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February 01, 2008

I Am Not Worthy

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

* Some excerpts from an email recently sent around by an organization called Americans For the Arts:

One of our main objectives is to support and secure federal, state, and local education policies that provide students a balanced education and prepare them to compete in a globally innovative and creative workforce ... Americans for the Arts maintains that arts education develops the precise set of skills students need in order to thrive in a global economy that is driven by knowledge and ideas ... Formalize an incentive program to hire arts educators and strengthen the Arts in Education program at the U.S. Department of Education through revisions to the No Child Left Behind Act ...

Now, I have tended to think of myself as a pretty committed culturebuff. But this email has got me thinking that perhaps I've been mistaken. After all, my hopes for culture have zero to do with the agenda of Americans for the Arts. Personally I'd love to see people free their experience of the arts from the hands of politicians, bureaucrats, educators, and worthy-nonprofit types, 90% of whom seem to me to be devoted to bleeding the arts of everything I love the arts for.

* Some headlines and taglines from recent issues of the highbrow lit magazines Bookforum and The Boston Review:

  • Slave Trade On Trial
  • Richard Locke on Pat Barker
  • Jyoti Thottqm on Tahmima Anam's "A Golden Age"
  • Matthew Price on Richard M. Cook's "Alfred Kazin: A Biography"
  • Vivian Gornick: Hannah Arendt's Jewish Problem
  • J.K. Bishop: The Art of Dying
  • Peter Terzian on William Maxwell's Early Novels and Stories

Now, I'm a big reader, and during one 15 year stretch I even followed the NYC publishing world -- and new literary fiction -- pretty closely. Yet I'm never, ever going to read any of those pieces. In fact, I look at Tables of Contents like these and think, "Isn't it amazing? Some people are still arguing about Alfred Kazin, Hannah Arendt, William Maxwell, and slavery."

I also can't tell you how bizarre I find it that not a single word reflecting an interest in entertainment values appears in any of those headlines. Real intellectuals apparently have a hard time staying awake when topics like suspense, humor, characterization, plotting, sexiness, pacing, and identification come up.

I guess I have no choice but to say it loud and say it proud: I am 1) not a Worthy Artsperson, and 2) certainly not a Serious Reader.

Funny how good it feels to get these two admissions out there in public.

Back here I wrote about what I called "the Arts Litany" -- the list of beliefs and convictions that arts people are expected to hold. FvBlowhard responded here.

Do you keep up with any of the heavyweight art-or-lit mags? If so, what on earth do you get out of it?



posted by Michael at February 1, 2008

In fact, I look at Tables of Contents like these and think, "Isn't it amazing? Some people are still arguing about Alfred Kazin, Hannah Arendt, William Maxwell, and slavery."

To which you can add the names Edmund Wilson, Susan Sontag, Dwight McDonald, etc.

I agree with you 100%.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on February 2, 2008 1:53 AM

"I also can't tell you how bizarre I find it that not a single word reflecting an interest in entertainment values appears in any of those headlines."

You jump from Americans For the Arts to "highbrow lit magazines" as if there's a connection between them. Was there something in the e-mail that referred to lit magazines?

"Isn't it amazing? Some people are still arguing about Alfred Kazin, Hannah Arendt, William Maxwell, and slavery."

Picking just one of these more or less at random, Peter Terzian on William Maxwell's Early Novels and Stories is available at Did you at least glance at it before posting? There's no argument to it whatsoever. It's a gentle reminder of Maxwell's work.

Have you ever read So Long, See You Tomorrow, the work for which Maxwell won a National Book Award? Besides its luminous and clear prose, and compelling story, it straddles the line between fiction and memoir, illuminating the nature of both genres in a way you'd be hard-pressed to learn otherwise.

Terzian doesn't happen to be, but we ought to be debating Maxwell's work for a long time to come. I don't know what your idea of entertainment is, but hopefully there's a little room for great literature in there.

Posted by: steven on February 2, 2008 9:12 AM

Even more astonishing... not a mention of the incredible technological revolution that has completely reshaped the arts.

I also was once a voracious reader of novels and essays. No longer. For the past fifteen years, I've read mostly technical manuals, programming journals, etc.

That first paragraph is pure HR department boilerplate. God, I had to write that stuff on a couple of jobs! "Thrive in a global economy"... whatever that means... was one of the standard phrases that had to appear in every PR fluff piece. The guy who wrote that paragraph was banging his head against the wall to meet a word count, and wondering how in the hell he'd find enough to say to fill it.

