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« Building Blocks | Main | More Blowhard "Art" »

May 30, 2003

Art Forms vs. Genre Forms

Friedrich --

America and the arts. American art. America vs. the arts. The arts vs. America ...

Hmm. The usual arts thing is to bemoan America. We don't really care about the arts. We're too damn materialistic and money-driven. The media crap up everything they touch. Why aren't we more like Europe? Etc., etc. Perhaps because I've lived in the arty/media part of the country for the last couple of decades (and thus am more fed up with it than I am with America per se), I have a different primary gripe. Mine is that the American arts (arts people and arts fans) make too damn much out of all this. There's too much breastbeating and not nearly enough art. Too much self-righteousness, too much politics, too much puffing up. And all of it unhealthy for the arts, I'm convinced. It's a mistake to consider the arts as anything near as urgent as such issues as curing cancer, providing healthy drinking water, or relieving poverty. When the importance of the arts is oversold, people will tend to turn on them. A little perspective would help, not hurt, the arts in this country.

Such is my perhaps idiot conviction, anyway. But other questions arise too. Basic stuff: Why does this self-inflation happen? Where does it come from? It's neurotic, it's tedious, and it saps the arts themselves of energy and time. Yet it's also neverending. The fraught relationship between America and the arts is, and has long been, one of the major themes of American art. And as a consequence, the American arts often turn in circles. Art crumbles. Art fights the system. Art has to reinvent itself once again. Art is self-righteously self-important; art is bizarrely gloomy. Art in America is always convinced that it's fighting for its very existence.

Am I alone in thinking, "Sheesh, enough with the manic-depressive mood swings. A little less heat and a little more light, please"? I think this kind of reaction helps explain why arty Americans sometimes look enviously to Europe, where countries have genuine and un-embattled fine-art traditions -- ongoing literary forms, ongoing paint-on-canvas forms, ongoing art-music forms. Arty Europeans can take so much more for granted than arty Amerians can, and partly as a consequence get to immerse themselves in the arts in ways we seldom can. Sigh. And then it's back to the usual America vs. the arts cycle, only this time with envy-of-Europe mixed in.

We're so damn earnest. For one thing, we're forever making the mistake of taking Euro ways of thinking about the arts (deconstruction, structuralism, existentialism) far too seriously. During my brief time in France a hundred years ago, one of the few things I came to understand was that the French don't take the carryings-on of intellectuals nearly as seriously as Americans like to imagine they do. Sure, on the one hand, strange creatures known as "intellectuals" really do roam the French countryside. But on the other: what they say isn't taken as gospel, or even advice. What role do they play instead? I came to understand that what they provide is titillation and sexily provocative posturing. Americans often fail to understand that the French are bound up in history and hierarchy; they're so bourgeois that they need this kind of spice to prod them ocasionally out of their stuffiness, and their deep, deep boredom. Radical titillation isn't something that America, a much more dynamic and fluid society, is often in much need of.

Good christ, I've heard so much overheated babble about censorship and the National Endowment for the Arts (yawn), and so very little discussion about the arts themselves. Robert Mapplethorpe, for instance: forever discussed as a social and political issue -- good for homosexuals! damn those troglodytes in Cincinatti! Yet what about his photographs? Are they any good? What's going on in them? What qualities do they have? Most importantly, what's there, if anything, to be enjoyed?

It seems to me that the explanation for this state of affairs is simple -- it's that our popular culture, our folk culture and our commercial culture are so rich and seductive. They're overpowering. Fine-art-type art is central, even mandatory, in the Old World; here in America, it's optional and almost certainly always will be optional. This is why I argue that fine-arts types who want their field to flourish would do well to abandon their tired old "America, you suck" approach, and would do far better to think about how to make what they're selling and promoting appealing and alluring. I mean, why give the finger to your potential audience? As a punk stance, it can be amusing for a minute or two. As a longterm, overall strategy, it's suicidal. But arty American people often turn their noses up at the idea that they might be selling or promoting anything at all. No, they're doing something better than that ...

Another reason, of course, is that many people came to America to leave behind the old hierarchies -- and, like it or not, the fine arts do carry that taint.

A technical consequence of all this is that we have no, or very few, enduring fine-arts forms here. We can lift or borrow fine-arts forms from Europe or Asia, but most of our own fine-arts forms are anti-forms -- free verse, etc. (And our fine-arts artists so often see what they're doing as a matter of freeing themselves from form ... ) Form-wise, what we have instead, like it or not, are commercial and folk forms: blues, private-eye novels, sitcoms, action-adventure movies, country songs.

