Saturday, March 09, 2019

theme and variations at The Atlantic on men without college degrees vanishing from the work force, the stigma of trade schools, and a bit of news about the Art Institute of Seattle closing

There's a reported decline in the number of men without college degrees in the labor force, a decline that's reported as having steadily grown in the last sixty years.

In the late 1960s, almost all prime-working-age men, typically defined as 25 to 54, worked—nearly 95 percent. That figure had dipped to 85 percent by 2015—a decline most acutely felt among men without college degrees. The trend of men dropping out of the labor force, particularly non-college-educated men, has been building for more than six decades. It has been a slow withdrawal, but a steady one—a flow that began with a sharp decline in opportunities for men who dropped out of high school, and grew to include those who earned a diploma but not a degree.

One of the things I've heard about off and on in the last few years is the idea of free college for everyone.  I find that idea dubious at best, and I basically mostly don't regret having gone to college.  but I'd be the first to say that getting a degree in journalism in the 1990s was a fast ticket to never getting work in journalism.  I know for some authors out there they felt the 1990s were alright for them and that the age of internet journalism screwed them over, but I never made it into journalism as a paying field beyond a very small number of freelance projects.

So for me, looking back on the last twenty some years of never working in the field I got a degree for, I'm inclined to think that what the U.S. should try to do is revitalize the "unskilled" labor market.
 Why fewer and fewer men without college degrees are showing up in the work force is anybody's guess. Maybe a stereotypically conservative theory would be that men without degrees are just less willing to put in an honest day's work but that is, obviously, invoking a stereotype about how some social conservatives might think.  I did see a comment that if men aren't marrying women because of some kind of lack of jobs that there have been plenty of jobs out there, though this was a polemic offered with the explanation that there was an epidemic of singleness of the sort that is rampant in Reformed and neo-Calvinist circles. The possibility that jobs for men without college degrees, in particular, might not pay nearly enough to raise a family on was not exactly a concern.

A more theoretically liberal theory could be that the men who don't get college degrees are doomed for whatever reason to have less lucrative employment.  I wonder about that, though.  Men in my age group who trained to be electricians and carpenters must be making more money than ... someone I know about now.

There's a stigma attached to younger men choosing trade schools over college.  It's a stigma that, as a college graduate myself, I would say is unwarranted.

Toren Reesman knew from a young age that he and his brothers were expected to attend college and obtain a high level degree. As the children of a radiologist—a profession that requires 12 years of schooling—his father made clear what he wanted for his boys: “Keep your grades up, get into a good college, get a good degree,” as Reesman recalls it. Of the four Reesman children, one brother has followed this path so far, going to school for dentistry. Reesman attempted to meet this expectation as well. He enrolled in college after graduating high school. With his good grades, he got into West Virginia University—but he began his freshman year with dread. He had spent his summers in high school working for his pastor at a custom cabinetry company. He looked forward each year to honing his woodworking skills and took joy in creating beautiful things. Schooling did not excite him in the same way. After his first year of college he decided not to return.

He says pursuing custom woodworking as his lifelong trade was disappointing to his father, but Reesman stood firm in his decision, and became a cabinetmaker. He says his father is now proud and supportive, but breaking with family expectations in order to pursue his passion was a difficult choice for Reesman—one that many young people are facing in the changing job market.

Traditional college enrollment rates in the U.S. have risen this century, from 13.2 million students enrolled in 2000 to 16.9 million students by 2016. This is an increase of 28 percent according to the National Center for Education Statistics.  Meanwhile, trade school enrollment has also risen, from 9.6 million students in 1999 to 16 million in 2014.  This resurgence came after a decline of vocational education in the '80s and '90s. That dip created a shortage of skilled workers and tradespeople.

Many jobs now require specialized training in technology that bachelor’s programs are usually too broad to address, leading to more “last mile” type vocational education programs after the completion of a degree. Programs such as Galvanize aim to teach specific software and coding skills; AlwaysHired offers a “tech sales bootcamp” to graduates. The manufacturing, infrastructure, and transportation fields are all expected to grow in the coming years—and many of those jobs likely won’t require a four-year degree.

Taking up a theme from an article last year ...

If there's something I would advise against here in 2019 it would be going to a liberal arts college to study the arts.

Take a recent announcement about the Art Institute of Seattle.

The Art Institute of Seattle will close abruptly on Friday, leaving about 650 students in the lurch — without classes, professors, or possibly diplomas.

The Washington Student Achievement Council (WSAC), a state regulation agency, announced the end of the school’s 73-year tenure on Wednesday, just over two weeks before the winter quarter was supposed to end.

Sarah Fuad, 21, moved from Saudi Arabia in 2016 to study fashion design, and was one quarter away from finishing her degree. She was on track to finish a year early — but now, if she doesn’t find a new school, she says she’ll need to leave the U.S. within 60 days.
Fuad said she feels broken. She said, “I’d rather die than go back home with nothing.”
Fuad said her father has spent more than $100,000 on tuition and even more paying for her rent. Her family planned to come to the U.S. for her graduation. By Wednesday, Fuad had already applied to another school.