Here's a topic that I keep returning to, that (for very good reasons) the lit-crit crowd doesn't want to talk about. The collapse of the Soviet Union killed the Utopian dream. The artistic mainstream worshipped the God of collectivism and anti-Americanism for a century. Then, they lost completely, and the American model triumphed globally. (Just to really throw acid in the face of the anti-American crowd, the American middle class adopted the hedonism the left has always advocated. The left reacted by becoming bitterly puritanical. You can't allow yourself to be at peace with the rubes.)

Here in Woodstock (I include that purposely to irritate certain readers), the refusal to acknowledge the total defeat of the Utopian vision dominates cultural life. The old commies will go to their graves singing The Proletariat and condemning the U.S.

The culture of optimism, can-do, technology and pragmatism has completely triumphed. All the literary topics you've noted are the old world of dreary pessimism, failure, technological ignorance and Utopian do-gooderism. The people who hold these views refuse to admit that experience proved them completely wrong, and that the old God of collectivism failed.

I guess that these old dinosaurs will have to die out before we will be rid of this failed world view. The present and future belong to artists who know how to program, how to live and breathe with software, and how to work in a team environment to produce the new art form, the total immersion 3D environment. Storytellers of the future must be great programmers, engineers and artists.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on February 2, 2008 9:47 AM

ST: "I guess that these old dinosaurs will have to die out before we will be rid of this failed world view."

Life extension can't some late enough.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on February 2, 2008 10:26 AM

PLW -- That's an excellent list! How many times can these people be reintroduced and re-hashed-over?

Steven - Glad to know you enjoyed the piece about Maxwell. That's a nice blog you write, btw. As for myself ... Well, I've read some Maxwell, and I've read about him some ... And it all seems like it has been done already, and several times over. As far as the highbrow lit mags go, I used to spend loads of time going through them. Enjoyed some of what I ran into -- Oliver Sacks, Robert Darnton, Frederick Crews, some others. These days, though, I look at new issues and they seem to be the exact same magazines they were 30 and 40 years ago. In many cases, the subjects of the essays are still the same. I mean, they can write and publish what they feel like, of course. I just marvel that 1) they aren't more responsive to the present world, and 2) that there's still an audience for the same ol' same ol'.

ST -- Yeah, no kidding, great points. I remember going to a new-media conference back around 1990 and being very struck by the diff between the new media crowd and the usual (say) film or lit festival crowd. The latter are often gloomy, beaten-down, and fervent -- they're like believers in a religion that isn't working out very well for them. The new-media crowd by contrast was optimistic, cheery, full of plans and activities. They weren't waiting around for God to give the OK, they were just taking the groovy new tools and making things with 'em.

IP -- Sad but true.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 2, 2008 12:29 PM

I went back to pick up your Arts Litany of 2003 and found, as usual, that it is an okay description of the art world the media knows about in New York City. Certainly it doesn't include such phenomena as the New Museum and its love of wild video. But your list certainly describes accurately the Unitarian Universalist denomination -- very liberal in what they believe in a cutting-edge and free-thinking way, when in fact they are simply courting new members, very like the big art institutions.

If you exactly reversed your "Arts Litany" it would be a pretty good description of the kind of people who relate to the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel: Reaganites, engineers, subscribers to certain elegant lifestyle magazines about houses out West built of local timbers and stone, with Corten steel rooves and wall-sized plate glass -- which are only occupied a few weeks of the year.

Art as a marker of success and luxury varies according to the sources of wealth at the time -- Edith Wharton wealth meant John Singer Sargent paintings. War wealth meant compensatory intellectual stuff to talk about -- Warhol or deKooning.

The media with its usual fascination with Manichean ordering, is always about twenty years behind what's actually happening, esp. if it's happening where the media doesn't live. Everywhere "globally" people make art in a quiet, personal, possibly obsessive way. It is what catches attention and competition that you're describing here. Won't last much longer. The wheel turns.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 2, 2008 1:03 PM

Fair points, except for two things. First, as NBC used to say, it's not a rerun if you didn't see it before. I read So Long two years ago. I wish it had been 12. If my daughter liked Clueless, shouldn't I clue her into the Austen original?

Second, culture changes and hopefully matures. The 2000s won't necessarily think about a work the same way the 1980s did. To say nothing of different thinkers. Isn't Gornick entitled to think about Arendt? Or are we stuck with what Kazin thought 20 years ago?

