12 December 2021

Lasch—A Refusal To Find Patterns

Christopher Lasch
The Minimal Self (1984)
In the visual arts at least, the celebration of selfhood, as exemplified by abstract expressionism in the late forties and early fifties—the assertion of the artist as a heroic rebel and witness to contemporary despair—had already come under critical attack by the time Roth published his diagnosis of the literary malaise in 1961.
(p. 132)
I know not whether
the celebration of selfhood, as exemplified by abstract expressionism
can fairly be equated to
the assertion of the artist as a heroic rebel and witness to contemporary despair
and I also have my doubts as to whether the aesthetic and technical terrain opened up by the AbExers could have no other use or meaning but this to all individuals and societies which now exist or which might exist in the future.

Perhaps I have not paid nearly enough attention to the actual critical discourse surrounding abstract expressionism if I have previously viewed this kind of art as a sublimation rather than an exaltation of the self. I still would question whether any such exaltation really, truly survives the artist-audience transaction in absence of great extra-aesthetic efforts to ensure this. For Lasch and many others, quite a lot of this self-exaltation was and is thought to have survived, and dominated, to the point that it is still talked about in such terms as above; but I am led to question whether this was a matter of successful communication in the art-colloquial sense, or whether it was merely the result of well-executed public relations.

From Mark Greif's review of Louis Menand's The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War (via Milo):
Menand zooms in and out between individual egomaniacs and the milieus that facilitated their ascent and profited from their publicity. The results...are enchanting singly but demoralizing as they pile up. All of these enterprises look like hives of social insects, not selfless quests for truth or beauty. Menand is a world-class entomologist: He can name every indistinguishable drone, knows who had an oversize mandible, who lost a leg, who carried the best crumbs. The caution is that you must not seek lasting value in their collective works. From this vantage, the monuments really are just anthills.
If this damning assessment is at all in the ballpark, then it seems that publicity, not content, has become king. And at that point, the "selfless quest for truth or beauty" is, in the immediate term, not a matter of breadth or restrictedness of perspective, nor of any particular paradigm of "beauty" or "reference." Rather, it is entirely a matter of breaking with the current conventions of self-promotion, which may well, painfully enough, mean breaking with people and institutions who enforce them.

An even earlier diagnosis, quite similar to Roth's in its intuition of the difficulties confronting imaginative activity but very different in its upshot, suggests why a minimal art rather than an expressive art has commended itself to those who despair of expressing the inexpressible.
We're sorry, the despair you are trying to reach is no longer at this number. Expressing the inexpressible? YUCK! How about worrying about what you can control, not about what you can't? Surely that advice is not too new-age or survivalist to be taken seriously?
[Merce Cunningham]...urged artists to abandon effects based on climax... A society in crisis, he argued, did not require, as it might have appeared to require, an art concerned with crisis, an art dependent on the sense of climax. ... Not a model of lucidity, this statement nevertheless stands today as a more accurate forecast than Roth's of the direction art would actually take in the coming years: an immersion in the ordinary, a deliberate effacement of the artist's personality, a rejection of clarifying contexts that show relationships among objects or events, a refusal to find patterns of any kind, an insistence on the random quality of experience, an insistence that "each thing can be and is separate from each and every other."

... effacement...

... rejection of clarifying contexts...

... a refusal to find patterns...

... insistence on the random quality of experience...

While it's not hard to see how these maneuvers could, maybe, be rooted in the psychic response to troubled times, it just isn't tenable to ignore the possibility of broader utilitarian value here nor how overdue its discovery has been. I want to suggest, subject to further elaboration, the hypothesis that there is such value, limited as it may seem in comparison to the broadest consideration of psychosocial development such as Lasch seeks to undertake here. I would also propose that this hypothesis is testable in the properly scientific sense; this because the four items above can in fact be isolated and pinned down well enough to permit it. Conversely, I would question whether the hypothesis of a causal nexus between the appearance of such quite specific ideas and the appearance of any particular macrotrend at the level of "society" is in fact testable, this because it depends, ultimately, upon too many subjective impressions and not enough upon objective observations. (In part this is a matter of the construct "society" being, as Lasch himself might have pointed out in another context, too broad to be useful for this particular purpose. But it is also a matter, more simply, of different people responding differently to the same social stimulus.)

