Sunday, March 16, 2014

Art/Power 2: The Inevitability of Art

Discussant: Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including most recently Love Is the Law and The Last Weekend. His cultural journalism has appeared in The Smart Set, Village Voice, Clamor, and many other publications, and his short fiction in New Haven Review, subTERRAIN, Asimov's Science Fiction, and Best American Mystery Stories.

Optional reading: 9.5 Theses on Art and Class by Ben Davis.

JT: Your proposed topic/title, "The Inevitability of Art" had a certain resonance for me, i.e., the old debate on the inevitability (or not) of socialism/communism. Intentional?

NM: To a certain extent, but it also relates to capitalist notions of utility. Why bother? We see this among writers of science fiction, some of whom actually still insist, even after a century, that they're predicting the future. And writers of literary fiction often reminisce about the days when novelists had an influence on the culture. Naturally, there's the notion of "entertainment" too, which serves mostly to keep those who make the first two claims humble. Oh, and then there are people who suffer under the discipline of this or that would-be revolutionary party while trying to make art.

JT: As in, it's going to happen whether or not you approve, so let it be?

NM: Right. Art-making seems to be an emergent property of big brains and dextrous fingers. The existence of the Divje Babe Flute—our best guess is that it's a Cro-Magnon instrument—tells us that even shivering away in caves, people will expend some effort in art-making. Of course, anthropologists are very eager to assign ritual importance to this sort of art-making. (And that's me giving everyone a break. One can argue fruitfully that it's a Neanderthal flute!)

JT: Not to mention the evolutionary-psychologist approach that reduces anything not immediately conducive to securing nutrition into a kind of display for purposes of sexual selection.

NM: Art, I think is a "spandrel", to probably misuse SJ Gould's term. If art is "functional" for a society, or for conflicts within a society ("Arise, ye prisoners of starvation...") that came later.

JT: Ben Davis seems to be engaged in a certain kind of mutual justification: Of his socialism to the insular New York "art world," and of his career commenting upon said art world to his comrades in the ISO. In the process, he managed the singular accomplishment of writing a book whose justifications in both directions were neither interesting nor convincing.

NM: Well I thought they were interesting! Interesting that he was doing them, anyway. I liked the book; I thought it was funny.

JT: I kept being intrigued by the chapter titles, then disappointed by the contents.

NM: Davis should definitely develop a freelance consulting service titling works of art.

JT: For example, chapter 7: The Agony of the Interloper, I thought, "Here we're going to get an interesting meditation on the difficulties of being an artist or art critic of working-class origin!" Nope....

NM: Well, what would he know about that!

JT: He could talk to someone who knows about it!

NM: Did socialist publishers start publishing work concerned with the actual lived experiences of working-class people again? It also might damage Davis's art-world directed justification: much of the book entails describing this or that bit of revolutionary art and then appending to that a frowny face and the caption "Did Not Spark Revolution." It's like the CIA-backed creative writing programs tell their students: "write what you know."

JT: On the one hand, his observation of the intrinsically middle-class nature of the labor process involved in creating visual art aimed at an art world audience ("fine art" for lack of a better term) was on target. While he makes reference to the fact that most artists have to labor at working-class jobs while attempting to make the economics of small-scale commodity production work out for them, he never acknowledges the potential that this could lead to a bifurcated existence for those artists who don't come into it with a trust fund at the ready.

NM: And, of course, there are significant and increasing barriers for artists with working-class backgrounds, so they are harder to find. Often, class issues elide into race issues, and middle-class gatekeepers are more interested in performing anti-racism than they are in performing class politics.

JT: He does hold up William Powhida early on as an example of an artist from a working-class background. I don't know enough about Powhida to say whether that's accurate or not. Ultimately, though, most forms of artistic production do not treat lone "creators" very well. Visual art, and our preferred mode of creation, literature, are the exceptions, not the rule.

NM: Without knowing Powhida's background, except that he did a portrait of his father with the word "failure" under it, suggests to me that Davis is right.

JT: Though there are many ways of being failures, proletarian ways and petty bourgeois ways.

NM: Solidarity can be helpful. One reason why it is possible to earn some money writing science fiction short stories is because of solidarity between writers in that field. New writers are told, "Don't give your work away! Aim for the top-paying markets first!" Literary fiction writers are now reduced to paying to submit work to non-paying venues. And it's not simply a matter of a popular fiction genre meant to "entertain" versus literary fiction (which is thus meant to...?) since there are relatively few paying markets for crime/mystery short fiction as well.

