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June 14, 2003

Some Half-Baked Notions I Couldn't Figure Out How to Fit in Other Postings

Friedrich --

* American pop culture is like junk food. Here and there, some of it's fun and good. Here and there, some of it's really terrific. But most of it's lousy, and should be avoided. (The young, the poor and the hurried? Why not? But the rest of us?) Do you have any problem with this notion? I don't.

* Part of what some Americans envy about Euro-cultures is that they have stable, well-defined fine-arts traditions. England and France, for instance, have secure, largely unquestioned art traditions. Art values are prized, a literary culture is taken for granted, artistic forms and cultural institutions are in firmly in place. Americans who move overseas rave about the food, the cities, the art, the buildings, the "quality of life" ...

* Many of these things, we American simply don't have. Instead, we zigzag back and forth between an aggressive, dynamic commercial-arts world and a self-righteous, ever-in-fear-for-its-very-life fine-arts world. There never seems to be an halfway stable resting place where you can catch your breath. And isn't the art thing partly about finding a center? We so seldom seem to be able to. This can be exhausting, annoying and boring. We get frantic, we feel we're missing the point of life.

* We seem to be at one of those awful moments when the fine-art and the commercial-art worlds have almost nothing to do with each other -- when things between them have gotten downright antagonistic, in fact. Too bad. Some of the great eras in American art -- the late 1800s, the '20s and '30s, the '60s-'70s -- happened when a real, eager conversation fired up between masscult and elite cult.

* But maybe I'm silly to be dismayed by this. Digital technology seems to be bringing a lot of the old barriers down. Perhaps in a couple of decades it'll have long been forgotten that there ever was such a divide. Will that become its own problem? I kind of like the divide. I just wish more genial, respectful and helpful exchanges were taking place back and forth.

* The American commercial-art world is often amazingly proficient and impressively dynamic. It's also, or so many people find, scarily aggressive. Its values, it seems to me, are basically the values of money, technology and business, with even sex and art put at the service of them. Plus, if you're a creative person making a living there, the chances that you'll ever be able to do much of your own thing are pretty slim. You'll be putting your talent and energy to work selling business values instead.

* Our fine-arts world -- feeling itself to be under siege and carrying on histrionically -- is 'way overprone to get caught up in anti-capitalist protest politics, as well as 'way overprone to make absurd claims for what art can do for a person. It's a hysterical pretentiousness that's self-defeating. Finally, all it accomplishes is to make even more Americans turn against the fine arts.

* Why are we cursed with this bipolar, manic-depressive, endlessly cycling rhythm? Why can't we have a real arts world instead? I really don't know. A few still-under-construction hunches: Puritanism. Because so many came to this country trying to get away from more tradition-bound cultures. Because we're so in love with what's shiny and new. Because we're so religious. Because we get lousy educations. Because we're overgrown children and idiots. Because commercial culture, whatever its virtues, really does exhaust and coarsen us. Because we're addicted to juvenile carrying-on.

* Sad but true that many Americans who discover art as kids or students pretty much abandon all engagement with it around the age of 30. Life gets busy, youthful energy and defiance runs out ... And the arts let them down too, I suspect.

* The various fine-arts worlds in this country seldom seem to think in terms of making themselves attractive to the rest of the country. They never seem willing to accept the fact that we live in a market culture, and to accept a role within it. Instead they too often define themselves by protesting the existence of the market.

* This is why I suggest -- not that anyone should care -- that the arts worlds might present themselves more in terms of Quality of Life than of protest and religion. Many Americans have proven willing to ditch junk food and lousy beer; many have shown that they're willing to spend a few extra bucks on a nicer car or blouse, or a fun meal. Why shouldn't the American fine arts take their cue from this? Artists: accept that you have a duty to sell art values, and accept the fact that in America you'll never be able to force them on anyone. Make them attractive, appealing and useful, in other words. And don't sneer at potential customers.

* This is why I celebrate the high-end American cooking and restaurant worlds. It's also why I celebrate the New Urbanism; whatever its interesting/uninteresting/debatable qualites, it's positive, it's working with what we already have, it's entrepreneurial. The New Urbanists have a product that they dare think is better than what people are usually sold. And they're doing their best to connect with a market for it. Danged if they aren't having some luck. Will they finally change all of society? Will we finally be living in Utopia? I doubt it. But even if all they succeed at doing is creating a vibrant and thriving niche market for quality neighborhoods -- I mean, what's not to applaud?

Still working on all this, and eager to know your own thoughts on such matters. Forgive the heavy-handedness of the presentation. Really, before making them public, I should sandpaper 'em and offer 'em up in my usual sly-and-modest-yet-provocative (or so it pleases me to think) way. But I don't seem to have the wherewithal today.



posted by Michael at June 14, 2003


A few shotgun comments to match your scattershot musings:

"American pop culture is like junk food. Here and there, some of it's fun and good. Here and there, some of it's really terrific. But most of it's lousy, and should be avoided."

Sturgeon's law says that 90% of everything is crap; why should pop culture, American or otherwise, be an exception? High culture is something of an exception, because a large part of high culture involves skimming that remaining 10% from the efforts of past ages. If you look at the current products of high culture, you'll likely find that, indeed, 90% of them are crap. It might take a decade or two or ten to figure out which 10% is worth retaining, of course.

"And isn't the art thing partly about finding a center?"

Not for me; for me that falls in the province of religious faith. (At least, that's where I find my center; your mileage may vary.)

"A few still-under-construction hunches: Puritanism."

