The Multi-Directional Public Pose

Watching Desperate Romantics on Pluto recently I found myself wondering about our current era in arts. How do we approach art making and receiving in our age? Who would the “pre-Raphelites” be?

Each age has an idea about what art aims to do, and argues over it. Having a sense of the goal of art allows one to critique it, to recognize corruption, how it deviates from the ultimate expression of that goal.

Writing this I am reminded of a scene in the movie Dead Poet’s Society in which Robin Williams’ character John Keating has his students rip out the introduction to a book on poetry, which conflicts with his own philosophy of the purpose of literature.

The film came out when I was in college, and the perfect age to accept its message.  It is an age in which your whole life is focused on finding yourself and your place in the world. One of the great challenges is to separate what you really think and feel from what you’ve been taught you should think and feel. And at this moment, Keating’s view that the purpose of art is to lead the viewer to greater self-discovery and self-expression made perfect sense. I cheered the liberation that came with tearing the introduction out of the “Pritchard text.”

A number of years later my father gave me a book that was nearly falling apart. My father was raised in a home that did not emphasize book learning, and after dropping out of high school, he enrolled in the Marines which gave him the opportunity to take the GED and use the G.I. Bill to go to college. The book, Sound and Sense by Laurence Perrine.This book, along with a supportive teacher, was the gateway that allowed my father to become a professional writer.

When I started reading Sound and Sense something about it sounded familiar “Once we have answered the question, What is the central purpose of the poem? we can consider another question, equally important to full understanding: By what means is that purpose achieved?”

After a bit of research I discovered that indeed Sound and Sense was the model for the hated “Pritchard” text in Dead Poet’s Society. Perrine warned against the “false approach” to literature that “always looks for a lesson, a moral, a bit of moral instruction.”

Today I believe Perrine/Pritchard were in the right. The way to judge the value (The film version of the book calls it “greatness”) of a work of art is to measure the result against its aims.

I also recognize that Keating won the day. Today, judging by the many writing blogs I’ve come across, we tend to talk about art as self-expression. We use the word “creativity” to refer to inspiration, not the hard work of making something out of that spark of inspiration. We’re most likely to critique art in terms of the moral instruction embedded within it.  Art is affirmation, instruction and an illustration of how we should be in the world.

Arts movements are influenced by technological change. The invention of photography meant that a realistic image could be captured. This sparked Impressionism as artists tried to capture what a camera could not.

Our era is defined by the invention of ubiquitous computer technology and the interconnectedness that came with the internet.

I would argue that the biggest impact of this on literature is not that ebooks have changed the economics of publishing (although they have), but that the smartphone has fracutred our attention.

I recently went to the theater and during intermission, instead of sitting and talking about the first act, a large portion of the audience was checking their phones. Almost all experiences of art today are interrupted by the checking of Facebook and Twitter. There are pictures of friends, news headlines. Every experience becomes a mosaic or patchwork quilt.

At the same time, we edit out the pauses in some forms of entertainment. We watch an entire season of television in a week instead of over the course of a year with week-long breaks.

Creators can no longer count on their works being experienced in the form in which the artist envisioned them. Everything is remixed.

Books have always been enjoyed in isolation, and now, with streaming, you can enjoy music and theater the same way. You watch what you want, when you want, on a device that is always in your hand.

Yet, while we may experience these media in isolation, we do so with an awareness that we will be called on to act as critic, to give 4 stars or to post to a blog. We will have the opportunity to comment on the work and make that part of our public persona. That makes us self-conscious viewers.

How does the self-conscious audience and the self-conscious creator– aware of how the work might be star-rated and dissected–shape the current art movement?

My sense is that in the online environment, as we fight for attention and likes, and try to “build a platform” in order to have any chance of making a living, we are prodded to see ourselves more in competition for scarce resources than as a “brotherhood.”

It is common to say that the internet has made it possible for the first time for the audience to participate. Art used to be a one way street, the artist created and the viewer consumed. This is true only of the 20th century, when recording and broadcasting made it possible to reproduce and send works across space and time in one direction. For most of human history most art was participatory. People told stories by the fireside, they went to the theater in person, the popular songs were sheet music that you played at home, or songs that you sang at a party with friends.  Artists existed in communities, which supported them and knew them.

What is different in our era is having participation by an audience with whom you have no personal or physical connection. Today an artist can put something out, and it will be built upon, commented upon, and so on, by people the artist has never and will likely never meet. Unlike mass communication it is participatory, unlike the older forms, it is not community oriented.  This environment creates a multi-directional public pose.

