Henry Van Dyke
I believe sometimes it is easy to get into the habit of believing that culture "should be" different than it is.
I'm troubled by the paradox of "quality". On the one hand, I accept that there is some hiearchy between what is "good" literature and "bad" literature, and what is "good" art and "bad" art. I am sometimes attracted to the notion that the distinction can be expressed as the difference between "art" and "not art" or "literature", and, as Truman Capote put it merely "typing".
As time goes on, though, I begin to wonder about the cultured distinctions we tend to make in our appreciation of the arts. I read a very intriguing piece by Christine Biederman in the Dallas Observer about the problem in arts criticism. I know Chris slightly, because I used to work with her husband, so I know that her "back story" is that she is an attorney who transformed herself into a writer of magazine pieces and arts criticism.
The article in question here may be found at http://www.dallasobserver.com/issues/2002-12-19/arts.html/1/index.html. Ms. Biederman points out a recent paper on the arts, entitled "The Visual Art Critic", which may be obtained for free download by visiting www.najp.org. This work, a survey of some 169 media art critics, gave Ms. Biederman pause.
The news on art criticism is no surprise. The news on art, for that matter, is no surprise. There are scads of art critics, most of whom are ill-paid, many of whom work only part-time. There are scads of artists, who produce far more art than the market demands as a commercial matter. As our United States government phrases it:
"Fine artists mostly work on a freelance, or commission, basis and may find it difficult to earn a living solely by selling their artwork. Only the most successful fine artists receive major commissions for their work. Competition among artists for the privilege of being shown in galleries is expected to remain acute. And grants from sponsors such as private foundations, State and local arts councils, and the National Endowment for the Arts, should remain competitive. Nonetheless, studios, galleries, and individual clients are always on the lookout for artists who display outstanding talent, creativity, and style. Population growth, rising incomes, and growth in the number of people who appreciate the fine arts will contribute to the demand for fine artists. Talented fine artists who have developed a mastery of artistic techniques and skills, including computer skills, will have the best job prospects"--from the Employment Occupation Outlook handbook, located at http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos092.htm.
Ms. Biederman makes a fascinating argument that arts criticism is too positive, and that critical standards should be more stringently applied. She invokes as an example of how criticism should be the equivalent of the character Addison DeWitt, the critic in All About Eve. Those who do not know this film can probably get by with knowing that he is the archetypal cynical, worldly, "runs with the wolves but has his own bite" vision of what a critic should be. Mr. DeWitt is jaded, but he knows what is good, and what is not.
It's a seductive idea, isn't it? It's tempting to believe in the notion that there is an intelligentsia which knows what is "good" literature, and what is "lesser" literature. It's a comfort to know the feeling that in the arts there is a "right" way, and a "wrong" way, and "major artists" and "minor artists". Never mind that the standards keep changing. Never mind that Hemingway has risen and fallen twice in my own short lifetime, although my entire lifetime has taken place after most of the critical interest in him had waned. Never mind that the rejuvenation of authors and artists seems to bear a strange synchronicity with the marketing of those artists and authors by major coporations publishing media works. If we cannot all believe in God, at least we can all believe in an aesthetic.
Ms. Biederman draws the fascinating conclusion that what we need is more poison-penned criticism--more "this is good" and "this is not". She feels that too much artistic criticism proves to be milquetoast cheerleading. I am sympathetic to the notion that anyone who reads or views or participates in the arts must have standards. I am also sympathetic to the notion that some artistic expression is better than other artistic expressions. But I wonder if we have not moved beyond a time such a meaningful "definition of standards" can take place.
Let's first say that it does not take too much research to lead one to question if American criticism has ever been anything but an elitist's game. Too many books and arts reviews have been written by insiders, in some cases friends of the writer or artist. But let's pass over the venality of people, for a moment, and look instead at what is the desired ideal.
I urge the position that the problem with arts criticism, and the crisis of the arts in general, arises because too much effort has been made to define a single vision of what the arts should be, minimizing the critic and the artist. The radical changes in the visual arts during the time period 1880 through 1980 taught us that so many assumptions we made about what art might be, whom it should motivate, and how it should be enjoyed, were just so limited. The result was that visual art was de-calcified, and new eyes could see new visions in new ways.
