Friday, September 19, 2008

Maybe Looking at Things a Different Way

Randy says Charles Bernstein coined the term “Official Verse Culture” - which is an apt term. I have been thinking about that, together with Jacques Barzun’s descriptions of art’s perceived role in occidental society as it has developed over the past couple hundred years.

Let’s pretend there was an International Conference in, say, Brussels, in the late 18th Century. It was a secret conference, and we are pretending that Napoleon business was all going on somewhere else and nobody cared.

This was an International Conference for delegations from two loosely organized federations. One federation, the one with money or other resources, had delegates from various demographics: rich white women, self-made millionaires, hard-working middle-managers, shop-keepers, founders of charitable organizations, university administrators, politicians, producers of media, interior decorators, and religious groups. This was the “Consumer’s Delegation.” The other federation, the one without any money or other resources, had delegates from the different arts and crafts. This was the “Producer’s Delegation.”

After several days of panels, talks, presentations, and whatever the 17th C. equivalent of Powerpoint was (stereopticon?), a deal was hammered out. There have been tensions, and a few modifications, but that deal is still in place today. The producers of art have some rules to follow, some hoops to jump through, but if they follow the rules, they are categorized and stamped “approved” by one or another department of the Permanent Art Council. Once approved by the Permanent Art Council, the Consumer’s Delegation knows that the art product is whatever it has been approved as being - orderly production in categories for ease of distribution and just-in-time delivery. They may then hang it on the wall, read it, denounce it, review and recommend it, write letters complaining about it, get it included or excluded from the curriculum, and what have you. The art just fits right into society.

Unfortunately for both delegations, this is all a matter of institutions. Institutions exist, to a greater or lesser extent, in part solely to continue existing. At first, the Consumer’s Delegation thought they were making sure that everyone benefited from Art, kind of like adding iodine to salt or vitamin A to Milk - it is just a good thing, and people might get spiritual goiters without it. The Producer’s Delegation thought they were going to be able to afford food, and maybe become famous. But what was it that was so nutritious about art that these powerful Consumers were willing to deal? And how about the Producers? The Producer’s Delegation must have wanted to be the generators/ miners/ producers of something that makes life better for someone - even if it is just one person. [NOTE- many Producers over the past century or so have wanted instead to make people better and to perfect human society. I personally do not support that view.]

Whatever the Producers wanted then, what do we want now? What does artistic “success” mean in this regime? For many Producers, it has come to mean simply getting through the obstacle course laid out by the Permanent Art Council with as many points as possible, followed by (1) tragic death at an early age; (2) a contract with a multinational corporation; (3) a major motion picture; or (4) tenure.
There is a lot more to say about this stuff, but that is all I can manage right now.

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