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January 10, 2008

A Few Small Beefs with Paul Cantor: Part Two

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Back here I raved about a Paul Cantor lecture series about culture and commercial life. A few days later I treated myself to a niggle with one small aspect of Cantor's series. (Short version: Cantor's version of "art history" is more conventional than the one I prefer.) In this posting, I'm going to register another quibble with the series.

A quick reminder not to take me seriously when I say that I'm quibbling. Cantor's series is sensationally good -- as in really-really, double-deep, better-than-anything-I-had-in-college good. Cantor is realistic, shrewd, knowledgeable, helpful, and provocative. His ideas and his facts ring bells and set off thoughts. And it's a really-really, double-deep great thing that he (and the Mises Institute) have made his talks available online for free. So these postings of mine aren't really disagreements with him at all. I love Cantor's series, and I recommend it highly. All I'm doing is riffing on themes that he has laid down.

Quibble #2: The question of folk and amateur art.

Cantor's main goal in his lecture series is to get listeners over any artsy-fartsy, romantic cultural snobbishness towards commercialism. He accomplishes this brilliantly, as far as I'm concerned. He points out that (for instance) such immortal titans as Shakespeare, Rubens, and Dickens were, in their time, butt-kicking, scrappy creativity-entrepreneurs who were doing their best to thrive in lively culture-market contexts.

Cantor is just as insightful about his fellow intellectuals, profs, and culture-critics. He points out, for instance, that it took the intellectuals many decades to acknowledge that movies -- which are now generally felt to have been the dominant art form of the 20th century -- were an art form at all. "Cultural critics are usually a generation if not a century behind in terms of their responses and observations," Cantor wisecracks, and hats off to him for being so blunt about this fact. It's a big help to get the "experts" in a little perspective.

Cantor is terrific, in other words, at exploring the relationships between creators, audiences, and evaluators, as well as between high art and popular art.

Part of what makes his case so compelling, by the way, is that -- despite his openness to popular art -- he digs high art too. He isn't some defiantly uncultured populist doing his crude best to defile the finer things. He's simply a very educated and enthusiastic guy who is realistic about how culture works.

And here's where I locate space for my little contribution. In the midst of the tensions between high art and commercial art that Cantor spells out and explores so well, what he leaves a little underrecognized is the question of folk art and amateur art. It's a dimension of the culture-thang that I think deserves recognition.

Let me pass along a general snapshot of culture that I've found handy and useful. (I'm assuming that, like me, you sometimes find it useful to separate facts out into neat piles. Then -- whee -- what fun it is to kick them over.) Here's the picture:

Art can be thought of as coming in three main categories: high art, popular art, and folk art.

Gray zones abound, of course. And individual artists and artworks move up and down this ladder as time passes. The popular art of one era (19th century Italian opera, for instance) becomes the subsidized Lincoln Center-esque art of another era. Still.

As for high art: It's characterized by complexity, ambition, scale, abstraction, and expanse. It usually requires a certain kind of official-style education to fully comprehend. It's often inaccessible to the plebes, and it often has to do with aristocracy. "Patronage" is a word to be kept in mind here.

Popular art is art whose motivation is commercial. It's art and entertainment that is done for pay. Some contempo examples: most movies and much acting; sitcoms, magazines, popular music, ads.

Category #3 is folk art and amateur art. This work isn't court art, and it isn't art done by professionals. It's art that's made by regular people entertaining themselves, doing and making things for their own sake and for each other's enjoyment.

A corny example of a folk artist might be a back-country moonshiner who's also a banjo-picker. A corny example of an amateur artist might be be a saleswoman who's also a weekend watercolorist.

It's important to note a couple of things. One is that "folk" and "amateur" aren't value judgments. Country music arose as a folk art, for example. Despite this, it's an undeniably important cultural phenomenon. And a weekend artist might well be a hyper-civilized and cultured person with tons of skill. He might even be a Great. Modernist poet-god Wallace Stevens wasn't a professional artist, for instance. He was an insurance v-p who applied himself to poetry in his spare time. Nonetheless, he's an accepted member of today's poetry pantheon.

Some more examples. One of the most important of America's artforms is the Mississippi blues. I blogged back here and here about taking The Wife to the King Biscuit Blues Festival; I wrote here about Mandy Stein's good blues documentary "You See Me Laughin'"; and I've linked to some raw and wonderful CDs from Mississippi's Fat Possum Records.

