Ia 1971 article in ARTnews, Linda Nochlin, a feminist art historian, asked a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad question: “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Her question has been ringing in our collective ears ever since. And it’s ringing especially loudly this year.
Here is Nochlin’s killer line: “The fact, dear sisters, is that there are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cézanne, Picasso or Matisse, or even, in very recent times, for de Kooning or Warhol.” She went on to explain why:
The fault, dear brothers, lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education … everything that happens to us from the moment we enter this world of meaningful symbols, signs and signals.Our very idea of greatness, of genius, she argued, is bound up with manliness.
The article proceeds from there, assuming that the nature of the question "why have there been no great women artists?" is bad. It can certainly be taken as a bad question but there are many ways in which it could be shown to be a bad question.
If gender is a social construct the reason there may be no great women artists is that the social construction of gender could be construed as inimical to the possibility of making art to begin with, , let alone great art, whatever greatness may be.
But ... what if the problem is in the definition of "art"? What if art for the sake of art is the problem? What if the reason there have been no great women artists is that within the social confines of femininity in Western cultures female creativity had to be directed toward some actual, real world practical end? At the risk of pointing out the obvious, raising children who survive into adulthood could be an artistic and creative discipline of the sort that never gets recognized as an art because "art" in Western contexts presupposes that a human life can't be a work of art.
That's just one possibility to consider and many women today don't want to get into the realm of the art of raising children anymore than someone who is interested in ceramics doesn't want to get into colored pencil drawings or painting with acrylic. Now obviously the analogy breaks down at all sorts of levels and seems odious but it may be worth articulating for precisely its odious side--there are women who find the prospect of raising children altogether loathesome. There are women who want very much to raise children. They ideally may be able to embrace either pursuit in contemporary society.
But then there's this matter of what "great" is and greatness in pedagogical contexts tends to be tied up with questions of canonicity and academic requirements. And, of course, art.
The question of what is at the core of art for the sake of art has been examined countless times already. Ted Gioia's riff has been that he wants to promote not so much art for art's sake but art for people's sake and this seems to get at a long-running complaint the music historian Richard Taruskin has had about the ideological claim that art should be for the sake of art, that the Matthew Arnold inspired "art religion" does nothing to safeguard that art concerns itself with the lives of others. The humanities do not humanize and the surest proof to us that they do not is the fact that, if the humanities DID humanize, how was it that the societies whose cultural legacies became the Western canon afflicted more atrocities on the world in the 20th century than we can begin to fathom?
Now supposing we stick to the idea that greatness is still a workable concept, Diane Ragsdale asked over at her Artsjournal blog, "What is our `great work' in light of this election?"
You can pretend that the idea of greatness is impossible or that it doesn't exist or that you don't believe in greatness. You can be an idiot about that. The slogan that insists upon making America great again seems to have resonated with some people.
or maybe saying that America already is great resonated with people and that's why it looks as though Hillary Clinton won the popular vote ...
in spite of voter suppression, maybe?
although ... the Electoral College vote decided the election. So now there's some talk (again) of abolishing the Electoral College, the irony of which seems hard to miss when people objected to statements from Trump to the effect that he'd recognize the legitimacy of process if he won. This principle can be inverted without losing its potency, it's possible to regard a democratic republican electoral process as only being legitimate if it got you the result you wanted and regarding it as inherently corrupt under all other circumstances. It would seem that on sides red and blue we've got some people who only consider democratic processes to be truly, legitimately democratic if the results are wanted.
So, back to the question of the "great work" for artists in the era of Trump.
From where I stand, those working in nonprofit professional cultural organizations across the US—we in the so-called Creative Class—are, without a doubt, among those who did not understand our country, its culture, or its values. If we are shocked and outraged by the election results this only seems to prove the point. And this lack of understanding is disappointing given that art can be—arguably, should be—the way we share with one another what it means to be human (a powerful and democratizing notion.
There's some thoughts about arts funding and arts organizations and serving the public. The question of whether or not the Western concept of art in its contemporary form is really a democratizing thing seems given. But is it? Is it actually a given that the arts are intrinsically democratizing?
