Jed Perl on why great art is triumphantly intolerant
Art critic Jed Perl (writing in the February 5, 2007 issue of The New Republic) observes that "We have entered the age of laissez-faire aesthetics." The ruling assumption of this age is that "any experience that anyone can have with a work of art is equal to any other." Perl examines the work of a number of specific artists, all highly fashionable (and exceedingly well-rewarded for their work), and admits that this moment in contemporary art is "reminiscent of the mentality of a number of collectors in the early 1960s." That was a period when Pop Art burst on the scene, when figures such as Andy Warhol unashamedly exploited the dynamics of fashion and entertainment to upset the aesthetic rigors of the mid-century art world. The difference between then and now, however, is disturbing: in the 60s, Pop Art and the subsequent movements it inspired "were self-consciously ironic: they depended on the existence of a standard that was being mocked or from which one was registering a dissent. Irony, even in the whatever-the-market-will-bear forms that it often assumed in the 1980s and 1990s, was generally accompanied by at least the afterglow of a moral viewpoint. The artists were mocking something. They had a target. This is what has now changed. Laissez-faire aesthetics makes a mockery of nothing. Even irony is too much of an idea."
Perl's criticism of laissez-faire aesthetics is not a charge that people are unconcerned with aesthetic excellence. It is a recognition that "excellence" is experienced in different registers. An "excellent" football game and an "excellent" symphony offer experiences that engage us in different ways. Failure to acknowledge this difference, in the interest of "democratizing" culture, is a great loss. Perl writes:
When the collecting of art takes on that familiar pop-culture buzz, we are seeing a diminishment of the variety of artistic experience, and this variety is among the glories of any culture. Baudelaire may have been the first to point out that one of the great pleasures and privileges open to an educated audience in a modern society is the possibility of experiencing both high art and popular culture. And why on earth shouldn't it be possible to enjoy The Sopranos and Sex and the City, which we take in with thousands of other people, and also the new work of an abstract painter that may be known to no more than a hundred? The trouble starts when people begin to imagine that all these experiences are equal.
Jed Perl's essay contains further discussion of the distinguishing characteristics of high culture and popular culture, distinctions that are of central concern since the current aesthetic mood seems incapable of making any distinctions.
The trouble is that fewer and fewer people are willing to recognize the fundamentally different nature of various forms of cultural experience. And make no mistake, there are essential distinctions that must be made. It is in the very nature of popular culture that its pleasures are ones that we share with a wide range of people simultaneously. And it is in the very nature of high art that its pleasures are ones that we experience as individuals. To insist upon this distinction is not to say that one experience is better and one is worse, it is only to clarify the character of each experience. The art in popular culture has everything to do with creating a work that catalyzes a strain of feeling in the mass audience. High art operates in a completely different way, for each viewer comes to the work with the fullest, the most intense, the most personal awareness of the conventions and traditions of an art form. The essential high-art encounter is a private encounter—but we are living in the YouTube era, when people are often uncomfortable with privacy, with its challenges and its revelations. The intensity of the high-art experience has everything to do with a disengagement from the pressures of the present. It is the unquantifiable experience par excellence.
Perl concludes that the reign of laissez-faire aesthetics promises "a tolerance of everything—high, pop, whatever: a tolerance so bland that it really amounts to indifference." When we contemplate the truly lasting works of culture from any age we realize that they are "anything but easygoing, . . . always daringly, rightfully, triumphantly intolerant."
Jed Perl's article, "Laissez-Faire Aesthetics," is available on The New Republic's website to subscribers. [Posted April 2007, KAM]
A recent article in the American Scholar suggests that academics in the humanities should be challenged by the work of their colleagues in the sciences who have shown that reality is not socially constructed. In Getting It All Wrong: Bioculture Critiques Cultural Critique, author Brian Boyd states that the work of scientists reveals a givenness to reality; he addresses how knowledge of that givenness is manifested and the foundations upon which it is based. The findings of science, he explains, demonstrate that components of reality can be known with surety but also that such knowledge is complex and incomplete. These findings challenge both the postmodern notion that there is no givenness to reality (nor—even if there were—could people know it with any degree of confidence) and the modern notion that knowledge of reality is potentially complete. These findings also challenge the assertions of academics in the humanities, particularly those who study literary criticism and who claim that knowledge of reality is difficult if not impossible to attain, and always contingent on time and place. Boyd compares and contrasts the way the disciplines understand knowledge. He also attends to the different opinions literary studies and the biological sciences have about whether or not reality can be known.
