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August 13, 2005

Dutton on Evo-Crit

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

For a long time now, I've gotten more out of what's been discussed and discovered in the sciences (especially in the biological sciences) than I have out of arts criticism and arts theory. Academic "Theory" especially seems vapid, arid, and sterile -- it strikes me as nothing more than narcissistic wheel-spinning. But fractals, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology? I'm happy to admit to being an innumerate dimwit who struggles with basic science and makes do with popularizations. But all of these fields and lines of thought make my head -- and especially the part of it that's devoted to the arts -- spin.

I find it odd and sad that this kind of approach hasn't taken off more. Are most artsies too double-D dumb to sink their teeth into scientific material? Have the minds of the academics been destroyed by Theory? Why are culture-people so close-minded? Perhaps many -- civilians and artsies alike -- are content to view culture through lenses that have been shaped by romanticism and modernism. Perhaps the romantic/modernist p-o-v, however played-out and absurd, suits a lot of people. Sigh.

There's always the chance that I'm an idiot, of course. Perhaps I'm flat-out wrong about how earth-shaking the new-science discoveries are in their implications for the arts. Perhaps I've put my money on the wrong horse -- maybe some other fresh approach is on the verge of taking off. Or maybe it's just quirky ol' me: Maybe these evo-bio/neuroscience discoveries that mean so much to me will never mean much to many other people.

Still, I'm nothing if not weatherbeaten, cussed, and (shhh) arrogant: I'm deeply convinced 1) That the official arts discussion has dried up, 2) That the official arts reflect this sterility, and 3) That the best place for the arts to find some fresh juice to feed off of is in the new sciences.

In fact, there has been some terrific work done that brings together the new sciences and the arts. It just isn't widely-known. Short version: Try Ellen Dissanayake's "What Is Art For?" and "Homo Aestheticus"; Frederick Turner's "The Culture of Hope"; Christopher Alexander's "A Pattern Language," "The Timeless Way of Building," and "The Nature of Order"; Geoffrey Miller's "The Mating Mind"; Leon Krier's "Architecture: Choice or Fate"; Joseph Carroll's "Literary Darwinism" ...

The work of Nikos Salingaros should shiver some timbers too. Nikos' website, where he makes available a lot of terrific material, is here; 2Blowhards did a long q&a with Nikos, all five parts of which can be accessed from this webpage. And Steven Pinker's "The Blank Slate" -- a discussion of the blank-slate/modernist thang, and of how recent discoveries in science have refuted this view -- has a first-rate, 20ish-page general discussion of the implications of the new sciences for the arts.

This work undermines and contradicts much of contemporary art's orthodoxy -- and huzzah to that. But does any of it represent the Final Word on anything? Certainly not. The arts discussion is an ongoing thing that is there to be taken part in (or not). It isn't a course of study that leads to definitive conclusions from which deductions can be infallibly made, though some pausing-points-along-the-way will no doubt feel like conclusions. Still, shudder: What kind of person would even want the culture-discussion to reach an endpoint? How creepy is that? If neuroscience/evo-bio/fractal-inspired approaches are helpful at this time, it's because they bring us back to basics, and because they help us touch ground after decades and decades of intense and destructive (if occasionally exhilarating) self-delusion.

In this crowd, the aesthetic philosopher Denis Dutton is a large figure. (Steven Pinker in fact uses Dutton as a major source for his discussion of culture in "The Blank Slate.") Dutton isn't someone who pulls it all together into a big, between-covers statement; he's prone to express his convictions and thoughts on a variety of fronts -- in action, as an editor, and in shorter written pieces.

He's a mover and a shaker as well as a writer and a thinker, in other words. And in his aesthetician-entrepreneur way, he has done more good for the arts than anyone else I can think of in the last few decades. His biggest accomplishment has been the website Arts & Letters Daily, which he founded in 1998. Dutton was quicker than anyone else to see that the Web offered the potential to open the cultural discussion up.