At the risk of asking a potentially obvious question ... do people who aren't already interested in the arts read blog aggregators like ArtsJournal? Arts administration blogging isn't something I read all that regularly, but the headline caught my eye. And it's gotten me thinking about some observations Leonard B. Meyer made about the Romantic era and what he called the ideology of elite egalitarians.
STYLE AND MUSIC: THEORY, HISTORY AND IDEOLOGY
LEONARD B. MEYER
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS
COPYRIGHT (C) 1989 BY LEONARD B. MEYER
... egalitarianism does not require that art be understood, appreciated, and loved by every person, but only that listening competence does not depend on privileged learning (whether formal or informal) of traditions, references, and the like.
The irony is, of course, that instead of leading to compositions readily understood and appreciated by the concert-going public, egalitarianism gave rise to music that became the private province of small academic coteries. And this untoward outcome raises an important, even fundamental, question about humankind: Is it in our nature to be wholly natural--that is, without cultivated concepts and conventions?
... human communication is for the most part dependent on learning. In this sense, all competence leads to exclusiveness and, for any particular in-group, to elitism.
What liberals and progressives within the arts seem to struggle to understand is a concept that an old conservative elitist like Roger Scruton doesn't struggle to understand, the essential notion that the "vocational artist" is necessarily someone in some kind of leisure class. The level of education and resources a person has to have to appreciate the arts, let alone participate in or contribute to those arts, is full of what some folks these days would call "privilege".
But we seem to live in an era in which writers and poets and musicians and artists who aspire to make their wages from those activities embrace all kinds of ideologies and philosophies whose end game seems to be exonerating artists, writers, poets, musicians, film directors and actors from even being able to be part of a ruling caste or an elite. Whoever Elena Ferrante really is ... let's consider some assertions made on her behalf about the power of writers:
The only real limits to what a writer writes should be determined by his or her own imaginative capacity; and it is the reader who will ultimately judge how successful that act of imagination has been. A writer’s imagination can be powerful, hurtful, and sometimes, so dangerous to society that the works are ultimately proscribed. But this is treacherous ground; except in extreme circumstances, the suppression of imaginative literature represents a fundamental threat to freedom of thought. When writers work, they imagine; and, by affirming freedom of the imagination, a writer asserts, on behalf of every reader, the right to imagine a life beyond the confines of everyday experience. It is an escape, it is an experience, and it can be transcendent. Good writing, even when it disturbs us, is a potent reminder of what it means to be a human being.
Assuming the work is PUBLISHED, maybe the readers get to ultimately judge how successful the act of imagination has been. What if there's something besides suppression of imaginative literature, such as a propensity to distribute and promote a range of imaginative literature that some would consider confined to those who already have the privilege of being within the demographics most likely to be favored. To be a bit blunt about it, the people most likely to know what the concept of white privilege is have the privilege of access to educational resources that can instruct them what the concept of privilege is. The paradox of having the privilege to talk about privilege as though it were a thing you didn't already possess as the process through which to talk about it could be a book. Very probably someone has already written that book.
So ... of Ferrante ... her work has been described as a bid on behalf of women writers to make literary art on par with the literary art that is regarded as canonical in Western culture that has been traditionally written by (or credited to) men.
and then there's concern about who has representation in the film industry.
Are we possibly seeing a lot of discussion about an idea that asserts that if the ruling castes have a level of sexual and ethnic or skin-color diversity that goes beyond old white male that ... this really means that the new ruling castes will be more ... benevolent?
Why would anyone believe this?
Can't people on the British left remind people that voting for Hillary Clinton so as to have a woman in the Oval Office has an unstated assumption built into "first woman president"? It's not like Margaret Thatcher, the Irony Lady, was regarded with love and adoration by the British left. If "all" that were really at stake is women being able to raise an articulate and insistent voice then the lately deceased Phyllis Schlafly should have been celebrated by feminists the world over for showing what powerful influence a woman in the political sphere can have.
American feminists may believe ideas such as that "White women Sold Out the Sisterhood By Voting For Trump"
at least the sort of writer who contributes to Slate's Double XX can believe that white women sold out the sisterhood.