Many Mississippi blues artists are genuine folk artists. Take one of my faves, Asie Payton. Payton worked a farm and drove a tractor his entire adult life. That was his profession, if "profession" isn't too lofty a word for it. According to Fat Possum, Asie was wary of recording his music at all. A country guy with no formal education, Payton was convinced that if he recorded his music the devil would come down on him. Yet what an artist he was. Boy, do I recommend this CD. You almost certainly ain't never heard anything like it.

An example of a superb amateur (or at most semi-professional) artist is the poet Mike Snider. Check out Mike's blog; dig into the 2Blowhards interview with Mike, here and here. As sophisticated and accomplished as Mike is, he isn't playing the poetry-teachin', prize-chasin', tenure-grubbin' game. He's writing poetry in some of his spare time. I doubt that Mike has ever made enough off his poetry to buy an extra set of strings for his mandolin. (He also plays weekends in a band.) Yet I like his poetry as much as anything I read in any of the official venues.

Asie Payton and Mike Snider are first-rate American artists, as far as I'm concerned. Yet they're neither high artists nor commercial artists. They're just guys who are doing what they're doing and making what they're making.

There are a couple of reasons why I think it's important to recognize and acknowledge this branch of art-and-culture.

The first is that this is often where people connect most directly with the art impulse, both as producers and consumers. (I think so, anyway.) Now, I'm anything but a Romantic. Still, there's something kinda mystical about art and culture. Why do we care about it? As cut-and-dried as one sometimes wants to be about the subject, art and entertainment also have to do with gooey, slippery matters: feelings, the imagination, memory, fantasy, pleasure, dreams, sex, and laughter -- mysterious forces and experiences. It's often hard to say what makes a song or a movie memorable, let alone what makes them "work."

Proof of the existence of this "mystery" thing: Sometimes the mystery vanishes, and when it does, we know it. In the high art world, the magic can vanish beneath too much skill, finesse, and complexity. We've all slept through well-done but deadly performances of great symphonies. In the popular art world, crassness and pushiness often kill whatever spark might have been in the work had it been delivered with more plainness or freshness.

With folk and amateur art, the gamble is a clean one: The magic is there or it isn't. Skill of a conventional kind may or may not be an important part of what's on offer. But that Larger Connection is either happening or, y'know, who cares? There's no practical point to making folk art, as there's no sensible (as in social or professional) reason to make art as an amateur. And because you do it because you have to or because you want to -- out of vision or love -- the art-connection, when there is one, can feel especially direct.

The other reason that I think it's important to make room for folk-and-amateur art is a major one: It's that that is what most art is, and what most art has always been.

Cantor's picture of culture as divided between high art and popular art is one that's rather specific to modern life. In his account, art is a product of the division of labor. I'm not going to dispute the validity of Cantor's very valuable picture. I am, though, going to point out a couple of anthropological basics.

1) The art of people who live (or lived) in tribes and bands generally has little to do with high art and / or popular art, and everything to do with the folk art / amateur art category. For perhaps 30,000 of the 40,000 years that modern humans have been around, folk and amateur art were all there was to art. And even today a lot is created and consumed that isn't high art and that wasn't intended commercially.

Generally speaking, in the art of people who live in tribes and bands, everyone's an artist, just as everyone's an audience member. Even if your tribe has a few standouts in the various crafts, it's likely that they aren't artists in any sense that we'd recognize as modern westerners. It's more likely to be a matter of, "Hey, that guy's really good at woodcarving, let's have him make the main mask for the big dance around the fire next Tuesday. And that chick over there really knows how to shake it, so let's remember to have her take a solo when the drums are really cooking!" It's likely that no one in the tribe gets special dispensation to spend all-day-every-day "creating" in the modern sense.

It's also likely that everyone pitches in. You color your own damn teepee, your wife weaves cloth, your kids drum and dance alongside everyone else. But -- despite all this "creativity" -- most days, you head out to hunt, fish, gather berries, etc.

Some examples of how knowing this kind of thing can help us think clearly about our own world.

You know how black people are often livelier and more participatory as audience members than white people are? There are several good reasons for that. One is that one of the main patterns in black culture is call-and-response. You don't really "get" black culture if you don't understand the importance of call-and-response. When someone onstage makes a noise, you're supposed to make a noise back at him or her.