Boyd states that scholars of literary studies critique works of literature in order to understand the culture that produced the work, not in order to examine the work's artfulness, nor to gain knowledge and wisdom about the world and the human condition. Such wisdom and knowledge—because it would apply in all times and places and because such all-encompassing truths do not exist in this worldview—cannot be known in general, and particularly cannot be known in literature. Boyd describes how the biological sciences' understanding of knowledge and truth differs from this view. The biological sciences, he states, have proven how difficult it is to discover knowledge of reality's givenness; when scientists test a seemingly straightforward hypothesis, they often find that it contains a more complex description of reality than they had first imagined it would. But through such testing the sciences have shown that knowledge is possible and that there are solid foundations upon which to base it. Scientific work indicates that some particularities can only be rightly understood in light of some generalities. It has suggested that situatedness (the idea that all statements of truth are only true for their particular time and place) can include the unique situation of being human (i.e. that some statements of truth apply to many times and places because human nature's essence is fixed). Boyd writes that these demonstrations call into question the anti-foundationalism and situatedness advocated in many literary studies departments.
Boyd's observations parallel those made by professor James K. A. Smith on volume 82 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal. In the Journal interview, Smith discusses how postmodern thought accounts for knowledge of reality. Postmodern thinkers do not use dogmatic, objective statements to describe reality. Instead they tell stories about their experience in and of the world. Smith points out that while the stories vary, the fact that they are about the same sorts of things indicates that there is a givenness to reality and that people can know it with some amount of confidence.
The conclusions of both commentators indicate that the Church is on firm ground when it insists on the possibility of knowing truly. They also provide tools for the Church as it seeks to preach and to embody truth in an increasingly hostile culture. [Posted March 2007, ALG]
Living chastely in today's culture is made especially challenging by confusion in conventional thinking about sexuality, sex, and marriage. For example, the message is widespread that casual sex is beneficial for everyone involved. In an article published in the Times Online, author Dawn Eden argues that such is not the case at least for women and introduces her recently published book on the subject, The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On. In the article, "Casual Sex Is a Con: Women Just Aren't Like Men," she notes that the Sixties generation made "free love" socially acceptable and that following generations have been reaping the painful consequences. Eden writes: "Whatever [Germaine] Greer and her ilk might say I've tried their philosophy—that a woman can shag like a man—and it doesn't work. We're not built like that. Women are built for bonding. . . . however much we try and convince ourselves that it isn't so, sex will always leave us feeling empty unless we are certain that we are loved, that the act is part of a bigger picture that we are loved for our whole selves not just our bodies."
Sex, feminism, chastity, modesty, courtship, and love are all subjects addressed on the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal. Previous conversation partners include Wendy Shalit, the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, and Amy and Leon Kass. [Posted January 2007, ALG]
Before 2006 gives way to the New Year, Books & Culture is taking one last opportunity to pay homage to the 250th anniversary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's birth. The November/December issue of the periodical offers "The Triumph of Genius: Celebrating Mozart" by Jon Pott. Pott, the editor-in-chief of Eerdmans Publishing Company, attends to what eight authors or theologians have written about Mozart and his music, mentioning—along the way—the types of music Mozart composed and his relationship with his father. Pott also notes the genius of Mozart's music, which is technically exquisite and full of "equanimity and poise."
"The Triumph of Genius" is available online. MARS HILL AUDIO paid tribute to this anniversary year through an interview with professor of music Calvin Stapert on Volume 80. [Posted December 2006, ALG]
John McWhorter, Dana Gioia, and Daniel Ritchie are a few of the guests who have talked about language and its use on the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal. Adding to the discussion from another corner is editor and writer Joseph Rago. Rago reflects on blogs and how their writers use and abuse language in a piece published in the December 20, 2006, issue of The Wall Street Journal. In his editorial, "The Blog Mob," he compares the writing on blogs to other types of writing, stating that it is a sad thing to imagine that blogs are progress away from mainstream media and traditional journalism.
[Posted December 2006, ALG]