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March 13, 2009

Some Hyper-General Digressions

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Some recent discussions at this blog -- especially here and here -- have left me musing over some scattered and more-abstract-than-usual topics. No idea if the following reflections cohere into anything -- but why should they, eh? And maybe they'll prove useful to a few visitors, if only in a provoking-further-thought kind of way.

  • At 2Blowhards we promote a lot of things. At the most specific level, we each have artists, entertainers, thinkers, and bloggers whose work we enjoy and want to call attention to.

  • On a slightly more general level, we each have a bunch of gripes that we enjoy airing and points that we enjoy putting forward. Donald, for instance, would like to see the part of the world that appreciates visuals pay more respect to popular visual artists. Friedrich wonders why more isn't made of the political and economic matrices that art and culture arise from. My own preference is to peddle a Vedanta-ish "It's all culture, and tastes often change dramatically over time, so why get over-obsessed with judging and ranking? What's your personal reaction? What's your personal thought?" thing.

  • But our overarching point here isn't to push any particular artist, thinker, topic, or point of view. It's to promote a better, richer, and more freewheeling cultural conversation than we're often offered by the usual institutions and outlets. Does the art (or book, or architecture, or music, or movie, or design ...) press overfocus on a handful of hot trends and chic names? Do the various art establishments deliver naive, fun-free, and narrow accounts of culture and art? We do our modest and amateur best to 1) point out how restricted the usual conversations are, and 2) offer examples of different, more spirited, and (we hope) more rewarding ways of talking about these things.

  • I'm usually wary of speaking for my co-bloggers, but in this case I think it's safe: What we share here isn't a devotion to any particular artist, school, or point of view. It's to a conviction that the experience of art and culture is its own payoff. After all, if you don't find your life enriched by an engagement with the arts, why would you bother involving yourself at all? It isn't as though deepening your culture-knowledge, awakening your culture-responsiveness, or sharpening your culture-sensibilites is going to ensure you a secure retirement or win you more attractive lovers. In fact, for most people an involvement in the arts isn't going to deliver practical payoffs of any sort.

  • What does "expertise in the arts" mean anyway? Can it be measured? How? If not, then what are we really talking about? Art isn't math, engineering, or science, after all. The changeable, vaporous stuff -- the cloud of tastes, quirks, preferences, and opinions that we all inhabit and that we bring to bear on all our culture-experiences -- is inescapable. The culture-adventure either enriches your life or it doesn't. (If it doesn't, that's cool, no harm done -- we'll see you in another lifetime.) Hence our shared p-o-v, such as it is: Since the arts-conversation is its own reward, why not do our bit to promote a more enjoyable and rewarding conversation?

  • Back to speaking entirely for myself ... So far as this "conversation as a metaphor for civilized engagement in a field" thing goes, I'm anything but original; I owe it mainly to the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott. (Start with this book. Leslie Marsh, whose website is here, is terrific on Oakeshott.) And yes, I'm aware that debates exist concerning the topic of "How truly objective can science be said to be?" Not my speciality -- but can anyone dispute the notion that subjective and personal elements play a much bigger role in the arts than they do in the harder subjects?

  • FWIW: While I understand that the gooeyness of the arts drives some people crazy, in my own case this gooeyness is one of the characteristics of the arts (and the arts-life) that I enjoy. Just as I don't want women to be more like men (most of the time, anyway), I don't spend a lot of time wishing that the arts were more like physics. If the hardness-and-fastness-of-some-things were hyper-important to me, I'd have gone into a different field.

  • I was a science-oriented kid who encountered the arts, was pole-axed by my responses to them, and decided to drop science and follow the arts wherever they'd lead me. As the years have passed and a little of my youthful foolishness has fallen to the side, the arts have emerged to me more and more as entertainment. Still, why deny the fact that I got into the field as a way of exploring the Real Reality -- as an alternative to science?

  • And are the arts really, and always, mere entertainment? (Not that there's anything non-marvelous about good entertainment!) Well, maybe. But isn't it funny how much some of these entertainment experiences can mean to us? Why should such a thing even be possible? Like many people I have some hunches about this. Ask me real nice and I'll try to formulate a few of them.

  • Also FWIW: I do think that there's a Larger Reality out there that we're all part of, and I certainly agree that Cultural Univerals exist. I'm by no means a relativist, let alone a dogmatic postmodernist. I even enjoy calling attention to some of the wise and deep people who, IMHO, have managed in a trustworthy way to nail some of these universal rules down. In our own time, my personal list would include Christopher Alexander, Denis Dutton, Nikos Salingaros, Frederick Turner, Ellen Dissanayake and others. Where culture goes, these people are giants who strike me as having glimpsed, and noted down, bigger stretches of the Larger Reality than most people ever will.

