Saturday, July 08, 2017

links for the weekend, on bromides about the changing arts scene and who got what independence on what day

Chris Jones over at the Chicago Tribune proposes that

In 2003, the National Endowment for the Arts put out a genuinely surprising report: Audiences — those attending jazz, classical music, opera, dance and theater performances — were in serious decline as a percentage of the adult population of America.

Yet worse, the data implied that all of the effort to diversify those audiences had not worked. The audiences of 2002 looked very much like the audiences of 1982: disproportionately white, affluent, educated, older and female. The NEA tried to put an optimistic spin on its findings (it noted that Sept. 11, 2001, had disrupted lives), but it was still the rare NEA report that actually interests a newsroom like this one.

Like the newspapers that employ them, critics grew up with industrialization and urbanization and we were at our peak in the first half of the 20th century, when works needed savvy guides to their newly structured, and painfully limited, leisure time. Prior to that, in the first half of the 19th century, the arts were something you more likely did yourself. You sang around the piano at home. You likely knew some Shakespeare or Biblical prose, whatever your walk of life. You tried to learn how to draw some. You were not up for review. You were not charging money. You were expressing yourself.
Welcome back.
Alas, this new radical democratization threatens critics, just as it does well-paid artistic directors, executive directors, curators, and all kinds of other gatekeeper types in the cultural universe, which explains why some say we/they ract defensively (see above!) to any grass-roots rebellion.
People are doing art themselves again: Tepper pointed out that half of 18- to 22-year-olds have made their own music. half of them say they have taught themselves something. Many have spent more hours playing video games than it takes to master the violin.  And consider this Tepper statistic: If you had asked random Americans in 1950 if they thought themselves important, about 12 percent of them would have said yes.  By the 1990s that number had risen to 85 percent.  No wonder everyone has an opinion, and social media and cheap technology now has provided the last piece: an egalitarian megaphone.

There's also some ruminations from curators as to whether museums are inherently colonial.

I think a better way to put it is that all museums are inherently imperial, which is to say that museums are always curations of those things within empires that are regarded as touchstones of cultures, whether of the empire that hosts the museum or the cultures which the hosting museum regards as significant enough to present and discuss.  As Miyazaki had a character pose the question in The Wind Rises, which would you prefer to live in, a world with ... or without the pyramids?  The curator, by definition, must always answer "with" to the question of whether or not to live in a world with or without the pyramids.  There is no other answer a curator of arts anything can honestly provide. 

But there's a point at which remembering the colonial past includes remembering the extensiveness of Native American slavery and slave trade.  True, it was not necessarily explicitly white supremacist or racialist/essentialist in the way observed in the Confederate South ... but it's been somewhat amazing to read people who would otherwise condemn slavery categorically take pains to say that Native American slavery was ... not ... quite ... as bad as slavery in the Confederate South.  Do non-white customs of slavery get graded on a curve just because white supremacist slavery customs in the antebellum American South are considered the bottom of the barrel? 

There's a stretch of people who want to take pains to remind people the United States got its freedom or independence by dispossessing native populations.  Colonial/imperial expansion into the American West is not necessarily the same as fighting to gain independence of English colonial rule.  To collapse these two categories into a single category seems historically dishonest and dangerous but, if people insist on doing it, then they might want to bear in mind that this conflates all modes of liberty with some form of imperialism and oppression and repression.  It is an ideological commitment to a practical belief that "you" cannot be free unless "they" are enslaved in some way. In lamenting the destruction of Native American culture at the hands of white colonialists does anybody really want to restore the slave trade and the caste systems that existed in the Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest?  That seems completely improbable. 

My distrust of the easy combination of a fight for independence with colonial/imperial expansion is that only people who completely identify these two things as necessarily related can combine them.  Now people have said that the Israelites found their Promised Land by massacring the existing native populations.  Okay then, so nobody in the United States has managed to do better.  What if freedom can only come for group A through imperialism that massacres group B?  If that's the case then is seeking maximum freedom for a maximum number of people even a salutary goal?  If our forebears in the United States only managed to make the United States as big as it is through a combination of racial-supremacist slavery and a manifest destiny policy that advocated the extermination of the American Indians then this does not suggest that the ancient Israelites were worse than us in the now United States; it suggests that the Israelites has the bluntness to not pretend they were doing something other than what they were doing.  If anything one of the pervasive critiques of Israelite settlement was that rather than exterminate the tribes they were instructed to exterminate they adopted a live and let live approach and even syncretized a variety of aspects of Yahweh veneration with Canaanite customs.  Had the United States settlers and colonists behaved MORE like the ancient Israelites as recounted in the biblical texts there might be more American Indians around today.