In Europe, it's possible to simply choose to work in a given fine-arts form -- the modernist string quartet, for instance, or the erotic art novella. Each has a tradition, as well as a set of conventions and expectations, that can be taken for granted. In America, that's impossible. The American fine artist is instead stuck by and large choosing between three strategies -- 1) borrowing a foreign fine-arts form, 2) doing the achieve-Art-by-freeing-myself-from-form thing, or 3) adapting (and attempting to extend and deepen) popular and commercial forms.

Personally, I'm sympathetic to options 1 and 3. Option 2, it seems to me, while it has produced a few glories, has repeatedly shown itself to be a very short dead end. So I think it's a tragedy that Americans fixate on option 2, often to the point of making the absurd claim that it and it alone is the only valid approach to art. Art isn't something that's a part of life -- no, boobs that we are, we like to think that it's something else entirely.

I find this approach and these claims tiresome and self-defeating. Take food. We may not have a cuisine in the sense that Italy or France or Thailand do. But we do come equipped with popular, folk and commercial food. What's an ambitious, talented fine-arts food person to do? If she or he were to take the express-my-genius-in-defiance-of-the-general-culture approach, well, fine, why not? But I bet that that's one restaurant that won't have a very long run. If, on the other hand, he or she were instead to import fully-formed foreign pleasures and adapt them to local tastes, or were to extend native traditions and forms, or were to blend these elements in ways that work with rather than against what diners already expect and enjoy -- well, come to think of it, you'd have the fab high-end restaurant situation we have now, which I view as the major American fine-arts triumph of the last 50 years. Surpise, surprise: despite all the claims to the contrary, Americans do too turn out to be willing to spend a few extra bucks on art -- so long as the art that they're going to some trouble to expose themselves to doesn't sneer at them, bewilder them, or repulse them. Provided, that is, that it delivers some real pleasure.

Seems fair enough to me. So, now that I've climbed so very far up on my soapbox here, I'm going to indulge myself and propose to the American arts community that we finally call an end to the manic-depressive highs and lows, and finally stop all the annoying carrying on. How? By laying aside the old quarrels and getting on with the job of working with rather than against what people already like -- with what other cultures offer, and with what this culture generates and is at home with. Why keep trying to force something completely different on an unwilling audience? Why not propose instead that what you're selling is the equivalent of a special meal, a classier car, a more satisfying neighborhood, a richer and more involving novel? Who knows, you may find yourself an eager and interested audience.

Good lord, the oxygen up here is mighty thin. OK, I'll shut up now.

Very interested to learn if your thoughts ever run along these lines.



posted by Michael at May 30, 2003


You make a good point. Really "high" art in America has gotten all dressed up in leather and wields a mean whip: "You, art consumer--you'll take it and you'll like it!" Can the relationship between artist and patron evolve back into long walks in the rain and sharing sodas in the malt shop?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 30, 2003 5:47 PM

"We may not have a cuisine in the sense that Italy or France or Thailand do."

And yet, if you're in Europe and you mention "American food," everyone knows what you're talking about. (See my May 28th post on McDonald's for more on this point.)

The idea of national cuisine -- or national art, or national anything -- only acquires meaning when you're safely out of the nation in question. Otherwise it's just food, or pictures, or buildings, or whatever.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on May 30, 2003 6:20 PM


As a west coast philistine, I don't know how much value my opinion has...but for my money, you're right on the money.

Posted by: Will Duquette on May 30, 2003 10:27 PM

Hey Tim, I've only got a few weeks here and there (and a year in France) to call on as experience. But I was struck by the opposite of what you say. The French are quite clear about what "French cuisine" or "French literature" are. It's an infinitely more centralized (and less piecemeal and makeshift) culture than ours is, and there's a level of self-conscious awareness about this that I found startling.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 30, 2003 11:34 PM

Good thinking, here.

American definitions of art suffer from the burden of being derivative of older cultural traditions. A bad starting point from which to catch up. One of those traditions is growth of a mandarin class that devolved into the academy (intellectuals) and (later)the street(intellectuals). Europeans seemingly don't take intellectuals any more or less seriously than they do priests, economists or America.

"the French don't take the carryings-on of intellectuals nearly as seriously as Americans like to imagine they do. Sure, on the one hand, strange creatures known as "intellectuals" really do roam the French countryside. But on the other: what they say isn't taken as gospel, or even advice. What role do they play instead? I came to understand that what they provide is titillation and sexily provocative posturing. Americans often fail to understand that the French are bound up in history and hierarchy; they're so bourgeois that they need this kind of spice to prod them ocasionally out of their stuffiness, and their deep, deep boredom. Radical titillation isn't something that America, a much more dynamic and fluid society, is often in much need of."

