part of the country that used to run on agriculture and have only relatively limited development.

    I find the most blatant example to be in former rangeland (ie land that ranchers use to keep cows and sheep because it is not productive enough to grow crops). In many places you can now find ten acres of scrub that wouldn’t support a dozen cattle for a week that is nowhere near where any of the people who own it would actually want to live (if they really lived there they would likely find themselves having to interact with some ignorant Trump supporters) and yet that land is going for $3000+ an acre.

    Do you see some sort of correction in this wealth store in the future or just more of a slow correction to the demand as many of those people stop having wealth to store?


  221. The elite’s contempt for the classics: could this be part and parcel of the elite’s embrace of pop culture? When I was growing up, no self respecting intellectual would deign to own a television–not having a television nor watching TV were status markers of the intelligentsia. Same went for the other trappings of pop culture. Now, it’s impossible to find anyone not wrapped up in the pop culture bubble, regardless of class. I blame increasing access to the internet for breaking down the walls that intellectuals and the intelligentsia had erected between them and TV and pop culture.

  222. Dear Mr. Greer – The graphic novel I was trying to remember is “Art Schooled” by Brit, Jamie Coe (2014).

    “The Great Beanie Baby Bubble” (Bissonnette, 2016).

    “Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession.” (Jamieson, 2010).

    “Billion Dollar Painter: The Triumph and Tragedy of Thomas Kinkade.” (Kuskey, 2014).

    The Eric Fischl autobiography … “Bad Boy”, 2013.

    “Making the Mummies Dance: Inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” (Hoving, 1994.)

    Having been in the antiques and collectibles biz, but only collecting now, for myself, I’ve pretty fascinated by the whole psychology of collecting bubbles. In general, the whole business has fallen on hard times. Other than a couple of areas of collecting, most areas are seeing a steep decline in prices. Other than the really high end “investment” kinds of things.

    The other trend is that old time collectors and dealers are “aging out.” Younger people don’t have the interest or, have other interests. I was talking to an owner of an antique mall, a few weeks ago. I’d realized that younger folks weren’t much interested. But he pointed out another interesting aspect. He’s having a terrible time, finding dealers for his spaces as they’re retiring or dying.

    I watch a lot of local auctions. Prices for really nice old furniture have gone right in the toilet. Large oak and mahogany pieces (side boards, bedroom furniture, china cupboards) are going for 1/10 of what they went for, say, fifteen years ago. I haven’t seen a standard, 1915 Sears oak china cupboard sell for more than $200 in the last 3 years.

    One interesting aspect of collecting is that people tend to collect stuff from their childhoods, or, things they remember from Grandma’s house. Collecting interest moves forward, through time.

    One walks into an antique store (“real” ones are hard to find) or antique mall, and you may still see high prices. But it’s at auction where you can get a feeling of what things are, currently, really worth. As one of your other posters said, “Things are only worth what people are willing to pay for them.” A lot of dealers haven’t got the memo yet. Things have changed. Lew

  223. Shane (again),
    If I may, concerning live porn shows (this is art, right?;), Jim Kunstler certainly seems to think so. He included such a scene in his first “World Made By Hand” novel.

    Concerning “our” Mexicans, if I’m not mistaken there’s a surviving horticultural society in Oaxaca? As in not farmers, or foragers. As a permaculturalist that would definitely be worth checking out to me, if not the rest as well. My man Loreno, on the other side of my favorite bar counter, told me what the verb chingar meant…and what “no me chingue” means too (apologies to native Spanish speakers for the potty-mouth…). Loreno is from one of those Mexican postcard locales, but I can’t remember the name of the town right this sec, and unfortunately my hand is not close enough to a margarita to ask. Stunning photos of the area around his hometown though, absolutely stunning. (And I don’t get jealous of other people’s surroundings very often.)

  224. Millennial, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the fashionably artistic get offended because your work has to measure up to an objective standard, and theirs can’t. I suspect there’s also a bit of irritation from the fact that you produce something that people actually need and want.

    Booklover, nah, my point was simply that a Caesarist government doesn’t have to stoop to the propagandistic; you’ll notice that regimes that are authoritarian but don’t get into the Marxist or Nazi sort of totalitarian “we must control every thought and feeling” trip — and these are the majority among authoritarian regimes — don’t get into that. As for the sources of the subculture, well, it’s already taking shape; there are small academies of realist art popping up all over the place, because people outside the art scene would much rather have an attractive, capably painted piece of representational art on the wall than a crude, ugly, self-referential product of the modern art industry. Give it another century and my guess is that most of what goes into art galleries these days will be inhabiting landfills.

    Lew, well, that’s sad. She should have gone to the local Academy of Realist Art.

    Oskari, that doesn’t surprise me at all. I’m an oddball among people with Aspergers syndrome in that I’m not especially good at math.

    Shane, thank you. That’s very good news.

    Prizm, that’s a telling point. I’m reminded of an old edged joke: “We have an agreement with the management. We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.”

    Shane, do you remember the Circular Firing Squad phase of the rescue game, which I diagrammed back on the old blog? The social justice movement has gone whole hog into that — I give it a decade at most before the entire movement has crashed and burned irreparably.

    Caryn, your eldest son is a very smart young man. I’ll assume he inherited that from his mom. 😉

    HV, dead on target. Real estate got turned a long time ago into a predatory scam that produces the illusion of rising prosperity while squeezing the poor for the benefit of the rich; now it’s become pure speculative stupidity — another symptom of the way that our economy gives too much money to the investmentariat. Sooner or later there’s going to be a reset, but I suspect it’ll take the collapse of the dollar — or perhaps of the US — to make it happen.

    Shane, interesting. I’ll have to think about that. As for the Macleans article, why, this sort of rah-rah has been going on for some years now. I recall a shrill piece by Naomi Oreskes some years back insisting in heated terms that anybody who asks the tough questions about whether renewable resources can support a modern middle class standard of living is a climate denialist. (If Oreskes has actually tried living with no access to grid power, or cutting her personal carbon footprint to a degree that actually matters, I’ve never heard of it.)

    The privileged intellectuals who manufacture this sort of thing really are caught in an untenable position. On the one hand, their lifestyles are wrecking the planet — and it’s worth stressing the point that a single middle class person in the industrial world produces far more CO2 pollution (directly by burning fuel, but more importantly, indirectly by consuming products made and transported by fossil fuels) than a family of working class people, or a good-sized village of people in the third world. On the other hand, they’ve convinced themselves that they deserve all the absurd extravagances with which they surround themselves, and it’s utterly unthinkable to them that they should be expected to give up anything. So they wig out, and insist at the top of their lungs that the fact that they march around waving signs somehow cancels out the carbon they burnt driving their SUVs to the protest…

  225. Hi John

    Excellent post.

    When I pop into art galleries, I usually find that I quickly skip past the modern/contemporary exhibitions and head towards the 17th/18th century exhibitions, in particular the great landscape artists including Turner, Claude Lorrain and so on.

    On the matter of the French protests, I thought that you might find this article interesting.

    Daniel Cohn-Bendit warns that the real winner of this insurrection is the right, not the left. Some right-wingers are calling for Pierre de Villiers, the former chief of staff of the armed forces, to replace Macron in the Élysée palace. He was ousted by Macron last year and has been in the news in recent weeks with a book about leadership.

    So, elements within the French establishment are now openly calling for Macron to be replaced by a general? Ceasar comes to mind!

    I also find striking that the scenes of armed protesters trying to storm the presidential palace has parallels with my fictional scenario should Clinton had narrowly won the US election in 2016.

    I have a specific question for you John – do you think that the so-called Arab Spring were manipulated and orchestrated by foreign intelligence services or were they largely spontaneous uprisings by civic society?

    If you think the former then the logic that the recent French protests have been a colour revolution makes sense but if it is the latter then this would be seen as a largely spontaneous uprising by an enraged internal proletariat.

    I have seen the theory that UK is behind these revolts. I’m not sure that is the case. PM May doesn’t strike me as a leader with the vision or balls to sign-off a plot to destabilize a major EU member-state although I could be wrong. It is true that many Brexit supporting Brits are enjoying the disturbances within France.

    It certainly will put off those City bankers thinking of moving to Paris after Brexit!!

  226. Michael V,
    My wife and I got lost in your museum for at least an hour this morning…thanks for brightening our day!!

  227. Caryn said:

    “LOL He is now a freshman at Florida State University in their Film School, which has a very workman-like approach to combining theory and actual product, (and, therefore, tangible employment in the industry). They have a good success rate so far and as an in-state school, we can actually afford it debt free.”

    And the best part is, it’s nearly impossible to NOT get a degree from “Half Ass U,” even if you’re just driving real slow through Tallahassee with your car window rolled down. 😉

    Go Gators!!

    BTW, do you know how to get from Gainesville to Tallahassee? You drive north until you smell it, then west until you step in it. Oh, oh no he didn’t!!


    PS – In full disclosure, I actually like Tallahassee a lot…I spent quite a bit of training time in the area after college when I was a water management district ecologist. Best wishes to your son. Sounds like he’s got a good head on his shoulders. Cheers.

