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Art and stupidity

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Tuesday, Nov 1, 2005

On Thursday I had to wait a long time for the N train coming home, so I ended up reading much further into the then-current issue of The New Yorker than I ordinarily would have, finishing articles I would have ordinarily ignored. One of these was a review of a book about Hemingway’s narcissistic conduct during the Spanish Civil War, which he apparently saw as a personal opportunity to peacock his manly bravado rather than a political struggle for the soul and future of socialism. I had read For Whom the Bell Tolls a long time ago and loathed it, and in my own shortsighted act of effacing the political with the personal, decided the Spanish Civil War was something I didn’t need to know much about, that it was the modern paradigm for artists who wanted to overstep what I then saw as their bounds and get involved in politics in a useless and self-aggrandizing way. In other words the intellegensia’s involvement during the Spanish Civil War seemed to me a template for Bono. It seemed no accident that the Fascists won.


As a teenager I was influenced by the prejudices that were typical of American high school literature teachers, who preached that true artists rose above the fray of politics and contingent historical situations so that they could focus on transcendent eternal issues of the human spirit love, beauty and truth and all those other universal verities that excited my teenage mind. Accordingly, I hated nothing more than the “strident” rock musicians who sang about Reagan instead of how a girl broke their heart. The latter seemed relevant not only to me but to heartbroken lovers throughout time, whereas the former was relevant to no one since these musicians had no real qualifications to talk about the government in the first place. It took me a while to see that in fact the latter were quiescent clichЎs and the former was an attempt to introduce subversive viewpoints from the margins of society in such a way as to begin to change the status quo, to encourage people to think of issues that went beyond their own personal peace of mind and incite them to get involved with something and not mope around wallowing in oneself. The “transcendent” issues like love and truth are also historically conditioned; they are possibly the sites where the most significant battles are fought. The artist who presumes to soar above political questions and refuse to address the way politics defines such things as “love” and “the family” and “justice” and “spirit” are the ones most deeply conditioned by them, soaring above nothing, utter tools of institutional power making ultimately sterile cultural product.


Anyway, I decided to take Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia with me to read on my vacation. In the introduction, Lionel Trilling, apparently trying to salvage Orwell and make him safe for American readers who might be befuddled by the hero of the narrative fighting for a Communist cause, argues that Orwell had a sensibility that rejected abstract notions and reveled in the tangibility of things and the petit-bourgeois mentality that fetishized personal possessions. “Orwell came to respect the old bourgeois virtues because they were stupid that is because they resisted the power of abstract ideas. And he came to love things, material possessions, for the same reasonЉ. The very stupidity of things has something human about it, something meliorative, something even liberating.”


Really? So Trilling claims Orwell forwards the fundamental strategy of post-industrial capitalism that people can be kept properly complacent by being fed an ever-increasing array of consumer goods. Consumer goods short-circuit political consciousness; this is the foundation of American post-war economic policy, which has encouraged ownership and consumer spending en masse as a means of keeping citizens disengaged from politics. This is pitched as compensatory and “liberating”—the freedom to ignore politics and political questions of just distributions of wealth and power and think instead only about whether one’s heart is broken or whether one has the coolest car or TV set or whether one is pretty and youthful-looking enough. Trilling goes so far as to declare it “human” (which is perhaps why Althusser and his acolytes would go apoplectic at the thought of quasi-Marxist humanists like Trilling). It’s now the essence of humanity to covet private property and reject abstract thought and shared ideals.


My teenage perspective had its ultimate source in a similar rationale А my knee-jerk rejection of political art stemmed from the threat it posed to my enjoying consumer goods, the things that encouraged me to indulge my narcissism and ponder love and truth in total abstraction from society. Much like Hemingway in Spain. No wonder Hemingway’s apolitical attitude led him to insist on retrograde notions about gender and to posit contingent, sexist ideas as eternal truths. Collapsing political questions into personal ones—evincing an inability to regard political questions as anything other than refractions of one’s own psychological dilemmas— naturally results in reactionary thinking.


Anyway, there I was on the plane, trying to read Orwell in hopes of repudiating that selfish Hemingway attitude. And here is Trilling in the introduction arguing that Orwell ultimately vindicates him, that the personal the level of personal ownership and lack of abstract ideas А finally trumps the political, even in the most extreme circumstances, where the political is being fought about in the streets in a completely unambiguous way.


After I got off the flight in Seattle, I went to my friend’s new bakery. Across the street was a used book store, and there I bought Susan Sontag’s Styles of Radical Will. In the first essay, “The Aesthetics of Silence,” comes this sentence: “The truly serious attitude is one that regards art as a means’ to something that can perhaps be achieved only by abandoning art; judged more impatiently, art is a false way or (the word of Dada artist Jacques VachԎ) a stupidity.” There was that word again, stupidity, only here it was not the valiant stupidity of things anchoring the middle class but the stubborn stupidity of art’s materiality tripping up those in pursuit of spiritual transcendence that was invoked. According to the mentality Sontag traces here, art must reject being bounded in “stupid” material things in order to represent a true means to spirituality the same goal I thought it should have as a teenager. Since art has become irrevocably a commodity, artists who don’t want to be mere consumer-products manufacturers are constrained to making nothing, and they must live their lives as a refusal to participate in order to register a true artistic gesture. But isn’t that an extremely juvenile attitude, in the end? Utterly futile? The coincidence of seeing the word stupidity in both places made me connect the two and understand what Trilling may have been wanting to attribute to Orwell, an ability to appreciate how the material world is ultimately all there is to bind us together, that we must live any ideas of community or shared social aspiration through the medium of things, not the non-medium of supercilious silence.

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