But does that sisterhood exist apart from the minds of those women who can make livings as writers in places like New York? Does that sisterhood exist as more than a journalistic construction, a reification into a social unit of those authors who may get published in and read stuff at Slate or Salon? That Trump won the Electoral College vote has not stopped people from spending the last couple of weeks scapegoating electoral demographics they've spent the last decade demonizing as not even real Americans.
So we can have an artist, in the wake of Trump's victory writing something like this:
I lay awake, alternately weeping, hyperventilating, and checking my phone, needing human contact out in this altered, strange world. I texted my friend Daniel in Louisville: Can you believe this? He answered, I don’t know what to tell my kids. Daniel, I messaged him, how do I do this tomorrow? How do I play this concert now? I lay in bed and thought of my kids downstairs, of their tomorrow and the day after that, how scared they were, how they’d seen the grownups crying tonight. At 3 a.m. I whispered to my husband: “I can’t make this trip.” I texted Daniel, Are you awake? He wasn’t. He didn’t answer. When my alarm went off, I got up, and I stumbled downstairs and kissed my sleeping kids. I brushed my teeth and grabbed my suitcase, and drove to the airport.
Because this is what I do. I’m a performer, and there are rules. The show must go on. There’s no people like show people. Our job is to smile when we are low, to make you smile, forget your troubles, to entertain you. Daniel was waiting for me, and a concert audience, and five hundred kids in the Louisville schools, and I’m a trouper and I don’t let people down. So I got up and I went to work.
Within a day of Obama becoming president-elect a relative sent me a spam declaring Christians were going to be sent to concentration camps. Later I'd get spam declaring that Obama was going to abolish the dollar and replace it with the amero. I've gotten dire warnings from friends over the years Bush 2 was going to suspend the Constitution, declare martial law, and declare himself dictator for life. Dave Chappelle deciding to send up white progressive panic seemed like a tonic. It could be all too easy in the Pacific Northwest to forget that Oregon was chartered as a white supremacist utopia in which slavery was not legal but neither were blacks permitted citizenship. That weird double bind is something progressives in the Pacific Northwest can't afford to forget. It's not as though we didn't have a racist progressive in the form of Woodrow Wilson a century ago.
If there is a moment of reckoning artists and journalists could have now, besides the alarming failure of the Fourth Estate as a whole to anticipate what has transpired, it's that artists as a group need to consider that they are, in fact, a ruling caste. It's easy to look down on uneducated people who work in trades and haven't read Nabakov or Pauline Kael. But stop and think about this a moment and it could be revealed to be a potential loathing of the underclass. The Old Left has cranked out a pretty articulate condemnation of the aristocratic entitlement of the castes that have backed Hillary Clinton. It's no love for Trump to propose that after a generation of civic minded liberal celebrities backing leaders like Clinton and endorsing them that the electoral results may reveal the possibility that if we were to have some kind of class conflict that those backing Clinton may have a chance to discover they're the ruling classes.
It doesn't matter if the members of those who are ruling class level in terms of money and cultural influence have reputations as gadflies.
when you're in SESAC rather than ASCAP or BMI you're part of a slightly more exclusive club.
With a few books out about the art of criticism and the "art of the voice" it's easy to notice that critics have lamented their decline of cultural influence and wonder about the stability of the art of criticism.
It seems to be a lament on both the left and the right. There have been laments about the decline of Western civilization since pretty much the dawn of Western civilization. It's as though self-pitying emo Goth white boy writers have been a thing going back to the actual Gothic era! That's not just sarcasm, my brother was telling me that in his reading about job markets in the medieval European scene there were humanities students venting spleen about how they'd study for seven years in the arts and languages only to find that key positions in university roles or government posts were being given to lawyers and accountants. So artists and poets and bards have been pissed off about the bean counters and legal experts getting more prestigious jobs for literally a thousand years.
Something I've been mulling over this year and last is that it seems as though in the left and right, the old blue and red, there have been currents of thought in which the "other", the adversary, is generally cast as a ruling caste that you aren't part of. For blue state lefties the adversarial ruling class is the financial sector and the Republican party, for instance. For red state sorts the enemy is often the academy and regulatory offices. The possibility that YOU are part of a ruling caste and that your caste is also part of the problem seems to be against the possibility of being thought for these groups.