JT: That could spiral off into a whole other set of questions about the decline of the short story as an economically viable form of writing for writers and publishers alike.

NM: It is no surprise that one of the major figures in getting SF writers paid was Damon Knight, a leftist graduate of a WPA Art Center, and a Futurian—an early group of leftist fans who soon became professionals.

JT: I've been troubled, though, by the recurrent, rarely examined notion that SF/F are a somehow more "working-class" subset of the writing universe. Not that there aren't plenty of cases of working-class people who've gone on to have careers in that area, but also plenty who, by virtue of their education and family background, could likely have settled into a middle-class existence had they not caught the writing bug. I include myself in that.

NM: I don't know how common that idea is, but of course who calls themselves working class except for middle-class socialists. But if there's truth to it, it may simply be because SF (and other genre fiction writing) is not supported by the state. Literary fiction, almost all of it, is. And as anyone who actually has any money will tell you, the best way to succeed in business is to get the state on your side somehow. (There's a reason that many right-libertarians are either poor as churchmice, hypocrites, or IT professionals for third-tier state universities.)

JT: The solidarity helps, but it does seem that the economics of SF/F are such that even a prolific writer with good relations with existing "pro-rate" paying venues would not be able to secure the equivalent of a living wage by writing short fiction. To the extent that the phrase "Golden Age" has any meaning beyond nostalgia for a lily-white, male-dominated past, it refers to a brief period wherein that might have been possible.

NM: Oh, short fiction is a sideline, like selling decoy ducks at a flea market. Though even into the 1970s "Always write short stories" was advice one would hear, because it was relatively easy to sell short stories to Hollywood. Not that movies or TV shows would get made, but option money is always a thrill. But it's not as though most people are spending forty hours a week writing short fiction either. When people were, there were markets to support such, and primitive production processes (manual typewriters, carbon paper) that made it so. The equivalent to writers who made their livings in the slicks or pulps are writing TV programming today.

JT: Which is itself a proletarianized production process, at least as far as I can tell from descriptions of the "writer's room".

NM: Yes. Can't have workers owning even intellectual capital, after all.

JT: So we have a situation where the forms of artistic production most often experienced--television, film, music--and even some that are not often experienced--theater, dance--have fundamentally cooperative productive processes. And yet the vestigial couple/few forms which retain some connection to a pre-capitalist, artisanal past--the visual arts, and those writers who keep banging our heads against short fiction, poetry and maybe the novel--are the accepted forms for understanding the figure of "the artist".

NM: And theater/dance get shuffled off into the idea of socially necessary rituals that just happened to survive and become entertainments in the way that membership in secret societies, or public mass circumcisions did not.

JT: Or public executions, though I'm sure those will have a comeback.

NM: A friend of mine is doing her dissertation on the musickers of Jamaica—it is interesting that she includes musicians, DJs, and dancers (from the audience) as musickers, and shows that music-making can lead to integration into the arts economy that way. Dancers being seen on YouTube vids and then getting jobs dancing behind some pop superstar here in the states.

JT: Davis did make a point, in his usual "hur-hur, didn't bring about a revolution" way, about the ephemerality of artists' collectives.

NM: I'd bet that many artist collectives last about as long as a Trotskyist group of over 50 people last before splitting.

JT: Indeed. It begs the question of whether there are some forms of artistic creation for which the individual--if not the atomized, autonomous subject of bourgeois myth--is a necessary precondition. Scientific writing has worked out a more-or-less effective way to present collective writing, yet no one would suggest that it is a source of potential aesthetic pleasure. Most efforts at "collective" authorship seem to stall out at 2 authors, and rarely are those even lastingly readable.

NM: Well, there are personal filmmakers, one-person theater performances (mimes, busking) etc. And authors write individual works mostly by themselves, but there's collaboration within and across generations, even to the point of someone like Chaucer deciding to really enthusiastically start using the -ing suffix, and then we all get to have it later.

JT: With few exceptions though (usually in the realm of highly experimental film, e.g. Maya Deren) film is a collective act, albeit with alienated collectives bossed about either by prickly auteur-directors or autocratic producers. With writing, we can admit that, for example, it's Shakespeare's world and we're all making noises in it. But even if we gathered together all the Greek-American ex-Trotskyist writers in the world and said, "let's write a novel together," would the end result find an audience outside that collective?

NM: Only the members of our former groups, eager to see if they're in the book!