You hit on something here but it is exactly because the USA is so fluid and dynamic —as to be amorphous — that whatever we agree radical titillation is, this culture needs it.

Posted by: Robert Birnbaum on May 31, 2003 7:42 AM

You write more people would like art "so long as the art ... doesn't sneer at them, bewilder them, or repulse them."

I think you should have said "attempt to". Most art that attempts to shock (which is most art in general nowadays) merely bores, like an underendowed flasher. The victims look, see, roll their eyes, and move on. "There you go again."

Artists today are stuck in adolescence. They seem to think a) they're smarter in their social critiques than everyone else, and b) that no one's ever thought of this stuff before.

Here's a thought... Do you think the next generation might improve? This whole "why doesnt the world love me, I'll show 'em" pose seems more than a little baby-boomerish. (No offense to any boomers, but you know it's true.) Are the Gen X-ers any different in your experience?

Posted by: Der Blaue Engel on May 31, 2003 9:12 AM

Hey Robert, Good points, thanks. One puzzle for you, though: if radical titillation is needed, but we live in a lots-of-choices consumer society, won't the market for it always be a niche one? Or will it be likely to grow? I guess my hunch is that it seems to be very hard for the avant-garde in our country to resign itself to being nothing more than a niche market (though that's exactly what it is, in a practical sense). Your thoughts on this?

Hey Der, Excellent point that a lot of this is Boomerish. A boring cohort, aren't we? And we won't let go ... I don't know about the Xers. The narrow slice of them that I see in NYC isn't too appealing. They're as gimme-gimme as the Boomers, only without standing for anything but the coolness of being gimme-gimme. Happy to admit that this may be an improvement on the Boomers anyway -- less sanctimonious. But still, it seems to me, trapped in the boring old cycle. I'm more hopeful about the post-Xers. The ones I've seen seem more open, more patient, sweeter-natured, more experimental, happier. Utterly without depth and knowledge, too, but even so at least willing to take chances and be honest about their responses to things, idiotic though those responses often are. They seem finally free (for better or worse) of the tired old Boomer crap. But these are just my personal impressions. What are your hunches about this?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 31, 2003 11:00 AM

A question for everyone: to what extent do you think the American art-must-be-good-for-you thing -- even today's scolding PC version of it -- a remnant of Puritanism?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 31, 2003 11:02 AM


I think it's more a symptom of a national inferiority complex. In the early days of the American colonies, American culture was naturally inferior to European (and specifically British) culture; socially, the fine arts in American have been playing catch-up ever since. And so art is good for you because it supplies something you lack, to wit, culture. And since, as you've pointed out, popular culture largely trumps high culture in our society, it's a perceived lack that's not likely to go away.

Posted by: Will Duquette on May 31, 2003 12:37 PM

Hey Will -- Ah, good point: the class and (if you will) aspirational elements in our relationship with the fine arts. We want something better. Thus: fine art.

Easy to ridicule, yet rather touching at the same time, or so I find. Or maybe I'm just making room for myself. I fell in love with fine art via French lit and French painting, really, and probably would never have chosen to lead a (for better or, often, worse) culture-centric life if I'd only encountered American popular culture.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 31, 2003 1:48 PM

"the lovely in life is the familiar, and only the lovelier for the continuing strange"

I think the problem is not that Americans hate art, but that the art establishment hates America. Mainstream art is a crucifix in urine.

But even in rural Oklahoma, one can find magazines on Southwestern/western/Native American art maybe because such art is beautiful and expresses what we find in our daily lives, not politically correct rage...yes there is a lot of bad art, but good art is appreciated if it does what art should do: Express something to our heart about our daily lives.

one of our local doctors is a Native American artist. But Western and Native American art is not recognized by the "art" establishment. Music is not limited to country western( nor is dance limited to pow wow/Native american dance (Maria Tallchief's family still lives here). But one doubts that the art world will bother to notice such things.

Posted by: Nancy Reyes on June 1, 2003 9:07 AM

I'm recommending _The Soul of a Chef_ by Ruhlman--it looks at fine French cooking in the US from three perspectives: crazed competitive perfectionism, laid-back high quality, and the pursuit of somewhat weird polished excellence.

Thanks for the point that the French take their criticism less seriously than we do--I suspect that the problem at this end is that we have (perhaps not uniquely) too much fondness for outrage. I'll have to think about whether this seems more like a hangover from puritanism or
something else.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on June 1, 2003 10:33 AM

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