In the last few years I've found myself advising friends to NOT go to college unless the work they want to do can't be done without the precondition of the credentialing schools provide. I'm not against education in principle ... but in PRACTICE I've grown skeptical about what I now regard as a prestige racket. The idea that the red state voters are ignorant is merely one part of a larger matrix of assumptions. Other assumptions can hold that if you just go to the right school you'll land the right job and be able to work. Maybe ... but radical critics of American academia have floated privilege as a concept that explains how people can even get into those sorts of schools to begin with. Do standardized entrance exams really test for intellect and thoughtfulness ... or do they perhaps test for socio-economic class?
One of the problems I've had with the left, in spite of enjoying reading a lot of writers who are left, is that they have this idea that dog whistles are only for right wingers. Criticism of mainstream academia as beholden to a series of caste-guided entrance criteria is worth hearing out. It might be lefty angst but the right has its angst, too. If blue state types fret about the Koch brothers and The Family these days the right is still pissed that Soros exists and that tenured radicals get to decide if you graduate from college before you can get that business degree.
And amidst all this I have found myself wondering what the person on the street has to gain from, say, absorbing the string quartets of Iannis Xenakis. Or, to go with a more recent example, how about the string quartets of Ben Johnston? What do the string quartets of Ben Johnston do for coal miners in Michigan?
Don't get me wrong, the string quartets are marvels. Of the ten I'm way into all of them except 1, 2, 3 and 6, which are still interesting. But their existence as the pinnacle of esoteric and demanding chamber music should not give anyone the impression that people with no more than a high school education in even Wisconsin will have heard of Ben Johnston. The quartets really are remarkable, beautiful works, though.
The idea that an artist or writer or musician can embrace hugely esoteric creative processes to create works that can be appreciated by the uneducated listener is something I could write about some other time. I'm totally for the idea but that's distinct from this weekend's meditative ramble, the problem I'm seeing of artists and "creative" aghast that Trump won without considering along the way that if we were to cast this as a narrative of class warfare in old style Marxist terms that the people who wanted Clinton to win are on the side of the oppressive ruling classes. That's not an endorsement of Trump, who is pretty obviously from the same set of strata, it's an observation that we've had a left and a right, a blue and a red, that has doubled down on internalizing modes of sociological propagandas to exempt themselves from being in one of those ruling castes.
Or as Chris Rock joked recently somewhere, white people were gonna have a busy few days moping and being on Facebook.
My concern in the last few years has not been about what the role of the artist is supposed to be, let alone in an era of Trump. This blog has obviously spent the previous five or six years meticulously documenting the history of a movement that used to be known as Mars Hill Church. Were there times when I wanted to cast off all that stuff and write more contrapuntal music for guitar? Most of the time. Were there moments where I thought it'd be nice if I felt I could take a break from documenting things to get back into arts criticism stuff or keeping up with the arts scene? Sure. I do still missing being able to participate in the arts scene the way I could before the 2008 crash happened. But I felt a kind of journalistic obligation, despite not being an official journalist, to document the life and times of what was once Mars Hill. When the Fourth Estate seemed to persistently fail to account for what was going on with Mars Hill, somebody had to step in and do that work. So from here in Seattle the failure of the Fourth Estate to have anticipated what went down with Trump is not surprising given how much the Fourth Estate failed to keep up with the far less significant situation (nationally speaking) of what used to be Mars Hill here in the Pacific Northwest.
It's all too easy for artists to whip out pious bromides about their art such as "I'm an artist, not a priest". But today's artists in Western cultures ARE priests. When entertainers endorse political candidates and tell you who they believe you should vote for they're no different in principle from a Pat Robertson telling you who God thinks you should vote for. That Robertson has insisted he's saying as a Christian why the Christian religion dictates you vote for a Republican doesn't mean that when a celebrity tells you why she or he is backing Clinton that's not another kind of religion. The arts and artists, with more than a little help from the literary tradition of criticism, have sacralized themselves into having the role in our time that was delegated or arrogated to priests and prophets and sages. To lament the religious elites of the past held all the power and access to influence is not something today's entertainers and producers should be too quick to embrace. After all, let's just take the Bible, the Bible was written and edited and assembled by the literate and artistic elites of the culture and era that produced it and canonized it. It isn't altogether impossible for an elite to be right about something. But the red and blue have spent a lot of time lambasting the elites that the red and blue feel they aren't part of or have access to. The blue entertainers may resent the extent to which money for art has to be gained from red state backing, perhaps. Red state types eel that a majority of the super-rich are true blue.