JT: And our mothers.

NM: Which brings to mind another horribly alienated form of collaboration: the artist under discipline. Have you seen this? Talk about autocratic producers. "Try to work in the coal miners, Corny! We got two contacts up there in northern Ontario!"

JT: I did. It's not an accident that I did not write any fiction worth attempting to get publish until after emerging from discipline. Not that the particular grouping I was affiliated with would have demanded editing rights. But when one's social relationships with people outside the grouping are mediated through the exigencies of a certain type of discipline, it becomes difficult to observe human behavior & be able to convincingly replicate it in fictive form.

NM: I guess we won't have to scour China MiĆ©ville's work for traces of SWPism anymore—clearly he was always good enough to avoid most of that sort of thing. And discipline is internal: how many leftists have you met who really try to squeeze whatever their artistic interest is into their politics. Revolutionary cha-cha dancing and macrame!

JT: One of the more intriguing revelations to come out of the SWP collapse was Anna Chen talking about being put under discipline to do press work for China MiƩville. Until the point at which he began to question the dictatorship of the SC, it was judged to be in the interests of "the Party" to let him (and apparently Richard Seymour as well--who got away with not attending branch meetings for years on end) have a very long leash and attain a certain level of fame. I think that's actually consistent with a certain reading of Gramsci current in both the British SWP and the U.S. ISO: starfucking as revolutionary praxis, dressed up as "hegemony." It works even more smoothly when you are generating the stars yourself.

NM: There's Romanticism in art and revolution. Who wants to read a revolutionary memoir detailing week after week of unsuccessful newspaper sale. The march through institutions is an odd and interesting thing; easy enough for an artist to become enamored by. But also potentially useful—who knows where the periscope of the Red Submarine will rise above the waves next.

JT: What I have actually found more stifling is that the hot-house atmosphere of a small group--and let's face it, all left groupings in the Anglophone world are small--produces modes of behavior that would be implausible to the outsider.

NM: Did you ever wear a "class struggle cap"?

JT: No.

NM: Supposedly it's a dockworkers cap? My father just retired from the piers, as you know. Never seen him wear one! (They wear toques, because it's cold outside.)

JT: You can see examples in On the Waterfront. It's absurd.

NM: Yes, we should definitely take our cues from Elia Kazan!!

JT: There's a particular style of oratory, echoing Trotsky by way of Max Shachtman by way of Sy Landy, that I mastered. I could give a very detailed description of it in a story. If I then submitted that story anywhere, editors would say, "Nobody talks like that!" Meanwhile, the likes of Said Seyrafiezadeh get published in the New Yorker, and people feel qualified to write "communist" characters based on Dostoevsky's The Possessed and a few quotes from the Manifesto.

NM: Anyone get it right? I thought Lethem mostly did in Dissident Gardens.

JT: Mostly. What I think he missed were some of the dynamics of intergenerational transfer. Which is odd, because he's admitted that he was basically writing about his own grandmother. Don't trust anyone's descriptions of their parents.

NM: And this brings to mind the question of entertainment: what is Lethem doing? Adjusting the story for the sake of entertainment, trying to be political in his own way—now that Obama is Karl Marx the CP is nostalgia, like a soda fountain or a slide rule—, or just working out his own family history as a literary writer is supposed to do. There's certainly an idea that popular fiction should be apolitical, or at least avoid sending those terrible "messages" people see in their alphabet soup.

JT: Who would find characters like Rose entertaining? She's not enough of a caricature to be entertaining as anti-communist mockery. To find her entertaining you have to recognize her. To recognize her, you either have to have been in the orbit of the organized left, or be a New Yorker. And the latter is what, I think, he and his publisher were banking on. A person may not really know anything at all about left ideologies, or Jewish culture, or the historical geography of New York City. But to be considered cultured in the United States, you need to be able to pretend that you do. Lethem is providing a relatively easy to swallow dose of cultural capital, with little danger that someone would take any of the ideologies detailed seriously enough to act upon them.

NM: I just wonder if there are enough people aboard Red Submarine, and in New York, to float Lethem's novel. After all, novels aren't mass entertainments—Lethem is pretty famous, but he's not Nora Roberts. Is he famous enough to get 90 percent of that audience, plus whatever readers just buy whatever he does, and is that enough to "work." That's part of what makes art an inevitability—we'll do it whether or not it is socially necessary for either a political goal, or to turn a profit for some publisher, film studio, or gallery owner.

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