Saturday, September 08, 2018

from The Tablet, Jane Kallir prposes "It is a safe bet that art history's next grand narrative will not be written in the West"

Over at Tablet, which was the publication within which I saw an article about cultural appropriation as a realization of sumptuary codes that in earlier epochs would have been the purview of the aristocracy, there's a longform piece on the connection between the "art scene" and the middle class.

Historians sometimes speak of “the long 19th century”—a continuation of the superficial stability seen in the late 1800s, which in 1914 was finally shattered by World War I. Almost two decades into the 21st century, we are now experiencing a comparable breakdown of the apparent verities with which many of us grew up. The so-called postwar consensus that led to the formation of the European Union and its attendant international alliances is starting to unravel. Nativist anti-immigrant movements have gained traction in countries (including the United States) formerly considered bastions of human rights. Income inequality has risen to extremes not witnessed since the 1920s. Far from being immune to these external stressors, the art world is very much a product of larger socio-economic forces that determine what gets seen, sold and valued, aesthetically as well as monetarily. In art, the long 20th century, associated with modernism and its postmodern dénouement, has ended. The future of art will be shaped by a very different set of circumstances.

The advent of modernism coincided with Europe’s transition from rule by a land-based aristocracy to industrial capitalism. Industrialization created great extremes of wealth and poverty, but it also spawned a significant middle class. In the first half of the 20th century, the two world wars and the Great Depression leveled the playing field for this emergent class by wiping out large stores of accumulated wealth. To ameliorate capitalism’s harsher side effects and to ward off the threat of communism, governments in Europe and the United States created social safety nets, regulated industry and instituted various forms of progressive taxation. Between 1913 and 1948, income inequality dropped by 10 percent in the United States. The three decades following WWII were characterized by rapid growth and low unemployment throughout the developed world. Per capita income rose at rates unequaled before or since. Many blue-collar workers, traditional members of the proletariat, earned middle-class wages.

Modernism is inseparable from the rise of the Western middle class. In 19th-century Europe, the bourgeoisie created a vast new market for art, previously a luxury enjoyed mainly by aristocrats. Cities, especially, became cultural hubs replete with museums, galleries, concert halls, theaters and publishing houses. The direct patronage that had characterized the aristocratic age was replaced by a wider distribution system that depended on intermediaries to connect artists with consumers. Critics, art historians and curators augmented the promotional efforts of commercial art dealers by legitimizing artists and educating the public. As the middle class expanded in the second half of the 20th century, advances in mass communications further broadened the audience for art.

Although modernism was sustained, financially and intellectually, by the middle class, the European avant-garde was, from the outset, rife with what the historian Peter Gay calls “bourgeoisophobia.” The bourgeoisie were said to represent everything that was wrong with contemporary society: poor taste, superficiality, pedantry, prudery, materialism and the pursuit of profit above all else. It was up to artists to save the world from middle-class philistinism. Regardless of political orientation, partisans of the avant-garde agreed that capitalism was inimical to art. As Gay points out, the modern era was the first time in history that artists rejected their own economic support base.

At this point I interrupt the flow of the article to point out, thanks to having gone through about half a dozen books by Theodore Adorno in the last couple of years, that artists committed to what can be known as a post-Wagnerian art religion in which artists were the priests and prophets of a new kind of religion of universal enlightened humanism.  The canon in Western arts that evolved in the wake of this art religion had bourgeois elements but within the realm of the arts as practiced there was a kind of elitist/aristocratic impulse that was eager to not be too sullied with middle class domesticity.  Artists as a group were not altogether committed to the idea of really casting off the aristocratic elements of a nascent art religion that was supposed to supplant Christendom.  But a more damning way to put this would be to say that the new liberal humanist art religion of the West simply shifted the old theological concepts of clericalism and sacralism from official religion to this new art religion.  In the sense that Adorno observed this shift, his continual lambasting of Western liberal artistic traditions as having completely assimilated into the new bourgeois order is relatively easy to understand.  Now back to the article.