The Art Institutes, a group of art colleges nationwide, has struggled with financial troubles for years; the company that owned them went bankrupt in 2017 and Dream Center Foundation, a faith-based nonprofit, bought the schools. Court filings show that since the purchase, the schools have grappled with financial issues.

In WSAC’s Wednesday press release, Deputy Director Don Bennett disagreed with Dream Center Foundation’s abrupt decision to close, calling it “deeply troubling and disappointing.”

“It’s incredibly frustrating and distressing to students and it completely disrupts their education,” Bennett said. WSAC will hold information fairs for AI Seattle students on March 12 and 13 and work with around 30 colleges and universities to help transfer credits, waive some graduation requirements and possibly develop a “teach-out,” where students could finish an Art Institute degree through coursework at another school.

Blair Brown, 27, planned to finish her bachelor’s at the institute, studying graphic design, this summer. She and her brothers, who helped pay for her education, spent $39,000, and she’s unsure if she can get this last quarter’s tuition back. She works full time at Amazon Go as an employee trainer.

“Now that we’re closing this quarter, all the work I did … none of that matters,” Brown said. “I’m a pretty confident person, but even me, faced with this, I feel like I was scammed, like I was stupid.”
As much as I love the arts I've been repeatedly writing at this blog that I don't think getting an advanced degree in the arts is necessarily the way to go.  The more I read about the various crises associated with arts education and the social criticism of arts education in Anglo-American contexts the more I get a dour sense that Paul Hindemith was on to something in the 1950s when he castigated American music education as being good mainly for creating music teachers who created more music teachers rather than educating students into making musical lives for themselves whether they become professional musicians or not.

Now I'd heard positive things about the Institute twenty some years ago but ... that was twenty some years ago.

The motif of people going to liberal arts schools and coming out the other side with no degree or with a degree and never working in the field they studied for is a set of topics I've had decades to think about.  For people who somehow landed work in whatever field it is they studied for, perhaps there's a temptation to think of skepticism about higher education in the liberal arts as a guy shaking fist at cloud.  I suppose that's possible, but the quote from the student who felt that she was scammed by the art institute is a quote that could describe a generation or two of people.  It might feel to people who enrolled in a school and never finished a degree that they're stuck with the debt either way.  To bring things back to Hindemith's admittedly scathing remarks on American musical education, if you have a culture that panders to the idea that each and every student could be that special success story regardless of ability, skill, interest, and drive, there's a possibility that American arts education culture could potentially be a scam, but the kind of scam that is all the worse because the educators really believe in it themselves.

Maybe there's room for folk art, art made by people who aren't making any money from what they do but do it as a way of interacting with artists and staying involved in the arts.

And the stuff I wish I had heard more about in my degree-earning years was how many of the musicians and composers had humdrum day jobs.  I wouldn't have heard that Sor had a sinecure in a military position before he left Spain.  Not that people talk up Dussek all that much in undergraduate discussions of music but how and why he bailed on a wife and child would be worth knowing about.  A history of artists running aground on mundane or catastrophic aspects of domestic life is hardly a new thing.

I recently finished a biography about Joseph Lamb, one of the big three ragtime composers and despite his musical activity he trained in carpentry and worked a fairly normal nine-to-five job while having befriended Scott Joplin and Stark and other figures who played important roles in ragtime.  Charles Ives, a bit more famously, was in insurance sales.  As I get older these sorts of composers intrigue me because going through a day job that has nothing to do with music has been the story of my life for decades.  Although I don't exactly regret getting a degree and training in journalism and music I do feel hesitant at best to commend studying the arts to anyone considering more advanced education.  Or, rather, study the arts, but with the idea that it will be a hobby you can share with friends and family.  It seems wiser to suggest people go to trade schools rather than liberal arts colleges in this day and age.  It seems reckless to talk about college for all not so much because education has no value but because the kind of student debt crises I read about don't seem like they will just end if college is free for all.  Societies that I've hear of that get college to work, to go by accounts shared by European friends, have more invested in helping students figue out what they can do with how you test well ... American educational ideas don't seem ... as pragmatic as that ... . We may have too much of a sense of "vocation" entwined in our approaches to education.  But I digress.

the mind games paradox (a haiku)

the people who say,
"I don't play mind games" have just
warned you that they do

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Ellul on the supremacy of critics and criticism in the reception of art in technological societies

A few years back Noah Berlatsky made a point, that criticism is not parasitically related to the arts but, quite the reverse.
The fact is, criticism is not parasitic on art. Quite the reverse; art is parasitic on criticism. As scholar Carl Freedman points out, “The poems, essays, and some of the letters written by Wallace Stevens are literature, while the insurance policies and office memoranda also written by him are not.” For art to be art, someone has to make a critical determination that it is art, and not, say, a laundry list, or an advertisement, or an instruction manual.

The fact that a laundry list or an advertisement or an instruction manual displayed in an art gallery could be seen as art only underlines the point. Anything can be art if you view it as art—which means that it is the critical act which defines art, rather than art which defines criticism.  [emphases added] 
“. . . [T]he foundational act of criticism . . . is the selection of an object, the willed decision to look,” A.O. Scott argues. But that’s surely also the foundational act of art. Art is where the critic looks for it.

