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the next advancement

Post #37 • June 10, 2003, 8:59 PM

An essay came to my attention that caused a stir in the literary world a couple of years ago – B.R. Myers attacked the darlings of various awards as being bad writers in one way or another. It reminded me of things I’ve written about art – substitute “artist” for “writer” in the Myers essay and you’ll have a fair approximation of how I feel about a lot of things I look at. And then I remembered an article by Jen Karetnick about nouvelle cuisine that said the same thing – what was regarded as “advanced” in the culinary world was not its tastiest product. I got to thinking that all this goes according to a pattern, and here it is:

The arts come into existence to feed aesthetic appetites of one kind or another. Cooking feeds the culinary appetite, writing feeds the literary appetite, art feeds the visual appetite, and so on.

Self-criticism, the evaluation of the results of an artistic process and the refinement thereof, drives an evolution of technical sophistication.

The arts exist in a balance between repetition and variation. Excessive repetition is boring; we talk about such work as being bland, slow, monochromatic, or overly familiar. So is excessive variation, which we describe as diffuse, frenzied, incomprehensible, or lacking in unity. As more techniques become possible, so do more variations. Therefore the arts tend to develop toward increasing variation in a measured way. Innovations, once sufficiently explored, become repetitive in and of themselves, and creators are again driven to seek out new variations.

At some point the logistics or methods of making any kind of art become more or less solved. One knows how to sautee an onion, construct a clear sentence, or mix a green. The process of self-criticism that brought the vocabulary into existence runs out of things to build, and begins to attack its own assumptions. This is healthy and generative at first, as needless limitations are discarded and creators seek the essential nature of their art. A phase of Creative Self-Criticism ends and a phase of Positive Destructive Self-Criticism begins.

The discoveries of this healthy phase become repetitive like every other kind of innovation, so more assumptions are attacked. But finally the base is undermined, and thus begins a phase of Negative Destructive Self-Criticism. Too many support columns are removed and there is no foundation to make successful work; self-criticism, taken to an absurd conclusion, causes the art to implode. This is the phase we find ourselves in.

The sad thing about the work that comes out of the Negative Destructive Self-Critical phase (let’s call it NDSC so I don’t have to type it again) is that it is truly advanced. The problem is that it has advanced at a high speed into a ditch, and it is now trying to drive down the ditch instead of the road. The vocabulary to describe NDSC work follows this metaphor: edgy, challenging, brash, off the beaten path, uncomfortable, boundary-violating. One would like the advanced work of one’s time to be good, but that’s not our privilege. Still, advanced NDSC work is going to have defenders. Why not? It’s possible to like flawed work, especially if one develops a taste for high variation: meat aspic, convoluted prose, idea-driven art.

It’s also possible not to like it, but that puts you out of sympathy with the advanced work of the time. Regardless of medium, this is how the argument stacks up: on one side you have a group that is committed to maintaining the cutting edge; on the other is a group that is committed to fundamental principles. Stated another way, on one side you have standards-averse artistes who view any concession to taste or common sense as a sign of unoriginality; on the other, stuck-in-the-mud fogeys and philistines who fear innovation like it was a bullwhip.

Escaping this duality is going to take a re-evaluation of what it means to advance. There must be a way to drive further down the road – not the ditch – and not go backwards. Conceptual artist John Baldessari may have been facetious when he said that the most radical thing an artist could do right now was paint a vase of flowers, but he may have been right. Self-criticism, having gone to its dreary final conclusions, has an obvious next target – itself. It’s time to explore what assumptions about art are worth keeping, starting from scratch, so that art can come into existence that is both innovative and worth having. The next cutting edge is the center.

Notes: Myers’s essay was recently published as a short book called The Reader’s Manifesto. I’m almost sure I stole the repetition/variation idea from Frederick Turner.

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