It's possible to establish a kind of independence that doesn't require an imperial expanse, isn't it?  Or if it's not then why should people tell themselves in tacit or explicit ways that where every other group that built freedom for themselves slaughtered whoever they displayed WE won't be guilty of that mistake?  I don't really want the local PNW tribes to get their old slave trade back.  The slave trade and slavery systems of the PNW collapsed in a way that didn't involve a war ... how and why that happened might be an instructive case study were people not so eager on the internet to speak in the most literally and figuratively black and white terms.  It's not that those matters aren't important, it's that their dominance can produce a tunnel vision that may need some gentle correctives. 

Curation is not just for museum culture these days.  There's this idea floated at The Atlantic that if in the past you were born into a community and discovered your individual identity later on as you grew up, it can seem that these days in contemporary American culture you are born as an individual who seeks out a defining community later as you go.

For much of the 20th century, if you asked someone to define “community,” they’d very likely give you an answer that involved a physical location. One’s community derived from one’s place—one’s literal place—in the world: one’s school, one’s neighborhood, one’s town. In the 21st century, though, that primary notion of “community” has changed. The word as used today tends to involve something at once farther from and more intimate than one’s home: one’s identity. “A body of people or things viewed collectively,” the Oxford English Dictionary sums it up. Community, in this sense, is not merely something that one fits into; it is also something one chooses for oneself, through a process of self-discovery. It is based on shared circumstances, certainly, but offers a transcendent kind of togetherness. It is active rather than passive. The LGBTQ community. The Latino community. The intelligence community. The journalism community.


Maybe, and if so ... then that kind of community is an affinity association driven by, well, let's just call it consumer choice.  If Americans reject altogether the legitimacy of identity deriving from either geographic location or, worse yet, socio-economic strata, then consumer choice and elective association based on an aspiration to what might be called sexual market value or producer activity (per the ribbonfarm proposal in "You Are Not an Artisan" about how people define themselves by conspicuous production regardless of whether or not the market has any use for it). 

In a way what that revolution is, the one Chris Jones was writing about a few weeks ago, can be thought of as a resurgence in ideologically committed artistic activity in a plane of non-monetized arts-making and distribution.  It might make sense that established theater and arts critics feel like the era of the critic is possibly over but in the era of often risible and embarrassing Youtube comments is the age of the critic really over?  Or could we float the idea that the era of the monetizable activity of the institutionally-backed arts critic may have a shelf life? 

Another Jones, Robert P., assures us that the election of Trump conspicuously withstanding, the long-term influence of white Christian America is still reaching its death point.

The sum of the article focuses more on the religious right/evangelical scene.  The larger discussion has included how the white/liberal/mainline version of American Christianity has also been on a steady decline.  To the extent that a lot of what passes for Christianity or "genuine spirituality" in white American Christian scenes is really likely to be some red state or blue state civic religion that has only an instrumental interest in Jesus, the decline of white American Christianity is not necessarily a huge loss.

Whether or not the decline of white American Christianity ensures a continuation of a range of at least nominally liberal policies and norms remains to be seen.  Something that blue state voters and activists can sometimes forget is that, well, as Sherman Alexie has complained, the average American Indian is more socially conservative than even the most socially conservative white guy.  It's not a slam dunk that the decline of a white Christian mainstream means that a genuinely secular/progressive culture will emerge.  Whether or not Pentecostalism and charismatic Christianity is orthodox in a big or little 'o' sense of the term, it is still around.  It's not a foregone conclusion that immigrants coming into the United States from all over are necessarily going to bring with them the mores that those who might otherwise celebrate the decline of the Religious Right white Christian scene want.

There is another reason we should not be too optimistic that a decline of a white Christian mainstream of a red or blue variety is automatically good, but it's not strictly about the ideologies that are often deployed for conflict.  The problem is resource scarcity, which remains an issue regardless of associated ideologies.  A more secularist and materialist society is going to amplify and multiply these tensions.  The more materialistic our conception of the world is the more unavoidable and unacceptable the unavoidably zero-sum game of the economic life of humanity as a global species is going to become.  This gets back to the aforementioned question about who gets to be enslaved so the people who make the money can live freely.  In an era in which actresses lament the lack of equal pay in Holywood for women it's possible to simultaneously lament that inequality on the one hand while noting that it seems a little morally dubious for movie stars who are part of a contemporary priesthood of art-as-religion to lament that they are not making a hundred times more than a person at a Wal-mart store might be making in a year. 

Which gets us back to the theme of the arts and money, of course.

Over at Mere Orthodoxy Jake Meador wrote a review about a book called Real Artists Don't Starve.

Now given that the book is published by Thomas Nelson ... the same Thomas Nelson that published Mark Driscoll and Grace Driscoll's Real Marriage and Rachel Held Evans' Year of Biblical Womanhood I admit the odds that I would read Real Artists Don't Starve are pretty close to zero.  And while Meador may actually respect Doug Wilson enough to invoke mention of pearls without a thread ... Wilson's plagiarism controversy makes it just about impossible for me to take him seriously, either. 