Finally, those points aside, I think your criticism is still a bit misguided. I wish the French restaurant down the street would have something on the menu that a vegan could eat, but I also know they're just a little bistro that can't be all things to all people. It's not as if there aren't people essaying on the importance of JayZ to the American psyche. They're just doing it in Rolling Stone, not The NY Review of Books.

Posted by: steven on February 2, 2008 2:06 PM

Hmmm, does "The Believer" count as a heavyweight art or lit mag? It actually seems a lot more breezy and nice than "The Comics Journal" which I also subscribe to. I also read "The Atlantic Monthly", though I enjoy the current affairs analysis more than most of the book reviews. I sincerely enjoy the food and movie reviewers, though. They don't take themselves as dead seriously as the Hitchens bunch.

I suppose I don't mind the highbrow sort of reading material. I don't even think it as a genre in and of itself is necessarily opposed to narrative, characterization and plotting. Maragert Atwood for example does the sort of line by line "love of the word and image" sort of writing while still keeping strong characters and plot. What I sincerely dislike is the often self-important tone most highbrow critics take. I tried reading "n+1" which is supposed to be the sort of converse to "The Believer", but I simply couldn't take the tone the editors and contributors use. Needlessly political, enamoured of useless cultural theory and pointlessly obscurantist.

I'm pretty young myself. Still have yet to hit the big 3-0, but I'm not as enamoured by the new media as much as you are MB. It's not the sort of reactive dislike of the cultural old guard, but instead certain reservations. I agree, the kids are alright, but a certain aesthetic that I enjoy is rather lacking. That of slowness and length. It all seems so frenetic and direct, I think a bit of something is being lost. Perhaps that will change as the medium ages.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on February 2, 2008 4:32 PM

I can't help thinking that there's a connection between the refusal to engage with the technolgoy that's transformed the arts over the last few decades and the refuseniks' preoccupation with writers like Kazin and Arendt, who were hot stuff some...decades ago.

They remind of the churchman who refused to look in Galileo's telescope. Or those big lizards that were wiped out by an asteroid. Or people eating meat raw because the red-hot-it-hurts-when-I-touch-it-thing hasn't been discovered yet.

In other words, yesterday's news.

Posted by: PatrickH on February 2, 2008 4:41 PM

Hey Shouting Thomas: I wonder, though, is the programmer's mindset just too techie-ish to produce art? I mean, scifi movies and books have always been criticized for a lack of characterization. Do we have to make these things intuitive enough that artsy types can use them on their own first? Or will we see the nerdification of the arts world?

I do agree with Mike, though; this sterile political shit sucks.

Posted by: SFG on February 2, 2008 7:03 PM

I wait eagerly for my quarterly Hudson Review ( - I assume most people on this blog have heard of it. Essays, criticism - mainly literary, but also dance, film, theater & music - and good contemporary poetry. The essays and criticism are mercifully missing the politicization and obscurantism everyone is complaining about. What do I get out of it? Continuing education. Exposure to writers/artists I've never heard of or not explored or new ways to think about people I am familiar with.

I also subscribe to the New Criterion - because they're the sworn enemy of "pomo," deconstruction, etc.

I like a good literary essay or criticism, which is exactly what you don't get out of many "highbrow" magazines these days - garden variety literature and criticism/appreciation of it is too bourgeois for them.

Posted by: Judith Sears on February 2, 2008 8:01 PM

" ...The present and future belong to artists who know how to program, how to live and breathe with software, and how to work in a team environment to produce the new art form, the total immersion 3D environment. Storytellers of the future must be great programmers, engineers and artists."

True. And then some of us just want to settle down with a good book. I personally couldn't give a spotty programmer's ass about the zeitgeist.

Posted by: american fez on February 2, 2008 8:03 PM

Michael I think sometimes you come off as having the attitude that if you are no longer interested in a subject (serious literature, film studies, etc.) it is silly that others are still interested in those same topics.

BTW, the Maxwell article was pretty short and was included because the Library of America just issued a new volume of his early novels and stories.

Posted by: Pat Hobby on February 2, 2008 8:57 PM

No, I do not believe that the mind of a programmer is too nerdy to produce great characterizations.

You have to work very hard to get to this point, but if you master C++ deeply enough to read the code of a brilliant programmer, you will discover that C++ is a surprisingly poetic language. It is built on a hereditary model. Parents beget children, who become parents who beget more children. Everything that a C++ programmer builds is based on this theory of parent objects giving birth to child objects. Child objects inherit the properties (physical characteristics) and methods (behaviors) of their parents.

