27 December 2019

Mumford -- Art and Technics (xi)

"Each art has its technical side...what would often be, were it not for the ultimate end of the process, sheer monotony and drudgery. But in the period when handicraft dominated, the artist and the technician arrived, as it were, at a happy compromise... That extra effort, that extra display of love and esthetic skill, tends to act as a preservative of any structure; for, until the symbols themselves become meaningless, men tend to value, and if possible to save from decay and destruction, works of art that bear the human imprint." (49)

Re: "preservatives," here is a useful, matter-of-fact statement of observations that have been made in increasingly strident terms since Mumford's time. Concretization of Art in discrete material artifacts has some of the same implications as does consciousness of and self-identification with cultures, traditions, races, etc. Perhaps there is even an evolutionary incentive for "the human imprint" to "act as a preservative" of our inanimate artistic creations much as it does regarding our living offspring; but there are, to be sure, mechanisms of devolution here as well. Concretization channels the weight of a whole array of human needs and impulses onto material objects, visual symbols, etc. The cultural-utilitarian halflife of such objects and symbols is usually quite a bit shorter than that which their "preservatives" ultimately enable them to enjoy; and so these works stick around long past their expiration date, long after they have ceased to be "relevant," as the most impatient cultural commentators would have it; this for better or for worse, and indeed often both at once. Artworks start to smell funny long before there is sufficient collective social momentum to toss them, and by the time that momentum coalesces, the discourse has become, as an apt figure of speech would have it, toxic. It turns out that this "happy compromise" plays better in times of scarcity than times of abundance; in the latter condition, more is preserved for longer than anyone can find the wherewithal to make sense of. Hence our world is overpopulated with images and ideas as well as with people.

Of course so-called relevance is very much in the eye (and the Philosophy/Theory) of the beholder. Often enough the full cultural relevance ledger looks completely irrational and counterproductive to everybody all at once. But the preservative acts upon the artifact regardless, blindly keeping in circulation the unjustly neglected and the justly ridiculed alike. If artists collectively gave as much thought to this general dynamic as they do to warring over the turf it encompasses, there would suddenly be a lot more vacant turf and a lot less fighing over it.

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