  228. I read the Peterson/Paglia exchange. Oh my goodness. (sigh) I will say that when Paglia gets off her high horse and condescends to do actual reporting, as happens in some parts of this exchange, she is very good indeed. I think she missed her true calling. OTOH, Paglia as instant expert on the entire sweep of world history I cannot abide.

    This was my first exposure to Peterson, and I don’t like to condemn out of hand without more exposure, but OTOH, life is short and there are lots of books of true merit I have not yet read, not to mention interesting seeds to be planted, quilts waiting to be pieced, recipes to be attempted. On the limited evidence of this showing, I think Peterson needs to read some anthropology and maybe some pre-modern travel literature. Ibn Battuta perhaps.

    Yes, Mr. Peterson, there are crazy women around, women are as vulnerable as men to all of the deadly sins. If “agreeableness” is a defining feminine characteristic, I must be one of the 17 or so recently identified other genders.

    I would like to say that I find it very difficult to believe that each and every interaction between men is some kind of conflict of self assertion which might end in violence. Because if that is true, I don’t understand how Hoover Dam or the Golden Gate Bridge or the interstate highway system ever managed to get themselves built. Perhaps one of the gentlemen who post here would like to comment?

    Speaking of ‘serious modern novels”, I hope an exception can be made for the Latin American cordillera. I can remember waiting impatiently for the public library to stock the latest translation from Jorge Amado and Miguel Asturias.

  229. @Millennial and JMG

    Re art and craft

    Is there a distinction between the two? Is “craft” functional “art”? Or is the boundary somewhat fuzzy?

    I took up crochet about a year and a half ago. My poor daughter got my first major project, a functional but slightly trapezoidal scarf. The “objective criterion” for my work is very much “roughly rectangular” 😉

    But with respect to crafts, I also think of things like brewing, cooking, design, the trades, etc. Are these art, in a sense?

    And I’d agree that automation is the death of both craft and art. I’m starting to think that the leaders of the Butlerian Jihad might have been onto something!

  230. Prizm said:

    “During the training, a question arose about how the money paid for health services didn’t match the allowed amount. There were no number of theories to explain how it worked out to the amount actually charged. In the end, I left with only one thought: everything is made so complicated to justify yourselfs having a job, to express your value, but it is all so abstract.”

    Yup. The USDA, the EPA, the FDA, the DOE, the US Soccer Federation for heaven’s sake – all of the lame-brain regulatory agencies I have to work with. I think they all exist just to give some Johnny Pencil-Pusher (it would be a hyphenated last name, wouldn’t it?) claim to a white collar job and an completely unjustified paycheck. Soccer has been a professional sport since the late 1800s; what could possibly require the attention of so many stuffed shirts at the national office?? Oh, I see you rewrote Law of the Game 7-11b subsection xyz this year…good job. Hope you didn’t hurt yourselves.

  231. John Michael wrote, “Booklover, it’s a source of wry interest to me that people so often equate a comment like Spengler’s to advocacy of something like socialist realism. I’m going to propose an alternative: the painting of the European Renaissance.”

    I was entertained reading booklover’s comment as well since Baroque variations on a ground bass coming out of Renaissance forms are one of my favorite musical forms.

  232. @Tripp,
    if I may tie this in to a lot of threads on here, Hijos de la Chingada by Ocatavio Paz shows why the Faustian overlay is so thin in Mexico, way thinner than the US, and why, as we’ve discussed here, the Aztec culture is down but not out, and why it’s only a matter of time before it rises again. Our responsibility, as bilingual Sons of the Confederacy, is to see to it that in the not too distant future when the South does rise again, that it becomes Mexico’s closest ally. 😉 Now, who wants to be the first Confederate ambassador to Mexico? (raises hand). Now if we can just get the ball rolling on dissolving the Union starting w/Calexit…
    I’m all in for a Mexican bus trip–I’m living on borrowed time, anyway, and I’m pretty fearless. Besides, it’s hard to torture someone like me w/a high pain tolerance. I have fool’s luck, anyway, and come out of the most precarious situations unscathed. I agree about how stunning most Mexican villages look.

  233. Caryn,
    welcome back, though I do so wish you’d pick a more ecologically appropriate state to settle. I don’t want to see you under water! 🙂 Speaking of ecologically appropriate, KY set a record for rainfall this past year (for “all y’all” in the parched incinerator out West)

  234. @Will and @Violet

    Do I drive, or am I driven?
    I cannot tell, but I live in
    this space betwixt heaven and hell.
    The story must out or I am
    undone; the force that moves my pen
    is not my own. We each must tell
    the tale to which we are fated:
    voices compel, unabated.

  235. Yea! Tripp and I on a bus trip to Mexico! (I do reserve the right to slip off to the local gay bar to catch a travestí show and indulge los varones que ecantan los pelirojos.)

  236. @Lew,
    I noticed the same thing @ the auction for my grandfather’s things. And yet, that stuff is way better made and much more durable than the shale on sale @ IKEA…

  237. @Tripp,
    IDK, “your” Mexicans may come from a different part of Mexico than “our” Mexicans. I just paid attention to and made mental note of the states of origin on Matriculas…

  238. I got your point, JMG! I don’t myself believe that future dictatorships will necessarily be of the totalitarian type. Totalitarism seems to me a specialty of the Faustian culture, and since Faustian culture is in decline, future authoritarian systems will rather like be non-totalitarian. And it seems to me that totalitarianism is anything but cheap, so the heyday of such systems seems to have been the 20th century with its maximum in energy per capita.

  239. @JMG,
    funny you should mention it, but the guy writing the article mentioned that “trips to Vegas” are among the ways he escapes from the “stress of climate change”. I wonder if he bothered to think about the carbon his flight to Vegas puts in the air?

  240. OT So…..the filing papers for Trump’s attorney, Cohen, has half of Twitter saying “Trump will be impeached”. If I reply to any of them, “so looking forward to President Pence then?” They response is “Pence will never be president”.


    So who does the left think will be president if they succeed in taking out Trump? Newsweek and MSNBC had both floated scenarios before Mueller even started that if Trump were found guilty of colluding with the Russians, the election would be declared invalid and it would automatically go to Hillary.

    It feels like to me if it is anything other than a transition to VP Pence, we are going to have an all out revolt. It would look like a deep state coup and I can’t see people just shrugging their shoulders over it.

  241. @ Shane W Well that is too funny – I checked out the article author and not only does he fly around a fair bit as an academic: Las Vegas, Chicago, Pennsylvania, Oslo; he also flew (at least I’m guessing that is how he got there) to Mongolia to take part in a small motor vehicle endurance race and is currently ‘planning his next adventure’. Who is really in denial here?

  242. Shane – Re: CO2 and peak oil… I don’t think we’re at “peak coal”, in the US, or world-wide. And, even if we were at the peak, well, the peak is only the summit; it’s not the valley on the other side. We still have a lot of carbon to burn on the down-slope.

    I also read the Macleans article, by David Moscrop, a Canadian who is so upset about climate change that he escapes to Las Vegas just to avoid dwelling on the issues! He advocates shouting down his opponents, if they won’t listen to “reason”, to “protesting”. Take it to the streets, man, until you persuade your Government that you just can’t control your own consumption.

    Somewhat farther afield, I heard Krista Tippet interview Pico Iyer on her broadcast/podcast, which is part of my Sunday morning routine. Here’s her lead-in to the interview:

    Pico Iyer is one of our most eloquent explorers of what he calls the “inner world” — in himself and in the 21st century world at large. The journalist and novelist travels the globe from Ethiopia to North Korea and lives in Japan. But he also experiences a remote Benedictine hermitage as his second home, retreating there many times each year. In this intimate conversation, we explore the discoveries he’s making and his practice of “the art of stillness.”

    What’s this, about a “remote Benedictine hermitage”? It’s in Big Sur, California. It seems that he can’t explore his “inner world” without contemplating the Pacific Ocean from both sides… many times each year.

    Re: Ebola – an excellent source for daily updates on this and other public health issues is The “H5N1” part is a clue that the blog was inspired by the H5N1 “bird flu” scare of some years back, but he’s expanded his scope.

  243. JMG and Daz – Re: Art as an investment, land as an investment… As long as there’s someone willing to pay something for it, art has the advantage of being portable in a way that land is not. Also, land is taxed, so there is an ongoing expense which is controlled by the voters of the region in which the land is held. (I have heard that property taxes are not handled the same way throughout the world. For the benefit of foreign readers, I’ll explain that I must pay about $5000 per year to the county government, or they will sell my home out from under me to satisfy my debt. If there’s money left over, I suppose I’m free to use it any way I like, but they will get their money. I lose my house. It’s used to pay for emergency services (county sheriff, fire department, police) but more than half goes to public schools. If you send your children to private school, then you should be happy that your property taxes are educating your neighbors’ children. The amount of property tax is based on the county-assessed value of the property, which I suspect they always aim to under-estimate by about 10% to suppress challenges. It’s probably cheaper to assess less, than to argue for the last dollar.)