For most of the 20th century, the American avant-garde shared their European colleagues’ disdain for the corrosive influence of money. Battle lines were drawn between “high” art and “kitsch,” defined by the critic Clement Greenberg as an “ersatz culture” designed to entertain the ignorant masses. Cranked out mechanically for commercial gain, kitsch included illustrations, comics, popular music and Hollywood films. Perhaps even more dangerous than such lowbrow amusements were middlebrow vehicles like The New Yorker, which Greenberg accused of watering down avant-garde material for sale to the “luxury trade.” As Russell Lynes (editor of the resoundingly middlebrow Harper’s magazine) noted in his 1949 essay, “Highbrow, Middlebrow, Lowbrow,” midcentury American intellectuals feared that the democratization of culture would precipitate a disastrous leveling of standards. The job of the highbrow, according to Lynes, was “to protect the arts from the culture mongers, and [to spit] venom at those he suspects of selling the Muses short.” Nonetheless, many of those “culture mongers” looked for guidance to the highbrows, who were distinguished from middlebrows by a fastidious devotion to “art for art’s sake” and a contempt for commerce.

I.e. "art for the sake of art" is what Adorno called the bourgeois art religion, only it might be more apt to say that this art religion was not necessarily strictly bourgeois unless we use that term in a knowingly pejorative sense that conflates the sociological patronage role of the new bourgeois with the older establishment role played by the aristocracy in arts patronage.  You have to have come across enough really old left highbrow art criticism to start appreciating these distinctions, maybe.  Another landmark essay about the emerging middlebrow would be Dwight Macdonald's "Masscult and Midcult".  Interestingly, Macdonald hated the emerging "melting pot" cultural dynamic because, as he put it, instead of getting a truly pluralistic arts scene in which the contributions of Jews, Serbs, Croats, Germans, Italians, Poles, Russians, English, Germans and so on could all be appreciated the "melting pot" steeped and stewed everything in the arts into a kind of boiled out gruel.  That's not literally how he put it but when I read "Masscult and Midcult" I was struck by how specific he was about which ethnic contributions to the arts would be boiled out of the then emerging American "melting pot" approach to culture.  There could be a case to be made that what's considered a concern about cultural appropriation or the emergence of what conservatives resentfully call "multiculturalism" might be a kind of revenge on the "melting pot" conception of the arts that Macdonald wrote against at least half a century ago.

The art world—an amalgam of critics, art historians, curators, collectors, dealers and artists who collectively set aesthetic standards—was very much an artifact of modernism. Of course not all members of this clique were bona fide highbrows. In a capitalist society, it was impossible to avoid contact with the marketplace, and no artist really wanted to starve in a garret. Peter Gay suggests that the diatribes and manifestoes generated by the avant-garde were at least partly designed to convert a skeptical middle class into paying customers. This does not mean, however, that bourgeoisophobia was a total sham. Until the final decades of the 20th century, artists who achieved financial success risked being branded sellouts. The art world administered litmus tests to assess purity and ran interference between its anointed darlings and the commercial sphere. It took a quintessential outcast, Andy Warhol, to openly embrace the celebrity culture Clement Greenberg had reviled. When Warhol began painting dollar bills in 1962, it was a far more transgressive act than anyone today can imagine. This was the same year that Milton Friedman published Capitalism and Freedom, which subsequently established free-market ideology as governing economic practice.

So tempted to write about Jacques Ellul's The Empire of Non-Sense here, about his take on how the critical and scholarly establishments formulated a range of theories to make themselves indispensable to arts consumption while evading the reality of their dependence on the consumer castes to validate their reason for being since in the older aristocratic era of arts patronage the educational gap between producers and consumers largely didn't exist in the high arts ... but I basically already just did that so discussing the Ellul book can, once again, be saved for some other time. 

