Wednesday, May 11, 2016

various people muse upon the animosity between a life of art and a life of sex with its consequences (i.e. any actual children)
 “You know, a lot of people glamorize the idea of being an artist. But of course then they find that actually it sucks and that no one gives a fuck and that they can’t succeed and they can’t monetize it and they can’t even get their work out into the world and it’s really hard and thankless and they’re spending untold hours at it and their friends are becoming successful in their chosen, normative fields and they’re like the weird loser who’s going to be a writer and it was so impressive when they were 23 and now they’re 33 and they still don’t have a book out … Well, sure, it’s great to say parenting is like my art and make beautiful Rice Krispy Treats with little candy unicorns on them or some shit. I mean, why not? I love Rice Krispy Treats. I have to finish this book in a few months, and it’s like hitting my head against a cement block. Give me the fucking Rice Krispy Treats.”
I knew this feeling too, but it didn’t feel like the full answer. I pressed her again on the question I’d been turning over in my mind: Why is it that writing (or really any creative pursuit) seems to be in such conflict with parenting?
She answered calmly, hardly raising her voice. “Because the point of art is to unsettle, to question, to disturb what is comfortable and safe. And that shouldn’t be anyone’s goal as a parent.”   
I don’t know why it took me by surprise when she said this. I knew it to be true. I recalled an interview I read with one of my first writing teachers, Deborah Eisenberg, in which she says,, “Art, itself is inherently subversive. It’s destabilizing. It undermines, rather than reinforces, what you already know and what you already think.” Oscar Wilde said it is the most intense mode of individualism the world has ever known. Hippocrates tells us “Art is a revolt.”
People make art, in other words, for exactly the opposite reason they make families. [emphases added]
In New York a few weeks ago, Kim Brooks asked whether creativity and domesticity are compatible in women’s lives. The relationship between art and parenthood is an evergreen topic that makes everyone—male or female, artist or not—feel a little bit anxious, for reasons specific to their life circumstances. (“I’m a bad parent!” “I’m not creative enough!” “Maybe I shouldn’t have kids!” “Maybe I should!”) I’m no exception; as a child-curious writer, I read this last salvo as soon as I saw the link. Target audience, c’est moi.

