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November 14, 2002

Our Mission, so to speak

Bleep, bloop, sounds of static…

We interrupt our regular programming for this public service announcement.

It occurs to the two of us here at 2blowhards that now might not be a bad time to come clean about what we’re up to with our blog.

In addition to having a lot of fun sounding off about this and that, we do have a fairly serious, two-part agenda. (Cue “Fanfare for the Common Man.”)

The first is that, in our scatterbrained way, we’re trying to do for the arts (and for coverage of the arts) something like what Bernard Goldberg did for the conventional news. Goldberg wrote about how the kinds of people and the kinds of institutions that deliver the mainstream news condition what’s considered the news. The same thing holds in the arts. Cultural institutions and outlets are (mostly) run by certain kinds and classes of people, who tend to promote (if only professionally) certain values. Understand this, and how this works, and your enjoyment of the arts (as well as your awareness of what art is, and can be) will only increase. Or such is our conviction anyway.

It’s a mystery to us why people who follow the arts aren’t as skeptical of what they encounter as people who follow the evening news. Many people are sharp about the day’s hard news. They see the slant, they know where it comes from, they call attention to it, they inform each other about it, they seek out alternative sources. For some reason, people who follow art often aren’t as aware and on the ball. Why is this? Maybe art and culture don’t seem as pressing as hard news. Maybe part of the reason people turn to the art and culture pages is to seek refuge from the squabbles of the hard news pages. Maybe the arts have been successful in their campaign to present themselves as an alternative – and why seek out alternatives to what’s already alternative?

We also find that, often, when such questions as “who gets to define what’s art” are raised, people flip between total credulousness and total cynicism. On the one hand there’s the trusting response: “Oh, these poor, worthy artists!” On the other, there’s the prematurely gruff and cynical response: “It’s all a scam.” Both strike us as offbase. Total credulousness is hardly wise because this stuff is being created and fed to you by a class of people with its own interests. Total cynicism is offbase because there is in fact a lot of talent and brains out there. If you’re overly cynical, you aren’t going to let yourself find and experience the current work and thinking that is in fact useful, provocative, interesting and pleasing.

Why worry about any of this? It’s true that the arts are less immediately a matter of life and death than hard news is. They’re gooier, and more a matter of such semi-indefinables as glamour, sex, entertainment, and personal opinion. But they aren’t just a matter of these factors, and they are important in their own way. They have to do with how we see things, how we eat, amuse ourselves, learn, and enjoy; how we live, and what we manage to pass along.

A quick and easy example: why are the architecture magazines full of deconstructed this-and-that, while the kinds of buildings you might actually want to live and work in are dealt with in what’s known as “shelter magazines”? Why are the brand names (Gehry, Eisenman, Calatravo, Hadid, etc) considered to be doing something called “architecture,” which merits artistic consideration, while the people making modest and pleasing buildings are considered to be doing something else entirely, which doesn’t merit artistic consideration? (Hint: pre-modernism, this wasn’t so much the case.) Well, keep up with 2blowhards and you’ll meet some different ways of seeing these questions. It’scertain, in any case, that zigzaggy jewelbox showoff set-pieces are not all that architecture is about.

We think it’s important to say that the institutions, classes and incentives that dominate the cultural sphere don’t determine anything in any absolute way; we think it’s also important to say that they condition almost everything in the cultural world. So it’s helpful to know how the various systems work, and where these people, classes and businesses are coming from. Blogdom has been great where hard news is concerned. It has helped blow the discussion open, and has helped keep the mainstream more honest. We’re hoping to help get something similar started in the arts.

We’d never lasso anyone else into our cause. But we can certainly recommend that interested readers check out the other cultureblogs we have on our permalinks list. Modern Art Notes has done a bang-up job making some sense out of what needs to be know about the crisis at the Barnes Foundation, for instance -- he’s ‘way ahead of the New York Times on the story. Kelly Jane Torrance and Sasha Castel bring you brainyh news, opinions and anecdotes from within the culture beast itself.

We’re also hoping in a small way to be an alternative news, thought and opinion source about culture and the arts. One of the reasons we think this is important is because now is a great time in the arts. Since the ‘60s, discussions about culture have been dominated by such topics as race, gender, business, personality. (Zzzzzzz…. pardon us while we fall asleep.) The arts themselves have been deconstructed almost to death. They’ve been invaded and taken over by politically-driven relativist-careerists, and one of the effects has been to make the arts seem irrelevant to many people who might otherwise enjoy them, and join in the discussion.

What the political/decon crowd has managed to do – all too successfully -- is caricaturize Western Civ as a conspiracy of stuffy old white guys, as just a matter of one class’s opinion. If that’s true, then anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s! Gosh and Golly. And people who might be interested flee, and the politico careerists do very well for themselves at the expense of the arts.

What’s beyond-belief exciting about now is that a new view of art is taking form. It’s informed by neuroscience, anthropology, evo-bio ways of seeing, linguistics and much else. Art, in other words, is once again becoming something semi-objective, and not just a matter of opinion and politics; it’s also once again becoming something discussable. Does this new approach explain everything? Of course not – nothing does, or ever will. But does it supply firm and plausible footing where there has been none for decades? Absolutely.