Puritanism? Really? Puritanism is why we prefer the relentless sex and titillation of popular culture to participation in a "real arts world"? Wouldn't Cotton Mather be surprised....

I'd say, instead, that we expect too much from the fine arts--because when we think of fine arts we think immediately of centuries of cream skimmed right off the top. We expect participation in the fine arts to let us lap up the cream right now--and 90% of it turns out to be crud. Small wonder so many folks in the fine arts community are caught up in absurdity.

Posted by: Will Duquette on June 14, 2003 6:22 PM

About Sturgeon's Law, if you want to see it in acation, go to the Henry C. Luce storage center at the Metropolian. It shows how they store artwork (in this case, American painting and craft)...and for every long lost Tiffany or Hudson Valley treasure, there are endless rows of boilerplate portraits of ugly children and unforgivable primative crap.

Also, the luxury market for painting, at least in my experience in painting portraits, is there. It exists in a corridor from Boston to New York to LA, maintained by colonies in DC, The Hamptons, and Conn. It's a very small market, catering to the blindingly rich and soon to be. The problem isn't that the Luxury Painting market isn't there, its just 1) Very Small 2) Very Limited to those who can afford it (We're told in school to overcharge because you never know when the next job will come and if it costs alot people think more of it.) and 3)Very Old, the people who bought my portaits where not the kind of people that, en masse, Advertisers target (tho there are niche publications up the wazoo, its just not in the general slop of things)


Posted by: JLeavitt on June 15, 2003 1:12 PM

The primary difference between art and food is that you can't make junk food nutritional by thinking about it.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on June 15, 2003 10:53 PM

Interesting point about contemporary high-end cooking and food and drink. That is an art form in something of a golden age right now, isn't it? Lots of "artists" at work, lots of eager "patrons," lots of places where it's being done, and (this being America and very important) lots of money to be made. Why can't the other arts work like this?

Americans have shown that we're eager to gobble up "high brow" food and wine and beer, why not other stuff? Look at the micro-brew section of a pricier grocery store nowadays. That's what a golden age looks like!

Posted by: some guy on June 16, 2003 2:08 AM

Why are we cursed with this bipolar, manic-depressive, endlessly cycling rhythm?" Uh... maybe that comes from the large portions of this country settled by wild French and Spanish people?

Some guy makes a good point. I suspect part of the edge seen in food and beer is that people feel free to simply say "I dig it." With art, people think they need something that sounds like an informed opinion.

BTW, a friend of mine (someone I consider talented) spends half his time painting "pet portraits" for obscene sums. He is, as you might guess, conflicted about this.

Posted by: j.c. on June 16, 2003 10:04 PM

A lousy web connection that's threatening to break off any second ....

Anyway, one quick point that I wasn't clear enough about before is this: that our hypersexualized pop-cult environment strikes me as at the same time very unsensual. Sex and eroticism can be, god knows, very nourishing, mystical, religious/aesthetic experiences. Sex as our pop-culture presents it is none of these things. It's just provocation and poppin' energy: sex in the adolescent-masturbatory sense, and that alone. Am I alone in finding this to be the case? All the other things sex might be: where are they? Certainly not to be found in pop cult, as far as I can tell...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 17, 2003 6:08 PM

I think there are two problems with artistic culture in America that prevent it from ever becoming mainstreamed. By far the largest problem is the quixotic quest for "pure" art. So long as artists are straining away trying to find the quintessence of art and peering down their noses at those who don't see the purity of their quest they will never become popular.
The second is related; arrogance trumps talent. Art is essentially lies told to illustrate the truth, whether in paint, music or literature. In each case the art is a pale echo of the truth its trying to display. When there is no (at least perceived) truth at the core of the lie, not even beauty, then there is no point to it. It's just a lie. A dose of humility would cure both problems but genius disease has spread far beyond actual geniuses these days.

Posted by: Jim Wilson on June 18, 2003 7:44 PM

Michael - you are so write about the total lack of sex in America. Last night, I was watching cheesy Spanish-language music videos, and, excuse the lack of subtlety, each and every one was by for and about people who actually fuck. Meanwhile, back in the hip-hop semi-porn of MTV it's all smutty and cheap and weirdly dickless. There are Jack Benny movies with more genuine appeal to the libido.

Again, serving it straight up, I happen to know that Americans and men from countries with lively, erotic elements in pop culture are equally likely to be all right in real life.

God, even underground comix seem to be more about "being about being about sex" then simply being about sex. If that makes any sense.

And we're not the only country spending zillions of entertainment quatroons on the pointless gyrations of pre-teen moppets. In fact, most cultures have buckets of eerily sexless pop music and soap opera... but the rest of the world add some sex to the mix.

Perhaps it's dat ol' debbil - being too self-conscious. (Or maybe we got too much color TV too early and got off track.)

Jim is spot on.

Posted by: j.c. on June 19, 2003 12:36 AM

Hey Jim, great points, thanks. I'd add only that I'd never expect fine-arts stuff to become popular in America. But I see no reason why it shouldn't become a thriving niche market, like upscale food or cars. Of course, then it would have to accept that it's nothing but a niche market -- quite a blow to the fine-arts ego, and apparently an unacceptable one. Which is exactly what your explanations explain.

Hey J.C., glad to hear your thoughts and reactions about this. I'm actually (in a cheerfully semi-camp way) a fan of teeny-pop porn, whether of the bubblegum or (if less so) rap variety. But of all the millions of things sex and eroticism can be, must we be eternally condemned to the adolescent-masturbatory variety? More about this in a future posting, assuming I can gather a few thoughts together -- looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts on the topic.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 19, 2003 3:12 AM

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