Does the critical act happen apart from an institutional context, though?  That's a question that he's probably addressed ... but in light of concerns about how guys on the internet have rejected The Last Jedi in ways that are considered, basically, illegitimate, the question as to how institutionally tethered "the critical act" has to be before it counts is its own can of worms.  Does "the critical act" define the art if we imagine a world in which The Post is rejected as not art where Transformers: The Last Knight is decreed to be art?  Or would someone in Berlatsky's position invoke a conflict between mainstream and indie or between "marketing" and "criticism"?  

Let's see ... :
Commercial art and commercial criticism form a perfect circle of niche attention and promotion. The fact that that niche is considered “mainstream” just serves to neatly erase the choices being made. People are used to thinking of sci-fi fandom, or romance fandom, as a particular audience and market, focused on a particular genre. But mainstream obsessions like “Mad Men” or “Game of Thrones” are seen as the important thing that needs to be covered, not for the particular group interested in “Mad Men” or “Game of Thrones,” but for the general interest of the general reader. The mainstream sees itself as covering the news that matters rather than functioning as part of a particular market. Which is perhaps why The Mary Sue, avowedly a fan site, is able to break out of the cycle and make a critical decision to dump a show they don’t want to support, while Rosenberg, at the mainstream Washington Post, is less able to see the way that marketing and criticism are, in our current moment, inseparable. [emphasis added]

If he thinks marketing and criticism were ever separable that would be the really big mistake.  To even suggest that marketing and criticism could be separable can run aground on the question of whether or not criticism that is not connected to some form of monetization and revenue documentation can be "counted" as really being "legitimate" criticism.  At the risk of using this blog as an example, you could potentially ready hundreds of thousands of words about the history of what used to be Mars Hill Church in Seattle at this blog, but compared to whatever a Mark Driscoll or a Matthew Paul Turner may decide to officially say in books vetted by publishing industries, everything at this blog simply doesn't exist.  A writer once told me that the problem bloggers run into is they are not part of the conventionally institutional press, which at the end of the day only takes itself seriously.  Berlatsky may have a point that without a critical perspective publishing a declaration that X isn't even art until declared so, but that would seem to be part of the trouble with "mainstream" that is not going to be evaded by "indie". 

In this understanding of the arts, the critic is the gatekeeper and the "decider", who gets to decide whether or not something even "is" art.  Berlatsky's way of putting it dovetails pretty readily with Jacques Ellul's description of the role critics play in technological societies.  If in the lowbrow genres critics decide to not take those genres seriously, in the middle and highbrow genres, critics wield their power to decide what things belong, a role more or less overlapping with academic activity as well as journalistic activity.

As lofty as the role of the critic may be to writers like A. O. Scott or Noah Berlatsky, Ellul's description of the role of the critic is a bit more jaded.

Jacques Ellul
Copyright (c) 2014 by Papadakis Publisher 
translated by Michael Johnson and David Lovekin
ISBN 978-1-906506-40-7

page 149

... IF so and so can write that, then I can write this. The imaginary museum counts for much lass than the interrelationship between members of this milieu, which has less to do with Rembrandt and Bach and more to do with this little pal I met at a cocktail party. ...  

page 152

In this vast universe, the art critic finally achieves his principal role. The artist is only a secondary element in relation to the critic who makes and unmakes styles and reputations.  ... Let us note that the art critic is a recent development. [emphasis added] This man who is a scholar of the material in question, music or novel, painting or poetry, who knows all that can be known, who is the true expert in all his knowledge of the imaginary museum; that man, a specialist, a meticulous connoisseur of all the techniques, is incapable of producing anything by himself, but, as the occupant of the public podium, he makes his opinions known. He promulgates evaluations, and he reveals the philosophy and meaning of these works. He decrees what is good for the general welfare, and what will be the legacy of our present world for the future.  He can add nothing to this legacy but his explanations. The art critic did not exist in the seventeenth century, although there were a few hints. In reality, he is a product of the bourgeois, industrial, mass society; he is a shareholder in the culture, whose conscious and willful reality originates in the same era [emphasis added] (along with the idea of culture), ... The critic owes his existence to the mutation of the bourgeoisie: the bourgeois, perhaps uncultured, harried and involved with other needs, and dedicated to utility, does not possess the same understanding of art as the aristocrat. For the latter, there was no need for explanation. By contrast, the bourgeois, the philistine of the Gilded Age, needed explanations, needed to be led to understanding. And, just as businessmen needed their brokers, so, in matters of art, the bourgeois needed their critics in order to discern what kind of art to buy. And for the Bourgeois buying art is an act of status. He must not make a mistake. First and foremost, the critic guarantees the durability and lasting value of the work in question.  The critic is just another business agent whose job is to guarantee status.  [emphasis added]

So, in Ellul's reading of the role of the critic in the arts, the role of the art critic was never separable from commerce and marketing.  It was, by definition, inextricably entwined in marketing.  For all the moments in which arts critics may formally lament bourgeois culture and standards, Ellul proposed that there was virtually nothing more inherently bourgeois than art criticism.  