    Property taxes are subject to a few wrinkles: we have a discount for owner-occupied homes. I will some day get a credit on my property taxes, as an incentive for installing the solar panels four years ago.

    So, when push comes to shove in funding the pension “promises” made to those firefighters, police, and school teachers, I expect the 2nd and 3rd “homes” of the rich to be low-hanging fruit.

    Aside from a place to live, owned property can enable small business and subsistence-supplemental gardening operations. I realize income from the kWh that I sell into the grid, too.

    One final note: if you have cash beyond current needs, take a look at Series-I US Savings Bonds. Their interest rate is indexed to inflation, and there aren’t enough of them sold to be a target for large-scale “reform” (as in Social Security, etc.)

  244. One would have a whole other conversation on the distinction between art and decorative craft. And between the practical decorative arts of women and the poor and the decorative arts created for the wealthy. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has an entire room of armor and weapons–hardly art by most definitions, but these are highly decorated pieces–chased and engraved and inlaid armor for horse and man, decorated presentation pistols, and so forth. Also entire rooms that works of art–one of inlaid wood with trompe d’oeil cabinets and shelves.

  245. JMG, this is a fascinating topic. I look forward to future essays on the subject, and I need to make a careful read of all the comments to understand some other points of view.

    I’ve been learning and practicing various crafts for most of my life. The thing you intend when you start sewing a garment isn’t always what you end up with. I’ve made dresses that were technically quite satisfactory, but absolutely did not suit me when I finally got to try on the completed garment. I’ve had similar experiences with knitting… ex.. the sweater that looked like a Romulan cosplay. Giving these away to someone with a different body type works wonders! I consider this solidly “craft”, although I’m doing my best with the aesthetics of the thing.

    I have been attempting to learn to write stories. In my case, it is sort of an underlying belief that I don’t really understand a thing until I can take it apart and put it back together and have it still work. It is amusing to me to watch the elements of the plot re-shuffle themselves and change forms as I work from the bits and pieces of a first draft through the final version. How am I creating art if my result is so different from my original intentions?

    On another topic, I’m looking forward to seeing what gets created for “Love in the Ruins”. Surely human affection and desires will be a constant, even with the cultural changes of an unknown future?

  246. The idea that art gives pleasure and allows sharing someone else’s vision of the world catches part of how art functions for me. But that works most clearly for literature. There is a deeper connection between these two in the best music, painting, sculpture, and literature, and you are hinting at it with your description of the buddha. We humans have a surprising response to things we call beautiful. The transcendent experience of something beautiful is among the most powerful experiences in the memories of many adults. You use the word pleasure for this and it fits although that word has been debased over the years. Art that allows me to be guided toward transcendence by someone else is truly great. This transcendent pleasure seems to be different for children who find this transfixion from a much wider range of experiences. Humans want to live regularly in touch with these positive experiences and art is one of the ways they seek it.

    But art is a fickle thing. An experience of a favorite work of art changes with time, growing and diminishing. A masterwork creates pleasure that grows as deeper layers are uncovered, and great art has layers that give pleasure to neophytes and to connoisseurs. The best academic art is exploring this human process, and I think some of that esoteric work is less decadent than you imply because it is ultimately the study of what humans find transcendent. But you accurately point out the economic and snobbish forces that have hijacked a large fraction of avant garde art. Maybe you should add modern nihilism to these forces.

    Looking to the future, one possible positive trend is for art education to return to artist education. Too many art appreciation courses degenerated in Snobbery 101 (at best audience training and at worst donor and investor training), and too many tenured art faculty were chosen for their rhetorical skills rather than their skill as artists and ability to guide others in making art. A clear example of this is the music education faculty who build their careers using the tools of social science to study how people learn and make music. That is interesting, but when there are many more of these than there are artists who make music, things seem to be degenerating.

  247. @ David by the Lake & Rohan

    Another example of this misuse of language is the charge of anti-Semitism to shut down any criticism of Israel. Jeremy Corbyn, for example has endured this in England.

    A few days ago, on some other blog someone was on the receiving end of this for criticizing Soros for his funding NGOs that foment “regime change.” So Soros should be exempted for criticism merely because he happens to be Jewish? Same with Israel; they can have snipers pick of news reporters and cameramen, as has happened recently a number of times in Gaza, and not be called to task, only because they are Jewish? Behaviour that, if perpetrated by anyone else would receive universal condemnation, but if said perpetrators are Jewish, nothing should be said? Constantly bleating about the Holocaust is a related tactic.

    It seems that it has gotten to the point that we should find a way to defang accusations of racism, sexism, or anti-Semitism. The anti-racists, anti-anti Semites etc. seem far more destructive to society and our trying to come to grips with major issues than what they oppose.

    Antoinetta III

  248. Sex is fine, though please leave out the grunt-and-squirt sort of detail;
    What is your particular aversion to romantic erotica, please? Is there not beauty in “grunt-and-squirt detail”?

  249. @Tripp,
    if you haven’t become acquainted yet w/your local curandero, you should. (Yes, you do have one.) Advice I should take myself.

  250. IDK, JMG,
    the (non)thinking and hypocrisy behind the Macleans article is true enough, but that wasn’t what I was getting at –that has been noted since Al Gore produced his documentary. What I’m noticing now is a change, or rather, intensification of tone as it becomes ever more apparent that a.) nothing meaningful is going to be done and b.) that things will accelerate. The increasing hysteria is the progress worshipers increasing cognitive dissonance as their beliefs are being disproven, and I’m wondering what dark places this insanity may lead. But this is off topic, so we should probably save this discussion for another week…

  251. Personally, I don’t have much to comment on art. There are books that I like, because of the settings. Say, Lovecraft, fantasy, science fiction. I’m completely blind to poetry. It does nothing to me but aggravation. I’m not a native English speaker; this warning is here to avoid the irony of my language errors. I don’t like how poetry bends syntax and meanings of words to transmit a message. The way I speak is very dry, straight to the point. I guess this is the result of my Faustian scientismic education combined with (autodiagnosed) autism. I am almost blind to emotions in other people. I have a hard time memorizing faces, to recognize people later. When I tried to read poetry, well, I acknowledged that writing text to fit metric is an interesting trick; but bending grammar is cheating, and what in the world are those things trying to say?

    So, unfortunately I don’t have anything to contribute that is directly related to the subject of this week, but I would like to say something about some comments.


    You wrote:
    I was also deeply impressed by a New Yorker article from many years ago on the subject of cave paintings. The author noted (in a very poetic passage, which I sometimes read aloud at performances) that certain styles remained unchanged for 25,000 years.

    I read an article in Popular Mechanics, Cave Paintings Suggest Ancient Humans Understood the Stars Much Better Than We Thought, which states that certain cave paintings were depictions of old constellations that used precession of the equinoxes to register events. It seems to have been used for a long time; the article mentions it was used at least between 38,000 BC and 14,500 BC.

    The article was based on a paper, available in preprint on arXiv, Decoding European Palaeolithic art: Extremely ancient knowledge of precession of the equinoxes.

    @Justin Patrick Moore:

    You wrote:
    I’ve commented on it here before but the subject matter of literary fiction holds no interest for me: dysfunctional relationships, struggles with identity. Professors having affairs. Married people having affairs. Affair this. Affair that.

    I think the continuing popularity of Philip K. Dick is because so often his main characters were people like janitors and the like. People can relate.

    Unfortunately this state of affairs is here to stay, because people can relate. Society is crumbling because of the Long Descent.

    Some time ago Stephen King released a book called Under the Dome, where a small city–if you ever touched anything he wrote, he has a view of those places as dens of evil, and a legion of skeletons inside every closet–was sealed inside a force field and cut off from the rest of the world, leaving the people there trapped with themselves with dwindling supplies of everything. Hilarity abounded.

    The novel is pure genius, in my opinion. It reflects well the current situation of decline. No gasoline, no mobility; you are trapped. Your financial resources, and credit, being depleted. Your survival is threatened. All the bad stuff comes out, and people become monsters. People, of course, can relate. It sells. It is the zeitgeist. And the bad news is, the world is becoming Kingtown. No way to escape.

    I hear people are growing tired of The Walking Dead. The decline never ends, and it only gets worse. It is seeping into all culture. All capital is being consumed, including social capital.

  252. @John Michael. Sorry I haven’t had time to respond to your thoughtful comments. I think it’s a good insight that Godot’s fame came because it had no plot. I read it in high school, then tried to avoid ever seeing it. But it enable other plotless plays. Virginia Woolf is just a dual character study with no plot to speak of, but I think it’s still riveting, and Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor did too. That’s the modernist process at its best, and I think it was useful.
    Your broader question of why minimalism is answered in most art history texts, if you know how to read through their triumphalism. It’s actually a story of innovation in response to technology. With the rise of photography, painting lost its historical purpose of recording the image of something or someone. Instead of giving up, painters experimented wildly to determine what they could do that photography couldn’t; that’s what was happening in Impressionism. Painters discovered a wide variety of things; Van Gogh lead the way to expressionism, of using paint to express emotions in a way photographs don’t easily. Other went the way of abstraction, and found they could get viewers to feel emotions that were almost inexpressible. Miro comes to mind here. Essentially, modern art was formed when painters tried to find something they could do that photos couldn’t.
    Many people have had the same critique of art as elitist. Duchamp’s urinal was actually a critique of elitism, which said “Art is something you piss on.” Warhol’s Campbell Soup cans were another critique, as was much of pop art.
    I agree with you that art today is weird, and that Jeff Koons’ art factory is pretty bizarre. It violates my sense that art requires craft, but in general I’m will to give up on my intuitions if people create beautiful things. I think that should be the only standard: beauty.

