14 December 2021

Individualism and Nonconformity


Most everything Lasch has to say in The Revolt of the Elites about the dangers of "refer[ring] everything to a plurality of ethical commitments," about the way this leads to "double-standards" which a democracy cannot afford, and about "tolerance becom[ing] indifference," most all of this could be neatly transfered over to the realm of art and made to sound equally convincing. I would venture that much of it is quite often applied in this way, and that within a narrow subculture of professional specialism or fanatical connoisseurship this is unproblematic, maybe even necessary. But it does not work, I want to argue, on any broader level of discourse about art, and it becomes more oppressive the broader any such discursive pretensions become.

Art is political, at least in the sense that "everything" is political, but it is not politics; nor is it truly a religion in spite of so many superficial resemblances and self-styling assertions to that effect; nor can it ever be reduced to pure commerce, pure expression, or pure personality. It can arise from within these institutions or descend upon them from without; it can take them as its subject matter, endorse them, condemn them, model them metaphorically; it can be politic-al or religi-ous or commerc-ial...no doubt the list could extend endlessly, limited only by our collective powers of linguistic compositionality. Still, for at least as long as "democracy" has existed as a structural reality (if not always as a practical one), art has been a bastion of individualism to rival any other democratic institution, if not to surpass them all. Socio-determinist critics are anxious to tell us what all of this says about individualism or about democracy. They should be more anxious to notice what it says about art. And they should notice that this artistic individualism did not wait for the advent of Lasch's late-twentieth century Culture of Narcissism nor for a Revolt of the Elites to commence pushing through any and every crack it could find in whatever social control regime it encountered.

The conceit to expression, problematic as it is from an epistemological perspective, gains American art admission to a protected class of behaviors and productions under the guise of civil libertarianism. It did not take artists long, of course, to begin probing the limits of libertarian "tolerance," nor for those who thus found their own limits violated to deploy countervailing rhetoric and, occasionally, direct actions. It remains nonetheless (and thankfully) a tiny minority of U.S. political actors who would propose, plainly, that artistic "expression" have its status as protected speech curtailed.

The relative infrequency with which the word "individualism" itself appears in Lasch's writings is curious, to me at least, since this is in fact much of what is at issue much of the time. His arguments for, variously, "communitarianism," "lower-middle class morality," and "the common life" are all, in the end, arguments against some kind of individualism or other, most explicitly against the unbridled kind which is thought to prevail at both extremes of today's faux-ideological divide, but never limited strictly to this. I would propose the word nonconformity to denote that part of individualism which free societies must protect as a matter of right; this as against the remainder which ultimately must justify itself on utilitarian grounds, and which is the proper target of such "communitarian" and "populist" tendencies as Lasch's.


In pegging the minimalist avant-garde to concurrent demographics of psychopathology, Lasch evinces the socio-determinist view that the mirroring of social by artistic institutions cannot possibly be a coincidence. Much hinges of course on what, exactly, qualifies as a genuine reflection or expression of general social conditions in any given medium. The technical basis for this in a particular medium is usually addressed only through the most facile metaphors, if it is addressed at all. But no matter its truth value, this kind of socio-determinism ultimately runs roughshod over the very idea of art by reading it rather than experiencing it.

Sontag's famous admonition to the latter effect, though it is usually misread as a mindless defense of hedonism, really is a defense of art against what Lasch himself, later, identified as
one of the disinctive features of the industrial worldview: its instrumentalization and debasement of practical activity.
"Practices in the Aristotelian sense," he says, "have nothing to do...with the production of useful objects or with satisfying material needs." Whereas "instrumentalism regards the relation of ends and means as purely external," "the older tradition, now almost forgotten, holds that the choice of the means appropriate to a given end has to be considered as it contributes to internal goods as well." With this front of mind, I want to propose that the audience for art can, potentially, engage in a "practice" per se just as well as the artists themselves can, though certainly these two practices are very different from each other. The "practice" of analyzing a society through its art and, especially, of holding artists to account by reading their works for psychological tells, meanwhile, seems to me to have all the earmarks of "debasement" by "the industrial worldview," that is, of an "instrumentalization" of art rather than a "practice" of it. This cannot be "useful" but for a very few peculiar observers, and not for the best reasons; whereas for artists and audiences who are involved in the "practice" of art this kind of determinism merely generates answers in search of questions.


The axiom that art registers social change early, sometimes before it is visible anywhere else, cannot be taken to preclude the possibility that "social change" simply had nowhere else to go, nor that against a static institutional backdrop art could not help but stand out conspicuously no matter its actual social or political pretensions. In this more earthbound view, it is unclear whether the Great Books have indeed been prophetic, or whether Great Books are simply those precious few which in hindsight turned out to right (or, the most troubling possibility, those which we wish dearly to have been right, whether they actually were or not).

