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January 03, 2008

A Few Small Beefs with Paul Cantor: Part One

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A few days ago I recommended a free, downloadable audio lecture series by Paul Cantor about culture and the market. Today and tomorrow I'm treating myself to a few quibbles with Cantor.

Let me say first that this is entirely unfair of me. Cantor is (IMHO) helpful, brilliant, accurate, healthy, and entertaining. He's undogmatic, streetwise, and (especially for a prof) amazingly respectful of actual experience. He's also sophisticated, nuanced, and appreciative -- of art itself and of life's many ironies.

Besides, Cantor's point in his lecture series isn't to provide a Compleat Account of art and culture but rather to help culturefans cast off their usual anti-commercial bias. He means his lectures to be a corrective to the usual nonsense, and he achieves his goal wonderfully.

But I'm going to treat myself to a few quibbles anyway. Please understand though that I'm not really quarreling with Cantor. I'm on the same team as he is. I'm taking issue with him only for the sake of making my writing challenge a little easier. In reality, I'm just adding my own two cents to the conversation.

The first of my points:

  • The art history thing. Cantor gives a fresh and realistic account of art history, one that's infinitely more true to the facts than is the one usually sold by schools and by the media. Bravo, excellent, superb, etc.

    My quibble: The "art history" that Cantor discusses strikes me as very narrowly defined. He accepts the usual list of greats, as well as much of the storytelling that connects the dots between them. In painting, for instance, the conventional art-history story goes: Renaissance- Baroque- Neoclassical- Romantic- Impressionist- Cubist-Surrealist-AbEx, etc etc.

    Cantor's evidently OK with that story; he just wants it told in a truer-to-life-than-usual way. Me, I'm not OK with it. I mean, there "art history" is, and that's OK with me, of course. But I'm also struck by the fact that there's so much more to the story of "visuals" than the "art history" version of it.

    In fact, the more I awaken to the actual facts of visual culture, the more I lose interest in the conventional "art history" part of it. Art history (in the usual sense) is a fine topic, but it's no more than one small chapter in the very large book that contains the record of how humans have decorated themselves and their world, have expressed themselves in visual terms, and have made life more lively and rewarding in visual ways.

    A few examples of what you don't often run across in "art history": erotic photography, food packaging, jewelry, typography, television graphics, greeting cards, automobile design, book jackets, movie posters, sports visuals, clothing, lingerie, computer graphics, glamor lighting, magazine design, makeup ... Not to mention how individuals decorate their homes, dress themselves, do their hair, etc.

    Did I mention lingerie? Oh, I see that I did. Well, I hereby mention it again. The people who design, manufacture, and promote lingerie -- wowee, do many of them have a lot of talent, and double-wowee, do they ever deliver a lot of pleasure to a lot of people. Type "La Perla" into a Google Image Search box, for instance. Those dainties aren't discussed in art history books, but this work is definitely visual, it's definitely enriching, and I'm definitely interested. Baroooo!

    In the midst of all this buzzing and exuberant (and often unself-conscious) visual activity, the carryings-on of the self-defined fine-art gallery world -- the art and artists and institutions who claim to be serving the tradition of Da Vinci and Delacroix -- can look a little silly, or at least their pretentions can. Of course, if that particular world appeals to you or intrigues you, then why not explore it some? On the other hand: Is your life in any way impoverished if you take a pass on it?

    Besides, there's a practical point that seems to me to deserve regular coming-back-to. It's that no one can predict the future. Who knows what the future will decide was the "great art" of our age? Despite the claims of the critics, the profs, and the editors, none of them know any better than you do or I do what the world 100 years from now will consider the great art of 2008. So why play the stupid game of arguing over rankings? Unless the game itself strikes you as fun, of course.

    Also worth keeping in mind, it seems to me, is the fact that the "art history" story that we tell each other has never been written in stone. In fact, it has taken form only in the last couple of hundred years. Read up a bit on Johann Joachim Winckelmann, one of the main sources of our idea of "art history."

    Art history is a nifty creation in its own right, of course. Still, it isn't as though people didn't produce and enjoy visuals before Johann Joachim Winckelmann's birth, and it isn't as though people who know nothing about Winckelmann don't produce and enjoy visuals too. So why should anyone get hung up on a Winckelmannian account of the visual world?

    And let's face it: "Art history" in the narrow sense is a creation of (and an intense concern of) a small class of people. A rather peculiar class, at that. Art history is important to academics. It's also important to critics. Should the rest of us care?

    As for me, I'm long out of school. I also have severe doubts about what's thought of by some as the "critical enterprise." What on earth do these opinionators and gatekeepers think they're accomplishing by arguing over whether this movie is good and/or that book is bad? Have you ever looked at criticism and review pages from 40 or 80 years ago? Talk about a lot of pointless debates ...

    (BTW, I very much enjoy reading and yakking with people who are smart, informative, and insightful about the arts. Some of them are critics -- but not all. Small thought: Until now, most of the people who were able to put their observations about the arts into print were critics, journalists, and academics. They did criticism, or they did art history, in large part because that's what you had to do to get into print. These days, though ... Well, now that anyone can yak publicly about the arts, criticism and art history are looking less and less necessary. They're often looking downright silly, at least to my eyes. Why carry on like a critic or a historian if you aren't professionally obligated to? Why not be more direct, more personal, and more informal?)

    Let's also not forget that tastes change. While there are certainly a handful of Large and Immutable Truths that can be stated about the arts, they tend to be of such a general nature that it's seldom worth raising them. (And deriving specific here-and-now judgments from them will often lead you astray. Better to follow your own interests, instincts, and hunches than to take advice from old marble heads.) And on a day-to-day level, it's a simple fact that fashions change. I wrote back here, for instance, about the ups and downs of the reputation of Piero della Francesco. Short version: It's nice that he's currently recognized as a Great, but he was entirely forgotten for 400 years.

