10 December 2021

Artists, Agitators, Introspectors

Christopher Lasch
The Revolt of the Elites (1995)
Socialism, as [Oscar] Wilde understood it, was simply another name...for the elimination of drudgery by machines. Wilde had no patience with those who proclaimed the dignity of labor. ... The collectivization of production would liberate the poor from want, but it would also liberate the rich from the burden of managing and defending their property. ... No less than manual labor, the administration of property distracted people from the real business of life.
(p. 231)

Socialism, in Wilde's conception, would not come about through the action of the masses. The masses were too stupefied by drudgery to be capable of emancipating themselves. ... Agitators were the political equivalent of artists: disturbers of the peace, enemies of conformity, rebels against custom. They shared with artists a hatred of authority, a contempt for tradition, and a refusal to court popular favor. Agitators and artists were the supreme embodiment of individualism, wishing only to please themselves.
(p. 232)

This kind of message [Christ as "artist"]...appealed to intellectuals in search of a substitute for religious faiths by then widely regarded as offensive to the modern mind. ... It confirmed artists and intellectuals in their sense of superiority to the common herd. It sanctioned their revolt against convention... By equating social justice with artistic freedom, the religion of art made socialism palatable to intellectuals who might otherwise have been repelled by its materialism. In the heyday of the socialist movement its attraction for intellectuals cannot be adequately explained without considering the way it overlapped with the bohemian critique of the bourgeoisie.
(p. 233)

In the 1960s revolutionary students adopted slogans much closer in spirit to Wilde than to Marx: "All power to the imagination"; "It is forbidden to forbid." The continuing appeal of such ideas, thirty years later, should be obvious to anyone who casts an eye over the academic scene and the media. The postmodern mood, so-called, is defined on the one hand by a disillusionment with grand historical theories or "metanarratives," including Marxism, and by an ideal of personal freedom, on the other hand, that derives in large part from the aesthetic revolt against middle-class culture. The postmodern sensibility rejects much of modernism as well, but it is rooted in the modernist ideal of individuals emancipated from convention, constructing identities for themselves as they choose, leading their own lives (as Oscar Wilde would have said) as if life itself were a work of art.
(p. 234)


Perhaps this last idea does become toxic anytime we are well and truly forbidden to forbid. But so long as a good-faith mediation is sought between the rhetorical extremes of total social control and total individualism, then I do think life can profitably become A Work Of Art, a work-in-progress so to speak, precisely in the sense of those elements of craftsmanship and personal responsibility which Lasch seeks, in his capital-P Political thought, to recover and restore. As artists listen to their works, so we can listen to various feedback from life and recalibrate accordingingly.

This is an individualist conception, to be sure, but it seems to me also a matter of what is conventionally called introspection. Now, if this capacity for introspection is a variable personality trait rather than a learnable skill, that of course makes it rather impolite to prescribe such things for everyone. It may simply be impractical too. Still, I would propose that for the introspective among us, even a fairly drastic
emancipat[ion] from convention
is not so risky, and it may even be a necessary rite of passage; this because of the severity and profundity of introspective realizations made under conditions of true moral confusion.

That kind of introspection is, among other things, the supreme empirical test of any supposed human universals. Following Donald Brown, it is easy to accept that the difference between a universal and a near-universal is negligible for the anthropologist. It cannot be negligible, however, for individuals under individualism, i.e. for those who, without any objection to the preceding, would nonetheless be shocked to find that they themselves conform to every single entry on Brown's widely circulated list. They may never realize any of this, nor even give it a second thought, however, unless they are forced to. And as miserable as many such circumstances of realization can be, the flouting of the edict Know Thyself is a far worse evil for all concerned.

Lasch says that a well-functioning democracy "forces" (he does actually use that word) all citizens to enter debate, and hence that this ideal democracy, therefore, is not "the most efficient but," rather, "the most educational form of government." The same could be said of introspection as a government of the self.


Another variable trait, among capital-A Artists, is the personal investment in and identification with their artworks. In the cases of LeRoi Jones and Harry Partch , recently considered in this space, and no doubt for many, many other writers too, there is even the possibility of the artist's personality, their life, and/or their body itself manifesting on the levels of artistic form, content, and ultimately, meaning. I have previously said enough, I think, about my reservations in the face of various attempts to rationalize such art practices, and I have shared a few relevant counterpoints from comparably visible commentators. But it is Jones himself, oddly enough, who raises in passing a very curious empirical demonstration of the problem when he observes that the folk expression label functions to preclude formal criticism from without.

The understandable reluctance to criticise the oppressed too harshly is only half the story here, for on the microsocial level too, we are allowed to say lots of very mean things about our friends, even to their faces, but not about their parents or children. Particularistic ties are off limits here, whereas universalistic or elective ties, because they have been freely chosen (or, if you insist, the social fiction we are stuck with most of the time is that they have been freely chosen), more properly reflect on the character of the agent in question.

Through all of this thick verbiage, what I hope to make obvious is that the relationship of Jones' folk artist, or of Partch's corporeal artist, to their art, this relationship may be intimate but it is not necessarily introspective, and particularly in Jones' case it almost certainly is not. The relation of artist to artwork is also, quite explicitly in both cases, particularistic rather than universalistic. If it seems absurd to insist upon the latter in all cases, perhaps it is enough merely to run down, in summation of some recent posts, its virtues and implications.