ALD takes its form from 18th century English broadsheets, and it does so for a reason: 18th century England was one of the rowdiest periods ever in the history of the arts. It was a great era for high, low, and middle -- a time when control was being torn away from the aristocracy by a newly-prosperous middleclass; and a time when everyone and his brother felt entitled to have an opinion. Shapes and forms weren't dictated from on high; they emerged from a widespread and enthusiastic general buzz. In terms of culture, 18th century England was an extraverted free-for-all.

Although we're only a few years into a Web-ified culture-world, I can already find it hard to remember what had become of our cultural life in the years pre-ALD. The degree to which the discussion was shaped and controlled by a handful of arrogant and unresponsive people ... Did we really put up with such a state of affairs?

Prior to ALD, if you were curious about the arts -- if you wanted to sample what was happenin', and maybe even take part -- you were stuck with a limited range of venues, guides, and info-suppliers: highbrow mags; schools; the cultural coverage in the more respectable middlebrow press; the glitz-and-gossip of the electronic media; and the attitudinizing "alternative" press. You bought the NEA/PBS/Village-Voice package, or ... well, or else, basically. To be fair, there were intelligent and helpful people doing good work in all these arenas. My point is that the range of what was available to explore was limited, and that control over access was tight.

For what very little it's worth, I've been a fly on the wall in Cultureville for almost three decades. Although I've never been anything but a worker ant, I've witnessed the tastemakers up close and in action. As far as I've been able to tell, the problem wasn't so much that these were evil people, by and large. Many were and are very smart; many have worked hard to get where they are. And middlebrow American culture (at least circa 1960 or even 1980) had many impressive glories and virtues. But by the mid-1990s, official American culture had become exclusive, ingrown, and self-serving.

The main consequence: The official cultureworld had lost all respect for normal life, and for ordinary tastes and pleasures. It had become detached from the people it was supposedly serving. This was a systemic problem more than it was the result of a conspiracy. Although, historically speaking, there's much to be said for the idea that various groups -- especially the descendants of early-in-the-century immigrants, and then later '60s leftists -- moved into and remade the cultureworld in their own image.

Our pre-web relationship to culture had come to resemble our relationship to the auto industry in the 1970s, in other words. Detroit in the '70s was making some of its worst cars ever -- but not because the people in the industry lacked talent. Detroit iron stank because there was no competition. The Bit Three produced and sold the junk they did simply because they could. What was a potential car-buyer to do about it? You chose a Ford or a Chevy (or maybe a VW), or else you resigned yourself to lousy public transportation.

These days, culture-matters are dramatically different. We have a buzzing cultural webosphere. It isn't a function just of the blogs, but also of message boards, the Internet Movie Database, and so much more -- even of Amazon's reader/viewer/listener reviews and lists. I get more these days out of surfing Amazon than I do out of the conventional arts press. Some regular people know a lot; many regular people know a little; and the combo makes for a lot of handy, helpful, and often funny resources.

The culture-chat ground has been leveled. If you find that what the Sunday Times peddles is displeasing, it takes almost no effort to surf over and check in with the classy cast at IonArts. If your local architecture critic is a coward and a fool, it's couldn't be simpler to find your sanity again chez John Massengale. If a movie reviewer on the tube strikes you as an idiot, why not put Filmbrain on your Favorites list instead? Once you're on the web, The Times is no more important than any other website. It's just just one URL among many.

More important than the existence of any one blog or group of websites is the fluidity and abundance of what's available. We all chip in -- reviewers, message-boarders, bloggers, and commenters alike. We're trading tips and offering suggestions -- ideas, observations, and (most important) links, links, and more links. Only ten years ago, culture-fans and culture-participants were starving. We were making do with scraps from the tables of the elites. Today's state of affairs is dramatically different. We're afloat, rocking on a surging ocean of brains, tastes, preferences, personalities, and ideas. It can get to be a bit much -- but what a lovely predicament that is! The schools, the committees, the profs, the critics, the intellectuals, and the established artists? Well, bless 'em if they've got something helpful to contribute. And who needs 'em if they don't?