    We see the past in our own terms. And to some extent, we see what we're looking for. If we're in an age when Cubism is thriving, people will tend to interpret the past as something that has led immutably to Cubism. When Cubism starts to look dusty, the story about how the past has led to "us" also starts to be revised. We write the past to suit our own purposes, and we rewrite it on a regular basis.

    I wrote back here about another example, this one from the field of official "literary history": James Joyce and his novel "Ulysses." Now, for almost a century "Ulysses" has been considered an immortal masterpiece, almost as foundational a text of Western Civ as The Odyssey. If you were to choose one work from the 20th century that would live forever, it would certainly be "Ulysses." But will this judgment still hold in 50 years?

    Let's set aside opinion and think about the question practically. My thoughts run along these lines: People these days are reading less ... Reading and writing are declining in cultural importance ... Reading something as complex as "Ulysses" takes not just reading skills but very specialized reading skills ...

    So: How many people in 50 years are likely to have the peculiar reading skills that it will always take to be able to read "Ulysses"? My guess: almost no one.

    Besides, the world 50 years from now will be one pulsing with instantly-accessed color, sound, movement, multimedia, and interactivity. If the people inhabiting that world do what everyone has always done -- ie., interpret the past in ways convenient to them -- what chance is there that they'll be making a big deal out of a dense, hard-to-read, text-heavy, thick book of (patooie) prose? And that's assuming that people in 50 years will be looking backwards in the "lit history" sense at all, of course. Which is anything but guaranteed.

    Small MBlowhard prediction: In 50 years, "World of Warcraft" will look far more important to people than "Ulysses." Could be wrong, of course!

    In case you think this is an implausible scenario, let me tell you about some friends I have who teach reading and writing at the college level. According to them, many of their lib-arts students have never heard of Faulkner and Conrad, and couldn't care less about either writer. Let's skip over the argument about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing and focus on the fact of it. If lib arts people have already lost track of Faulkner and Conrad, how long until they lose track of James Joyce too?

    But back to Paul Cantor: I think that his accounts of standard-issue "art history," "literary history," and "music history" are beyond first-class. My own contribution to this discussion is to suggest that cultural life can become even more interesting when we shed the usual labels and ditch the usual stories.

    Here's an example that griped FvBlowhard and me back in our college years: "American music history." Books and essays were written about "American music history." Courses were given in it. Profs and critics and journalists argued, as they will, over the canon of "American music history."

    But what was meant by "American music history"? It was the Copland-Ives-Elliott Carter thing. Which is a perfectly OK story, of course. But American music history also includes country, bluegrass, Zydeco, blues, Cole Porter, Bo Diddley, jazz, cabaret, musical theater, big band, disco (alas) ... So why fixate on official "American music history"?

    Of course, in the music and music-chat worlds the gates were toppled long ago. Music-yak is as pluralistic as can be these days, sometimes to a fault. But the gates in many fields are still up. I've written before about the narrow-mindedness of the NYTimes Book Review Section's attitudes towards fiction. (Here, here, here, here, here.)

    Here's an even more specific example: Given that it was the crime novelist Ed McBain who kicked off the "police procedural" genre ... Given that the "police procedural" way of telling stories has been immensely influential on TV ... Given that TV and TV-style storytelling are far more important to younger people than books are ... And given that it doesn't take super-specialized reading skills to read Ed McBain ... Isn't there a good chance that in 50 years the 20th century novelist who'll look really important won't be James Joyce but will be Ed McBain?

More tomorrow. And please do put Paul Cantor's lecture series on your iPod. It's incredibly head-clearing. Once again, here's the page where you can download it. I notice, thanks to Arts & Letters Daily, that Paul Cantor is a huge fan of the recent movie "The Lives of Others." Haven't seen it myself.



posted by Michael at January 3, 2008


Michael - you are one hell of a great "Devil's Advocate". Great provocation from this blog to access the download link you provided and do some considering. This I plan to do tomorrow night and immerse myself in. Thanks! G

Posted by: Gabriella Morrison on January 4, 2008 3:51 AM

Lib-arts students may have lost track of Faulkner and Conrad, but I would bet that they haven't lost track of Virginia Woolf or, more regrettably, Alice Walker. Both, of course, being politically correct members of the New Canon.

One of the most startling realisations in the study of the history of any art form is how much the tastes of a particular era are dictated by that era's cultural politics (for want of a better term). France rejected its great Gothic cathedrals as relics of a barbarous past through most of the 17th and 18th centuries. Not until the Romantic movement revived interest in the Gothic past did the French begin to reconsider their medieval heritage.

If Piero della Francesca can vanish and be revived, it's quite possible that the reputations of Faulkner and Conrad may undergo the same treatment, perhaps many times over.

Few artists, even the greatest of all (and that includes Shakespeare), do not experience periods of eclipse from time to time. What counts is whether they get revived. If they do, then it's likely that their greatness is such that it can endure many shifts in popular taste.

Posted by: alias clio on January 4, 2008 12:31 PM

Slightly off on McBain. Although McBain certainly popularized the police procedural, he was preceded by Hillary Waugh (_Last Seen Wearing_, 1952) and John Creasey (writing as J.J. Marric, for _Gideon's Day_, 1955). McBain's _Cop Hater_ debuted in 1956.

Posted by: Elizabeth Foxwell on January 5, 2008 5:10 PM

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