I was inducted into this realization back in my days as a student journalist covering theater productions.  It wasn't exactly my primary thing as I was more into visual media and music and animation, but I was game to watch a Harold Pinter play, for instance.  But what I saw as nascent journalistic writing the theater folks saw, plainly, as a kind of free advertising.  that's not necessarily a wrong way to put things.  As Ellul himself put it: 

page 153
... The art critic is a publicity agent for modern art. 

But Ellul continued, pointing out that one of the ways in which criticism, collectively, hoodwinked itself was to mistake the emergence of critical theories as equivalent to vitality in the arts:

[ibid]... The link between the discourse of the critic and art itself is so essential that it appears, for example, in the view of Abraham Moles, as a proof of art's vitality. Everywhere they have proclaimed the death of Art, he asserts; now we are witnessing an "unprecedented flourishing of doctrines and movements," which prove that art is alive. However, these doctrines are the work of critics. They produce an infinite amount of discourse on art, but one must remember that this is not art. ...

As Tom Wolfe so viciously and memorably put it in The Painted Word, things had gotten to a point where critics were saying that without a theory of sight and visual cognition you couldn't even see a painting.  Not entirely unlike a narrative in which a priesthood warns the laity that without their interpretation and mediation they cannot comprehend the divine written words, it could be said that art criticism elevated itself to a comparably priestly mediating role, teaching the unwashed what really was and was not supposed to be considered art. 

Ellul's damning commentary on the role of the critic was that all too often their work was a necessary precondition for a great deal of modern art to have any meaning, and that retroactively:

page 154
Clearly minimalist and post-minimalist paintings and sculptures are nothing, absolutely nothing, without explanatory discourse. We are told that it is a "mental" art, which now requires conceptualization and no longer the sentimentality that has ruled art for too long.  I can buy that.  But I do not see in what way a red X traced on a white sheet is in any way "conceptual." Now, I must explain. A work like this has no character or any intellectually discernible quality unless the artist or the master know-it-all steps up and reveals the intellectual process, the means of understanding, and the logic of the work. This is what we could call an "instruction manual of poetics." I'll buy that, too.  But why should this act of drawing two bars on paper be a greater act of creation than that of a lathe operator in a workshop? 

To drive his point home even more aggressively, Ellul wrote:

page 155
... The work no longer speaks for itself; the critic speaks in its place and situates the work in the great current that carries art to this point. He becomes the irreplaceable companion on whom the artist relies. ... 

page 155
I am not at all sure that modern art would have evolved as it has if it were not for the critic. In other words, it is an enormous resource to know that an explicator is behind the artist and whatever he produces; the explicator will take charge of providing a meaning and of decrypting symbols even when non exists. This will happen provided the artist in question falls in line with society and with the current development of sensibilities in artistic milieus. If this happens, the artist no longer has to worry about expressing a "form" attached to a "meaning," and he has the rare privilege of declaring that there is no meaning, that art is pure form; he knows that the critic is the specialist in discovering sense and nonsense, a meaning in pure form that pretends to say nothing. The critic is nothing more than a safety net for a high wire act. The artist, according to the model granted him by modern society, has the added privilege (and one that he always claims) of insulting without consequence the philistine public off which he lives. The critic is there to exalt these insults and to demonstrate that they are really a form of respect for the spectator who is involved in a newly minted reality. But, in order to play this role, the critic becomes a technician of art. He knows its history, its techniques, and its resources better than any artist. And the more the work becomes abstract, the more a technician is required who not only displays his knowledge of technique but, in addition, can elaborate his own techniques for interpretation. He possesses instruments the others do not. The critic, after having become an indispensible character of capitalist bourgeois society, becomes a representative epigone of the technical system. He makes art and the comprehension of art a technique; he leads us to think that there is no such thing as untutored reading or vision (except in those cases where it is false); he establishes himself as the sole judge of success and value, which is precisely the role of the technician.  ...

pages 155-156

The critic, in his current role, and especially in relation to abstract art, fills a social function of monopolistic mediation based on technical competence. He is the technician for arts and letters, comparable to MBAs and other technocrats. And, like them all, he reduces every art form to an ensemble of techniques. It s not by accident that the denial of meaning and a refusal of anything to say is the result of the ping-pong match between critics and artists.  The critic assures his pre-eminence, his social role, his indisputable status by asserting that there is nothing in art which is not hermetic, nothing which is not symbolic in the second or third degree, but that everything is beyond the understanding of the lay person. And the artist plays the same game, assured that his technique will hoodwink the public.  ...