So what should we call this moment?

 

 

 

 

 

Bosie the Birthday Boy

The_Age_Sat__Oct_15__1938_2It’s October 22, and being the anniversary of Lord Alfred Douglas’s birth, it is the traditional time to post about his awfulness.  “Evil queen” and “a dick” are a couple of the memorials that flashed through my twitter feed today.

I usually try to find a little something of interest to share on the day. (Last year it was an obscure interview Douglas did about Oscar Wilde for a French journal.)

In 1938, around the time of Douglas’s birthday, The Age, published an article on the old poet’s self regard. Here are a couple of excerpts.

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Desperate Romantics

DesromsI have just finished watching the 2009 BBC 2 series Desperate Romantics, which is streaming for free on Pluto these days.  Ten years down the line, I imagine the statute of limitations on spoilers is probably passed, but if you haven’t watched this yet, I’m letting you know that I’m going to talk about plot points from the end of the series.

Desperate Romantics is a fun (it is customary to say “racy”) modern-paced, boy band version of art history. Dante Gabriel Rossetti is the swaggering front man of the band. He gets all the attention and the women. John Everett Millais is “the cute one.” He’s the guy who can play six instruments well, can learn any instrument he picks up, he writes the tunes that bring the band to the attention of the hot critic of the moment. (Also he wears a fantastic purple coat.) William Holman Hunt is the drummer. They call him “Maniac.” Finally there is Fred. He’s the guy who loves music and musicians, and decides to be the manager.

As in any good VH-1 Behind the Music, we follow the band from its beginning as a brotherhood of struggling artists. Then life experiences and varying levels of success pulls them apart. At the end Millais is trying to get the band back together again but it seems the reunion tour is just not going to come together.

All three of the artists have amorous adventures with women that came into their lives as model/muses. Poor, loyal, Fred–the only one who is not paired up in the series– is the first to spot the aesthetically perfect milliner Lizzie Siddal. All of the artists fight for the chance to paint her, and Millais has the first success. But she is drawn to the bad boy Rossetti, who promises to bring her into the world of artists by teaching her to paint.

The drama centers more on love making than the art making. The only painting that is really dwelt upon is Millais’ Ophelia. It is used as a foreshadowing device, and Lizzie Siddal by the end of the tale, becomes Ophelia, driven mad by love of an inconstant man. This Ophelia drowns herself in laudanum.

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Each episode begins with a disclaimer that historical liberties have been taken. Not knowing a great deal about the historical figures, my commentary will focus on how they were interpreted as television characters.

Millais is the marrying kind. He is serious and stable and blissful in his family life. Hunt is driven by an internal conflict between a religious desire to renounce the flesh and his lust for a woman of low birth. Rossetti is a selfish womanizer whose brief marriage to his co-muse is depicted as disastrous. The a-historical Fred is mostly there to narrate it all.

The passionate relationship between Rossetti and Siddal gets the most screen time and attention. Siddal is drawn to Rossetti because of his talent and because he can usher her into a new world. She has artistic ambitions of her own, and he helps her to realize them, in spite of his own occasional jealousy at her success as he struggles.

She worries that he will never marry her and give her security. His inability to commit is chalked up to his enjoying the chase and only wanting what he can’t have. Yet, after Siddal almost dies from an overdose, Rossetti reluctantly marries his great love. Rather than being happy ever after, it is the beginning of the end. For Siddal’s artistic mentor John Ruskin stops giving her financial support and tutoring after she is a married woman, and Rossetti is already flirting with his next model at the wedding.  The distraught Siddal takes her own life.

Rossetti is crushed and vows to change his ways. He throws a book of poems that he wrote into her grave. In the last scene, however, he digs the grave up in order to retrieve them.

Thus the problem is cast as Rossetti, and by extension, Hunt, valuing art over relationships. The drama seems to come down firmly on the side of relationships over art. These men could not really love, and that is a tragedy.

In our culture, we tend to attribute characters’ actions to innate personality and character and we give much less weight to societal and external factors.  Was Rossetti broken emotionally and Millais healthy or could there be another explanation for the successes and failures of their relationships?

All of the members of the brotherhood prioritized creating art. Rossetti had less commercial success. To prioritize art, for him, meant financial struggle and irregular income. (He is squatting in someone’s atrium for most of the story.) Millais had early, and continuing, commercial success. This allowed him to prioritize art while making the kind of comfortable living that would allow him to raise 13 children with the help of various servants.  If Millais were squatting and only getting the occasional commission he might be as reluctant to marry as Rossetti. If Rossetti were rich he might have bought a palace for his muse, and even if he did have affairs, it might not have threatened her entire sense of safety.