How humbling it must be for the professional tastemakers to discover that 1) They aren't the only people around with knowledge and taste, and the ability to express themselves, that 2) Much of what they value most highly is disliked by many perfectly intelligent people, and that 3) They're losing the ability to force their preferences down anyone's throat.

I wonder, for instance, how long the "This is Real Literature, and that isn't" crowd will be able to sustain and market the illusion that the books and authors they prefer represent anything but the taste-set of a tiny minority of readers. It may or may not be an interesting and/or useful taste-set; perhaps it has something to offer. I think it does, a little: I lay out my own view of the contempo lit world here. But is there any reason to think that the lit world's taste-set is a particularly important or vital one? I'd bet good money that the literary thang is already well into its "crumbling" phase, and I'm curious to see what kind of new relationship the literary world will re-forge with the rest of us.

How long will it be before the official architecture world -- the critics and editors, the awards committees, the profs and developers and politicians -- realizes that the showboating, over-Theorized crap they favor is disliked and found ridiculous by many of the people it's being inflicted on? Well, given the money, careers, and egos involved, I'm guessing that that discovery may take a while. Still: Let's keep yapping about how much we hate overbearing buildings and sterile neighborhoods. Eventually we'll be heard.

It was Denis Dutton's Arts and Letters Daily that first broke through this bottleneck. All ALD does is survey, select, and present links and teasers -- but what a service that is when the brains doing the selecting-and-presenting are brilliant and open-minded ones! Culture-news and culture-views from around the world were suddenly available. Who knew that bright culture-people came in so many sizes and shapes, and represented so many different points of view?

The biggest shock (and delight) was in learning that you weren't as alone as you imagined you were. You were no longer miserable in dissent, part of a going-nowhere-fast, doomed minority. It turned out that you were in fact part of a large crowd. You weren't mournfully watching yourself going extinct. Instead, you were a seedling, and as full of vitality as a teenager. Overnight, curmudgeons and cranks became positive contributors, lively advocates for their own zippy points of view.

The myth pre-ALD was that being a True Believer was a prerequisite for being involved at all with the arts. You had to buy the whole package or disqualify yourself as an arts fan. You were someone who cared about the arts? Well, then, it automatically followed that you'd sign your name to a whole list of beliefs, convictions, and attitudes. I blogged about what I call "the Arts Litany" here.

If we return on this blog over and over to architecture and urbanism, it may partly be because tensions play out so dramatically in these fields. The conflicts -- public/private, ego/community, etc -- are in stark evidence. Whose good is being served? The conventional view is that, if you're into architecture and urbanism, then it necessarily follows that you think that the usual suspects -- Koolhaas, Gehry, Hadid, Diller & Scofidio etc. -- are doing pathbreaking, history-making work. You have no choice but to pay attention, learn, admire, and applaud. Really: It's considered an inevitability that you will agree with this point of view. Dissent is not brooked.

As a matter of fact, if you accept the field's premises, then you will indeed find your way to exactly these conclusions, and to these artists and buildings. Corollaries follow. One has to do with people in the field who don't buy the premises of the Real Architecture set. These are people who are doing building and neighborhooding work that is in profound disagreement with the decon/blobitecture bunch -- for example, the New Urbanists, the new classicists, the new traditionalists, and the Christopher Alexanderites. Because these circles don't buy the conventional academic premises -- because they work from different premises altogether -- they are seen as not doing Real Architecture. Hard to believe, but they aren't recognized as doing something different in architecture; they're seen instead as doing something that Simply Isn't Architecture.

The other day I thumbed through a large new book about recent architecture from around the world, for instance. Not a single mention was to be found in it of anything that wasn't blobby, zig-zaggy, or abstract. The book was a beautifully-produced, sober giant that presented itself as a comprehensive survey of contempo world architecture. Yet an interested reader wouldn't come away from it with any idea whatsoever of the range and variety of what's actually being done today. All the book presented was page after page of shimmers and twinkles, fractured planes and acute angles, translucency and swoops. An unsuspecting reader would probably conclude, Well, I guess that's what architecture is.