Another reason is that black culture doesn't have a place for the Euro art-template, the one where there's art being performed over there (on stage, on the screen, wherever), and then over here there's a rapt audience paying silent attention.

In black culture, you generally go to a culture-event to take part. There may be a hot trumpeter or a great dancer featured, and you're certainly not going to miss out on that. But you're also showing up in order to take part in the scene yourself. Duke Ellington and Count Basie may have put on shows at some Euro-style concert halls, and god knows the critics have made a lot of Euro-style high-art claims for the work of both guys. But both guys themselves were usually careful to insist that what they did was run dance bands.

It isn't, in other words, that black people don't know how to behave in some absolute, everywhere-and-always sense. It's that they behave the way that black people are supposed to behave at black cultural events. When white people sit around being all hush-hush and worshipful, doing their "art appreciation" thing, it strikes black people as weird.

(By the way, this isn't me pontificating about black culture, something I'd never attempt to do. I'm deferring to my betters here; I learned what I'm relaying from the great black artist-intellectuals Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison, as well as from a handful of friends.)

In fact, although we often take the western art-appreciation thing as some kind of default mode, the participatory model of taking-part-in-culture is the more usual thing. It's how most people throughout most of history have taken part in "culture": singing along, dancing along, pitching in.

It may also be what the future holds in store for us modern Westerners. Given the nature of electronics -- which encourage participation, immersiveness, and interactivity -- it's likely that Western culture itself is on its way to a more tribal and participatory way of playing the culture game. The quiet and contemplative art-appreciation mode, lovely as it has been, may well be living through its final days.

2) There's a lot of culture-work around us today that we'll overlook if we slight the folk art / amateur-art category.

We may be happy to acknowledge country-blues musicans or weekend watercolorists as folk artists and amateur artists, for example. Those are familiar examples, after all. But how about other, less-obvious forms of cultural expression?

How about storytelling, for instance? Something that's hyper-striking when you visit the South is how many Southerners are born storytellers. Ask for directions to a restaurant from a stranger and 30 minutes later you're still there. You've settled in with an iced tea, and you're listening to this stranger -- now your best friend -- narrate a personal version of a comic Faulkner novel: "That mailbox down by the Piggly Wiggly? That's where JimBob crashed his motorcycle. Well, you'll want to take a left there to get to your restaurant. But he was quite a guy, JimBob ..." As far as I'm concerned, that iced-tea session qualifies as a culture-experience, that story is folk art, and that storyteller is a folk artist.

How about something a little poppier: surfer culture and skateboard culture, maybe? These days not only are kids dragging their skateboards everywhere with them, skateboard style has infected mainstream style (magazines, design, clothing, photography, sports) to a huge extent.

Some of this is obviously commercially-motivated. A lot of editors, photographers, and skateboard manufacturers have designs on teenage wallets. But just as clearly a lot of it is a matter of dudez and chickz simply doing what turns them on.

By the way, you can like or dislike surfer and skateboard style, it's OK with me. But if you argue that surfer-skateboard style is culturally insignificant I'm going to take firm issue with you. There's been little in American visual culture over the last 40 years that can compete with surfer and skateboard style in terms of influence. Back here I wrote about "Dogtown and Z-Boys," a good documentary about skateboard culture. (Scroll down a bit.)

Perhaps what this means is that the important visual artists from recent decades haven't been the conceptual gallery artists celebrated by editors, critics, and schools. Perhaps the really significant artists of the last few decades have been the folk artists -- that'd be the kids -- who have been so inventive in decorating their t-shirts and skateboards, and the commercial artists who have capitalized on these tastes and put them over in the mainstream.

Here's a question: Would our shared visual culture be different if Damien Hirst had never existed? Probably not. But it'd certainly be something very different had skateboard style never happened.

Electronics are upsetting traditional categories in many ways. Now that so many of us have computers with fast connections to the internet, all kinds of people are expressing themselves, often just for the fun or mischief of it.

The Wife likes to call various YouTube-ish phenomena -- ad parodies, lip-synch videos, webgirls, cam-diarists, etc -- "electronic folk art." I think that's completely apt. I'll argue even further that a new audiovisual-through-time language is evolving before our eyes. It ain't moviemaking in any traditional sense, but it's quite something in its own right. Small prediction: Someday soon someone is going to come along and show off its potential for art. (Cantor makes a similar prediction about videogames.) Computer-video as a folk art ... Life may be strange, but there it is. Hey, why not get started as a videoblogger yourself?