These proposals say nothing of course about what may actually be true. I mean merely to raise the possibility that certain types of observations about the relationship between "art" and "society" may carry more "scientific" or "positivist" or "rational" water than others. The observation that "we analyze only what we are able to analyze" looms large; there certainly may be truths which are undetectable via the properly scientific tack of testing a hypothesis.
The statement that reality outruns the creative imagination conveys only part of the truth we need to grasp in order to understand the contemporary artist's predicament.
We're sorry, the predicament you have dialed is no longer at this number. I mean, not in our capacity as "artists" at least.
Reality itself is no longer real in the sense of arising from a people's shared understanding, from a shared past, and from shared values.
See previous post re: "shared"-ness.
More and more, our impressions of the world derive not from the observations we make both as individuals and as members of a wider community but from elaborate systems of communication, which spew out information, much of it unbelievable, about events of which we seldom have any direct knowledge. ... The only evidence that would confirm or refute our own experience is the evidence of a people like ourselves, people who share a common past and a common frame of reference.
Again, the irony is that to rely only on people like ourselves for evidence of anything in particular is itself quite the radical restriction of perspective, this time in life rather than in art. And again, even at the village level where skin-deep "diversity" ceases to exist, what of inner diversity?

Here is another provisional proposal to be elaborated: Oddly enough, it is Steven Pinker's retrenchment from "the modern denial of human nature", e.g., which leads to a conception of inner diversity as irreducible; whereas in the radical constructivist view he attacks, one expects the homogeneity of the village to be reflected, via the primacy of "nurture," in a terrifying homogeneity of perception and experience. In the Pinkerverse, variability is bounded, it is true, and bounded quite a bit more severely than in the constructivist view; but what variability there is is itself an essential fact. So, while so-called "human nature" can be called into service (as it often is) to show that, say, twelve-tone music works inherently against rather than with human faculties, or that "people think in stories," or that vision is our dominant sense, there is even so an irreducible range of variability with which to contend, and which, in league with what leeway even Pinker concedes to "nurture," makes possible all manner of bizarre exceptions to such art-axioms as the Freudian Lasch (and many others) have put forward. Such "exceptions" are no reason to deny the "rules." The point, rather, is that art is all about the exceptions.

In such a view as Lasch's here, this primacy of the exceptional stops precipitously at the interface between artist and audience. It is extended only to artists and not to audiences. This is the hidden elitism concealed in the ostensible anti-elitism of commentators who rely on any such monolith as "human nature" or "shared experience" for their anti-modernist sanctimony. It also suggests, subject of course to my own caveat above about such broad drawing of causality, a crystal clear reflection of the capitalist/commercial orientation, which shines forth even in our more aloof intellectual circles, and anywhere else mass appeal is elevated to a moral imperative via one-dimensional more-is-better logic. Making art for "exceptional" audience members, once we think to use this wording, no longer suggests unavoidably the "self-indulgent" or "self-referrential" streak to which it is customarily attached. It now means exactly what it says. I for one will live or die with this as a moral imperative; and if it kills me then I will have died of respect for my audience, not contempt for them.
The images transmitted by the mass media usually refer, on the other hand, either to celebrities admired precisely for their ability to escape the constraints of everyday existence...or to a hypothetical norm or average arising not from shared experience or even from the experience of "representative men" but from demographical analysis of a select statistical population, audience, or market.
(pp. 132-133)
Great point here. This norm or average is, in this way, something like a rationalist as against empiricist construction of reality, complete with all of the drawbacks but, owing to its construction by interested commercial actors rather than unwitting microsocial agents, few or none of the benefits. We need not look too far to find this demographical streak invading art and life alike: the idea of mass-appeal-as-moral-imperative, to which I refer above, is the inevitable and insidious result. The demographical orientation underlies popular and commercial art pretty much by definition. Any such works which persevere beyond the immediate moment for which they have been designed do so in spite of this, not because of it. This is why we also need "self-indulgent" artists to make other kinds of work: for all who fall through the demographic cracks.

The mass media make an earnest effort to tell us who and what we are, indeed to generate a spurious sense of national identity, but they do this by telling us which programs we like to watch, what products we like to buy, what political candidates we plan to vote for... Demographic analysis is a poor substitute for reality, but since it is the only reality we have in common, we become increasingly reluctant to challenge it by citing our own singular, idiosyncratic perceptions of the world, let alone to hope that we can "impose" our idiosyncratic perceptions on others.
Incidentally, the problem with socio-determinism in art criticism is precisely that Demographic analysis is a poor substitute for reality.

If the radio, the camera, and the television set merely usurped the representational function of the arts, as often alleged, it would be hard to account for the growing feeling that even an abstract and inward-turning art stands little chance of success in an environment already saturated with images and information. Modern recording equipment monopolizes the representation of reality, but it also blurs the distinction between reality and illusion, between the subjective world and the world of objects, and thus makes it increasingly difficult for artists to take refuge even in the "sheer fact of self," as Roth puts it. The self is no more a sheer fact than its surroundings.
(pp. 133-134)

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