Art and Culture:
I would like to preface by stating a truism that can provide a good framework for the discussion. Art and culture are going to be in many ways reflections of the dominant institutions in a society. I do not think this is controversial. The dominant institution in our society, the one that shapes our politics, our economy and our very beliefs, is the corporation. Owners take stake in the creation of an artificial entity whose sole purpose is to create a good as efficiently as possible in order to sell the good on the market. Thus, any socially valuable thing is captured and sold in the marketplace for profit by corporations. Not for creation, not for pure pleasure, not for the fair allocation of socially necessary goods and services, but for profit. Stating and understanding this principle is a crucial first step and much can be drawn from it.
In the world we live in art becomes not a pure expression of human creativity nor a tool to critique societal arrangements; but rather, a good that reinforces ownership, extreme inequality and authoritarian work relations. Art becomes propaganda. And it does so in two ways. One, it serves to create artificial wants and a culture of materialism, so that there is a market for goods. The creative human endeavors of song, dance, and writing are debased into commercial goods to be sold in the marketplace. Our art becomes entertainment. Hence, we have pop music, commercials, and sitcoms. That is, truly inane and superficial art that serves the needs of corporations and not human beings. Two, it seeks to create and reinforce belief systems. Good journalism becomes entertainment centered around personalities and false assumptions. Music becomes studio produced frill that empathizes looks and dress over quality. Movies sell fantasies that have no basis in reality. And all of this produces a sort of celebrity worship. The internet, instead of a tool for organizing, is used for ‘following’ the rich.
It is a frightful and terrifying irony. What makes us human is our ability to create and express ourselves in novel ways that reflect our human experience. Art seeks to connect and say something. This very drive is taken by corporations and turned into a good that is used against us to control our values, beliefs, and ways of thinking. What once made us human, begins to make us inhuman.
Our academics suffer the same fate as our art. What could be free creative inquiry and human self-expression is turned into doctrines that reflect the interests of state capitalism. The ones that do it the best, are the ones that become the most esteemed within their fields. In the sciences the first thing your professors will ask you is why they are wrong, in the liberal arts, the first thing they will tell you is why you are wrong.
To take a personal anecdote for example, I once had a class that was a seminar on the politics of revolution. It was a pretty neat sounding class and we read up on the usual stuff: Weber, Mark and Wallerstein to name a few. My professor and I would discuss things and I was very engaged with the materiel. Now I remember my professor telling me something that pretty much sums up the college experience. We were talking about world system theory, capitalist imperialism, peripheries, semi-peripheries, etc…and he said “now remember this guy is not objective, he has a bias towards capitalism”. At the time I believed him, but as time passed, it hit me. Wow! That was it in a nutshell. In the academics if your work does not fit within the accepted framework of empirically false assumptions, you are pronounced an interested observer and if you go too far you may be deemed unprofessional. Or fifty years ago, I dare say, a communist. And keep in mind, this is just stating facts, you aren’t making moral conclusions based on them, for that would be pure heresy warranting immediate excommunication.
Most students have been educated so well that this thought never occurs to them. They simply don’t know how to think for themselves and this sort of stuff just gets a nod, maybe an askance look at their smart phone, and in time they learn to repeat the same things. To analyze an institution and state plain facts is biased nowadays. Of course, attention and focus on particulars aspects of institutions can be a result of bias, but this is marginal and easily identified. The hard truth is that when you state facts that are not part of the state capitalist religion you are biased. Or in colloquial terms “one of those nuts.” In all of this (though it never really left completely) I see a troubling trend away from the enlightenment ideals of self discovery and critical inquiry and back towards a subservience to power and looking to authority for the ‘truth’.
Now as the proverbial writer in the room I would like to say something about literature. But first, I think a distinction is in order. There is the propaganda aspect of liberal arts that I have outlined above, but there is also within this, an institutional aspect as well. The social sciences and the arts have spent great energy in creating coursework, fields of study, and language that are very sophisticated to the untrained. It is like an impenetrable wall of fancy language and analysis, professors make an entire career on studying some writers book. In the sciences there is a need for teachers, due to the fact that it is highly technical and guidance at first can be necessary, as well, there is a group aspect to science, where the students and teacher work together on new research programs and the lot. In the liberal arts, this is simply not the case, but crucially, they would like to make you think so.
