the art of the ordinary

Short form:

Many artists have embraced what Trilling called the “adversary intention.” From an anthropological point of view, this is strange because it means that the people in our culture given greatest liberty to engage in cultural innovation end up using it in the mechanical reproduction of “resistance,” ‘transgression,” and the “alternative.” This is a little like insisting that the only alternative to due North is due South, when in fact there is quite a lot of compass left to explore (as it were). This post compares the art of Spencer Reece, our hero, to that of Jon Routson, that schmuck.

Long form:

Sunday’s NYT gives an account of Spencer Reece who works as an assistant manager at Brooks Brothers in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. After years of 23 years of refusal and rejection, Mr. Reece is on the verge of the poet’s idea of stardom. He will have his first volume published this month. He was recently published in the New Yorker and he just won the Bakeless Prize for new authors from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College.

Those who saw his New Yorker poem will have been struck at the way in which Mr. Reece took such clear and patient interest in his subject matter, working in a men’s clothing store. I couldn’t remember the last time that a writer took such an unsneering tone towards the everyday, especially the commercial everyday. The NYT tells us that “The Clerk’s Tale” “portrays…the interior lives and routines of the kind of people society tends to overlook. In this poem, they sell clothes at the mall.”

This makes Reece conspicuous because many more artists have signed up for the “adversary intention,” as Lionel Trilling called it. Trilling asked writers to “detach[] the reader from the habits of thought and feeling that the larger culture imposes, [and give] him a ground and a vantage point from which to judge and condemn, and perhaps revise, the culture that produced him.” This no doubt makes for stirring feelings of self righteousness, but it also makes for pretty predictable stuff, on the one hand, and atrocious anthropology, on the other. (There are so few anthropologists studying contemporary culture that those of us who do always hope that artists will help out. Those who have not fallen into the tractor beam of the adversary intension often do.)

A couple of days ago in the New York Times, Roberta Smith complained that new laws designed to discourage the “pirating” of Hollywood films will prevent artists like Jon Routson from making art. It turns out that Mr. Routson makes his art out of images taken from Hollywood films.

Here’s what Ms. Smith had to say:

It does not matter whether you think that Mr. Routson’s work is good or bad art; it is quite good enough, in my view. It does matter that the no-camcorder laws may not do much to stem pirating while making it increasingly difficult for artists to do one of the things they do best: comment on the world around them.

Our surroundings are so thoroughly saturated with images and logos, both still and moving, that forbidding artists to use them in their work is like barring 19th-century landscape painters from depicting trees on their canvases. Pop culture is our landscape. It is at times wonderful. Most of us would not want to live without it. But it is also insidious and aggressive. The stuff is all around us, and society benefits from multiple means of staving it off. We are entitled to have artists, as well as political cartoonists, composers and writers, portray, parody and dissect it.

I have to say that I felt the world spin briefly at the second sentence of that first paragraph. Commenting on the world around them? This is one of the things artists do best? Actually, they don’t comment very well at all. What they do generally is condemn and the thing about condemnation is that it is too busy with grand rhetorical gestures to give us anything as nuanced or useful as a comment.

But it’s the second paragraph that really gave me pause. For it plays out the prejudice with which artists, under Trilling’s spell, condemn contemporary culture, insist on its bankruptcy, justify their estrangement from it, and then mandate, an art that comments on the world only to scorn it. (I am giving Trilling all the credit here. Plainly, this is a larger cultural tradition. We mustn’t forget Baudelaire’s “Il faut épater les bourgeoisie.” “We must shock the bourgeoisie.”) In other words, Smith is insisting that artists get special dispensation from the law so that they can help themselves to a culture on which they heap ridicule. I don’t doubt that they have and must have this right. I do doubt that they have used it in an interesting or useful way.

Thank goodness for the likes of Mr. Reece.

Norwich, William. 2004. O, Khaki Pants! O, Navy Blazer! New York Times. Man 9, 2004.

Smith, Roberta. 2004. When One Man’s Video Art Is Another’s Copyright Crime. New York Times. May 6, 2004.

Trilling, Lionel. 1965. Preface. In Beyond Culture: Essays on Literature and Learning. Lionel Trilling. 9-16, New York: Penguin Books, p. 12

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