  • That said, experience has also led me to keep three things in mind: 1) There are 'way too many people out there trying to be gurus, and overeager to make Large Statements. 2) Most of these people are full of it, and most of what they say deserves little but mockery. 3) Life is too short to spend a lot of it sifting and sorting your way through all the pretenders, let alone all of their claims.

  • But if I defer to and thank those who have really touched the Real, I'm also wary of an excessive focus on the One Truth. I'm not sure that any individucal, or school of thought or practice, has a lock on The One Truth. In fact, given that The One Truth That Envelops All is larger than not just any person but also any world, I can't see how this could even be possible.

  • I've also found that it's a sensible policy to be wary of the tendency many have to derive from the general rule backwards to the specific. It's good to respect the genuine general rules, god knows. And the people who would keep us from running across and exploring these genuine general rules deserve a good spanking. But so far as culture and art go, it also seems to me wise to cultivate some looseness and freeness. If the spirit benefits from deferring to tradition and donning a suitable modesty, it also benefits just as much from playtime.

  • Experience has also led me to conclude that, since nailing down the Real Nature of Things is a quest suited to a very small number of people, we lesser mortals are probably better off confining ourselves (most of the time) to specific topics and instances.

  • Actually -- and this bit here really is just between you and me -- I think that a modest culture-conversation that confines itself to everyday specifics can do an excellent job of serving the Real Reality. The mechanism may be different. A mighty figure like Christopher Alexander, for instance, simply lays The Truth down; the no-bullshit Denis Dutton has been able able to boil matters down to a bullet-pointed list of cross-cultural art universals. And let's by all means love them for what they have managed to contribute.

  • But, IMHO, a satisfying casual culture conversation isn't to be sneezed at either. It can be brain-and-imagination-opening; it can kindle and rekindle interest; it can open up neural pathways; it can examine and reject nonsense. As well as delivering a great deal of pleasure, a casual culture-conversation -- even one that never intended to do such and thing -- can deliver a warm, lingering, and enriching bath in the light of the Real.

  • If the Alexanders and Duttons create something akin to marble sculpture likely to endure for the ages, a rewarding casual culture-chat might be compared to a meal shared among friends. No reason not to bow down before the former, of course -- but is that any reason to undervalue the latter? Why deny that that passing pleasures such as meals, snapshots, and jokes can mean an awful lot to us too?

  • What is it that tends to make for a good casual arts conversation? Hmm ... Well, as wary as I am of dwelling too long in the world of the general, I'll venture that honesty, irreverence, experience, respect, wit, some (but often not too much) knowledge, and sympathy seldom seem to hurt.

But I really don't consider it my role to lay down hard rules. Not generally, anyway.




posted by Michael at March 13, 2009


A toast: to whoever first said "They called him a guru because it's easier to spell than charlatan".

Posted by: dearieme on March 13, 2009 1:45 PM

Cool posting. I love the way you guys discuss the arts in such a wide ranging way. Commenters, too. Why do you think most conventional arguments about the arts are so damn narrow?

Posted by: Claudia on March 13, 2009 2:44 PM

Hi Michael,

Thanks for the Oakeshott plug. Thanks also for a ridiculously eclectic and civilized blog. I'm pleased to have discovered it.



Posted by: Leslie Marsh on March 13, 2009 5:40 PM

"But isn't it funny how much some of these entertainment experiences can mean to us? Why should such a thing even be possible? Like many people I have some hunches about this. Ask me real nice and I'll try to formulate a few of them."

I'm asking Michael: please?

I've never been able to understand why it's been so important to me. The results speak for themselves so it's not a matter of doubt - the value is real - but exactly what the mechanism is remains a mystery to me.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on March 13, 2009 6:01 PM

What is that tends to make for a good casual arts conversation?

Firstly, good company, and by that I don't necessarily mean polite company. I've always held the view that in any good conversation, the best participants are those who are humble with regard to their subject. By that I mean, that the participants are more concerned about the truth of the subject matter than their reputation amongst their peers when expressing their views.

What makes modern cultural commentary so dreary is the participants are more concerned about their social standing within their desired peer group. It's not about the subject it's about the commentators peer approval. It's politics.

The real rebels and in my opinion interesting people in any field are those who are prepared to suffer for "the vision" and earn social opprobrium. The problem with most of today's pretender artists it is more important to be seen by others as having the vision rather than actually possessing it. Belonging to the group is more important than living the idea.

