a consensus under siege — a general rule turned too specific

June 7, 2012 § 5 Comments

Dear ________,

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.


§ 5 Responses to a consensus under siege — a general rule turned too specific

  • Brad Johnson says:

    A further thought, re: the higher price of non-popular / “high” culture. I wonder if a crucial difference is that there is an aesthetic ambition to incite on some level & in some form reflection – versus a hastened repetition. Where, in contrast, pop culture is fundamentally about enticing you to return to the next showing or next game. (Pop Art would be an obvious challenge on this point, as well. But even there I would maintain the repetition is not purely in the service of repetition, as is the case in seeing the new Transformers or the Backstreet Boys reunion tour, but an Idea about repetition. And where there are Ideas, there is reflection.) All this would enforce the point about rapaciousness, but severely undercuts the throwaway one here about price, which I concede was ill-conceived.

  • Guido Nius says:

    The idea that someone has to suffer (at least somewhat) in order to be able to get something which is really worth it is odd. Whatever else it may have going for it it displaces the merit from the thing of culture to the personal biographies of the cultivated.

    I prefer views wherein things of value are harder to obtain not because they are or need to be hard to obtain but because they reach beyond what has become easy to understand. Popular culture lags high culture then not mainly because the former is better than the latter but because it takes time for the new to get understood by the many because the new per definition us understood only by the few.

    This does not mean of course that there is bad popular culture just like it does not mean there is no bad high culture. The badness of either doesn’t lie in how many or few respectively enjoy it but in how far it does not help to increase the level of understanding that people enjoying it have.

  • Brad Johnson says:

    Guido, I think I agree with your final paragraph, but I’m not sure what you’re addressing w/ the comment about suffering in the first.

  • Guido Nius says:

    What I wanted to address, Brad, is that I read you as contending that in some way or other accessible/inaccessible, easy/hard is a criterion for cultural worth.

    Maybe I misread you and I’m sure I jumped from easy/hard to suffering without a proper explanation. Nevertheless, it’s a common conception that for things of value one has to be prepared to suffer. I think that’s a bad conception because it is not about what is of value but about the beholder’s experience.

  • Brad Johnson says:

    Guido, thanks for the clarification. I will hopefully repay the favor by saying quite explicitly that I would never say one must suffer before enjoying things of value. Perhaps you may, but I don’t think the suffering has much to do with the value — perhaps merely a context for the enjoyment, but one amongst many other contexts, I should think. Neither am I focusing on questions of access or difficulty. My final thoughts in the post, as well as the first comment I added a day or so later, are preliminary thoughts concerning one’s cultural consumption, and regard as problematic a consumption whose aim is in and for itself. One’s relationship to one’s appetite (& the appetites of others) is what I find more interesting than the efforts to gauge a particular work’s worth — consumption for the sake of consumption is directed at all manner of fetishized this’s and that’s, and includes even non-tangible experiences & memories.

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