It strikes me that while we do tend to chalk male character’s actions up to “character” we make more allowance for the effect of social forces on female characters. We’re quite ready to see female characters as being acted upon, in spite of their best efforts. Although Lizzie Siddal is a strong character, with talent and ambition in her own right, she is thwarted time and again by social forces. When she marries she becomes, in society’s eyes, a wife, and loses her external financial support for her art. Yet, she is not married to a man who can give her the traditional role of wife. He is reluctant to have children. He is powerless to support her career. He is not even able to stay focused on her when he finds a new muse model.

After her death the brotherhood sits with Rossetti and discusses the tragedy of his character, his inability to love what he can have. We’re not invited to question Siddal’s love for Rossetti. Does she also prioritize art over love? Is she attracted to Rossetti because she believes the only way to realize her art is to attach herself to this man?

Whether Siddal actually took her own life, or whether it was a tragic accident, has been much debated.  The official report was accident, but Siddal as Ophelia is a much better story.

Watching this series got me to musing on what artistic period we’re living in today, and that will be the subject of a future post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Microaggression”

I hate the expression “microaggression.”

Don’t get me wrong– I think the concept itself is important. The idea behind it is that it is often not large overt actions but a never-ending series of small slights and assumptions that keep people marginalized.

We should all try to be more aware of the little things that we might do that uphold unfair systems.

But I hate calling these behaviors “microaggressions” because calling it “aggression” assumes that the person who mis-genders someone, or makes the knee-jerk assumption that the woman is the secretary not the boss, is doing this purposefully in order to harm the other person and keep her in her place. It assumes that the speaker intends to uphold a system that marginalizes other people. They intend to harm you in order to assure their own elevated place. In the vast majority of cases this is not true. These are not microaggressions but microignorances.

Here is why I think this matters.  If you assume a person is behaving with a violent intent– that they mean to do you harm– there are only a couple of ways to respond. You can attack the enemy or you can wall them off and avoid them to avoid being attacked again.

Neither of these responses does anything to solve the problem of ignorance. In fact, if the other person feels attacked, it can have quite the opposite effect, causing them to write you off as an enemy and use that as evidence that their prejudices are justified.

I would like to share a moment from last night’s Equality Town Hall on CNN. This is presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, who is gay, talking about finding common ground with people who have been taught that people like him are sinful.  (An attitude that actually goes beyond “micro” behavior to overt discrimination.) Buttigieg’s view is that faced with people who have a hard time changing their views “we are called to compassion. We are called on to seek out in one another what is best…”

This is what viewing the problem as ignorance rather than aggression looks like.

 

Beautiful Untrue Things

“Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art.”-Oscar Wildewi-3

(There is a new book by Gregory Mackie by this title, but that is not what this post will be about.)

Have you seen this quote on an Etsy cross stitch or t-shirt? “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”-Oscar Wilde.

This thought obviously strikes a chord in our times. Wilde never actually said it, nevertheless it is one of his most famous sayings, along with another thing he never said “I have nothing to declare but my genius.”

If you look up posts on Twitter, you will invariably find this quote and attribution, and occasionally Wilde experts will chime in to correct it, but it never makes a dent. The misquotations outnumber the corrections 500 to 1, maybe more.

I once tweeted, in response to one of the corrections, that maybe we should just give up and let that be an actual thing Wilde said.

“Never,” came the reply.

So Wilde didn’t say that.

But my saying so will not do much to stem the tide.

Nor, I am afraid, has my research done anything to put a dent in the popular narrative about Oscar Wilde: Living a peaceful, upstanding life until he met the spoiled and reckless Lord Alfred Douglas, who introduced Wilde to “the streets,” Wilde tried to get away from him, but could not resist him. Douglas led him into a dangerous battle with his father, coerced him into a clearly reckless libel suit, which everyone else urged Wilde not to file, abandoned him when he went to jail, and tried to tarnish his legacy years later.

