Monday, August 30, 2010

Art in the Post-Democracy Era (or The Inspiration of Dictatorial Constraints)

You might want to grab some dressing to flavor this bowl of raw thought salad.

So over the weekend, I read the New York Times review of Milan Kundera's new collection of essays titled Encounter, and was particularly intrigued when the critic quoted the Czech writer's opinion that "we have come to the era of post-art, in a world where art is dying because the need for art, the sensitivity and the love for it, is dying.”

That is a statement we could discuss in some depth, but it reminded me that I haven't heard as many people talk about being in a "post-art" era recently as we had a few years back. And, to be honest, I wasn't sure what the latest, most widely accepted definition of "post-art" was, knowing that how something is defined is usually as political as the implications of its significance. So I googled "What does "post-art" mean?" which turned up this great piece by Deborah Fisher I had forgotten about, Post-Art Manifesto And Eponymous Blog-Killer. In particular, this notion jumped out at me:
I learned how to make modern art. Contemporary art is a modernist activity. And I honestly think that the only way to catapult over the problems we have--everything from the impending Climate Death to this Economic Catastrophe to Rampant Fundamentalism (from ecofundamentalism to jihad and the GOP)--is to find what lies beyond the modern world.
Knowing what lies beyond the modern world would indeed provide direction for citizens and artists alike, but transitions are usually deceptive, often all but impossible to get a good grasp on while actually happening. Hindsight is generally the only serious way to even begin to organize what truly mattered versus what was reactionary or simply noise. What seems obvious, though, as the limitations of Liberal Democracies seem to be being reached in conjunction with what looks like the biggest heist in human history (i.e., the money that banks managed to squeeze out of the US treasury before dropping its ravaged rind into the wastebasket) is that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are more willingly traded in exchange for prosperity and, most of all, security by the masses than would have flattered our forefathers.

The experiment that has been the United States of America will likely continue under its current Constitution, but more and more I hear people (very intelligent people) argue that a benevolent dictatorship wouldn't be the worse way to run things, especially if that brought with it a reasonable amount of economic stability. Historically speaking, such thinking isn't as heretical as it is an accurate and objective observation. In 15th century Florence (which had the only representative government of all the Italian states then), for example, each time the Florentines pushed for less corruption among the Signoria and a more open and fair form of democratic government, they found the competing tenets of Christianity and Capitalism brought about constant wars and civic strife. By pretending to simply have a representative government that all but the dullest knew was tightly controlled by a benevolent oligarchy, the Florentines prospered, and how. The checks and balances of such prosperous times were provided by competing wealthy families, not other branches of government, as well as how easy it was to turn any abused population into a blood-thirsty mob. Yes it was much more violent, but at its best it was also stunningly efficient.

What I suspect, in addition to Liberal Democracy, is also potentially reaching its limits is its driving Humanist ideal: individualism. One of the ways previous centuries of people dealt with hardship was by maximizing their resources within their extended family units (forming micro-economies and governments, if you will). Individualism and globalism has spread families out to where this isn't as easy any more. We hear about 20- or 30-somethings moving back in with their parents to save money, but that's seen as an undesirable, and hopefully temporary, situation, whereas before it was viewed as a source of a family's strength to pool their resources and work together as a team. The same people who I hear muse on the potential benefits of a benevolent dictatorship also see a return to extended family coalitions as a positive part of that scenario. In other words, they seem to instinctively long for a pre-Enlightenment social structure, as if it were genetically hard-wired into our species to live that way.

But, asks the myopic dealer, would such a structure serve art? In the recent thread here on whether "huge leaps" in art were still possible, many people questioned whether huge leaps were even desirable (which I personally would answer "For me, yes."), but Franklin cut to the chase and noted that "Innovation doesn't happen in the absence of constraints."

Are the kind of "constraints" that would come with a benevolent dictatorship the kind we want, even if they would bring about innovations in art? From the point of view I was raised in, the answer would be "Absolutely not! Corruption squashes individualism, and individualism is essentially for meaningful artistic expression." But, if I'm honest, I have to acknowledge that despite our Constitution, despite centuries of hard-learned lessons, corruption is ubiquitous everywhere humans set up governments and always has been, even in the US...so such sentiments are a bit naive at best.