If Berlatsky is right to say that it is criticism that defines whether or not something is even art to begin with, this is, at best, an ambivalent and ambiguous reality about art and reception history and commerce.  

page 156

... IN all cases what the author says is never to be confused with what he wants or would want to say. And it is New Criticism that seizes on an author's real meaning behind what he says. But despite this difference we can conclude with two quite remarkable positions. The first position is the pre-eminent role of the critic, who is situated above the creative artist.  Roland Barthes states this position cogently; there is a kind of hierarchy where one goes from the word to the language, from the language to the work, and from there to the criticism, which is the "ultimate act of literary creation, a symbol superimposed on the symbol created by the work." Without the critic the work is sterile, because the critic is essentially the model for the reader; and so, the work must be studied not as an extension of the one who creates it but of the one who reads it. Reading constitutes the work. Hence, criticism is the fine flower, the ultimate point, the supreme creation of the artistic process.  ...

Ellul summarizes the role of the critic in the technological society by saying:

page 157

... the critic has become the most important person in the world of art, and this relates at all levels to the technicization of society.

The arts critic, though perhaps seeing themselves as a paragon of humanism and philosophy, is functionally the ultimate technocrat, whose word and verdict decides whether or not something is or is not art.  If the artist is the prophet in this bourgeois art religion, the critic is the priest, and those who manage to be prophet-priests or priest-prophets get particularly high notices.  

But Ellul claimed that what these artists and critics were not doing is rebelling against the technological society.  Far from it:

page 164

... Art has become one of the primary forces of integrating man into the technological complex, and that is why art is, as well, the bearer of a political-philosophical message of pure entertainment, perfectly bereft of significance and meaning, because man cannot abide with all the dimensions of the technological reality.

I would not so much say it is bereft of meaning as that in a post-Joseph Campbell entertainment industry that has a monomyth and a cosmogonic cycle, the art that emerges in technological/technocratic societies has a potently refined formula of insert-yourself-here.  

Aesthetic Theory
Theodore Adorno
Copyright (c) 1997 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota
ISBN 0-8264-6757-1

page 346
... Aesthetic experience first of all places the observer at a distance from the object. This resonates in the idea of disinterested observation. Philistines are those whose relation to artworks is ruled by whether and to what degree they can, for example, put themselves in the place of the actors as they come forth; this is what all parts of the culture industry are based on and they foster it insistently in their customers. ...

It isn't necessarily just something consumers do.  The art of criticism can play a comparable role to the philistine stipulation that "I" have to be able to find "myself" in the art that I bother to consume.  A reader-response critical approach can shift this process from the real or hypothetical consumer to a critical reader response paradigm, something becomes art once the "reader" designates it as such.  What a traditionalist or conservative can find ghastly about this approach is that it allows someone to write about an episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic as if it were a novel by Balzac.  These critical tools don't really bring with them the power to separate lowbrow from highbrow.  I thought of linking to a few thousand words by Norman Lebrecht on the history of criticism and its recent decline but I didn't ultimately feel it was necessary.  There may be plenty in the tools of critical analysis that have brought with them a redundancy to critical establishments.  The internet has, perhaps "democratized" arts criticism to the point where some people can be aghast that people over forty have things to say about Into the Spider-Verse.  

What Adorno described generally was an industry that sold to the public the kind of art the public can easily super-impose itself on to.  Adorno was able to state that the culture industry had an illusion of freedom and choice to sell.  Joseph Campbell's monomyth is a more distilled form of the schematic that guides a lot of popular culture.  Despite the aspirational ur-humanism of Campbell's aims his legacy in the 21st century can be thought of as an apotheosis of technocratic means.  We may live in an age in which the most paradoxically anti-humanist legacies have been unintentionally fostered by people who thought they were championing a new and more humane approach to the humanities.  

Ellul on the artist as the emblem of a "freedom" that art consumers experience vicariously by buying into the artist's work

While Adorno and Horkheimer theorized that the culture industry sold a simulation of "freedom" to those willing to buy the wares of the culture industry, they were hardly alone in making the suggestion that the artist and associated arts were in some way a stand-in for a freedom that had to be, at best, vicariously consumed.  This was a point that Ellul made in The Empire of Non-Sense along with a variety of other points.

Jacques Ellul
Copyright (c) 2014 by Papadakis Publisher 
translated by Michael Johnson and David Lovekin
ISBN 978-1-906506-40-7

page 133

... The lie of modern art is in its claim to be the perpetual expression of freedom. These artists who claim to be minimalists, serialists, structuralists, and objectivists convert their subjective nihilism with the system into an object of delight, artistic creativity, and inspiration, and by so doing, they support the illusion of defeating destiny through an act of personal choice. Not only is there no choice, but there is only an abject acceptance of results programmed in advance that betrays man's last line of defense. ... 

page 144-145

... we have a freedom that turns back on itself and destroys itself. Adorno has clearly demonstrated what he calls "the fall back into non-freedom." "Music is an example of this dialectical reversal. The technique of the twelve-tone scale is truly its destiny, which enslaves music while liberating it. The musician subdues music through a rational system only to succumb to this system ... Technique is manifest in the arrangement of material according to its criteria. It then becomes a determining factor, which, in its alienated state, opposes the musician and subjects him to its own constraints. ... "

I want to get to Adorno's scathing remarks on integral serialism in a separate post some time later, but it's instructive that when Ellul wanted to demonstrate how technique in a technocratic society overcomes decision-making in the arts, he invoked Adorno's explication of twelve-tone as technique that becomes self-justifying.