  253. My deepest apologies.
    I was visiting motivation upon you.
    That was way out of line.
    It was not at all my intent.
    What I am doing was thinking out loud, which is a very bad thing to do. Excited by an idea, I conflated two apparently similar, but actually different things. Hence my apparent dogmatic focus, like trying to fit two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that are actually different parts.
    Again, I am sorry.

  254. @Tripp,
    OMG, I once worked w/a guy who was a Florida State fan, and I asked him why, and he was like, “well, I need a backup team that wins every once in a while in football.” (KY has a notoriously bad football team–“maybe next year” is their motto.)

  255. @ David;

    In this deep dark rare place of inner space
    Where no eyes of humans may hope to parse
    One must proceed with sense of touch and taste
    When plumbing depths of meaning, thought and art
    For furtive feelings always do unite
    Elusive subtle flows meet and converge
    Without ref’rence to scales of wrong and right
    Instead they follow blind unnamed deep urge
    So rather than with feet one walks with tongue
    In this strange land below the use of words
    Still with but taste one tells sweet fruits from dung
    And tell then which impulses may be pure
    Discretion exists beyond realms of speech
    And offers worthy goals for art to reach!

  256. @Y Chireau,
    different folks have different levels of comfort w/explicit sex discussion. A time and place for everything, which is why I suggested a Fetlife group to discuss deindustrial sex.

  257. @Antoinetta & @Rohan

    Re language hedging, etc.

    I think the fundamental issue is something along the lines of what our host has identified previously: namely that the folks in question—deep down—understand that their lifestyles are part of the problem, but are unwilling to accept that fact, and therefore need to divert the focus onto some other issue. Classic “projection of th shadow,” as it were.

    I am unsure of how we might best break through this wall. Perhaps that is the wrong analogy, being forcible imagery and all. I got nowhere on PW attempting to “make” the other commenters see my perspective. In the end I had to walk away. I don’t wonder if the better strategy comes back to something that Varun and I have discussed at length in our correspondence: “gardening in the cracks of empire.” That is, rather than fighting the current regime, one builds the alternative regime in the shadows, away from the attention of the present system which is doomed to fail. Allow that failing system to collapse in its own time, while focusing one’s energies on the preparing of the foundation of what will be needed in the future.

    Attempting to tie this in to this week’s topic may be a bit of stretch, but I’d see a role for the arts in “visioning” what this future might be, in introducing new perspectives and new narratives. Not unlike Retrotopia, for example. Showing what might yet be possible…

  258. I hafta admit I’m jealous and envious of the French right now. I wish we could have a class war. I wish our working class would torch luxury businesses just because. I can think of quite a few new luxury businesses I’d like to see the working class torch…

  259. Forecasting, yes, I saw the comments about de Villiers. I didn’t think of Caesar, though — the name that came instantly to mind, rather, was de Gaulle. As for the Arab Spring, that’s a good question to which I don’t claim to know the answer — nor, of course, do I know whether or not the current French situation has been instigated or exploited by some other country…

    Nastarana, Latin American fiction is very much its own exceptionally lively thing; I haven’t kept up with it, but everything I’ve read in translation from Borges onward has been extremely impressive.

    David BTL, the best distinction I know of between art and craft is simply that crafts produce something useful and arts do not. Art thus has always had more snob value, because if you can afford to spend money on something that has no practical use that shows that you’re not one of hoi polloi. Me, I appreciate both!

    Christophe, I’ve just been learning about that end of music, having been led there by a current writing project. Very fine music!

    Booklover, hmm! There have been totalitarian systems in the past, mostly driven by prophetic religions, but you’re right that there haven’t been that many. Peak Totalitarianism strikes me as a very good thing to be past.

    Shane, of course not. That’s the dirty secret about climate change activism: all those carbon limitations are only meant to apply to the poor.

    Denys, they’re nuts, and I mean that in the full clinical sense of the word. 😉 First, if an election is declared invalid, that doesn’t mean the loser gets handed the office; it means that the election gets done over again. Second, if a president is impeached, that doesn’t mean that the election is declared invalid; it means that charges are brought against him by the House and must then be passed by a 2/3 vote of the Senate. Third, if the president leaves office, the vice president steps into his place, period. We have this thing called the Constitution, you see, and that — not the cloud-cuckooland fantasies of media pundits in the throes of terminal cases of Trump Derangement Syndrome — determines what happens in a case like this.

    Lathechuck (if I may), thank you for the details! As for land, sure, but the people who are piling into real estate speculation don’t think of such things. All they care about is that they might be able to sell the same parcel to some bigger fool in a year for more than they paid.

    Rita, yes, and those are also important distinctions.

    Sylvia, au contraire, it’s exactly because the product isn’t simply a direct reflection of your intent that what you’re creating is art. Most of the people I know who practice any of the arts have the same thing happen. I know it’s true of me; when I start a novel, I may have a general idea of where it’s headed, but a lot of what happens is a process of discovery that routinely leads in strange directions.

    Ganv, I won’t argue; the notions I was discussing were popular notions, and thus by definition lacking in nuance.

    Y. Chireau, sure, and it’s appropriate in its place. My call — and since I’m editing the anthology, it’s a call I get to make — is that this anthology isn’t that place. If I’d called for stories for an anthology titled Sex After Oil, which would be entirely deindustrial erotica, why, that would be an appropriate place — but I think I’d probably ask Shane W. to edit that. 😉

    Shane, fair enough. You’re right that the article’s even more shrill than usual…

    Terry, and yet a painted portrait does things that a photo doesn’t. I think the painters gave up a fight they could have won.

    Renaissance, good heavens, no need to apologize. I just wanted to make it clear that not everyone has the same relationship with their creative capacities.

  260. @Denys,
    oh yeah, definitely. We’ll look like the streets of Paris w/the gillets jaunes if that happens. I remember how smug the mainstream media were when France picked Macron over Le Pen in the aftermath of Trump getting elected. Sigh

  261. @Falling Tree Woman,
    if I’m not mistaken, we have quite a few people who fly in airplanes here on the readership. I think David Pat M, Isabel, possibly others, have admitted to flying. IDK how they can justify the carbon footprint, but, oh well…

  262. @Lathechuck,
    the reason I thought we were @ peak coal in the US is b/c of mountaintop removal mining and the decline in Appalachian coal mining, and the increasingly lower grades of coal being burnt.

  263. A bit more on modern art, if I may. I’m building on Terry Brennan’s recent comments on this thread re. the rise of photography and how it gave rise to the movements of modern art. Artists are always looking for ways to re-present and re-do reality, and I can just see them giving a big collective whoop, “Yippee! I don’t have to draw the marquess’s dreary daughter for the rest of my career!” Reality exists at my levels, including the sub-atomic, and thus a lot of modern art arose in the 1920s when initial discoveries were made in this field; to me, they seem to track the dance of molecules and are rather delightful.

    So when I visit a museum and get to see a Pollock or a Picasso up close, I do see a kind of beauty, sometimes a raw beauty, an access to an original mind that has succeeded in translating its impulses to canvas and in doing so, engaged in a re-seeing of reality. Of course, not all Cubists and abstract artists had such original minds or advanced abilities, and thus once it became a movement and hardened into an ideology, you got all sorts of mediocre art that merely got displayed because it was fashionable. But then that always happens, doesn’t it.

    But, JMG, I do agree with you about the closed and elitist nature of some of today’s art, and I’ll share my criteria. Lately, I have viewed several exhibits by artists whose names I have gratefully forgotten, whose large conceptual works occupied the top or basement floors of major art museums. The works they presented were usually abstract, muted or obscure to the point where I had no idea what they were talking about (unless they had gone to the opposite extreme with some shouting wall text) until I read the explanatory panels that accompanied the exhibit. Now, I am used to panels providing context and depth to the art on display–for example, explaining where the artist lived, who was influencing them, and how the work of art came to be made. Instead, these panels provide elaborate explanations (with a healthy dose of academic jargon) for an art work that would otherwise remain inexplicable. So, my criteria is if an artwork has to have an accompanying panel in order to explain what it means, it has failed.

    Go to enough exhibits and you’ll see a closed loop where the commenter on one obscure exhibit becomes the main exhibitor in the next one, with the creator of the previous exhibit now providing the wall panels. A small group of people who attended a small sampling of art academies and universities are now displaying and explaining each other, those who were outsiders now become insiders and create new cliques, the cycle repeats, and the crowds wither–or hang out downstairs by the Monets.