In other words, there is a sampling problem here which capital-S Sociologists would be excoriated for making. It is what Taleb calls the problem of "silent evidence." And what are "silent," namely, are all of the not-so-Great Books, the lowbrow landscape paintings, the aesthetic failures, the victims of changing taste, and of course those few exceptional works which exceed the limits even of libertarian tolerance. Where reception, curation, commerce, or recognition are concerned, there is of course no reason pay any more heed to these failures than their merits warrant. But the socio-determinist view does not rest on the ascription of merit; it rests, rather, on the ascription of representativeness. If Lasch could not take the work of, say, Ad Reinhardt to be representative of the psychological condition of an entire generation and milieu, then he could make no such broad extrapolations from it.

The problem of course is that such an artist is representative only of a certain microtrend which, as none of its detractors have ever hesistated to emphasize, succeeded culturally and commerially all out of proportion to its number of particpants on both the creation and reception sides; which is to say that despite this success such an artist would seem the furthest thing from representative of a societal-level psychic condition. These are two totally different levels of analysis, but the socio-determinist must conflate them in order to borrow representativeness on the collateral of visibility. (There is yet another level, the individual, atomized level, on which each artist is to some degree unique from every other. This need not detain us here except to point out, in case it is not obvious from the material under discussion, that artists themselves are bound to spend quite a lot of time on the atomized level in the analysis they perform for their own purposes as artists, i.e. as part and parcel of their "practice," and that this cannot help but alienate them from critics and scholars. It is thought also to alienate them from audiences only because audiences per se are considered, as an unquestioned convention of discourse, to be passive; that is, their listenership or viewership or readership is considered to be a mindless diversion rather than an intentional "practice.")

Skeptics of socio-determinist reductionism will always find themselves outflanked by the appeal to a higher level of analysis or to the ultimate interconnectivity of every social institution with every other; this so that the socio-deteminist commentator may eventually run, headlong as it were, into the nexus between art and whatever else (it hardly matters what) is on the docket. Besides obliterating the precision (and thus the usefulness) of any analysis, this also buries the lead: if art reflects any such wider trends, this is because art is able to change much more quickly and thoroughly (one might also add perceptibly) than can formal political or religious institutions, whose inertial and sclerotic qualities are infamous and axiomatic. And the reason art is so flexible is obvious: first and foremost because of certain technical aspects, but also because it has become individualistic, and because this individualism enjoys, at least in the U.S., unusually strong protection both by entrenched legal structures and by long-standing social convention. The inertia and sclerosis of these conventions are, paradoxically, precisely what has kept art changing. The medium is the message indeed. But not very many people seem to understand the medium in the way that I am trying to get at here, and fewer yet want to hear the message.

Because everyone is in such a hurry to read art for its privileged information about the times, that is, to get something out of art, few evince any awareness of what exactly it is about art that makes it so malleable and responsive. Democratic individualism is certainly one piece of the puzzle. But this is also where artists ourselves must insist that the answer cannot simply lie anywhere and everywhere except for art itself. Rather, the very idea of art and its ability to shape-shift must also arise from what art is materially. And this is why, with apologies to the young LeRoi Jones, "all talk of technical application" is never merely "after the fact." Quite the opposite, in fact: by the time armchair sociologists descend upon the artwork, "technical application" has had much to say about the structure and function of whatever specimen is currently being dissected; that is, before the fact. And here is precisely where the socio-determinists betray their own commitment to teasing out the interconnectedness of everything: that is, by slinging charges of self-referentiality, self-indulgence, or, in Lasch's case, of "narcissism" in its technical psychoanalytic definition.


When Lasch invokes Hannah Arendt on the self- and sanity-bestowing aspects of being related to "the same chair and the same table," he is more than halfway to the passage out of the art-historical culture war between the sociological and the practical levels of analysis, as well as its ugliest proxy skirmish, the academic turf war between scholars and practitioners. The next step, I would propose, is to consider the relationship of person-to-chair and the relationship, say, of person-to-paint, person-to-lump-of-clay, or person-to-drum. (I say "person" and not "self" quite deliberately.) Already these latter relationships to the earliest of artistic media can be seen, at the very least, to be more pregnant, if not truly more "complex" than that of table-and-chair. In five-dollar language, the affordance and entrainment of the chair and of the drum are very different. The fact that you can (and that some do) bang on the chair or sit on the drum is notable, but ultimately it amounts to pennies against the five-dollar point. And if we expand our purview from the humble drum to, say, the concert grand accordion, we find relationships which as a function of the latter's objective complexity vis-a-vis general human abilities are both highly determined and highly esoteric, no matter the rigidity or the laxness of the wider social structure.


I have spoken above, and elsewhere, of socio-determinism as "an answer in search of a question." It is at least clear that many purveyors of such theories do in fact have questions in mind to which their "answers" are addressed. These are the questions which audiences (really they are customers in this case) started asking pretty much the moment art became individualistic rather than functional or tribal in nature, and which are bound to be asked again and again for as long as the regime of expressive individualism survives. When art became individualistic is precisely when artists began, as one genteel expression would have it, to surprise their audiences. (Note how much of Jones' book, for example, is devoted merely to debunking blind prejudice, and how he reiterates that "reference determines value.")