page 145
The world is hard, closed in, unimaginative, ruled by technique rigorous, and hostile. We have neither leisure nor the possibility of self-expression nor the demonstration of freedom (which surely must exist), and so we place all our hopes on the specialists of freedom and personality. And the artist fulfills that self-imposed role. We cannot do without freedom or resign from being a person. The artist is the specialist in playing the role of freedom. This means that the artist is basically a play actor. All that the modern artist does is meant to call attention to himself and to his comings and goings and not to his work.  ... This also relates to the innumerable interviews where we find the minute details of the lives of great modern artists. The reign of "Didyouseemeism" is absolute. The artist who, formerly, sought to create a work is now occupied with creating a personality, and that relates to what we have said about an intent that was especially notable in the generation of Beat Poets--to make an exemplary work of their own lives. And for a lack of anything better, this can be done through drugs and alcohol, and this is, truly, magnificently, a role to undertake. Ultimately (and this is often the case), it is no longer necessary to write a poem or to draw a line: it suffices merely to be there. The drugged artist, because he violates the awful bourgeois morality, is the great artist of his own life. A poet of life experience no longer creates a work but rather provides an act, a product, or an event.  [emphasis added]... 

The moments where the mask supposedly slips off and you see and hear the "real" artist in interviews and memoirs and documentaries withstanding, the artist is selling something, a vicarious kind of freedom the artist supposedly experiences as being able to make a living being an artist in a technocratic society.  In the sense that art is vicarious living ,the artist as persona must continue that process so that people who buy in to the art and the artist are able to feel they are getting their money's worth, at the most literal level, but so that they are able to invest themselves in the artist as a vicarious form of self.  In a kind of reversal of "those who worship them will become like them", that is positively what those who venerate artists and stars want, it is an active hope that the veneration of the artist can allow the fan, by the processes of veneration to, somehow, perhaps mysteriously, become like the artist they admire. 

page 148
... Not only has art become an economic production, a piece of merchandise, but art that challenges and proclaims freedom fulfills an essential function: it's the label, the guarantee that this wonderful society is indeed free because it sanctifies the heroes of freedom and revolution for the admiration of the masses. [emphasis added]...

What Adorno described as the culture industry needed a refined and perfected product and in the form of Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces it arguably got one, the perfected formula of formulaic heroism that can be transposed on to any and every demographic.  In this technocratic art regime the more social justice warrior things get the more truly the formula is allowed to be formulaic.  If Adorno attempted to define "what" the culture industry was and "what" it was selling, Joseph Campbell more or less provided the template for "how" that product has been put together in the lower brow genres. 

This gets me thinking of the abjection of pulp and genre fiction by middlebrow and highbrow art consumers, whether critics, academics or simple consumers.  One of the mundane realities of pulp and genre fiction and the lowbrow genres is the pervasiveness of work-for-hire, the reality that a lot of these genres have trademarked characters for which authors and artists can contribute work but which are corporately owned.  The kind of artist-as-vicarious-freedom and artist-as-persona-of-freedom in what might be called bourgeois art religion falls apart in the pulp and lowbrow genres more generally because how can the artist represent freedom and a counter-cultural ethos when he or she is writing work-for-hire stories for Marvel or DC or Disney or what-have-you?  Now to be sure, many comics writers and artists are pretty liberal and progressive but that matters not a bit to an academic with interests in philosophy and aesthetics.  Whether it's a Justin E. H. Smith or a Roger Scruton, that hardly matters, the sticking point is that comics and superheroes and pulp genre stuff is not the stuff of "real" thinking, and would seem to not fit into the things Ellul described above.

Except that ... the escapism and power fantasies of the pulp genre are so front and center that, really, the boot still fits if you watch Toy Story films. For others who wouldn't be caught dead in a theater watching Pixar films ... there are Frank Stella paintings. 

That's a matter of the artist and the consumer but we live in an era in which there's a mediating figure in the reception history of art.  That figure, of course, is the critic.

Ellul on how artists collapse art and persona in the age of technique

One of the observations Ellul made in his book The Empire of Non-Sense was on how in a technocratic age the artist has shifted from being known for making art to being known as a persona.

Perhaps it could be speculated that in a technocratic era this was, at some level, inevitable.  In an era in which any and all art objects can be regarded as commodities; in an era in which formal ideologies are no protection against art objects and art experiences being co-opted and assimilated by formally opposed ideological viewpoints (and for an example of his, we could just point to the ways in which Western musicians and music historians formulated a potent idea that for all his public fealty to the Soviet regime, Shostakovich had to, somehow, be a secret dissident in the music he wrote); in an era in which even art can be mass produced through a series of techniques and formulas; it might stand to a kind of moral reasoning that the thing that you cannot just mass produce is the artist.