We’re excited about this, and are hoping to help other interested fans find their way to this new approach. Our permalinks list on the left of this page, for example, is a treasure map for the curious. (It’s the fruit of years of poking around the arts.) Two of the links alone – to Arts & Letters Daily and to the Human Nature Daily Review – will get you up to speed in no time. We even hope (ahem, cough, shuffle, blush) to have our own occasional two cents to add to this exciting new discussion.

So that’s it: our mission, so to speak -- (music crescendo here) trying to help people understand some of the conditions under which culture is produced (in a non-paranoid, nonpolitical fashion), and to help introduce readers to some exciting new ways of thinking about and approaching the arts. We’re hoping to be useful, in other words – to give people some tools with which they can go on having fun in the arts, educating themselves a bit and experiencing new things, while not losing track of their own instincts. Why is this important? A big, tragic example: one of the ways in which modernist architecture (which very few people like) triumphed was by making people feel that they weren’t qualified to judge it.

A quick disclaimer (and panicky retreat to modesty): we aren’t claiming to know it all, or to be smarter than anyone else. We have spent an awful lot of time, though, looking into these questions. Why not share some of what we’ve found out? Also, running a blog (and not having to go through the hoops of traditional publishing, let alone careerizing) enables us to say and deliver, directly and honestly, what it is we know and have found out. We have no need to play ball with anyone, and we certainly hope that we’re making our own biases plenty evident.

Will some of you know more than we do? Do we have lots to learn too? Will some of you disagree? You bet, and we think that’s all great. We hope you’ll pause to share some of your opinions and knowledge, as well as questions. We 2blowhardys have our own opinions and preferences, god knows, which we won’t be shy about. But what we’re really hoping to do is open up the conversation about culture – which, believe us, has been, for all too long, a mighty narrow and over-controlled one.

OK, enough with the grandiosity. (Fade out “Fanfare for the Common Man”; cue in “Pump It Up.”)

We now return to our regularly scheduled hijinks, rants, and misbehavior. Because if culture isn’t at least partly about pleasure, why bother with it at all?

Friedrich and Michael

posted by Michael at November 14, 2002


An excellent mission, boys, and one definitely worth chasing after.

You even give me some hope with your enthusiasm for where the arts are headed now.

Keep up the good work! Your site and the links therefrom are among the best stuff I read on the web.

Posted by: Mac on November 14, 2002 10:21 PM

I like the hidden agenda. You're right that we who are critically engaged with current events don't think about aesthetics enough. I'm a semi-pro musician, and I was a hipster back in the day (80s) but I stare vapidly at the aesthetics of my surroundings.

Okay, but not too vapidly. Here's two cents. One's this: America made everyone rich. The erstwhile poor people now have houses and cars. The invisible hand moves in and gave them art. They have no developed taste, but they have a wad of cash. So, the hand gives them crap: architecture of soul death, awful music, etc. So, all of us now swim in a world full of vinyl houses and plastic cookie-cutter malls. There's good stuff out there and it sells a bit, but it's uphill. The bad aesthetics problem becomes a social problem. (Solution: huge art appreciation programs in grade school? I don't know.)

The social problem is boredom and lack of intimacy. Asocial mall. Vinyl house, unknown neighbors. TV. The boredom creates more aesthetics: The avante garde, the punk. When bored, people will look for thrills. If you haven't been trained to get deep thrills from good aesthetics, you will indulge in punk avante garde. You will pay to see a man nail himself to a VW. You will become a goth. You will devote 20 years of your life to bad weird art/arch bought by bored, rich people. Etc. There is a goodness in it. Black Flag has a goodness to it, a soul with talent crying out. But it's ultimately in the context of stupidly pressing on the adrenal gland in a desparate hope of alleviating boredom. So, if it's not base pleasures, it's adrenal gland. Blah.

Solution? What am I thinking. These trends just happen. You can't do anything about it. Can you? I tip my hat to you two.

Posted by: Jim on November 14, 2002 10:42 PM

Jim, there's also that liking weird art *creates* community. If you like something that only a few dozen people in your city also like, you're back in a village-sized social group inside of being one of a million fans of a tv show.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on November 15, 2002 10:38 AM

Yes, Nancy, my experience in the f**ked-up punk set tells me you're right. Adrenal gland relief from boredom, plus a close group of friends who talk about more than last night's sitcom.

Posted by: Jim on November 15, 2002 1:40 PM

In my opinion, one of the best culture critics working today is Charles Paul Freund, a Senior Editor for REASON magazine. Check out his backlog, sometime:

Posted by: Michael on November 15, 2002 2:20 PM

I second that -- Freund has been doing first-rate stuff for some years now, much fresher than what you'll find in the usual arts columns.

Thanks as well to Nancy and Jim for pointing out the way that tastes in art can serve a variety of social and personal (not just aesthetic) purposes, something always worth keeping in mind.

Posted by: Michael on November 15, 2002 7:59 PM

How flattering to be mentioned in that wonderful manifesto. Keep talking and your fans will keep reading!

Posted by: Sasha on November 17, 2002 10:48 PM

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