But there was one paragraph in Brooks’ piece, about the terrible husbands and dads of literary history, that I relished with particular glee. These “art monsters,” as writer Jenny Offill memorably termed them in her 2014 book Dept. of Speculation, are sometimes women, but they are most often men. The constraints they rail against are female, either explicitly or implicitly: requests for time and attention, petitions for financial support, or expectations of conformation to social norms. To such demands, the art monsters react poorly. “Baudelaire longed for escape from ‘the unendurable pestering of the women I live with,’ ” Brooks writes. “Verlaine tried to light his wife on fire … Faulkner’s 12-year-old daughter once asked him not to drink on his birthday, and he refused, telling her, ‘No one remembers Shakespeare’s children.’ ”
I don’t think it’s (just) the fascination of voyeurism that makes these anecdotes so compelling. I believe it’s a salutary exercise to look back at the bad marriages of the art monsters (and politics monsters, and sports monsters, and war monsters, and finance monsters) whose names are so prominent in our historical record. Remembering how the worst among them treated the women in their lives is one way to see the invisible labor—women’s labor—that went into nourishing, cleaning, arranging, regulating, and picking up the pieces at every turn. Like white space around a striking image, this reproductive work takes squinting to see. The work of maintaining is much less glamorous than the work of making, and leaves fewer traces. With this in mind, I propose the Historical Theory of the Bad Husband: as a good a way as any to see what’s hidden. ...
Over the last few months, here and there, some authors have been musing upon the tension between why "we" make art and why "we" make families.
That calm, matter-of-fact explanation that art is about unsettling and all that, that's nonsense.  It might seem like an appealing ideological perspective on the purpose of art and the artist for a contemporary Westerner but it's still nonsense.  Art can have as its aim instruction and entertainment.  It's not like we're not about to hit the 20th anniversary of Blues Clues this year. But when you have an ideology about what art is that is defined not by what it is but by what ideological/political stance it ought to be taking then you're going to set up a purpose for art that can be at odds with the social desires that can lead many to start families.  Now if you take seriously the idea that a life of art will involve not doing stuff conducive to starting a family then it should guide you--don't waste time dating or marrying or starting a family if what you want to do is art.  That's if you accept as given that ideological notion that art "must" subvert or unsettle.  But if you're open to the iea that art does any thing else you "could" choose to have a family life and pursue the arts, too. 
But there's another question in all that stuff, the awkward question of whether or not what you make as an artist ever gets monetized.  It would seem some artists are upset by the decreasing odds that the art they make can be effectively monetized.  This could be a great set of case studies as to whether art for the sake of art is really what these people want.  If you'd keep making art even if you not only never made money at it but also only did it at a loss then you're doing art for the sake of art.  If you stop making art at the prospect of not making money at it then you're not making art for the sake of art.  If you make art because you want the other political party to lose then you're a propagandist, probably. You might want to just run for office at that point.  Musicians have been known to run for  office here and there when they have relized that their political ambitions were of such nature that just writing songs wasn't going to cut it.  That too, can raise a question about how far we can really take this art for art's sake dogma. 
A whole lot of people who, if you present the paths of life to them as a choice between either making art vocationally the rest of their lives or having sex and family "might" choose sex and family. But pursuing both isn't that hard so long as we keep in mind the low odds of monetizing the art. 
Art isn't a revolt, not across the board.  Sometimes art is campaign propaganda for Sanders or Trump or Clinton or ... whomever.   Ever since I saw Miyazaki's The Wind Rises I've been struck by something inherent in his observation that film critics either felt was too indelicate to state outright or actually missed, if Jiro was an artist in how he worked as an engineer he was an artist serving an empire and if that central metaphor holds then all artists are in some sense servants of some kind of empire.  It's not even a matter of "if" this is the case, it's more simply a question of which empire you are the servant of.
When philosophers and artists in the 19th century talked about the greatness of art and aspired to have a total work of art that unified all the arts into an indisoluable whole how many of them were thinking of TV or superhero movies?  Quite possibly none of them. But that's something in the art for the sake of art dogma that can't account for what's happened in the last fifty years, just because we don't want soap operas or superhero movies to even "count" as art doesn't mean they haven't fulfilled the art by and for the people, it doesn't mean that art for the sake of art as a dogma can get around the fact that commodification is an inherent risk in such a dogma.  If there's no other reason for art than art itself then that paradoxically ensures that it's going to be a commodity. 
Reification, to get Marxist with the lingo, is unavoidable in the arts in a technological society.  Technology can't be neutral and no amount of reconditioning ourselves will change that an ideological commitment to art for the sake of art alone may unavoidably land us in art as commodity just as easily as it lands us in the realm of art as a kind of civic religion.  If for mainstream moviegoers the civic religion of cinema looks less like Godard and more like Captain America: Civil War some critics can complain about that but ... on the basis of what?  The critical establishments that have the luxury of defining what even counts as art are not always examining what they exclude and why they exclude it.
But it's worth thinking about in an era where cartoons that sold toys to children decades ago lumber on in the form of Michael Bay films.  If "grown up" art spends so much time subverting the assurances we got in the entertainments we watched as children then what if a solution for that is not to unsettle the bromides we got in art in our childhoods, what if the alternative is to avoid inculcating those bromides into children at the outset?  But this may be where we discover that it's easier to insist that the arts (for grown ups) should unsettle and subvert because the alternative to telling kids "you can be anything that you wanna be, and do anything that you wanna do" might look like, "Have realistic goals and make sure you socially adapt to the powers that be so you don't shorten your life."  We've got generations of people who have decided that that sounds too much like accommodating tyranny.  We don't really have the nerve to tell children that in a mass society your life doesn't really matter beyond those individuals who know and love you and that one voice doesn't change the world and it's not worth it to rock the boat since society is too big to know or care that you exist; so we'll keep telling them "you can be anything that you wanna be."  Why?  It's probably not really for the children, it's probably more for ourselves.  The children just get to belatedly benefit from this deception down the road ... maybe?
Unless we ... really believe the moral bromides about socialization and accomplishment we put in childrens' programming ... in which case we might want to ask why, if the purpose of art is to unsettle, we seem so uninterested in doing that in art for children.  But then maybe we can just say that nothing written for children could even be art by definition.  Well ... if the aim of art is to unsettle then there's Watership Down, perhaps. That'll traumatize kids and, ergo, be art.
But more likely the idea that art should challenge and unsettle seems like self-assuring nonsense.  Art "can" do that stuff, obviously, but the idea that that would be the main reason people pursue the arts across space and time seems silly.  Only in a culture as dedicated to the mass production of things like the iPhone would such an individualist, upset the Apple cart (but not really!) ideology make sense.  We may find it appealing to say one person can change the course of history if we've fooled ourselves into thinking that we constitute that one person. Maybe it's more comforting to fixate on the idea that one voice can change history because we'd rather imagine ourselves that one voice ... but history suggests that while individual voices can make memorable cases for specific causes the history of history seems to suggest that it takes a full blown mob to get anything worth remembering done.

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