Here is a tentative psycho-deterministic assertion of my own: People who have been taken by surprise or otherwise had their expectations violated are often highly irritable for at least a short duration following the incident, and they often ask questions as they regain their composure. The difficulty here is that, in such terms as I have been using above, reception has not become individualistic concurrently with art; it has not, in other words, become a "practice"; and, as art has become ever more individualistic reception has only fallen further behind. One reason, perhaps, is that there is much self-enhancement to be had in affiliation with a large group of like-minded art consumers, whereas among artists this kind of self-enhancement is conventionally pursued through the individualist imperative to find your own voice. Lasch stoops the level of far lesser minds when he proposes that technicratic institutions undermine people's confidence in their own abilities, a thesis which has been de rigeur among avant-garde artists for far longer than it has been used, as Lasch does, as an argument against the progressive welfare state. I do not doubt that this happens, but I would question whether said institutions are either necessary or sufficient for it to happen, this in the same vein as I would question whether the tendency toward abstraction or representation on the whole follows quite so inevitably from this or that social condition. Certainly the opinions of three other teenagers can wreak devastation on the group's fourth wheel. The ideal of individualistic adulthood is that three people should not be nearly enough do this, and probably not twenty or a hundred either unless they are one's family, neighbors, co-workers, etc., and not unless the matter at hand is quite a bit more pragmatically urgent than artistic taste. In politics, commerce, religion, and so on, total intransigence and total malleability both are deadly, antisocial traits. In art they are unsightly, perhaps also misanthropic, but nonetheless something short of antisocial. No institution can take your receptive agency away from you unless you give it permission to do so. Reference alone need not determine value unless that is the only way you want it determined.

Rarely has there been such little trust in Western institutions as now. I imagine this means also that it has rarely been less likely that people will give these institutions permission to tell them what kind of art is worth making or consuming, let alone how to raise their children or take care of their teeth. On the other hand, if all it takes, even for adults, to fork over the entirety of their own entitlement to self-actualization and aesthetic judgment is to be the fourth wheel of a concertgoing peer group, then this decline of institutional authority will have only drawbacks and no benefits. We may, for better or worse, be treated, finally, to a natural experiment on the socio-determinist question, leading at last to conclusive results which, in their very conclusiveness, mark the end of expressive individualism. And when no one is exercising a legal entitlement, it tends to go away.


When it comes to pressures to conform within a group, we are up against something legitimately pervasive and pernicious for which there is copious scientific evidence. There is no socio-determinist theory of art, incidentally, which possesses a half the explanatory or predictive power of the more basic tendency for people to be cowed by the appearance of group consensus. Here Lasch is at his most useful and brilliant:
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 has become conventional to apply such insights to the production side of art, and to the question of what artworks mean. The most vulgar "instrumentalization" runs rampant here. What if we applied it (also, if not instead) to the reception side? What if we aspire to extend the circle of debate as widely as possible not just among artists but also among audiences? Like the more properly political debate which Lasch idealizes here, we are bound to be treated to much which strikes us as misguided, ill-informed, or indeed simply stupid. But it must also be said, following Lasch, that narrowing the circle to include only those who have already proven their acceptibility vis-a-vis what we happen to think is smart or stupid, this does not indicate favorably for the long-term prospects of the institution in question.

Notwithstanding the robustness of group dynamics, I imagine that somewhere along the way some accidental revolutionary in some psychology laboratory, somewhere, must have stuck to their guns even in the face of the staged consensus designed and mounted precisely to break their resolve. In experiments where the consensus is intentionally designed to be morally inferior to lonely dissent, this can only reflect glowingly on the dissenter. Yet the general phenomenon, if I may be permitted to treat it monolithically, of defiance of group dynamics, or of social environment generally, can of course cut either way. It suffices here merely to point out that the artist who deploys realism in a period of abstraction deserves neither admiration nor contempt for this action alone.

Jones at one point catches himself presenting too deterministic an account and adds a curious suggestion to the mix.
The Negro's music changed as he changed, reflecting shifting attitudes or (and this is equally important) consistent attitudes within changed contexts.
(Blues People, p. 153)
He does not seem to realize that the mere fact of this latter phenomenon being possible is the strongest indictment of his broader thesis.

One can conjure the most admirable and the most deplorable hypothetical instances of people's "attitudes" remaining the same even as their social surroundings change. The mere fact of consistency is itself neither virtue nor vice; it becomes one or the other only in relation to a whole constellation of other considerations.

1 comment:

Stefan Kac said...

Christopher Lasch

The World of Nations (1973)

Ch. XVII, "The Social Thought of Jacques Ellul"

"Marx never propounded any such thing as "dialectical materialism"—that was the contribution of Engels, who sought to establish the scientific credentials of Marxism according to the positivist standard of scientific truth that had come to prevail at the end of the nineteenth century. Marx was not a determinist; he did not deny the element of human will in history; he made no easy assumptions about the inevitability of progress; nor did he equate social progress with technology."

(p. 271 footnote)