BTW, are you aware that many cultures have no high-art tradition at all? True fact.

In any case, the aspects of the culture-picture that Cantor focuses on -- specialization; artists on the one hand, consumers on the other; commercial-popular art and high art -- are valid in the world as we modern westerners know it. And Cantor is sensationally helpful in making sense of this picture.

But folk art and amateur art? It seems to me that they're the background -- historically, anthropologically, and emotionally -- of all art. And, as you learn very quickly if you ever take a drawing class or a painting class, the background -- which means the space between and behind the highlighted objects -- is at least as important as the foreground objects are. And, as far as I'm concerned, the background deserves as much love and recognition as the foreground does.

Generally speaking, of course, I'm entirely with Cantor. We play on the same team: Let's definitely get over our snobberies towards commercial art. Here's only one of many very good reasons: If you turn your nose up at art that's market-driven, then you're turning your nose up at much of what has been best about American culture. And what would be the point of that?

Paul Cantor's lecture series is first-rate. These postings of mine are intended as a tribute to it. Download Paul Cantor's lectures series for free here.



posted by Michael at January 10, 2008


About surfer culture: I was going to send you this, because it's more your kind of thing than mine. It's a link to a piece on the original Gidget, an intriguing young girl whose story was turned into a novel by her father, in a book which made surfing a pop-culture phenomenon by giving it an image. Here it is:

p.s. Gidget and Sandra Dee were wildly misunderstood by Camille Paglia, one of those times where her ability to use archetypes to analyze popular culture completely failed her. She didn't notice that Gidget (who was, to her, annoying blonde cuteness personified), was actually an androgynous young girl who, rejected (as the movie shows) by her female peers for not being physically underdeveloped and not boy-crazy enough, decides to join the boys on the beach and learn to excel at the strange pastime that so absorbed them.

Well, probably someone has said all this already, but I'm dodging work for a few minutes (again) and couldn't resist chiming in.

Posted by: alias clio on January 10, 2008 1:40 PM

What a great resource! I'm sorry I missed your earlier posts on Cantor.

And thank you, Michael, for link and the kind words.

Posted by: Mike Snider on January 10, 2008 6:27 PM

1. Who ever actually thought artists had to be professionals? Wallace Stevens has hardly been an exception. All the Greek dramatists were amateurs, Thucydides was a general, Spenser was a courtier and landowner, Sidney was a soldier, Ralegh was an explorer, Henry Fielding was a magistrate, Samuel Richardson was a printer, Sterne was a priest, Borodin was a chemist. Is this actually news? Many artists only give up their day job after they become recognized.

2. Did the intelligentsia really not take movies seriously? Sure you can doubtless point to a few harrumphs from a couple academics and reviewers, but what about James Agee, Marcel Pagnol, J.L. Borges, Hemingway, Salvatore Dali, Michel Fokine to name only a few. All sorts of really talented artists and critics recognized how great the movies really were right away. Your attempt to constantly rewrite cultural history to say that "the greats" reputation came out of nowhere is, at best, a vast exaggeration, and at worst false to the facts.

Posted by: Thursday on January 11, 2008 12:28 PM

A. Clio -- Gidget, yet another important popular-culture phenomenon I know too little about. Camille didn't get Gidget right? Oh, well. Her batting average isn't bad, though. I mean, for an intellectual.

Mike -- Great to see you blogging regularly. Here's hoping the music and poetry are fizzing away too.

Thursday -- If you ask people straight-out "does an artist have to be a professional?" of course few people would say yes. But this posting is about how 1) the arts are generally discussed and 2) how Cantor discusses them. And, sure, the amateur and folk end of the arts gets underdiscussed in the press and in the schools -- when's the last time you saw a real art critic visit and write about a local amateur painting show, for instance? Or a movie critic discuss what's going on on YouTube? There may be some examples around but they're rare. And sure, Cantor neglects the amateur and folk end of things. He makes a few nods in those directions, but 99% of what he says has to do with the clash between high art and popular art.

