sliding gracefully down the slippery slope of hope
Post #300 • June 16, 2004, 9:02 AM • 29 Comments
Go read the new article by John Link, The Slippery Slope of Hope, and come back here.
Ready? Okay. This appeals to a small but powerful eschatological streak I have, and I'm inclined to agree with it. It's not contrary to a piece that I wrote for newCrit in which I said:
In essence there are two art histories going on - a loud, fast, exciting one based on buzz, and a reticent, slow, private one based on feeling. This is why good but anomalous figures like Balthus and Lucian Freud don't get wiped off the face of the earth. People with sharp eyes make choices about what to preserve that are independent of contemporary history. When the buzz dies down and the hyped artists go the way of all fashion, often those sharp-eyed choices remain standing on their intrinsic goodness. ...
The art world probably has no choice except to operate the way it does, but as individuals, we can put ourselves in front of single pieces of art and allow them to work on us. If they're good, we can hope, with reason, that they will survive the art world they were born into and endure into the future.
But endure doesn't mean thrive. Pluralism has always concerned me. It sounds free and egalitarian and right up the alley of a democratic civilization. In fact, it may mean that no style has enough wind in its sails to tack out of the harbor, and that until something dramatic and unforeseen happens, we're going to be paddling into each other in the shallows.
Link doesn't milk it, but the analogy is set up: The artistic acheivements of Greece simultaneously peak and founder in Hellenism, are passed to the warlike and technological Romans, and then collapse for a thousand years. Substitute "Europe" for "Greece," "Modernism" for "Hellenism," and "Americans" for "Romans," and you end up with a plausible but sickening analysis. (You know, Hellenistic art is a lot of fun. It has a spinning, grinding, insouciant energy that you don't see in the pure and balanced art of the high Classical era. Hellenism was the Postmodernism of its time. And the Romans, in pure PoMo style, appropriated it.)
Now for the good news - I just picked up the new Beastie Boys CD, which, needless to say, is totally sick. ("I got billions and billions of rhymes to flex / 'Cause I got more rhymes than Carl Sagan's got turtlenecks") And the alternative music industry is going to be our model for survival, not those cloistered Irish monks. The Beastie Boys have never gotten a lot of airplay outside of some of their first hits, but survived by putting out a good product through alternative channels - they built their own studio, started their own label, and produced themselves. Aimee Mann put together a label called United Musicians, which holds that "every artist should be able to retain copyright ownership of the work he or she has created and that this ownership is the basis for artistic strength and true independence." Gilberto Gil just put out an album on the Creative Commons License. Faced with a system that was unable to handle their style or grant them the freedom to exercise it, they formed their own networks.
The result? Aimee Mann is doing just fine, thank you, and the RIAA has become so desperate that it is now wetting its pants on a regular basis. One day, I expect the spastically litigious RIAA to sue itself by accident. CD sales continue to plummet, and the RIAA continues to blame new recording technology and not the fact the companies it represents insist on issuing insipid dreck by the ton.
Musicians don't have anything like museums in their lives - public institutions that will grant them official, lasting recognition. Therefore they realized something that Clement Greenberg never did, if we take Link's article at its word: what we call the system no longer involves the people with the best taste, and hasn't for a long time. The art system is just like the music system, except that the RIAA doesn't receive massive amounts of public funding. Link touches on this when he says that these days, most artists "would much rather be in the next Whitney Biennial than recognize the decline it represents."
Well, if most artists jumped off a bridge... oh, never mind. The point is that highbrow taste needs to create its own networks if it can't find satisfaction via the traditional channels. Link is right about the elephant in the room - it's time to shoot the thing; the art system or scene or whatever may or may not come around to what we're doing, but in the meantime we ought to be busy generating our own system and making work on our own terms.
It could even be healthier, having all these little far-flung pockets of resistance. Anyone on board would be a believer, like Ch'an monks were when Buddhism fell out of favor with the Chinese emperor. (Those periods of official neglect produced some of the strongest masters.) There would be no incentive to participate except inner necessity. And inner necessity is what we're all about, right?
According to Link, Greenberg talked about highbrow taste prevailing. It's this prevailing that needs to be reexamined. With pluralism established, probably no style will prevail in the same way that styles used to prevail. But this is the opportunity to strive for a kind of victory that is more personal, more self-directed, and most of all, more self-critical.