It is a mistaken notion among non-programmers that programming is, at heart, a mathematical enterprise. The really great programmers, especially the Indian C++ masters, speak the programming language as if it were a dialect.

C++ was the great progenitor language of multimedia development. Remember the YouTube video Michael displayed... the one where the videoing of a few soldiers magically morphed into an invading D-Day army? The original few soldiers who were actually videoed were the parent objects. The hordes of soldiers spawn from the original soldiers were the child objects.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on February 2, 2008 11:47 PM

MB offers up a snippet from Americans for the Arts, an advocacy group that lobbies for the arts from the local to the national level. He then dismisses them as being "devoted to bleeding the arts of everything I love the arts for." To illustrate this he offers material NOT from Americans for the Arts, but from some "high brow lit magazines" and a link back to his Arts Litany that is actually, for all practical purposes, a litany of unthinking leftist tendencies as seen from the perspective of someone who doesn't buy any of it.

I guess my first question for MB is this, in what way are lobbying efforts to get more arts funding for schools, the NEA, state arts agencies and so forth "devoted to bleeding the arts of everything" you love the arts for? Have you reached a point where the only things in the arts you are interested in are You Tube videos of sexy Korean schoolgirls singing pop songs and genre fiction? Even if that were the case, in what way would added funding for art classes at the local elementary school or more money in the coffers of state arts agencies harm the arts you do love?

Here in Maine one can hang around the state house and find lobbyists for forestry industry or the fishing industry for example. They can cite the cash values and tonnages of their products harvested on an annual basis to make the case for tax incentives, or comment on the regulatory issues that effect them. Why shouldn't the arts have similar advocates working on behalf of the arts "industry"?

Posted by: Chris White on February 3, 2008 8:18 AM

P. Mary -- I'd make *slightly* larger claims for my generalizations than you're allowing for -- I think my "arts litany" holds pretty well not just in the NYC-centric artsworld, but in the NEA-PBS-NPR worlds as well. But it's always good to hear about the many other artsworlds. We in the northeast know too little about them.

Steven -- If you're thinking of me as someone who's talking about what anybody "should" do, you've got the wrong guy. I'll squabble over architecture and urbanism, because there are real social effects in those fields. But poetry, novels, essays, publishing, paintings, Flash animation? Go wild, world. At the same time, there's no reason not to roll the eyeballs at some of what's produced, no? I mean, wish everyone well, people are free to do as they please ... But why on earth would anyone, let alone Vivian Gornick, be writing about Alfred Kazin these days? Why not, of course. Still. Anyway, I'm just marveling, that's all.

Spike -- I'm not a huge fan of the Dave Eggers set. I admire him especially for entrepreneurship, but the stuff they actually create usually strikes me as precious and annoying. Hmm: highbrow. I like some highbrow stuff myself, but calling the Eggers bunch "highbrow" certainly doesn't seem right, does it? As for the electronic media ... It's not that I think it's instrinsically great, it's just that it's the way the world is going. No reason in the midst of it not to write the 5,001st essay about Alfred Kazin, of course, but if you're a cultural observer it's a little like pulling leaves off dandelions while a tornado rushes by. I enjoy your comment about liking a different kind of pace and length. One thing in the midst of all this that the Wife and I have found we can offer is a sense of how to pull long-form works together. The kids are often amazing at having impulses and ideas (and energy and technical skill, of course). But they're often clueless about how to structure larger/deeper experiences. "That's where we come in!" we say.

PatrickH -- It's kind of awful watching the world we were prepared for (analogue, literary) come to an end, or at least be swamped. Part of what's tough is that we over-45s will never have the skills or instincts of people who were raised for the digital world. So The Wife and I have had to reinvent ourselves a little bit-- to figure out how to have a little something to offer in the new context. (2Blowhards is an example -- it's digital itself, of course. And I take some note of new developments. But I try to offer a little thoughtfulness and writing in the midst of it. We try to provide a bit of a bridge between trad culture and digital culture.) We have a lot of friends our age who (faced with all the changes) have pretty much folded up shop. Everything they care about (and know how to function in) is coming to an end. They're feeling useless and depressed. "Get a blog!" I tell 'em. But they won't. Anyway, I think you're right. I think a lot of these people simply feel depressed about the way the world's going, and by god they aren't going to adapt. On the other hand, I sort of understand the feeling.