Another corollary concerns people who are interested in the field in more personal ways -- fans, for instance, who could care less about Zaha Hadid but who want to pitch in with local preservation work; or whose main interest is in Federal-style houses; or who love tracking down the Mediterranean revival work of George Washington Smith; or who enjoy vacationing among the Palm Beach work of Addison Mizner; or who get a buzz from visiting old movie theaters; or who simply love exploring walkable downtowns and wondering about the buildings, forces, spaces, and conventions that make such places possible.

You might think that these people are nothing if not architecture fans -- what else could they be labeled? And you might assume that the official architecture world would be grateful to them, and perhaps even celebrate them. In fact, as far as the "This is Real Architecture and that isn't" crowd is concerned, these people are -- yech -- reactionaries, and possibly even fascists. They're quaint and dangerous weirdos who aren't into architecture at all -- because being into Real Architecture means that you must, you simply must, buy the whole twinkly-deconstructive-swoopy, "progressive" package. On that view, these people aren't fans of buildings, neighborhoods, towns, cities, and landscapes. Instead, they're blockers of Progress. They're ... the enemy.

In a matter of just a few years, that whole exclusionary, country-clubbish attitude has been blown to bits, at least for people who have discovered the web's version of culture. My one beef with ALD, in fact, is that Dutton and his collaborators don't cover the architecture-and-urbanism wars better. But thank god for that: That leaves City Comforts, Veritas et Venustas, Rob Asumendi, and 2Blowhards with some turf of our own to work.

In any case, I suspect that the buzzy/linky/webby gestalt is beginning to be taken note of by the conventional arts outlets. Between you and me, I have the strong suspicion that, in fact, many traditional arts outlets are beginning to be directly inspired by ALD -- as in "are stealing shamelessly from it." All to the better!

Even so, ALD still manages to shine. Check out this piece, or this one, or this one. Check out the way they enhance and ricochet off each other. Makes for an alert and interested mind, and a great discussion, no? ALD links to such an inspired range of material that, even if you were to rely on nothing but ALD -- if you were to do nothing in the way of feeding your culture-brain but read ALD's three selections every day -- you'd still wind up with a better-informed, more open, and more searching culture-mind than you would if you attended one of the world's most prestigious universities. IMHO, of course.

Denis Dutton also co-edits Philosophy and Literature, the journal behind the annual Bad Writing Award. He writes essays and reviews too, which are always well worth chasing down. Here's Dutton's own site, where a lot of his writing can be found. Dutton recently reviewed a book that tries to bring an evo-bio perspective to bear on some literary works -- the book doesn't sound very interesting, but in his review of it Dutton gets off a lot of substantial points. His discussions of Geoffrey Miller and of "Literary Darwinism" aren't to be missed, either. Here's a q&a with Dutton, who comes across as brilliant, jolly, and extremely good-natured.

I love taking ALD's existence for granted -- why not enjoy being spoiled when you have the all-too-rare chance? But it also never hurts to remember what a special phenomenon ALD is. I could be wrong, of course. But I'm betting that when future art historians look back, they'll conclude that ALD was one of our era's greatest cultural creations. Really and truly: In terms of importance and influence, what individual work of art can compare?



posted by Michael at August 13, 2005


Interesting that you mention architect George Washington Smith. The Wall Street Journal's "Weekend Journal" section on August 5th reports that a Smith house in Montecito is on the block for a trifling $29 million -- the opening bid was for just under $28 mil.

Another Spanish Colonial Revival ace was Wallace Neff, whose work is also found near Santa Barbara, but also in Ojai and in the older, ritzier parts of the LA basin. For much info, go to Amazon and search for a book titled oddly enough "Wallace Neff". (And I noticed not many months ago that one of his LA area places was up for sale in the mid-six-digit range.