Even this idea, put as bluntly as the axiom that you cannot mass produce artists, arguably, might not be entirely true, and it's an implication in mark McGurl's The Program Era on creative writing programs in U. S. higher education in the postwar period. We have a nebulous but seemingly pervasive bad faith relationship to how much of our art and entertainment is literally and figuratively a corporate product.  It is easier to suggest that Beethoven was in some sense a "result" of a patronage class endorsement as much as a reflection of Beethoven as an individual composer and musician than to come fully to terms with a more disturbing claim, that corporately created art defines our era and that a great deal of it is impeccably well-made and can even have what in other contexts might be called "heart" and "soul".

It could even be noted that in debates about the legitimacy of this or that artist that invocations of collective and collaborative creativity are normal.  For instance, if someone said Duke Ellington was not a singular solitary musical genius on the level of insert-classical-composer-dead-white-guy-here, then people can invoke Afrological ideas or propose that jazz is a more cooperative and collaborative process.  Yes ... but similar observations have been made about early and middle Baroque music in which the figure bass provides merely a schematic of the intended musical results, a great deal of which is left up to the performers who were expected to ornament and vary the melodic and other music materials.  But in marketing terms, selling Ellington as a brilliant musical genius could go the other way, affirming that he really was a singular musical thinker.  We are still beholden at all sorts of levels to the artist-as-seer as a reaction to the increasing development of technocratic and bureaucratic aspects of society.  Depending on what we need the artist to be the artist can be part of a countercultural collective who distills and symbolizes an alternative, or the artist can be the non-conformist genius who sees through all the fakery of society to what is really going on.

Ellul's withering theory about the artist in a technocratic age is that these two scripts are standard issue.  They do not so much rebel against the technological society as reflect it. The artist becomes the commodity by becoming the personality whose existence more urgently needs to be recognized first before whatever it is the artist may actually make.

Jacques Ellul
Copyright (c) 2014 by Papadakis Publisher 
translated by Michael Johnson and David Lovekin
ISBN 978-1-906506-40-7

page 49
The work as an object is rejected and denied; the artist identifies with his art. He is himself a work of art. Long ago Oscar Wilde claimed to make his life an aesthetic work. To achieve this goal, one needs to act outrageously. Humor is not enough. The means are hopelessly the same: alcohol, drugs, sexual inversion, aestheticism, sadism, and at the extreme limits, murder as a fine art. Realistically, we see here a "confusion of genre": the project of making a life successful is a moralist's project. The mistake is to claim that life can be a work of art. Aesthetic criteria are inapplicable (except for self-contemplation, self satisfaction; the claim of life as a work of art has never been more than the parody of Narcissus); to apply Epicurus's thought is not an aesthetic creation. The passage from an aesthetic object to the consideration of one's self as  an object is the final pirouette to avoid the problem, a counterfeit profundity and engagement. Anyone who affects this attitude quite simply ceases to be a creator of art. He can convey an example of life (in his capacity as a moralist!), but he conveys absolutely nothing to future generations as a "cultural legacy." I know quite well that many will shrug their shoulders in the face of such an assertion but this is nothing more than a denial of art itself. The adventure of the Beat Generation poets is quite relevant here: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs ... poets "whose words made everything explode. The limits of the word, of life, of thought ...." Poetry was only an outlet that expressed the pain of living, and they undertook to live this pain. They created for themselves a wisdom. They lived in the slums. They were wandering protesters. They considered themselves saints, prophets, etc. And, clearly, their poetry is a small fragment of their life, with both closely intertwined. But, when one reads these works without a partisan bias, one is dazzled by their poverty of expression, by their childishness ... No, this is not The Drunken Boat. It is a series of blubberings and self-absorption. I am a fascinating personality. Take a close look at me. I'm going to reveal myself. Andre Gide's rheumatism does not interest me. I don't see why I should be interested in the blisters on Kerouac's foot. The life of Kerouac as a vagabond intellectual is interesting in itself but its artistic expression is little more than a trite monologue or else the indirect description of the Beat micro-environment. But, in the end, this expresses the other side of the claim for a connection between art and life. 

...Strangely enough, those who have attempted to make their life into a work of art are led to self-destruction. Watts, who explains time and again that LSD broadens our consciousness, sings the same tune; we are only a part of nature; I am no longer limited by my sack of skin, which means that I am diffused into the universe. He sees one's self as the center of decision-making and consciousness, as a pure and simple convention, an arbitrary framework. By all means. But, then, the logical conclusion is suicide., since nothing makes me different from the rest, from little atoms fused with others. And, indeed, the behavior of all these theoreticians was suicidal. The following contradiction resides in all of this art: the aspiration of an aggressive and hyper-developed ego ends with the abrogation of the life instinct. 

Ellul here provides a more arcane variant on a put-down South Park used about the Goth kids--they say they hate conformity and conformists being conformists but they all wear black, they all smoke, they all listen to the same bands and read the same books.  There's a hipster effect, so to speak, in which the people who aim to not conform to the mainstream culture end up creating a comparably conformist counterculture.