Beneath the seemingly apolitical doctrine of “art for art’s sake,” the paradigms set forth by the 20th-century art world were influenced by the power dynamics of the age. It almost goes without saying that the art world’s key players were male, white, and largely Eurocentric in their cultural orientation. Whereas art history had traditionally been written to affirm the supremacy of European achievements, the postwar American art world shifted the pinnacle in the United States. To challenge the still-dominant School of Paris, Robert Motherwell titled a 1951 exhibition of his Abstract-Expressionist cohort “The School of New York.” Building upon the theories of abstraction developed by Alfred Barr, founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, Clement Greenberg hypothesized a formalist trajectory that positioned America as rightful heir to Europe’s modernist legacy. Cultural hegemony followed global political hegemony. Even as the dominant modernist narrative was being written, there were art historians who recognized that it was inaccurate. The narrative was too focused on France, at the expense of countries like Austria, Germany, Russia, and Italy that had been sidelined by various 20th-century political events. Nor was it correct to build the narrative so exclusively around formalism; modernism was far messier, far more multifaceted than that. And then there were the many artists who were left out of the narrative entirely: women, people of color, socio-economic outliers and citizens of nations outside the Western orbit. Curators are today making valiant efforts to correct these mistakes, a goal most effectively achieved through monographic presentations or deep dives into previously overlooked cultural phenomena. To the extent that such exhibitions retain a central narrative, the story is tightly focused on a specific artist or theme.

This has begun to seem like one of the faultlines in Western arts criticism, scholarship and journalism--did the center of gravity for the arts in the West really shift away from Europe to the United States in the post-World War II period? Bear in mind the article I'm looking at is discussing the art world as the market of visual arts, plastic arts, and so on, but the question is pertinent to the arts across the board.  

It is, however, difficult to mount encyclopedic exhibitions without an overarching art-historical narrative, as is made clear by the Metropolitan Museum’s “Like Life,” from this summer. A ramble through 700 years of polychrome figurative sculpture, “Like Life” followed recent trends by aggressively breaching once sacrosanct high/low boundaries. It includes animatronic dolls, anatomical medical models, a “breathing” wax figure of “Sleeping Beauty” from Madame Tussaud’s, and an effigy of the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham constructed over his actual skeleton. Works by Jeff Koons, “Michael Jackson and Bubbles,” and “Buster Keaton,” are paired, respectively, with an elaborate Meissen porcelain tableau and a primitive 15th-century religious carving. The show might better have been titled “Looks Like.” But superficial visual similarities tell us nothing about the idiosyncratic contexts within which the works were created. Such spectacles aim to entertain at the expense of the individual artists.

That Jeff Koons even has a career has been taken by folks with liberal and conservative sympathies alike as a sign of the sorry state the Western art scene has devolved to in the last twenty years.  Skipping ahead a bit 

Some segments of the art world may simply have expanded beyond sustainability. According to artnet News, “The number of global [art] fairs has roughly tripled since 2005, from 68 events to somewhere between two and three hundred.” There are currently 320 biennials worldwide. In Europe, the number has risen from less than 30 in the late 1980s, to 136; in Asia, there are 82, up from around 20 in the late 1990s. Fifteen years ago, it seemed every museum was building a new wing; now overall attendance has dropped, and many institutions are grappling with budget deficits. Ten years ago, five galleries opened for every one that closed; today, for the first time in recent memory, more galleries are closing than opening. [emphasis added] Amy Cappellazzo, Sotheby’s chairman of global fine arts, has suggested that even auctions could one day become obsolete. With rampant guarantees and lone buyers bidding against the reserve, this is often already the de facto case in the upper echelons of the auction market.

The art world’s expansion over the past quarter-century was stimulated by a combination of globalization and an influx of baby-boomer consumers, then in their peak earning years. As boomers age out of the market, they are not being replaced in comparable numbers. On average, millennials earn 20 percent less than boomers did at their age. Since the 1970s, financial deregulation, supply-side tax cuts, the evisceration of labor unions, and slowing economic growth have greatly eroded middle-class incomes. [emphasis added] By 2010, 20 percent of America’s national income was going to 1 percent of the population. Thomas Piketty (whose book Capital in the Twenty-First Century is the source of most of the economic statistics cited herein) warns that, inasmuch as the rate of return on capital has historically exceeded the rate of growth, income inequality is likely to become self-perpetuating unless governments step in to reverse it. So far, despite rampant populist rhetoric, little is being done to rein in our resurgent oligarchy.