Take a look at any literary magazine today or browse the shelves at your local book store and pick out the latest prize winner and flip through the pages. You will see a strange amalgam of words. In the academic circles they use terms like meta-theory, post-modern, post structuralism or post-whatever to describe their endeavors. Styles such as slip stream, bizarro, and fabulism crop up like unruly siblings. First person narratives that are more expositions than writing and dripping with purple self loathing. While I will concede that everyone has their bias when it comes to literature based on ones personal preferences, I do see a general trend among the more academic circles that is self-serving and institutionally based.
With the huge amount of MFA programs in the country, the teachers and administrators have an institutional role of self-preservation. While there is no ‘theory’ to writing, they would like to make you think so. It keeps them employed. It keeps them selling books on writing. Seminars and workshops that prey on the young and impressionable who simply want to express themselves. They use fancy language and arm chair analysis as if there is some metaphysics to writing. Every year this complex pumps out thousands of wannabe writers. The irony is that after all their formal training, they are about as backwards to a writer as one can get. The writing looks more like free-verse poetry than literature. The emphasis becomes more on sounding intelligent with the use of poly-syllabic words and writing in a style that is unconventional or what they term “experimental.’ I look at some of the work in the literary magazines and read it, but partway through, I find myself asking “what are they talking about” and of course as intentioned, the reply is that the work is too complicated or deep for my own mind to comprehend its sheer utter brilliance.
The germ of inspiration for this essay was me coming across a story in the New Yorker. Now this magazine is not one of the university presses, but much of the work they publish reads like it. As I mentioned above the story read more like free verse poetry, in fact, in my mind that is what it was. It certainly was not literature. I said to myself, ‘well this is what art does, it tries to innovate on the old techniques to create new aesthetics.’ But when art is done solely with this purpose, one loses the actual transcendent ability art can have. And this is what I find in many of the literary magazines. They put so much emphasis on the style, they lose what is actually important in the writing. The ability to set a time and place, a mood, characterizations, philosophical overtones, and the consequent insights that comes from this are lost. The modern American literary movement of the early 20 century is very admirable, in that, the writing sought to create a picture of reality. This is typified by the ‘fly on the wall’ style that Hemingway had mastered. With Faulkner, however, who in my opinion was highly over stylized, the literary movement became obsessed with technique. But he too still worked within the ‘fly on the wall’ narrative. (My suspicion is that this was in some parts a reaction to the introduction of cinema).
Today much of the writing is still living in the shadow of Faulkner and is further infused with post-modern trends, which in effect, comes out as nonsensical overkill. I truly do try to appreciate the stuff but find myself after reading it, not really able to recall what it was I just read. Even with Faulkner, who I do regard highly based on a few of his works, I find that I don’t get a clear sense of time and place. Writing that truly transport the reader and gives one the ability to remember what you read as if you would remember actual events that happened to you is when the writing is serving its purpose well. But again this is presupposed on the assumption that writing is to create a picture of reality. My own suspicion is that the literary writers see reality as a confusing mess, and therefore, their own writing comes out that way, particularly, the post-modern schools. (A consequence of propaganda no less)
So without getting to far off topic, much literature and art, as culture generally, are the product of two different aspects of state capitalism. One is that most literature seeks to be primarily apolitical, or if political, it operates to reinforce state capitalist doctrine. A common theme in most literature is that there is something inherently wrong with humankind and this is why there are so many evils in the world. It incorporates the intellectual cultures, but through the lens of personal experience. Many Pulitzer Prize winning authors some to mind, but I won’t name names. Second is that the style of writing and the analysis that goes into it reflects the need of the universities to justify their existence. It’s analogous to our popular culture where art is produced as a good.
I think the above two principles provide a good context for much of the literature that comes out through the universities literary programs and for the popular culture that we see everyday. What we need is a dramatic transformation of our ways of social organization to take place, so that art and culture may flourish unimpeded. But this is two way street. The transformation must first start with us as individuals, using art as a tool to bring about this very process. My advice to a young artist would be to remain true to your own voice. Simplicity above all else. Think of your audience. Is it academic elites are the man off the street? Substance over style and check your ego at the door.