The artist as prophet/priest has never gone away.  Even the artists who might say they are not priests nevertheless discover their priestly roles when they decide to get politically engaged.  Ellul describes that tendency.

page 50
... The artist sees himself as the demiurge ordering chaos. ...
page 51
... In other words, we have the great metaphysical claim: art rejoins life, which translates into, "Life has become a form of art," which also implies that, "All the arts have fused into one another," (the former boundaries and classifications being purely cultural and arbitrary). Only a vast array of possible novelties remains. But, this situation (which furthermore mimics the sensual confusion of certain drug experiences) cannot be maintained except by the most advanced technical procedures. I would say, further, that the existence of these procedures produces the idea of the removal of limits. The most characteristic result of the development of technical means in all domains is the inevitable production of a self-generating progression and a rupture of limits in a transgression.  The confusion among artistic genres is nothing other than a specific instance of the blind and ineluctable application of technique

Perhaps, but the total work of art has, since the days of Wagner, been a goal artists have embraced for centuries.  The ideal of a work of art uniting all media into a single grand account of the human condition never seems to go away.  Technique is part of that, I suippose, but Ellul, since he does have hobby horses, can sometimes seem to forget that even before the emergence of what he describes as the technological society, artists wanted to use techniques to unify massive tetralogical mythologies a la Wagner.  Impulses to technique as a stance preceded what Ellul described as "technique" as an ideology characteristic of modern societies.  What was different was, perhaps, that Wagner used techniques in symbolic and associative ways and in more contemporary art technique becomes something more solipsistic.  Ellul has written about how art shifted from a focus on symbols to technique--techniques have always been developed to express and communicate ideas, symbols, and stories, but art in the more modern era has developed into a milieu in which technique is employed to refine technique.   Art was, in that sense, becoming "meta" before the idea of "metanarrative" began to become "a thing".

page 52
... Thus, all art is trapped between the desire for revolutionary protests and the technicality of all of its operations, including those that expressed artistic tradition and unique, individual virtuosity. ... Someone claims to be a painter or a musician as an identity and is then recognized as such by a group. This mutual recognition is an intentional awareness that enables the differentiation of a piece of metal in a museum from that which the garage mechanic throws in the trash because it is broken or defective. [emphasis added] But the claim of someone who sues the most modern techniques becomes particularly harmful when the message is reactionary; they fight against an art, an aesthetic, and a society that dates from the nineteenth century. They are unaware that using the techniques of the technical system only entrench them more deeply in that system, transforming them into pillars of the current society and not in the one they imagine and fight against. Don Quixotes no longer exist; neither the folly nor the wisdom of Quixote informs. Instead, only a pretentiousness supported by blind ignorance prevails.  

page 53
... Literature and art communicate with ideology because everything has become political. The variations on this formula are endless, but they all say the same thing. They warn against disguised propaganda (for the benefit, of course, of an explicit propaganda although not declared as such); they call for involvement with the ideology of the masses, and they rail against economic constraint, and so on. In its totality, we see here art with a message, which, behind its facade of many Marxist explanations, amounts to little more than an art desperately aligned with a society devoid of signifying power, one of the effects of the technical system.

But, in contrast to committed art, we find a counter current: the technicization of society leads to a disengagement from all forms of message, even that of abstraction, and this absence of message leads to a veritable hypertrophy of technical formalism. (Moreover, in this current of thought, there are at least two possible positions: for some, art must express the ineffable; for others, it must exclusively create forms. In one case, one could say that abstract art, "neither, in its means or goals, evokes visible manifestations of the world." The inner man is, thus, freed to produce reality as he feels it. The artist reveals the concealed world within himself. But, in the other case, artistic creation becomes its own end. We need only concern ourselves with the production of a text, a color, or a musical score.) One no longer creates anything; rather, one creates a form that has not yet existed. That is all. Artists of the committed stripe will argue that other artists are anti-revolutionary and are running dogs of the bourgeois order. Those of the abstract stripe will condemn their committed brethren as retarded and retrograde and mired down in past delusions, because there is no longer the possibility of any message in the technical realm. Here we find the major schism in the art of our time, which, in all its expressions, is torn assunder.  There is no single style. ...

The impulse to create art that is more or less overtly propaganda on the one hand or hermetically self-contained technique refining technique dominates the art of our era, as this era has been assessed by Ellul as well as Adorno.  It was Adorno who wrote that the absolute work of art converges with the absolute commodity.   By the later 20th century into our own century, even the artist has become a kind of "good", and in some cases an entertainer like David Bowie could shift from persona to persona to highlight the artifice of the process.  In a word, camp has been around that frontloads the artifice and technique of artifice into the work so that it cannot be ignored--there have been artistic movements that reject that impulse throughout the ages, just as the have been artistic movements that revel in that.  

But, in the end, Ellul argued that the persona is not necessarily making art, even if the bid at collapsing the boundary between "art" and "life" might convince some people that the persona is art in some way.  Maybe ... but the complaints celebrities have made about the inability of some fans to appreciate the difference between the public person(a) and a flesh and blood human being sticks with me.  As Bob Dylan once put it, you can never afford to forget that John Lennon was murdered by one of his so-called fans.  

That might be a question for art historians and music historians ... what history is there of musicians or artists or writers being killed be zealous admirer/fans?  Is that something that could be relatively unique to the era of "technological society" or has that kind of thing been going on for generations and we just don't get taught it at undergrad level art history?