Many compare the current economic scene to the 19th century’s Gilded Age, and it is therefore hardly surprising that the art world is being overwhelmed by the superrich. To the extent that it was essentially a middle-class phenomenon, one may question whether there still is an art world. The ascetic highbrows have been replaced by “thought leaders,” who kowtow to wealth and equate the “marketplace of ideas” with the financial markets. Any pretense of a firewall between art and money has been abandoned. The roles of dealer, curator, and artist have blurred, compelling artists to promote themselves. [emphasis added] High on the food chain we see Damien Hirst collaborating with Sotheby’s and luxury mogul François Pinault; lower down, artists milk sketchy celebrity contacts on Instagram. Meanwhile, with the end of the “American Century,” nations in the Middle East and Asia are exerting more influence on the global conversation. Just as America’s Gilded Age magnates collected Italian Renaissance paintings and portraits of British aristocrats, newly minted billionaires in other parts of the world are scooping up Western masterpieces. The recently opened Louvre Abu Dhabi suggests a long-range agenda, repositioning these works in a broader context to legitimize the full panoply of world cultures. It is a safe bet that art history’s next grand narrative will not be written in the West. Things change.

While conservative polemics against multiculturalism have often seemed to camp out on the idea that all this new multicultural artistic activity pales compared t the great "universal" achievements of the Western liberal arts tradition there's a cautionary note to consider about the nature of the art scene multiculturalism wants to play a larger part in.  If a neoliberal order has let the market define things an the herd behaviors have created a bubble in the arts then are we sure it's going to be a good thing for marginalized groups to participate in that bubble?  It's not that these groups don't deserve a chance to contribute to the arts scene out of the principle of contributing to art. No, what I'm trying to get at is that the push for that can be inferred from the traditional liberal art religious grounds that were being formulated in the "long 19th century". The progressive case can legitimately be that if that art religion is serious then it should be open to all those groups that were marginalized by the effects of imperialism and colonialism.  And within the confines of traditional Western liberalism that makes sense, it's even a way to force the real world caretakers of the Western liberal arts religions to be held accountable for taking those ideals seriously enough to give more artists who are not (yet) in the arts canons a hearing or a viewing.  But ... 

if we're living in a neoliberal order ... there could be a sense in which a progressive impulse for multiculturalism is trying to win a hearing on the basis of a fundamentalism of art religion that has been displaced by a more neoliberal market fundamentalism.  To use a vivid but possibly sketchy analogy, progressive multicultural impulses for more representation in the arts in a neoliberal order might be like someone who is set on the original theatrical versions of Star Wars being the "real" films when George Lucas settled in his mind that "special edition" is what he "really" wanted and that's just that.  The multicultural push may be a sound and even admirable appeal to have the game played by rules that stopped being used a generation or two ago.  

If we got more education focused on a wider conception of the arts then more art by the not-European-white-dudes canon could get a hearing ... but if the larger arts worlds are in bubble conditions then what we might want to consider as an alternative is the possibly unappealing stance of a Paul Hindemith or a John Sousa that it's the amateurs, all the people never make a living making art, who are the actual lifeblood of any given arts culture.  There will be vocational artists, of course, but the two composers I mentioned expressed reservations about what would happen to musical culture when technology and industrialization ran their course. They were fusty old fogeys at one level, even reactionary on some issues, but the core critique of the net and cumulative effects of market forces and education might be worth keeping in mind.  

When Hindemith bitterly quipped that all American musical education was really good for was making music teachers who made more music teachers rather than actual musicians for whom music was part of life rather than some profession he may have been right.  It can be easy to push for more or a more justly defined set of parameters for music education.  But we do have to ask why we want to educate kids to know about music and to have music literacy.  So that can be their day job?  If that's the case that could be the ultimate acquiescence to what's lately called a neoliberal order.  But saying that music is something people should be able to do even if it's only ever a "loss leader" in terms of their economic lives has never come up much when I read advocacy for arts education. Let me put it this way, back when I was at Mars Hill I sang in a choir and played music with friends and discussed music.  The earliest years of what used to be Mars Hill almost had an arts community vibe to it.  It was not necessarily about making money making music or literature.  Sure, I have come around to having a few trenchant criticism of what Mars Hill became but the case study is meant to show that church or synagogue or religious community has historically been one of the realms in which music was made.  Festivals are another.  Parties still another.  