That's why these conversations tend to be so damn narrow, the participants tend toward groupthink and peer approval, most of the wankers are social climbers. Amongst these tossers, group cohesion tends to be more important than the subject matter discussed, that's why the emphasis on being polite and not ruffling feathers is so important. Original and disturbing thoughts are not welcome as group cohesion disintegrates.

Before anyone thinks I'm having a go at the Left, let me say that same phenomena is seen with depressing regularity on the Right. It seems to be a phenomena of lesser minds. In many ways I think it explains the sclerosis in both Left and Right wing thought, though there do seem to be more real rebels and original thinkers on the Right at the moment.

Why deny that that passing pleasures such as meals, snapshots, and jokes can mean an awful lot to us too?

They do, that's why when you do bring up subjects everyone can relate to, a good rowdy discussion starts. I think it also explains why when you post on something esoteric people don't reply. It probably isn't because they don't have a view, its just they don't want to be thought of as dumb. Few of us are experts in the esoteric, but we are all masters of the everyday.

But you see, I'm so lacking in the desire for social approval, that I'll comment on any subject, no matter how unqualified, if it evokes a strong enough response.

I think that a modest culture-conversation that confines itself to everyday specifics can do an excellent job of serving the Real Reality

Real Reality or Truth by another name? All of us are One Truth guys, some of us recognise the fact, some of us don't. All our arguments are disagreements about the Truth.

Posted by: slumlord on March 13, 2009 6:57 PM

This post is the sort of thing I come to 2Blowhards to read!

Posted by: James on March 13, 2009 9:34 PM


But you see, I'm so lacking in the desire for social approval, that I'll comment on any subject, no matter how unqualified, if it evokes a strong enough response.

Of course you want social approval Michael. Why else would you have started and continued this blog, with it's enormous time demands?

I think what you meant is that you don't want or need mainstream social approval, or even mainstream arts types approval. Instead you set out to become a rebel leader of your own band of followers, which has become large.

I'm of like mind.


Posted by: dougjnn on March 13, 2009 10:45 PM

"...a rewarding casual cultural-chat might be compared to a meal shared among friends."

Another analogy might be that this background chatter is like the work of microbes in the soil: operating at a small scale, generally unseen, but hugely responsible for everything that grows topside. It's what makes the mighty oak possible.

Posted by: Matt Mullenix on March 14, 2009 8:05 AM

The modesty of the cultural conversation at 2blowhards is much appreciated, even if it is sometimes more sly than ingenuous. It is, on the whole, a very humane conversation.

Posted by: faze on March 14, 2009 8:41 AM

As I get older (a preamble I find myself using more frequently), I consider the arts to have two purposes: entertainment and religion (and no, I don't mean "spiritual," although that is part of religion). I started my life as an artist within the Catholic Church and it appears that I will end there, after a lengthy absence in the middle years. I've been a commercial artist my entire adult life... that is I have produced music and multimedia on demand for commercial clients. It's been a gratifying and easy going way to make a living.

I am very tired of the folks who want to use art for political propaganda, which is to say almost the entire academic, entertainment media and news media establishment. This dominates the arts and produced a steady stream of dreck. Woodstock and Manhattan are a good examples of this. Although some very good artists remain resident in both places, art events are usually little more than propaganda and indoctrination rituals. The grant system produces thousands of brain dead hacks spouting the party line, while pretending to heroic revolutionary insight.

I am a sinner, and I was drawn into the "art is an excuse to act like a complete asshole" syndrome when I was a young man. The childish rebellion, eternal adolescence and predictable outrageous theatrics of the arts now bore me.

What I am looking for from the artist is the truth of the individual perspective and a good story. The artist has nothing more to offer. Whenever an artist tries to go beyond that, he makes a fool of himself. I no longer have any interest in the political opinions of artists. Artists are, in general, too dumb, immoral and self-indulgent to be taken seriously.

Like Michael, I know that it's almost impossible to know in the here and now what will be important to people in the future. You can bet that the Beatles and Frank Sinatra will continue to be heard. I no longer worry about my place. I'm working primarily for myself. If a few other people are interested and touched... that's just a nice bonus. Long ago, I surrendered the conceit that the world owed me something because I'm such a sensitive soul. Well, in fact, that conceit was beaten out of me. A good thing, too.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on March 14, 2009 11:04 AM


Those last few lines are why I respect you despite disagreeing with almost everything else you stand on.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on March 14, 2009 7:15 PM

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