Thus spake The Market: quiver in fear, Rem.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on August 13, 2005 7:38 PM

Couldn't find that one. But here's one that's on the block at $17 mil. A nice little retirement cottage ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 13, 2005 8:03 PM

Um, make that Neff house in the mid-SEVEN range. (When I use my right index finger to point to the fingers on my left hand I use to count with, things somehow get confusing beyond number 4 or 5.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on August 13, 2005 8:10 PM

And while I'm wiping egg off my face (I'm posting while cooking/eating -- To self: never multi-task and rush stuff simultaneously), the fine print in the WSJ piece says the architect was one Myron Hunt, designer of the Rose Bowl. No idea why I had GW Smith on my mind other than I read something about him recently and Montecito sparked the connection. Whatever... now I need to check into that Hunt fella -- he could have a future.

And The Market's still talkin', Rem; I double-checked the WSJ and $29 mil it is.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on August 13, 2005 8:26 PM

Yet an interested reader wouldn't come away from it with any idea whatsoever of the range and variety of what's actually being done today. All the book presented was page after page of shimmers and twinkles, fractured planes and acute angles, translucency and swoops. An unsuspecting reader would probably conclude, Well, I guess that's what architecture is.

The relationships between authors, journalists and publicizers of all ilks on the one hand and the arts over the past century on the other is certainly an interesting one, but I've never seen any kind of careful historical account that attempted to tell all sides of the matter. (Of course, dishonest histories of, say, art theory--carefully edited to present only a narrow range of opinion--are available at any bookstore.) One cannot help but suspect that endless stories of sycophancy, social-climbing, staying in-with-the-in-crowd, and sincere-but-not-entirely-candid advocacy would come tumbling out if that rock were overturned.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 14, 2005 9:44 AM


Bravo. This is another one of your classics. I dial up ALD first after I've brewed my coffee in the morning. It's always a shot of adreniline for my brain.

Posted by: Lynn on August 14, 2005 1:37 PM

Freidrich, if you'd only knew.

Posted by: Tatyana on August 14, 2005 3:58 PM

Nice essay! The more attention Arts and Letters Daily receives the better! It's my first stop on the web every morning for the past couple of years.

Posted by: Larry Ayers on August 14, 2005 10:43 PM

Nothing against ALD (for a while it was my main source of arts news), but this change was long in the making; we just didn't have the blogging software to make it easy and fast to do.

The "cost" we pay for this explosion in criticism is that people are less willing to pay for content and running a media/publication business is really really scary.

The downside of this "interconnectedness" is that it breeds a certain lazyness and groupthink mentality about what is good and not good. I'm not moaning too loudly about it; we just need to recognize that there are tradeoffs associated with innovations.

Another thing. It is REALLY hard to keep up with all those brilliant writers and intellectuals out there. Just when I feel like I've done an adequate job I discover a new army of culturalbloggers out there I had never known about.

At some point having increased access doesn't translate into better insight. It just results in a better understanding of what's out there and what other people are crazy about.

Making do with less has its virtues. For two years I lived in Albania with a next-to-nonexistent university library. But i hunted around and found enough remarkable stuff to keep me entertained and enlightened.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on August 15, 2005 3:13 PM

Unfortunately A&LD appears to be largely oblivious to the built world. Yes, every now and then A&LD link to an article on arcvhitecture and urban planning and sometimes the link is an astute one. But take a look at their list of linked-to columnists -- as I have attempted here -- and I don't think that there is a one who ackowledges we live amidst buildings and rights-of-way. Are they implying that there is not one "built-world" columnist in the MSM who is at least at the level of, say, James Lileks, to whom they also link? Odd. I think the answer must be that issues of the built environment are just so very, very far from their consciousness.

Posted by: David Sucher on August 17, 2005 10:54 AM

Posted by: al on August 21, 2005 3:32 PM

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