SFG -- It'll be interesting to see, won't it? Will the geek thing and the "creative" thing clash? Or will creative types be able to internalize a necessary amount of geekishness to function? Seems to me that, what with 99% of distribution going digital, basic computer skills are necessary (or beyond-handy, in any case) for just about everyone. Even people working in traditional media will want to get their work out there, and 999 out of a thousand times these days that's going to mean getting it (or at least some of it) on the web. I think it'd be cruel *not* to teach kids in art and music and writing schools about how to build a website, at a minimum. What's your hunch? Will geekiness and creativity be at odds? Seems like they'd have to be sometimes, no?

Judith -- Great to hear the Hudson Review's doing a good job. These days I tend to rely on Arts and Letters Daily more than any individual publication, but of course ALD relies on the individual publications. I do love a good review or essay, and do run into some (often thanks to ALD). But generally speaking it doesn't seem like a great time for cultural criticism, does it? It's funny: the varoius genres kind of come and go ... Horror was dead until "Rosemary's Baby" and Stephen King revived it. It's still going strong. The "cultural criticism" thing was roaring in the '50s thru the '70s (Mailer, Wolfe, Kael, Fiedler, etc), but now seems spent ...

American Fez -- We need more people like you!

Pat Hobby -- I think that's a shrewd hunch! It's always wise to wonder if a cultural-observer type is actually on to something, or if he's just coming up with rationales for his random interests, tastes, and adventures. Hard to tell, often. Important to ask that when you read a Vivian Gornick essay too.

ST -- I envy you your ability to contend with geekery. Musicians often seem better able to deal with tech crap than other artsies, don't they? Anyway, very interesting to hear you draw the analogies.

Chris - 1) There were two items in the posting. The second wasn't intended to provide reasons for the first. That's why I separated them with asterisks -- they're slightly related (in the sense of irreverent towards pieties), that's all. 2) Most "arts education" that I've run into has been misleading and unhelpful, if not downright dishonest and destructive. In my own case, I'd have been better off without it, and out in the world it's, for instance, not rare to run into people in book publishing who joke that it takes newbies in the biz three or four years to get over their educations and start being useful. So, sure, I'm happy to shoot torpedoes at the Worthies. I think the arts would be better off without much of the institutional structures and earnestness that supposedly support it. (On the other hand, I'd love to see private outfits vastly increase support for the arts, and in far more inventive ways than just giving bucks to universities. Why don't Lucas and Spielberg and Streisand and S. King do a better job of it?) Happy to shoot torpedoes at advocacy groups for the forestry biz too, but of course I know nothing about that world. Not that anybody who wants to shouldn't go right ahead and lobby, of course.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 3, 2008 11:32 AM


Yeah, I suppose it isn't "highbrow" per se. It doesn't really seemed aimed at the masses either, even if it's written at a level that any reasonably intelligent person could grasp. The precocious Tweeness isn't too much of a turn-off for me. For god's sake, one of my favorite genre's of music is "Twee pop". There's a right way to do it and a wrong way. The only time when it begins to rub me the wrong way is when the cultural and political biases sometimes show through the writer's articles. Last year's article on taxidermy nearly made me stop reading the magazine. It seemed the writer was hell bent on keeping an image of the folks into taxidermy as scary white conservative redneck hunters, despite the fact that one of the main subjects of the interview was an accepted member of the taxidermy community was a lesbian from San Fran who worked solely with dogs. Another bad one was one that seemed determined to link Karl May novels to the mentality of Hitler. Aiyah, it sometimes seems like there's two worlds out there where you have to be one thing to be another, and if you accept one thing you can't accept another.

In any case, often times I wonder if I had the money for my own camera and computer if I would join the whole new media revolution doing my own thing, trying to bring the old parts I like along with the new. I mean I'm a real dinosaur in some respects. I still read and write poetry! Hey, there's got to be room for pick dandelions in the eye of the storm, eh?

Also to see what happens when the giants of modernist and post-modernist art and culture get into a car crash with the younger sensibilities, read It's a webcomic that takes the serious culture unseriously. Forget Ron Paul, my bumper sticker says I'm voting for zombie Joseph Beuys.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on February 3, 2008 2:29 PM

It's true that the world of technological optimism has triumphed. But where does that leave us completely flummoxed by technology types? I'll tellya where it leaves us -- gettin' grumpier and grumpier unless, unless we can get our jaws around one of those meaty old Partisan Review debates. So maybe that's why they never end.

Posted by: ricpic on February 3, 2008 3:12 PM

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