If there's a problem with the culture of victimhood and the rhetorical and moral gridlock of identity politics it's that everyone can appropriate this. Artists who can pay their bills by doing things such as playing the piano or making movies don't think they're part of a ruling caste to just the point at which they believe it's justifiable to look down on stupid redneck racist voters who can have been the only sorts of people who voted for Trump.
Sure, Jamelle Boui can write that there's no such thing as a good Trump voter.
but what if you know a black guy in Seattle who, nevertheless, voted for Trump? The world is full of diversity and as startling as this might seem, I visited with a friend a while back, a black man who said he voted for Trump. That seems ... to put it mildly, counterintuitive. But as he explained where he was coming from and as he articulated that the difference between a DNC who backed Clinton compared to a DNC that would have backed Sanders, a way to try to summarize things for readers is to mention that the Old Left critique of the New Left keeps recurring, that some people who preferred Trump to Clinton may distrust the Clinton legacy on banks, big finance, and the incarceration of black men as a systemic policy. For people who regard the financial sector as a genuinely predatory caste within American socio-economic life Clinton was not going to come across as a protagonist.
So in Bouie's estimation would a black man in Seattle who voted for Trump be a racist? Or would the operable term be false consciousness? that seems like the more Marxist way to describe such a thing.
Amidst all this the idea that artists need to take leave and consider what the artist can do in the age of Trump seems to be missing a larger point, if we're going to take seriously the bromides about how the uneducated rust belt workers backed Trump then solipsistic navel-gazing on the part of the creative class won't help the working class, will it? Have liberals forgotten the commitment to the group euphemistically identifiable as the "unskilled labor market"? If the case for Clinton was that a woman should have the power Margaret Thatcher provides a counterexample. I doubt today's blue state voters would want Thatcher and there was certainly no love lost at the passing of Schlafly on the part of the left, was there? So be more honest, the sisterhood is not really about giving women of every possible religious and political conviction more voice to articulate what they believe the world should be like, it's a left agenda that wants more power for the sake of left goals. It's okay to just state that's what you want if that's what you want. Disguising this political ambition behind rhetoricl of a sisterhood whose partisans will decide the women who voted for Trump betrayed the sisterhood suggests that the membership is more exclusive.
If arts funding in America (never on par with comparable funding in other Western states) continues to decline then the vocational artists may not be the future if they are even an accurate presentation of the present. A number of key innovations in the arts in what we now call the early Baroque era were taken up by amateurs and dilletantes. The people who make livings as musicians and poets make livings within academic norms. I've wondered whether in the last two centuries we've had teachers and theorists admonishing us arts students to break the rules without sharing that their job as teachers is to say what the rules are; or worse, 19th century German idealists seemed to simultaneously present artists as needing to break free of rules while articulating a rigid textbook formula on what the rules of form were that can't be grounded in the theory or practice of the 18th century models they insisted they were handing down. There's actually no reason you can't apply the 18th century procedural approaches of sonata or fugue to blues riffs. I wanted to be in academics twenty years ago but the older I get and the more I see how academics have approach things and how the academic cultures seem to work the more grateful I am that I didn't get to be part of it. It's less a matter of the love of learning as a skepticism about the institutional politics.
The last thing artists should be doing in the age of Trump is justifying their existence as though Trump would in any way be effected by that. You don't have to go all Cornelius Cardew exactly but Cardew's complaint may be a salient point for artists in the age of Trump to consider, you've either been serving the ruling class or the working class and if you loathe the working class that might be a tell as to where your real class loyalties are. Being against Trump hardly means you're a friend of the working class.