  264. Tripp – are you in Gainesville? Or just from there? Because I’ll be moving there sometime next summer, courtesy of my daughters, who want someone my age close to home. And if you want a very expensive football team which should really retreat to the minor leagues and just play ball, if not shoved into Chapter 11, look up the UNM Lobos and the comments on the sports page of the Albuquerque Journal.

    Have fun in Mexico.

    Pat in Northern Atlzan

  265. I wanted to clarify my post above – and again, I think the confusion is in the appellation ‘Artist’ that seems to be different for so many different people. I paint, mostly do not sell them, but am compelled, therefore I am a artist, (little a), but I’ve been a Designer, (Big D, aka professional, Fashion designer, costume and set designer, now furniture refurbisher and designer…) most of my adult life in one venue or the other. Perhaps this is more akin to crafts or somewhere in the middle. Designing is more adaptive and supportive, but still art, or maybe just artsy, who knows. A designer is skill-wise a true Jack-of-all-trades. The skill sets to accomplish it tend to be vast and varied.

    I agree with the definition that art is a form of communication – visual art simply communicates an idea and usually is accompanied with a feeling, It can be known, felt, understood on many levels and no it doesn’t matter if the viewer sees something else in the piece that the Artist don’t intend. Something was communicated and felt.

    @Denys: (Hi! Great to be back and to see you here too!) I don’t think there is necessarily a dichotomy between artists who create-because-they-can’t-stop and those who practice and develop the skill. I see JMG’s idea of comparing one’s efforts to some objective standard as most evident in the practice. As a painter/drawer (clearest illustration, hehe) that would be life drawing or still life drawing. It’s like an athlete going to the gym. It’s actually tedious boring drudgery a lot of the time, but you have to do it if you want the muscle when your ideas, your flights of fancy come to you, “When the muse shows up”. Artists DON’T always have something to say and having something to say is crucial, (IMHO), so in the mean-time, you just go to the gym, do your life drawings and work. I guess that is also akin to a writer writing a certain number of pages per day, just to keep fit.

    Also, re: your twitter ‘associates’, I’m a Lefty, know lots of fellow Lefties and even watch CNN. I’ve never heard of someone so……. nuts that they think HRC would be declared President if Trump were impeached. They’re tip-toeing around the question of impeachment and none of the pundits or congress-critters are biting. That’s what I’ve been seeing, anyway. Technically Trump probably committed a felony, they know, (or should know by now) that his supporters and precious few Independents care. It would be political suicide.

    Tripp: Haha!! The ‘Noles have something similar to say about passing by Gainesville and too bad for your friend – the FSU football team bombed this year, pretty spectacularly.

    Shane: So good to see you again too! FL was not our choice, we are still in the realm of “you-go-where-the-job-is”, but FL is fascinating, crazy, surprisingly full of history and truly beautiful. Perhaps all the more so because it is in peril. I feel lucky to be able to experience it before it is all gone. (& we hope to retire, back to the Wild Wild West in about 4 years, so I expect I might survive. I’ll write more about it on an open post. 🙂

  266. JMG – “If I may”… ha! 🙂 (If I tried to unpack everything that (I think) you said with those three words, it would be quite a long paragraph, and only partly off-topic.) It’s quite all right. I’m cool widdat. No worries, mate.

  267. Shane said:

    “(KY has a notoriously bad football team–“maybe next year” is their motto.)”

    You know when they tracked OJ down in his white Bronco finally they asked him where he was headed. He said, “Lexington.”

    “Lexington?” the cops asked surprised. “Why Lexington?”

    And OJ said, “Because I figured it would be the last place anyone would ever look for a Heisman Trophy winner…”

    Aaaand I’m done with the OT college partisan show..

  268. Tripp,

    The FDA really gets my goat. After reading Joel Salatin’s “Folks This Ain’t Normal” and spending seven years in China where produce is grown locally and tastes fresh, then just this very evening I bought a bag of clementines for my daughter and find three of them rotten already, not to mention the many bags I bought with citrus that had no taste… they really haven’t got a clue what they’re doing. The regulations on food need to be changed. I’d be glad to help instigate some notice with my senators and Congressional representatives. Would you do me a favor? My wife and son won’t be able to come to the USA until at the soonest October. I’d appreciate some changes to immigration. A family who has been married for going on eight years, and has two kids together shouldn’t have to be apart over a year so the government can do paperwork.

  269. umm, now the Dems are going to impeach Trump over a sex scandal (hush money paid to women) Where, oh where have we seen this before? Sigh

  270. I wonder whose bright idea that was…

    As the meme goes: “Bold of you to assume anyone on Tumblr staff was thinking to begin with.”

    (There’s other options – somebody pulling the equivalent of the “take out an insurance policy then torch the building” comes to mind – but Hanlon’s Razor is an even better bet than usual given Tumblr’s/Yahoo’s/Verizon’s track record. Yahoo in particular apparently once shut down one of their products despite the fact that the oil and gas industry had converged on it as a standard for compliance reasons and were willing to pay any costs necessary to keep said service running.)

    Oh, and this is *hilarious* and shockingly fitting since I already brought up Retrotopia: Apparently one of the sites that’s had a massive upsurge in traffic in the few days? Newgrounds. Yes, “I remember that name from a decade ago, who knew they were still around?” Newgrounds. Chalk one up for old solutions that become viable once a competitor in their niche dies out, I guess,

    Will J: Huh. Tech stocks tanking hadn’t come up on my radar screens yet, good to know. Makes sense, though – when I’ve been unable to dodge the screens I’ve noticed TV ads from tech companies that I wouldn’t have expected them from even two years ago (Facebook, I’m looking at you).

    (Note to self: From an astro perspective that’s actually quite interesting. On the one hand IIRC I *did* see an astrologer a while back predict stock trouble this December based in part on Venus in Scorpio, though I’ve lost the link; on the other hand I didn’t notice any indicators of stock trouble back when I was looking at this year’s Libra ingress, and unlike crypto (whose current problems make perfectly good sense if crypto is functioning as an eighth house concern rather than a fifth house one) there’s a track record of the stock market being a fifth house matter. I’d expected any stock trouble to kick in either after the holidays – Venus-in-Scorpio is in the fifth in the Capricorn ingress, for whatever that’s worth – or more likely next year when Saturn and Pluto have a party in the fifth for basically the entire year.)

  271. That begs the question of whether that model of production can be applied to the arts without abolishing the artistic dimension.

    First thought: it’s probably worth considering the “will” form of that question in addition to the “can” form, and it’s a safe bet that in a lot of cases the answer to the “will” form will be no. One thing the mechanized Faustian model does do well is guaranteeing consistently mediocre output (this is related to commodification; it might be the same thing, but I’m not sure about that). Which, come to think of it, would suggest that the flight from failure has deeper roots in Faustian culture (because part of the point is making sure that your unskilled not-elect bumpkin can successfully make [INSERT PRODUCT HERE]); if nothing else, it would fit with the need to make things so the unenlightened masses can realize the elect’s vision. Of course, this is an excellent thing if you’re in a situation where the most important thing is that something doesn’t fail, like engineering and quality control.

    (That also poses another question: why port the sweatshop model to art rather than photocopying? Probably a combination of prestige from owning original art and art-as-investment, I suppose.)

    Whether it *can* be applied to the arts without abolishing the artistic dimension… looking at the history of Faustian art, I think it depends on the artform, and I suspect that the kinds of visual arts that could get displayed in art museums fall on the “yes” side of the divide.

    (Off the top of my head, I’d guess that the requirements for making inspired art under the Faustian elect/unsaved model are probably exactly what you’d expect from the classic Faustian tropes: an inspired creator in charge of the project [talented underlings help], the ability to lead the creator’s underlings so that their actions will create the inspired art even if they don’t understand what they’re working towards [same basic idea as the assembly line], and freedom from being micromanaged by uninspired superiors [“obstructive authority figure who has to be worked around” is a stock Faustian villain with a bunch of manifestations, yes?].)

    – It is definitely possible to make inspired music through the Faustian model; that evolution took place centuries ago, probably in service of the *other* thing the model excels at: making art at large scale. We call the result of that process the orchestra (with the composer and conductor in the role of the elect – and I know conductors at least used to have some cultural cachet).
    – It probably does not work in literature; Faustian culture has had five centuries to try to crack that problem, and all it’s gotten out of it is the ghostwriter and episodic screenwriting. (The novel strikes me as a Magian/Faustian pseudomorphosis.)
    – It probably works in jerky-pictures-on-a-screen formats. Animation pretty clearly follows the sweatshop model (necessary to spit out the required number of cels); Japan’s anime industry has created a few works that I’d argue pass the artistic dimension threshold (Hakao Miyazaki’s works and Eva/Madoka come to mind), and I wouldn’t be surprised if American animation studios have done the same and I missed it because they were in genres (sitcom/episodic drama) that aren’t my thing – a lot of people seem to swear by first-decade The Simpsons. Live action runs closer to its theater roots and theater seems resistant to the sweatshop model but the extra (“cast of thousands!”) strikes me as a distinctively Faustian innovation; for that format I’d point in the direction of one George Lucas, who strikes me as having had visual inspiration but suffered from “no narrative inspiration” and/or “cannot write dialogue to save his life”.