Sennett's meditation on his son's universalistic relationship with the violin is apt here:
It was an education in the "it," whereas the children making graffiti knew only the declarations of the "I."
Lasch, for his part, borrows Hannah Arendt's encapsulation of just what it is about this
education in the "it"
that recommends it on the most basic existential level:
the things of the world have the function of stabilizing human life, and their objectivity lies in the fact that . . . men, their everchanging nature notwithstanding, can retrieve their sameness, that is, their identity, by being related to the same chair and the same table.
This aspect of the Euro-American tradition of instrumental technique is of course totally ignored by Jones, though it cannot possibly have been ignored by his favorite beboppers.

Partch takes aim at abstractionist technicians, accusing their music of
serv[ing] as the testament of the scribes and the pharisees, the press-badge of gratuitous "emcees" at circumcision, the squire of the musicians' union, and an article of merchandise for the minions of the subscription series and for those other more obscure "lovers of music" whose "loving" ears are tuned in only on the cash register.
This is blustery, but it is not unfair. What is hard to believe, though, is that Partch too could be ignorant of the chair-and-table aspect of instrumental technique, since he in fact undertook to live it as few ever have, through a system of his own invention which is very demanding of the technician. And yet, his assertion that
the ancient, lovely, and fearless attitude toward the human body was gone
from the tradition of abstract music because
Musical "morals" denied the human body—through the one agent of the body that they could control,
this seems to me a downright libelous misrepresentation of the centuries-long practices of Western instrumental technique and the various corpora of knowledge that have accumulated around and through them. What it demonstrates, obliquely perhaps but in the last analysis no less cleary, is that his corporeal ideal presupposes the ramification of the body of a desiring subject into the realms of form, content, and meaning; in other words, that mere introspective exploration of the body, out of view and for no reason but to discover one's own conduct of life, this was not enough (and indeed was to be condemned as prudery) if its discoveries were not ultimately conveyed to a receptive audience, served up right on the artistic surface rather than sublimated (or obliterated) somewhere down in the technical depths. In this he was, no less than in his strictly musical accomplishments, very much ahead of his time.


Really, the drama of introspection as against exhibitionism, the difficulty of discovering ourselves without needing to tell anyone and everyone what we have found, the tension of the universalistic and the particularlistic, all of this is just as operative in the realm of abstraction in which I have always located myself as it is in the folk or corporeal arenas. And so, being somewhat the introspective type, it has become unavoidable in recent years to conclude that my own personal investment in my work is far too exhibitionistic, and far too much that of parent-to-child; hallowed analogies both, to be sure, but analogies which nonetheless lay bare a certain unfitness for life under the ideals of democracy which Lasch so brilliantly lays out in his last writings. That realization has not been easy, and as a result it has not yet been fully accepted. But that is the introspective life in a nutshell, and I'm not sure it is available any other way than through a certain artistic outlook on one's own life-in-progress. In any case, that is how I have found my way to it, and contrary to Lasch's gloss above, it has not exactly led me to become an unmoored bohemian despite having had every opportunity to do so.

When Lasch finds only "narcissism" and "survivalism" in the postmodern artist's effacement of the self, I think he has overlooked (strangely enough) the unfitness of the romantic novelist or the representational painter, e.g., for life under his own ideal of democracy. (I have attempted a quick-and-dirty case study on this problem here). The superficial parallels between Jones' Negro Musician, who
did not admit that there was any separation between himself and the agent he had chosen as his means of self-expression,
and Lasch's narrow technical sense of narcissism as the breakdown of the boundary between the self and the outside world, these parallels are, I think, probably spurious, owing to the different levels of analysis on which the writers operate. The more pregnant question is whether Jones' observation that, in early African-American music,
Expression issued from life, and was beauty
describes an attitude which is at all compatible with Lasch's conception of democracy.


Lasch again:
Psychoanalysis served the same purpose in Jung's scheme of things that artistic imagination served in Wilde's. Reformulated so as to overcome Freud's unfortunate preoccupation with sex, it became the means by which to liberate the religious imagination from its enslavement to dying creeds. ...

But I am less interested in Jung's remedy for the spiritual malaise of modernity than in his formulation of the problem and especially in the common assumptions Jung shared even with those who rejected his particular solution. The most important of these assumptions was that the inevitable unfolding of consciousness made it impossible, at least for the educated classes, to return to the childlike security of the past. ... Once the critical habit of mind had been fully assimilated, no one who understood its implications could find any refuge or resting place in premodern systems of thought and belief. It was this experience of disillusionment, more than anything else, that was held to distinguish the artist and the intellectual from unreflective creatures of convention, who distrusted artists and intellectuals precisely because they could not bear to hear the bad news.
(pp. 238-239)

Here Lasch is not defending "unreflective creatures" but rather chiding self-consciously modern "artists and intellectuals" for baselessly ascribing an unreflective posture to the religious and the lower-middle-class. This I find compelling in the abstract. Anecdotally I confess that I don't find it compelling at all. But in any case, I would question whether the assertion of self in the mode of folk, of corporeal[ity], of heroic narrative, of tasteless virtuosity, of public-installation-without-public-sanction, on and on down the list of contemporary art's familiar faux-pas and extending even to a few hitherto unquestioned practices which have dined out on their oldness or their newness for too long, I would question to what degree each of these modes affords or enforces reflective moments in the artist. Then, I would reiterate Lasch's insight that
If we insist on argument as the essence of education, we will defend democracy not as the most efficient but as the most educational form of government, one that extends the circle of debate as widely as possible and thus forces all citizens to articulate their views.
(p. 171)
It is no less urgent to be forced to articulate a view of oneself, that is, to oneself. It is, on the other hand, rarely urgent (and often ill-advised) to go looking anywhere you can find them for people to talk to about what you have found.

No comments: