a consensus under siege — a general rule turned too specific
June 7, 2012 § 5 Comments
There is a lot to that question you ask, “Do you think rational argument is possible, then, on whether or not x is a work of art, and how great of one?” On a practical, conversational level, I would say, yes, by all means. Indeed, if I may wade further into the language of calculated reason, will we not almost inevitably make such assessments and measurements? As with any conversation, though, the second step, the one just beyond the inevitability of the first, is the most precarious. This is because it is here that we set about about establishing on what precisely we agree. In the context of talking about art, whether we agree at all on the base for our aesthetic judgments.
Here are but a few I could think of, though I’m sure there are surely dozens more. Some will focus on an artist’s mastery of technique (though this seems less pervasive these days, no matter the art form). The Kantians among us (which includes me a great deal of the time) will focus on internal cohesion, the parts working toward a desired, intentioned end. Still others will focus on a work’s affective force, though this seems quite hard to measure in such a way as to be communicated in a non-affective way. And others still will look at stylistic schools, debts of intellectual gratitude, etc., and how things develop, regress, etc. A close kin to this one, though in many respects its rogue cousin with blood on her hands, is also the most common, whereupon we compare a work to whatever is being churned out (or, to be more precise, is being noticed) at any particular moment, and ask with an learned aloofness, “Is it relevant?”
The question and controversies surrounding the possibility of a canon seemingly know no end, do they not? Like you, I suspect most canons are inevitable. The inevitability of their emergence, I think, speaks as well to the inevitability of their evolution and extinction. Things become ticklish when it comes to their defense, against the rising tides and vocal masses. While every such resistance is also inevitable, it also highlights a consensus under siege — a general rule turned too specific. Consensus is never static, and certainly less so in this day and age. Localized canons, whether they be institutional, disciplinary, or region, seem to have a better chance at any kind of longevity than do truly expansive cultural ones.
Having said that, for the most part, I’m less interested in the canon(s) — their establishment or their defense — as I am their complex genealogies. I’m particularly interested in the losers along the way: the ones formerly canonical but are no longer. Or the ones now canonical who were lost dogs for far longer.
No, I won’t be baited into a conversation about the ills and evils of popular culture. I am unconcerned with what people consume — tastes abound — but am concerned by the rapacious appetite of this consumption. I’m not sure it can rightly be called gluttony, as the contemporary appetite for entertainment is never filled, and thus never in excess of its need. Popular culture has always been king throughout the ages, hence the phrase. What seems to distinguish present-day popular culture — again, I’m speaking of its consumption, not strictly its objects — is how accessibly it is met, and fear the effects it has on the demands we make of ourselves, others, and the world in general. (More should be said here, but I will relent for the moment.) It is likely that rapaciousness has always infected so-called high culture (a term I’m not fond of) as well, but there at least the pace and extent is somewhat diminished, if for no other reason than the relatively higher price for its consumption. In any event, suffice it to say that it is the pace of contemporary culture’s consumption, high and low, popular and unpopular, that disorients me, not least because I too can regularly be found gorging on it all.