    Arts like painting and sculpture lack the coherent narrative issues of literature and animation is a precedent for being able to create inspired art out of large numbers of sweatshop-produced paintings, so creating inspired art of the painting/sculpture variety is probably doable in theory.

    (The other area where I’m pretty sure the sweatshop model just doesn’t work at all is theoretical research. It can work in experimental research, though – my impression/observations is that the current issues with science have more to do with the combination of pointy-haired administrators and Taylorization wrecking their traditional reputation as a refuge for people who didn’t want to be bosses or drones.)

    Also, in unrelated news, somebody got the Kybalion in the Scientific American blogs

  272. All right, Shane. I was one passenger on a plane chock full of people – meaning my share of the carbon footprint should be that of the plane divided on the number of people in the winged cattle car. I was visiting my daughter in the town I will be moving to in mid-2019, and getting a good look at the town and the place she will be moving me into. By the way, to make the steam come out of your ears even more furiously, it will be to one of Florida’s many retirement villages. However: I will be consuming a lot less energy fossil fuel by living there than I am now.

    OR am I deluding myself? For starters, I’m sitting here in a house twice the size of the 500 sq ft apartment I’l be moving into, and it leaks on all four sides. The apartment, being an apartment, is insulated on two sides by the other apartments and on the third side by being in the building. The only chance of energy leakage is at the windows, and if I set up a curtain rod with insulated drapes on rings, that will serve quite nicely. That’s heat saved. Or heat kept out. I won’t need nearly as many lights because it’s fairly open-plan.

    The biggest savings is that I will not be driving around/being driven around hardly at all. So much of everything is right there in the building; and most of what isn’t, is on campus. I understand we get to the supermarket by bus. Unless they call out a bus for one or two people, the way the local senior center here had to do before the City broke down and got them a car (a Prius), this cuts down on an amazing amount on gas.

    The campus shuttle is a battery-operated golf cart, but one could get around campus just as easily with a tricycle. Or walking, if I ever get this cardio condition cleared up. Even now I’m getting the chores done that I’d have to do in any setting. Also, in order to live in a space half the size of what I have, I am donating a lot of things to the local thrift shop. And if I need to buy anything, guess where I’ll look first? The local thrift shops.

    Oh, and Mister Spot will be condemned to an indoor existence for the rest of his life. Look, ma! No songbirds destroyed! Anyway he’s 16 years old and has always been a lazy lap cat.

    And consider – it will probably be for something like 5-10 years before my body goes into the green burial ground whose pamphlet I picked up at their Unitarian church.

    And I have an acronym for you, courtesy of s/f author Eric Frank Russell.


    *Insert some hot language in here.

  273. David,

    “It’s on!”

    Dow, Dow, negative Dow,
    The Dow that can
    Be called the Dow
    Is the real Dow.
    It fell a thousand points today,
    And wiped out Ten Thousand Things.
    Nothing furthers.

  274. Jim Kukula

    “Thomas Kincaid’s paintings mostly picture an ideal world, quaint and cozy.”

    (This) well known American artist died suddenly while still in middle age. He was a painter of sentimental, idyllic scenes done in pastels, which usually included quaint cottages with brightly lit windows, in bucolic, sylvan settings. These were so popular with the public, being representation of life as one might like to see it, that it is estimated one in twenty homes has a print of one of his works.

    And those prints brought in a lot of money. He was, of course, excoriated by the “serious” art world that labeled him a purveyor of stylized trash. A cultural writer known for exploring dark themes found one in him, likening his cottages to the gingerbread house that enticed Hansel and Gretel, with the lighted windows suggesting the fire of the witch’s oven. But the public loved him enough to buy fifty million dollars worth, so to the degree that sales establish legitimacy in art, he may be considered a master.

    He produced his works in a factory-like studio, using preprinted bases to which were added a few brush strokes, often by assistants. However, despite commercial success, he was forced into bankruptcy resulting from a lawsuit brought by his franchised dealers who charged him with fraud. These charges eventually led to an investigation by federal authorities.

    Further, his personal life stood in contrast to his artistic vision. He called himself the Painter of Light, a title borrowed from a more respected figure from an earlier time. He also presented himself as a devout Christian attempting to communicate spiritual values in his work. However, he was known by associates to use foul language and engage in outrageous behavior under the influence of drink, including “marking his territory” by urinating on landmarks. An autopsy revealed his death was caused by an overdose of drugs and alcohol. Thus, a portrait of the self-styled Painter of Light must be rendered in chiaroscuro, with unequal parts of light and dark, like one’s own.

  275. Can the story be about 3 or more people falling in love with each other? Maybe polyamory would have a selective advantage after the decline of this civilization…

  276. @Caryn & @Denys (if I may)

    Re Trump and impeachment

    Wandering off-topic, but FWIW I had seen prior to the midterms folks talking about impeachment and either (more rationally) accepting that Pence would be President but arguing that he’d be so weakened that it wouldn’t matter (and he *certainly* wouldn’t be elected on his own) or (less rationally) arguing that Trump and Pence would be impeached together and that Ryan would (for some reason) not accept the office and that the President Pro Tem of the Senate would do the same and therefore HRC would become President. (I didn’t point out that no, that’s not how it works.) So there are–or at least were–folks out making arguments along those lines, although I haven’t seen them lately.

  277. Renaissance Man,

    I enjoyed your exchange and remain somewhat intrigued by the idea…somewhat agree but JMG’s response was also logical…

  278. @Shane: Can’t speak for anyone else you’ve mentioned, but I try to do so mindfully (not for work if I can persuade them otherwise, not for family trips, now, if I can get there in fewer than two days on a train or bus,* generally not for anything where I’ll be there less than a week) and as low-footprint as I can manage (picking airlines that are relatively good about this sort of thing, going coach rather than first-class, not checking bags). I also try and make up for it in other ways, like mostly taking public transit in my daily life, putting on sweaters rather than turning up the heat**, and so forth.

    Tl;dr: pretty much the same way I justify anything else I do. It’s *nice* when ideals and pleasure/necessity are compatible, but otherwise life is a series of compromises between them.

    * I myself wouldn’t mind doing the cross-country thing on a bus/train, but there’s only so much I want to perturb my father: the man has a heart condition, and I’m really quite fond of him.
    ** Also doing jumping jacks. It’s the New England Cheapskate Fitness Plan!

  279. @JMG and Caryn – I’ve been following some education reformers on Twitter and then of course people on the right screen cap the most absurd of the media reactions and pass them around. Yes, they are serious that Pence will never be President. JMG you totally called that years back when you said the idea of Pence being President was more revolting to the left than Trump being President.

    And the endless pieces on how everyday Trump is President we are eroding the foundations of our democracy constantly harp on how terrible everything is. We are putting ourselves in long-term peril! (whatever that means – which also sounds so much like the climate change hysteria). And now apparently “the world trembles”. The media is working hard to prime people’s thinking that removing Trump from office would be best for the country.

    @Shane The Dems sayin this weekend that impeaching Trump over a payout for sex that all happened before he was President is really something. Sex acts in the Oval while on the phone with a general ordering an air strike in the Middle East is A-OK as we were all told. Wow the Clintons really are a gift that just keeps giving.

    Congress paid out how many millions in sex assault settlements? Wonder if the President could unseal those settlements so we could find out which congressmen/women are the rapists?

  280. @Tripp,
    yep, the Bear Bryant curse! My parents suffered through ballgames @ Stoll Field–mom said the restrooms were particularly hideous (for anatomical reasons, women tend to notice these things more. LOL)
    the impeachment drumbeat in the MSM has picked up. They’re braying for blood, now.

  281. @Prizm,
    welcome to America. Another reason to push for secession–be nice to break the country down into smaller, more manageable, pieces…

  282. @Caryn,
    well, if you’re going to go out West, I’d think Wyo. (where you lived) is your best bet, for no other reason than population. FWIW, I think that a lot of Western states used to have populations the size of Wyo. (500,000) before they went all-out on the whole Californication thing. But water will always be an issue out there, and who knows if even Wyo. can sustain itself as things dry out and burn up…

  283. Prism,
    No kidding. What an abomination of the system! I feel for you, man. Believe me, if it were up to me we wouldnt have half of the federal agencies we do. Starting with the USDA, the FDA, and the EPA. Oh, and the DOE, and HSA, and, and….And I would abolish the organic label too. “Organic” has done nothing but engage in a race to the bottom since the federal standards were implemented.

    Know your farmer! (Like you probably did in China).

  284. I think we would all benefit from a role for government funding of the arts, but more like the WPA programs which paid artists to produce meaningful art and ornamentation in public buildings which is still treasured today, rather than the NEA model which seems to go out of the way to court controversy.

  285. Shane
    What about the tax payers money used to cover up sexual harassment on the hill ? Trump has a card up his sleeve on that one , all kept secret untill trump says it aint , it would be interesting to see who is being shielded , my money is on the dems , if it was not it would have leaked and CNN / WAPO would have led on it .