Anyone who follows stories about Oscar Wilde in the media (social and traditional) will encounter variants on this story. Some parts of this story are just plain wrong: Douglas did not abandon Wilde. Nor was he the only one who encouraged Wilde in his libel suit. Many people, including most newspaper journalists, thought it would be a disaster for Queensberry, not Wilde. Some rest on little evidence: the idea that it was Douglas who introduced Wilde to “rough trade.” Some is complicated: the nature of Wilde and Douglas’s relationship. Some, like Douglas’s mid-life religious conversion and bitterness towards Wilde, deserve more contextualization than they usually get. It is, as I see it, and wonderfully complex story, full of colorful characters with good and bad traits, all story-tellers with a desire to spin events as their own personalities dictate. So much nuance, which is so often lost in the re-telling.

Should I just give up and let the popular version be the history?

 

 

The Commodification of Time

I got to musing about time.

I was thinking about that wistful feeling when you think back on a book that you wrote, which meant a lot to you but which failed to set the world on fire. Thinking about the process of writing the expression “invested so much time” flitted across my brain.

I stopped to consider why was I using an economic metaphor to think about time? Time is something I “spend” or “invest.” I suspected that “invest time” was a modern expression and I checked the Google ngram viewer.

Invest Time Gif

As you can see, the expression “invest time” and its variants really gained traction in the 1960s and has been growing ever since. “Spend time” had a bit more use early on, but it seems to have grown with industrialization and really rocketed, along with the expression about investing time, in 1960.

Spend Gif

As I was born after 1960, I found it hard to come up with a comparable, older, expression to test against these. I drew a giant blank. The closest I came up with was to work for many years on something. This lacks the aspect of laboring over a period so it will pay off (another financial expression) later. Reap and ye shall sow.

What I’ve learned from all this pondering is that I find it surprisingly hard to break out of the frame of thinking of time as a precious commodity that can be spent or invested as one would budget a salary.

Maybe Arlo Guthrie has it right:

Playing to the Cameras

Recently Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was on the Daily Show. She shared her view that oral arguments before the court should not be televised because the temptation to play to the cameras would change the nature of the proceedings.

Sotomayor believes that partisanship in Congress started to grow when cameras were allowed in. Since then senators have been standing on the empty senate floor speaking “to the camera not to each other… Many senators told me that they felt much of the collegiality died when they stopped getting together in that room and were forced to listen to each other and were forced to sit next to each other and talk to each other.”

Bloomberg today shared a clip of presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg who has invited a press pool to travel with him on his bus. This is something, they note, has not been done since John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” in 2000. The candidate pointed out that this means that campaigning hasn’t been done this way “since the social media era began.”

Why have a bunch of journalists, who might not present you as you’d like, follow you around when you can reach the public directly with a tweet?

In both cases, the Senators speaking directly to the camera, the presidential candidates tweeting directly to the public, you’re bypassing confrontation and pushback, and also bypassing the natural empathy that tends to come with face to face conversation. It is much easier to caricature someone’s position and use it to your own ends when they’re not sitting beside you.

It’s not just the politicians though. Voters play to the cameras too. Buttigieg observed that instead of shaking hands, the people who meet him want a photo with him.

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A handshake is just between two people. It can not be shared with a wider audience. We’re more focused on having something to show to the people not in the room than on the quality of the interaction in the room. The unobserved moment may as well not exist.

It struck me that in the social media age we’ve all become adept at playing to the cameras. We have more outlets than ever to share our views with the world, and at the same time, our desire to have two way conversations has dwindled.

You see the result in a lot of disputes where people do not even think to talk to a person directly before going to an authority or the public to complain. “So and so said/did this and it made me uncomfortable and he/she should be fired…” And in response, the problem the organization seeks to solve is often the PR disaster rather than the interpersonal conflict between these individuals. They, too, play to the cameras.

We have an entire attention based economy, where we try to “build platforms” and get clicks and likes. (Chris Hayes had one of the best observations about social media, he called it, if I remember rightly, “weaponizing our human need for affirmation.”)

As I previously mentioned here, Pew Research Center shows that social media actually stifles discussion on important issues. That is probably not surprising. What is of greater concern is that the researchers found that social media users were less likely to share their opinions even in face-to-face discussions. We get used to framing things in the least controversial manner in order to avoid being unfriended or unfollowed.

Because there is nothing everyone agrees on we form little safe zones online where we assume most people will look at things as we do. Within these tribes the range of discussion and thought becomes homogenized.

Is it possible that the pendulum has swung as far as it can in the direction of broadcasting ourselves and that we’re due for a shift back to a culture that values community and face to face interaction over being known to a large impersonal audience? Have we all used our proverbial 15 minutes and gotten sick of it? Time and Twitter will tell.