I am attracted to, and dabble in, the concepts inherent in the mail art movement. Like many people, I believed in those concepts before I knew what mail art was, and then was surprised and pleased to find a movement already existed with which I could so largely agree. The portion of mail art notions which resonate for me are the ideas of "art without judgment". I do not claim to speak for mail art, so let me tell you what my own vision of "art without judgment" means:
a. each person defines his or her own aesthetic, but goes the extra mile by also according full liberty to do so to each other person;
b. art is no longer the province of the museum or the gallery, but is instead the province of each person who wishes to participate in it or view it;
c. art no longer depends on the engines of commerce and criticism to exist, but is created by people for their own enjoyment and the enjoyment of their friends; and
d. art is accordingly avocational, as it is too important to be something from which one must earn a living. If one must earn one's living by one's art, one owes one's daily bread to other people, with different aesthetics, who do not understand one's art. Accordingly,
one should always work at fields other than art, and do art as an avocation.
In my view, one does not reject any art, but instead filters the art which one wishes to see from the art which one does not wish to see. It's not a particularly radical notion.
There are no real rules, either. If one wishes to sell or buy art, then feel free. The notion that it should be avocational is not intended as a fetter, but as a liberation.
If one wishes to read an art review, or attend a curated show, or worship the same art gods that the magazines worship, then feel free. There are many wonderful artists in galleries, and museums are worthwhile places. In short, my view of art and literature is not about guilt, or rejecting corporations, or rejecting academia. Those things are merely corollary mild positives that can indirectly result from following this view of the world.
I love to write book reviews on Amazon.com. I like that any ordinary reader who can fill out a routine form can memorialize an opinion on a book. I notice something as well. When a book I am considering offers six formal newspaper or magazine book reviews, and six reader reviews, I will read the reader reviews and skip the formal reviews. It's true that of the six reader reviews, two might be two line blurbs with no meaning. But it's also usually true that one or two of the reader reviews will tell me things that will really help me assess whether I will like the book. Too often the magazine reviews just try to show me that the reviewer is well read. The process of building an aesthetic is just too time-consuming to permit the writer to actually say he or she did or did not enjoy the book, and why.
I'm not saying that I do not draw quality distinctions in my assessment of the arts. Shakespeare is superior to routine sitcoms. I do not believe that machine-made sentimental landscapes are the equivalent of Gainesborough. But I do believe that life is too full of richness for the way in which some people approach the arts. I drive down a street in eastern Los Angeles and see a great mural of the Virgin of Guadulupe. Do I really need to think about its place in the arts, and the cultural backstory? Can't I just say "neat mural"?
I am admittedly very much a middle-brow, but it does seem to me that we all spend too much time sorting and defining and trying to figure out how to earn money from the arts. We've created specialist schools, to which nobody belongs. Everybody has their own particular little niche, which is the Only Right Way. As a result, we are all frustrated, because the world is not at all like our own small true vision.
I believe that literature, arts, and music were meant to be first and foremost recreations.
The tribute to people is that their recreations can mean so much to them. We went to have a fun evening out, and we discovered that we could glimpse our souls, just a little. But now the arts are a matter of High Capitalism and an anachronistic set of almost gnostic cults of Higher Criticism.
The result is that I meet people who "can't be artists" because they cannot earn a living from the corporate machinery, and they can't win favor from academia. But I am troubled that these two false choices are what defines an artist. I am not an Anais Nin fan, but I am alwys intrigued by how much of her life was spent doing work that nobody cared a penny for, but which she knew was her own path. I believe that people would be better off if they decoupled art from money and art from fame.
I know that my position makes one spend one's work days doing something other than one's fondest dream. But I believe that it is better to earn a living at a job that pays, and do one's art avocationally, than it is to fail to earn a living at art, a job which rarely pays. I also believe that there are far more creative people than markets for creative work. What should those people do? I think they should all create for friends, for family, and for themselves. Will my notion create a market for art? I doubt it. But will it create a salve for the immense frustration that people feel? I think so.
I guess I do not believe that Fate requires so many people to feel that they "must" be entitled to earn a living in the arts. Instead, Fate has an odd way of not seeming to support most artists at all. I do not know of any scripture where it is written that artists "should" be entitled to follow their dream. I do not know of any other calling in which market forces "should" be relaxed. The only way I can see to liberate oneself to follow one's dream is to liberate oneself from being dependent on art for money. One should earn one's money some other way.
What would the world lose if we had no art criticism? I'm not sure.