  286. Shane,
    The term I saw was “indict,” not impeach, though I’m sure they’re thinking one will lead to the other, just as inevitably as removing Trump will lead to installing Crooked Hillary in his place.

    Unfortunately for the deranged, a sitting president can’t be indicted, and if he wins reelection in ’20, which I think he will, the statute of limitations on indictment for this “(not very) high crime and misdemeanor” will have closed by ’24.

    IOW, much more ado about nothing…especially considering what JMG pointed out about the 2/3 majority endorsement required by the Senate for impeachment.

    By the way, for the ctrl-leftists out there, Saint Obama was guilty of the same crime…except his commitment to it was about 7x what Trump’s is. A quiet plea-bargain for about 1/6 of his ill-gotten gains was all that was required.

    Will the hysteria ever subside?

  287. Prizm,
    You know, I’ve tried to give my top-notch, free-range eggs to friends and co-workers who didn’t want them because they didnt have a USDA approval on them?? Blows my mind. We have absolutely lost our most basic sense of bearing in this land. There isn’t a USDA-approved egg out there – “Organic”, “cage-free”, “free-range”, or, don’t get me started on “fed only a vegetarian diet” – that has ever held a candle (interesting pun) to eggs produced by chickens that luxuriate in the sunshine, eat bugs, and feast on oil-soaked herbs strained from our salves. We should give them a different name, like “ovaform units” or some other such sterile-sounding soubriquet.

    And agreed on the clementines, I haven’t had a good apple or piece of citrus from the supermarket yet this fall.

  288. Caryn,
    Ha! Yeah, doesn’t surprise me. All in good fun right? I have another good joke for Criminole fans but I’ll save it for the next open post. It takes a sec to tell right.

    And that was Shane’s friend, the Nole fan. I don’t associate with such riff-raff;). I do have a die-hard UK Wildcats fan buddy though – he’s the one who gave me the OJ joke. We don’t generally bring up football when we’re together…

  289. @Bonnie : Thanks for your response: “While the scale of even large-run series art production is miniscule compared to industrial pollution, production of many of the production supplies and processes, tools, and materials are highly energy-intensive and toxic. It’s difficult to get away from without some serious searching and experimentation, if you want to produce works in commonly recognized (i.e. saleable) media.

    As the scale increases (think large scale sculpture), so does the difficulty of keeping its toxicity and waste generation low.”

    Since I’m not very familiar with this field, I was just thinking of those art objects traded as an investment which I assume are unique which is what gives them value rather than large-run series. .

  290. @Pat M, Isabel,
    it was half (but only half) tongue in cheek. I’d settle for huge protests at major airports yelling “shut it down!” and harassing flyers as “climate destroyers”, but I’m not gonna hold my breath…

  291. “However, he was known by associates to use foul language and engage in outrageous behavior under the influence of drink”, par for the course for most well-known evangelical fundamentalists…

  292. @Tripp, my understanding is that might not be correct, I recently took a course through The Great Courses on the subject of Presidential investigations. There are three limited immunity clauses for American politicians in the American constitution. The first protects politicians travelling to or from sessions of Congress. The second givens them immunity for anything they say on the floor while Congress is in session. The third grants immunity for carrying out the official duties of their particular office. The position that you have articulated is the position of the Justice Department, but there is no clause in the constitution, explicit or otherwise that gives Trump carte blanche immunity for any criminal activity that he might have committed while trying to get elected or in office. I should also add that course in question was taught by Paul Rosenzweig, who worked under Ken Starr on both of the Clinton investigations in the mid-late 90s.

  293. Sigh, all y’all know that if Trump is removed by any other means besides a free and fair election, it means “gillets jaunes” time for the US, and we’re a much better armed country than France.

  294. JMG wrote, “David BTL, the best distinction I know of between art and craft is simply that crafts produce something useful and arts do not. Art thus has always had more snob value, because if you can afford to spend money on something that has no practical use that shows that you’re not one of hoi polloi…. ” It sounds as if you’ve been reading your Thorstein Veblen. (Theory of the Leisure Class) I heartily approve!

  295. Considering Americans penchant for Puritanism, it’d be nice if ecology takes the place that “sex”, and “-isms” once held…

  296. John Michael, if your forays into basso continuo haven’t taken you deep into ciaconnas yet, I highly recommend them. Buxtehude, Biber, Schmelzer, Charpentier, Merula, Marais, Capricornus, Falconiero, Caccini, Monteverdi, Matteis, Bertali, Kapsberger, and Frescobaldi all composed brilliantly virtuosic ciaconnas. And each composer leads to different treasures in figured bass like folias, canons, canarios, jottas, tarantellas, sonatas, partitas, and grounds.

    Well, I guess they’ll take away my progressive card now that I’ve showed that I much prefer to build a future out of the past than out of the present. If forced to choose, I would probably pick stylus fantasticus over rock and roll! Fortunately, no one has to give up either, nor Balinese gong kebyar, nor Zimbabwean gospel. I hear a certain inerlocking complexity in all those forms that sometimes appears in rock music as well. Life really is rich with beauty.

  297. So inspired by this week’s post that I created a series of Christmas ornaments for parents with some our favorite Trump tweet’s printed out and decorated with snowflakes! Probably more craft than art, but you know, when the muse speaks, one listens. 😉

    Now we are headed to ballet. The school was unfortunately taken over by new owners. I had to explain to the owner that our current teacher spent 45 minutes of a 90 minute class talking to the girls about ballet and that we were here to do ballet, not talk about it. When exactly did we become such a country of talkers, rather than doers?

  298. Hello David BTL, RohanKishebe, Rita Riptoe, JMG and all:

    I am reading this conversation with great interest, as it relates directly to personal issues on several fronts. Specifically, I am set back on my heels by testimony that public discourse is being so thoroughly taken over by ideologues who take it upon themselves to rewrite the English dictionary and then conduct flame-wars against the poor unsuspecting idiot who dares to speak a word that has been made taboo.

    In connection with a project that is being prepared for publication, my baptism into publication, I will probably find myself walking unwittingly into just such booby-traps if I want to talk up the book, which goes directly athwart Post-Modernist sensibilities.

    My past experience has not prepared me to recognize the traps that have been laid. Since leaving the art scene, I haven’t spent much time around leftists; my challenge has been to avoid ticking off people who were more right-leaning than I am. I’ve never fit well into any political slot, and have learned that where I’m likely to be misunderstood I should keep my mouth resolutely shut. But that won’t do for promoting a book.

    Anybody got advice?

    Is there something I can read to get a crash-course in Leftist jargon and taboos?

  299. Re Trump & Impeachment: for those who doubt the hysteria of some of the left, you are welcome to visit my house. Whenever my spouse brings up the devoutly-to-be-wished-for defenestration of Trump, I point out that President Pence will be no better. “Oh no, that won’t happen, he’s all tangled up in it too.” is the reply. The Roman Senate remained as the official body for three centuries after the Divine Augustus became First Citizen, so we may expect the forms of our republic to totter on for a long time to come.. It serves the rulers well to keep the forms of democracy.

    @Tripp: Regarding the eggs: my farmer occasionally delivers them with blood or feathers adhering. Once again magic takes its toll and advertising has broken the chain from farm to table. Your friends and co-workers should learn how to kill and clean a chicken for the Long descent.

  300. Patricia Matthews said:

    ” but one could get around campus just as easily with a tricycle. Or walking,”

    unless one has Calculus (on University) and Biochem (at Shands) back-to-back…that’s a haul, let me tell you! But I don’t think you’re moving there for the same BS I was there for…

    OK, back to minding my own fracking business! 😉

  301. Izzy,
    I finally clicked on your icon just now. Like your bio…
    I’ll have to check out your writing some time.

    And that guy on your book cover looks just like me!
    Weird. 😉

  302. Caryn said:

    “I am a artist”

    Are you sensitive about your sh(ale)?

    Sorry, obscure Erykah Badu reference…couldn’t help myself. From the lead-in to her hilarious song “Tyrone.”

    Right, back to MMOB, per Patricia Matthews…

  303. @ Dominique –

    For sure! I think your perspective is a good one for existing works and certain kinds of performance art. I’d much rather those with more means than sense or compassion pour their excess $$ into these objects than invest in far more destructive projects.

    My mind goes straight to production because that was a significant part of one kind of realization I had not too long ago. Looking into the comparative destructiveness of various media is a pretty bleak undertaking in most cases. It made an impression.


  304. On Thomas Kinkade: “However, he was known by associates to use foul language and engage in outrageous behavior under the influence of drink”

    I’m no fan of the man’s work, but goodness, this is kind of stereotypicaly par for the course for a whole lot of painters and musicians I’ve seen & known. Not commendable, but not exactly shocking!