There's an axiom in military history that warns that you are likely to end p losing today's war because you're so busy preparing to fight the last one you fought.  Arts education may have put itself in a comparable position in the last thirty years.  If that's true, and academics themselves will have to hash that out because I'm not officially an academic, then maybe a broader and more explicitly American conception of arts history is needed in an American context ... although I think the sun has probably basically set on the American era in the last twenty years ... 

For instance, at a personal level I just don't see the future of art music as being symphonic.  Even if we set aside concerns about the future of the NEA or NEH the symphony has become relatively marginal to mainstream musical life.  Hip hop has become the highest selling style of music and while it's not exactly my favorite style of music I don't think it's all crap the way I did thirty years ago when I was first hearing it.  I find Katy Perry annoying enough that her Millenial Whooping makes me relieved to hear ... Bobby Brown and MC Hammer, which I never, ever imagined was going to be possible.  Ed Sheeran makes me far, far more appreciative of Hall & Oates now than I ever thought I would be ... although as balladeers go even Sheeran isn't all that horrible excluding that one terribly, terribly over-played song.

I've been thinking about arts and academics a lot because when I was younger I wanted to go into academics and get into the arts.  Over the last twenty years I've become grateful that wasn't possible.  I've also read debates back and forth about whether popular music can or should be more thoroughly integrated into musicology and music education or not.  The more I think about it the more it seems that if we're mostly using instruments that use equal-temperament why shouldn't we treat everything in the equal-tempered instrumental idiom as sharing things in common.  But ... the narratives surrounding the extra-musical or non-musical aspects of what are associated with music tend to get pride of place in debates.  That's the kind of thing I was thinking about when I wrote about how hegemony seemed to be in the ey of the complainer.

I admit to still being a little worried about paradigms I've seen like Afrological and Eurological.  I can get how and why the terms are useful to describe post-World War II music in the northern hemispheres practice of concert music that involves improvisation as a structural consideration or element of performance but ... I am not sure the narrow scholastic focus may be helpful.  That improvisation has permeated the Western European musical traditions is not that hard to establish.  The Baroque era was full of improvising riffs over popular ground basses, after all.  Someone has probably written a few dissertations on handlings of La folia over the last four centuries. That riff is so steeped in the guitar literature that ... I'll put it this way, I've shown a score or two to guitarists who reflexively thought I was doing some kind of variation on the ground bass La folia when what I was really doing was what I thought was an absurdly straightforward twelve-bar blues!  

I shouldn't have been surprised if the figuration for that twelve-bar blues resembled La folia and that classical guitarists would hear that first and not the i, iv, V chord changes outlining the twelve-bar that I was thinking of as I composed a particular piece.  But at the risk of using a case study of my own musical activity a fusion of 12-bar blues with an ancient and popular European ground bass is easily done, perhaps especially if you're so steeped in both musical idioms you just fuse them as a matter of course. 

My impression is that what the new musicology folks would like to have happen is something like that.  The old musical canons of the West won't go away but the way we relate to them and, to put it bluntly, make use of them, will probably change.

But along the way it seems like we might also want to consider here in the West that there's some sense in which our collective story has been told and the sun may be setting on the pax Americana, for want of a better or more accurate phrase ... because even the bluest of blue state voters doesn't necessarily want to concede that the last century could be construed as the age of American imperialism.  It's interesting to read articles in which authors propose that whatever the futures of the arts may be they won't be written in the West because it gives me a sense that I've been having in the last ten years that when it comes to the arts in the West even the most ostensibly progressive minded people are still, in the sense that they want the history of the arts to be thought of in American or European terms, in some way reactionary.  Just as with the legacy of European liberal arts American arts can leverage a presumed imperial incontestability of global status that it blanches at consider if you point it out in the bluntest possible terms.  The imperium is supposed to be tacit rather than explicit and perhaps what makes the alt-right galling to progressives is that they make the value of the imperium too explicit for a blue state sympathy to stomach.  A thought for a weekend.  

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