Even so, the axioms presented as threads in the Goins book as presented by Meador seem ... like axioms. 

For instance the advice that you don't work for free might go against the axiom that you own your own work. Not everybody at Mere Orthodoxy seems to take the idea of intellectual property all that seriously or as a particularly legitimately Christian concept, so Meador's view may just be Meador's view--but the question is more practical, what if you own your work, whatever this is taken to mean in IP terms, and nobody wants to buy or pay for what you're selling?  Years ago I got some advice from an established musician that went exactly like this, "Don't look down on work-for-hire.  At least it's work.  At least you get paid."  You could own all the rights to a large body of work but if nobody wants to buy it then all you've done is make art at your own time and expense. 

But ... isn't that exactly what folk art is, in the end?

Real artists don't have to starve but who says real artists have to pay all their bills with the art they make?  The other thing that comes to mind is that there can be some pretty potent freedoms available to someone willing to write for absolutely no money at all.  This blog has never been monetized and there's no plan for it to ever be monetized.  The prodigious amounts of primary and secondary literature connected to the rise and fall of Mars Hill featured at this blog has been possible because of, well, basically Fair Use.  Had I waited to write about what was going on at Mars Hill until some profit was possible no writing would have happened.  It's not a foregone conclusion to me that writing matters when money is exchanged for it. 

And since Mere Orthodoxy has been happen to name-drop Roger Scruton, Roger Scruton has made it explicit that the fine arts and literary arts are the domain of the leisure classes.  If Roger Scruton, famous conservative that he is, can state without equivocation that the arts have been the domain of the leisure classes, then is it a foregone conclusion that in saying real artists don't starve that there's any serious implication that real artists make their money in the arts markets? 

Now the book, Meador notes, mentions stuff about cultivating patrons.  You'd have to be careful which patrons you cultivate.  Very, very few patrons would be as generous as the Esterhazy clan was to Haydn, for instance. 

So, I suppose that's me expressing some doubts about the very idea that writers and artists and so on "should" make their respective livings as writers, artists and so on.  The freedom to make millions per movie where you pretend to be someone else for a film seems like an accident of genetics and socio-economic conditions and privilege.  If Chris Jones' ideas have a trajectory it could be that what's emerging is a newly active and activist group of amateurs in the arts, and a kind of internet commentary brigade.  This may call for a new form of interactive criticism but it could also herald a new level of identitarian politicking with a return of the vituperation of 19th century era criticism.  Ever read Slonimsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective?  Might as well be commentary from people on Youtube or discussion forums. 

I'll probably end the weekend ruminations (for now) with a remembrance that Real Marriage got out in the world thanks to Thomas Nelson. Whether or not Real Marriage merited a $400,000 advance might just be an aesthetic or philosophical point for debate.

Between the Driscoll marriage book and the Rachel Held Evans stunt book about "biblical womanhood", it's really, really hard to take Thomas Nelson seriously as a publisher these days.  Even if it can be granted that real artists don't starve the issues that could be raised about both the Driscoll book and the Evans book make it seem as though at least some artists might think better of publishing through Thomas Nelson.  Terry Teachout warned that the kind of Maxwell Perkins editing era is out and that you have to basically write the kind of book you'd already want to see published because these days little editing in the more old-school sense gets done. 

Maybe there's something to be said for writing just because you love to write regardless of whether or not you ever see a dime for it.  I have written paid gigs as a writer but I have on the whole written because I love writing.  If I had determined to never work for free in the way I blogged about Mars Hill, for instance, there'd be nothing at this blog about the rise and fall of Mars Hill.  But in a way that's almost a journalistic/historical question.  There may be times when a writer feels sufficiently morally obliged to document events that the question of whether "am I getting paid for this?" is not even rising to the level of secondary importance.

Friday, July 07, 2017

biblioblogger Jim West says you should go see the new Spiderman movie

I mean, as a lifelong Spiderman fan who dug the cameo the character had in Civil War I was gonna go see the new Spiderman movie anyway ... but ... hey  Jim West says to go see it. ;)

Even though I've written a lot more about Batman over the years my two favorite superheroes have always been a tie between Batman and Spiderman.  Now, to be clear, I love Spiderman right up to the point where Marvel did the stunt-killing with Gwen and then my love began to grow progressively cold.  But that Stan Lee/Steve Ditko run?  Classic comics. 

So, yeah, I'll be seeing the new Spiderman movie at some point.  That's the plan.

We can't only ever talk about the syntactics of ragtime and sonata forms or about polyphonic cycles for classical guitar, after all. 

Haven't even touched Samurai Jack or why Legend of Korra was such a horrendous follow up to the glorious series The Last Airbender.