  305. @methylethyl

    there is lots of stuff on the web and Youtube by Aspies about how to interpret body language and present social masking behaviour. Details are mediated by culture and relative social hierarchy, though – eg most cultures show polite attention by looking a speaker in the eyes, but it ranges from a fleeting glance through eyelashes to a stare broken only when the person pauses for breath. Anyway, I found it useful to know the categories of things to investigate, with experimentation to find my culture’s parameters. If all else fails faithful mimicry often works well in small groups.

    It has taken decades for me to be able to pull off a convincing facsimile, but it is possible, if you want to do it. It isn’t costless, there is a drain on processing power and emotional angst. The monitoring can exacerbate anxiety and there is potential for depression if you go too far and feel you are losing your ‘self’. Of course being marginalised from society and careers can also be anxiety and depression inducing.

  306. Hi John Michael,

    Dance does not reach me either. Incidentally, I’ve known quite a number of people who are very disparaging of my choice in music, whilst at the same time elevating their own preferences for classical music. I have in no way criticised their choices either. I feel sad when I see such snobbery, and then I just go on enjoying my own taste in music – which is not to their liking at all!



  307. I do wonder how much of our concept of art as a practice and as an end is influenced by art education in public schools. Feels like every time schools teach a subject, it results in less people understanding said subject. Physical education, health, sex, any of the sciences, math, English…..feels like anything people use in their lives they learned through their own work on it.

  308. David and JMG –

    I would certainly also be interested in playtesting a weird of Hali RPG – and I’d probably have a few friends locally who might share that interest! We might as well use Skype while it’s available as well 🙂

  309. Hey, Patricia Matthews,
    Re: your question about G’ville,
    Neither. I just went to school there.
    And started my brief stab at a respectable professional career there. We left Gainesville in ’08, and have been in N. Georgia since ’12.

    The city has changed a lot since I lived there. For example, if I’m not mistaken, the apartment you’re moving into was a nice little plaza of lunch restaurants and watering holes when I was there.
    Hi ho.

  310. Oh, and Shane is dreaming if he thinks I’m gonna just jaunt off to Mexico with him. My wife would not take too kindly to that.

    Hiking the Appalachian Trail, ditto. And that would prolly come first.

  311. Patricia Matthews – You were replying to Shane, but I also contributed to the criticism of “frequent flyers”, so I’ll claim standing to salute your thoughtful efforts to conserve, and forgive you for an occasional trip by air. None of us is a saint (except, perhaps, Tripp and/or JMG 😉 ); it is a Law of Thermodynamics that we can only increase entropy just by living, never decrease it. I guess we could regard THAT as our Original Sin.

  312. Speaking of “Love in the Ruins” and art, I remember a 2016 photo set of a newlywed Syrian soldier and his wife in the ruins of a war-torn city. I found it quite touching, as I married my wife on the same year, though under very different circumstances.

    Here’s a link to the photos:

    In a twist of irony, these people are already living in the future, though not in the one they imagined or wanted. I hope our future will involve fewer landmines.

  313. In a nice bit of synchronicity The Economist ran a long interview with Adam Curtis the day after this was posted. The conversation touches on all sorts of things and I’d love to see Mr Greer’s response to it.

  314. Just my 0,02.
    Art can also be a form of sharing an experience / send over a message that can only be interpreted/understood by those that have experienced at least a part of what the artist is showing/telling. As an example there is a famous Picasso painting – Guernica.
    Most people consider it to be an abstract painting.
    It isn’t. Allow me to explain
    Those that have experienced a powerful blow to the head can tell you the vision can become blurred, distorted.
    Now imagine. Imagine that you are in Guernica during the bombing. Being in a fever pitch of panic, with your vision distorted, your body shaken by the blast waves, the screams that you can’t hear because there’s a ringing in your ears, There’s smoke and dust in the air, the smell of charred flesh, and the only light is the bluish light of the blasts and the fires.
    The scene in the painting is what you would see, or what your brain could interpret of what was seeing.

  315. Flying is a vexed question and I am not making a criticism of people who take flights – I have done so and will again next year. I was pointing out – as others have done -the hypocrisy of those who rant against ‘climate deniers’ while burning their way through tonnes of carbon. I try to be low carbon in other areas and recognise I have a long way to go as a citizen of the first world.
    Meanwhile on topic – I took a trip to London a few weeks ago from my rural backwater in Devon and visited the Tate Modern – housed in a former power station turbine warehouse. I found – in an exhibition on cities a large model of an ancient African desert town, the kind with small houses with rounded roofs: I looked at the accompanying notes and learned it was made entirely of couscous. Reminds me of a skit by U.K. comedienne Victoria Wood about someone who made 150ft ironing boards out of driving test rejection slips. There was also abstract art which amplified the white noise in my head. I was with a friend who is an art teacher and the next day we saw a Monet in a small exhibition in north London – I was able to get really close and could see how close up it was a series of blobs and strokes that made no sense- quite abstract, only when I stood back could I see the whole emerge. However I noted, with some sadness, that by homing in on the blobs my experience of drawing back – of reflecting I guess, had been somewhat lessened. I’m still trying to make sense of how it all fits into the abstraction/ relfection theme that has been running through posts of late.

  316. The university next door has a cupola for making cast iron sculpture. I have been fortunate to observe the process, where eager (and muscular) art students dump buckets of coke (coal, reduced by prior heating into pure carbon), flux, and scrap iron into the top of a chimney-like structure. When enough liquid iron has accumulated, they tap it into a crucible suspended by a crane, and the crane carries it to the students’ plastic-foam patterns packed in boxes of sand. Pouring incandescent iron onto the pattern burns it away in an instant with dramatic bursts of flame and smoke. Hours later, they clean the sand away to see how it turned out. (It looks like a lot of fun.)

    I tried to ask one of them how they weigh the value of their art against the cost of the pollution of its creation, and they they dismissed the pollution as “insignificant, compared to all the other pollution we produce; some of us have driven hundreds of miles to be here today.”

    You know, that didn’t actually make me feel any better about it.

    I wonder if they’re now sculpting with ironic (so to speak) self-referentiality, trying to communicate the tension between art and nature.

  317. Pat M,
    I’m having trouble picturing you in a retirement community. I could much more see you living in an urban apartment near a bus line, but that’s just me.

  318. I am reading a book called The Alphabet VS The Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image, which seems relevant to your post in a couple of ways. One, as my college age son pointed out recently, is that memes and emoticons have pretty much replaced grammatically correct English sentences on Twitter and other social media.

    I’m wondering if this is in one respect a backlash against current American schooling that disdains arts while pushing a factory like rote regurgitation system of teaching strictly for achievement tests. The other aspect relates to all the recent comments about cell phones in previous posts. This sort of communication is widespread on smart phones, primarily with the younger generation that also appears to be more progressive and egalitarian, and far more accepting of socialism. In other words, their attitudes are far more right brain, with all the underlying artistic and “divine feminine” oriented thinking patterns.

    Someone above said that artists are driven to create art. But schools no longer offer this path, since it doesn’t serve the Wall St interest of making as many people as possible into wage slaves. It seems to me that the social and political activism, as well as switching “back to pictograms” as my son calls it, might be a manifestation of an inarticulate rebellion against a lack of meaningful art and self determination.

    It could signal a shift away from “book learning” rational logic and abstraction toward art that is for viewing pleasure and “feelings” in general, which is showing up both as a mistrust of news, science, government etc and an embrace of eastern, more experiential spirituality in place of rigid “people of the book” dogma – not to mention refusal to play the Wall St game. Not to say books or reading are unpopular, but a more jaded view of the “official” version of anything has or will soon replace the myth of progress the older generations embraced. (Hope this makes sense.)

    I guess I’m wondering what impact a possible shift back to “right brain” thinking will have on America’s future. The movers and shakers today are still viewing art as a commodity and are looking at defunding “useless” college majors in humanities, and of course are trying to roll back socialist programs such as Medicare and Social security, protections for environment & parkland, etc, in the name of “rational” money making. But many people now reject the notion that making money us the end all and be all of the world. Cell phones and memes could accidentally be changing the world for the better in small part. 🤔

  319. @isabelcooper

    > My friends and I used to call that the “Trainspotting” or the “Requiem for a Dream” problem, after two movies which…well, they were very well done, and very good at conveying their point of view, but their point of view was exactly nothing we wanted to spend time with. My own perspective on such things is fairly simple: I spent eight years having to read bleak, depressing fiction. Now I’m an adult with a job, and I’m going to use my paycheck and free time on things that leave me feeling good about life, which means nothing that leaves me bummed out, no matter how good the technique is.

    The problem with this is that it only concerns what “you” get out of art — which, as you say is merely “feeling good about life”.

    But people are parts of a larger society, and someone who just consumes art that makes them “feel good” fails to leverage art for something that it has been used for millennia, which is to build empathy and understand others and their troubles.

    In the end, people who do that end up like someone who only reads news from inside their own echo-bubble, and become one-sided and misinformed.

    When everybody does it, society loses, and in the end, everybody loses.

    I’d say we shouldn’t just consider ourselves as “adults with a job” that can do whatever they please (eg. bury themselves in “fun”), but as citizens with a duty to other people, our environment and society, for whose art is not just a fan pastime, but also a way of connecting and understanding the world.

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