If there's something this recent election has highlighted between the Old Left and the New Left since the victory was called, it's that Clinton's base may not have recognized in itself an alignment that committed to social progressivism at the expense of economic progressivism. Marriage equality in an era in which marriages get more expensive and a celebrity marriage can involve as much money as a person in the lower classes can make in a single year won't seem like progress to the people who can't afford to get married. Richard Taruskin, in his sprawling Oxford History of Western Music, declared flatly that the Victorian era was one in which the aristocracy was expected to start embracing the sexual mores of the middle class. That might be completely wrong but it may be a useful counterpoint to the present, perhaps the sexual revolution has insisted that everyone should be able to have the sexual liberties of Old World aristocrats. And that's surely fine and dandy for the people who can afford to live that way. Authors at Slate can celebrate the way celebrities have destigmatized what used to be known as illegitimate births.
Aristocrats have long been able to afford to ignore conventional expectations as to who they had sex with and what they did or did not do to raise any resulting babies. Clinton's supporters can certainly complain about the racism or sexism or xenophobia of Trump voters and they're going to do that anyway, but the value of the Old Left reaction to the recent election has been to highlight all the ways in which the New Left has failed to recognize that it sold out the working class and has congratulated itself on its liberality from the comfort of being part of the ruling castes. The Fourth Estate's failure to have considered a Trump victory should have us reassessing our information culture.
In a Facebook era of political activity, in a Twitter era of activism, we seem to have gotten ourselves into self-reinforcing feedback loops left and right.
Facebook and Twitter are fantastic platforms for what Ellul called sociological propaganda. If artists take to Twitter or Facebook to reinforce themselves in the rightness of their role in democratic society there's a risk, the risk that they will double down on the legitimacy of their station without doing what Cornelius Cardew tried to do in asking himself which class he was really serving. When he concluded his music was serving the ruling classes rather than the working classes he changed course. But then he literally was a radical type. What American musicians and artists are more likely to do is to find a way to embrace an ideological or aesthetic stance that exempts them from identifying themselves as a member of a privileged caste. Why admit you're so full of privilege that you fart it with every step you take by being able to go to a school like Oberlin or Cornish or Yale or Eastman or Bard? it's easier to take a dollop of critical theory and imagine that because you've read enough Adorno and Benjamin you are not, in fact, part of a privileged caste. You can even imagine that because you're going to be on the hook for years of student debt that the bank that gave you the loan is the ruling caste. Sure, they are, too ... but they gave YOU the money.
I'm all for participating in the arts and making music and writing. I love writing. My idea of a fun evening is writing five or six thousand words or refining middle entry possibilities for a guitar fugue. I'm incubating an analytic series on racapitulatory patterns in early 19th century guitar sonatas. But I've got a mundane day job. I am not a vocational artist. I'm inclined to agree a bit with Charles Ives about the possibility that the "vocational" artist is not necessarily a better or more honest artist than the dedicated amateur. Of course I'd be tempted to that view. :) that's me.
In an era in which critics lament the fall of criticism it's hard to feel bad for an A. O. Scott. it's hard to feel bad for artists whose conception of the arts is a self-justifying adventure in a kind of secular art religion in which they are the priests who stand to benefit from embracing ideologies that sacralize and mystify the arts because they make enough money from it to pay their bills or raise their children through that. They get to be the priests of our era.
Since I'm blogging as a Christian (albeit an often not so good one) it is no shock if I mention that in the Bible we see the priests criticizing the conduct of kings. That's what they are supposed to do from to time. Artists can complain about what soldiers do but poets who complain about what soldiers do can forget that soldiers may fight so as to be immortalized in the verses they hope poets will write of them. Empires get like that, and the ruling castes of empires have this weird and recalcitrant habit of considering their ideals the ideals of all enlightened and civilized sorts. Priests should criticize kings but there are times when the priests need to be subjected to criticism.
There hasn't been a whole lot said or written by entertainers in the last couple of weeks to persuade me that American artists are able to have a critical look at themselves and the level of prestige and privilege from which the cultural priests of our age presumed a Clinton victory too soon.
I suppose exceptions to this concern can be made for Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock, though.