As for when people started recognizing that movies were a real, and important, art form ... As far as I'm aware, very very few culture-observer types saw movies as anything but trash until the '60s. People like Bazin, Agee, Vachel Lindsay, etc were exceptions -- they seem prominent only in hindsight. The general attitude was that movies were a novelty, good maybe for entertainment, and otherwise dispensable. High culture types (and cultural snobs generally) were still sneering at movies as recently as the '60s -- they thought that colleges teaching courses in film history, for instance (which only started circa 1960), was laughable. Film studies, film schools, film critics taken as actual intellectuals, "movie history" seen as something worth paying attention to, efforts to create archives of historical matter -- it's all pretty recent, as in 1955ish and later. And making movies in an "art" sense didn't really begin until the '50s in Europe and the '60s in the U.S. The occasional exception (Renoir, maybe) is just that, an exception.

Another example: We may take it as self-evident that Cary Grant was one of the great performers of the 20th century, and maybe even one of the great artists of the 20th century. But he only began being viewed in that way in the '70s and '80s. Even in the '80s such an opinion was thought to be pretty outlandish. And while he was actually working he was thought of as, at best, a dashing and amusing romantic leading-man movie-star. No one that I'm aware of made huge claims for him as a significant artist during his working years. Yet a major artist is certainly what he looks like now.

But this is just standard-issue movie history. The film historians and film critics I've known and read would almost all agree with this account. Where are you getting your impression that movies were widely recognized straight-off as a great art form?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 11, 2008 1:04 PM

I think a lot of our disagreements over cultural history and canon making boil down to the fact that my version is much more artist centred. In the long scheme of things gaining the respect of academics, journalists, and even the public are much less important than gaining the respect of your fellow artists. They may try to shape the canon, but rarely have much long term impact. What matters are your peers, who seem to have an almost uncanny ability to pick winners. Cervantes may have been thought of by the public as a mere popular entertainer, but peers like Calderon and Ben Jonson immediately recognized him for what he was and said so. Similarly with Stendhal, he may have been dismissed by the press and the public, but Balzac and Flaubert thought otherwise in their reviews and private writing. Bach may have been a nobody to the public until Mendelssohn's revival, but Beethoven and Mozart sought out his work and said incredibly complimentary things about it. Reputations for greatness almost never come out of the blue.

As for the movies, add Laurence Olivier, Walker Percy, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Nureyev to my list of James Agee, Marcel Pagnol, J.L. Borges, Hemingway, Salvatore Dali, Michel Fokine etc. They may have been exceptions but, if so, what exceptions! (And they're only the ones I can think of off the top of my head.)

Posted by: Thursday on January 11, 2008 2:33 PM

I'm not sure I totally agree -- Balzac may have liked Stendhal, but a lot of artists paid him no attention at all, or saw him as a loser. And Balzac for all I know liked a lot of artists who we've forgotten about today. Canons look more inevitable in retrospect than they do as they're taking form.

But I definitely take your point about influence, and impact on other artists. I'll add only that reputations are made (and history emerges) from interactions between *a lot* of elements -- among them, the responses and preferences and memories of audiences, archivists, highbrows, critics, historians, lowbrows, writers, thinkers, other artists, chance, etc.

I think it varies from time to time and instance to instance. Aside from "MASH" and "Gosford Park," Robert Altman never meant much to audiences of any size, but he meant a lot to a lot of filmbuffs and to a lot of other moviemakers -- hence he's important, at least for now. On the other hand, Asian action pictures probably first got discovered in the west by teens, geeks, and a few film-festival-hoppin' critics -- David Chute was influential here. And only then did filmmakers start to catch on and be influenced. Fassbinder was an immensely big deal to the arthouse set for quite a while, but he seems to be almost entirely forgotten today, I'm not sure why. For a few years his reputation as a Great seemed unassailable. Now ... poof, gone.

Hey, once upon a time art history and lit history themselves didn't exist, and who knows, they may not exist in 50 years either. Film history, despite being a recent creation, may go away too. So all of today's debates about rankings and canons may prove to be completely futile. I'll bet that in 50 years no one will be able to read "Ulysses." What will happen to its exalted status then? And I sorta like "Ulysses."

So I try to take it on a case by case basis and remain open to surprises. But I'm sure I fall on my face most of the time.

My main strategy, though, is not to worry about the rankings-game. Just seems kinda pointless and dumb to me. Could be wrong! And it may not be a strategy that suits anyone else. But I'm personally much happier snooping around, taste-testing, comparing notes with fun and interesting people, making observations, and letting the history and canon things take care of themselves. Or not.

I can't control the weather, and don't want to. But I can respond to it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 11, 2008 3:04 PM

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