Moreover, there is the matter of how you side in the other perpetual debate Milan Kundera raised: "the disagreement between people for whom the political struggle is more important than real life, than art, than thought, and people for whom the whole meaning of politics is to serve real life, art, thought.” Fighting for a political system that is not serving real life, art or thought very well is about as anti-Humanist as it gets.

Don't get me wrong. I like Liberal Democracies, even as messy and hypocritical as they are. I am comfortable in them. I am not advocating for a dictatorship here, nor do I applaud them elsewhere. I just think that whatever comes next for the species, and our art, can't ignore some of these human tendencies and paradoxes. We can continue limping along with our cynical blinders on...and, here in the US at least, probably will. But it's tough to get excited that or the art it will produce.

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10 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm interested in the idea of a return to an extended family life. With people having longer life expectancies and fewer children, there is less political will to address the needs of this population. Older adults may feel more a necessity to rely on the extended family. Younger people may feel they need to have more children or at least familiarize themselves with their relatives just to help them get to the end of their long lives.

One possible plus would be that more loyalty and commitment could result from this need allowing a depth of connectivity that technology doesn't provide. I imagine many are looking to China for early indicators of what's to come.

No sociologist,
Cathy

8/30/2010 10:46:00 AM  
Blogger Saskia said...

I love salad!
Re: your Deobrah Fisher quote and
Knowing what lies beyond the modern world would indeed provide direction for citizens and artists alike, but transitions are usually deceptive, often all but impossible to get a good grasp on while actually happening.

In my humble opinion, Burno Latour navigates the question of modernism and the way out better than anyone else I've read.
He has certainly given me a lot of direction on that question. If you haven't read We Have Never Been Modern , I'd highly recommend it to set the course, and many great essays about where to go from here.
He talks more about science than art, but still, very applicable, I feel.

As for Milan Kundera, I have my doubts that we are post- anything!

8/30/2010 11:27:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Just to be clear, I wasn't talking about political constraints, which are a disaster. Your intelligent friends flirting with the idea of benevolent dictatorship should ponder what will guarantee benevolence. Justifiable pessimism about human nature revived democracy in the 18th Century in the first place.

I was talking about the constraints that come with a genre. There are two phases of innovation, the first of which takes place within the genre, and the second that defies it. In the first phase you have a framework that allows you to pursue quality within its parameters. The innovations that happen here are largely technical as the details of expression within the genre are worked out. Eventually that framework becomes enervated as minor practitioners flood the genre and it becomes difficult to make work that is both good and novel. Ambitious creators then innovate in defiance of the genre, and the innovations in the second phase are stylistic. Some of those innovations are strong enough to spawn their own genres and the cycle starts anew.

Those are the constraints that are absent in visual art at the moment. At some point fifty or sixty years ago, defiance of convention, which is a means, was mistaken for an end, and this misconception was taken up at the highest levels of the art world. As a consequence, we are now all minor practitioners. Some of us are just more minor than others. People have talked about the current lack of a hegemonic style, but you could describe that just as aptly as a lack of genre. We haven't had a major genre since Pop and likely won't get a new one as long as the defiance of convention remains institutionalized.

8/31/2010 09:59:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I didn't say it was a logical "thought salad"..."constraints" had morphed in my thinking to something else. Of course you're right. (I think I responded on the other thread to indicate I had at least once firmly understood that...the influence of too much beach and cocktail time)

The friends who are at least intellectually flirting with the idea of benevolent dictatorship acknowledge that corruption will likely really screw unlucky members of society but that if the population the dictator rules is larger enough, mob responses will keep wide-spread abuse in check.

They point, of course, to China as an example in which a more enjoyable/practical level of individual freedoms come through 1) economic prosperity; and 2) too many people to micro-manage each one. The idea being that corruption can control you as anywhere (think of the small American town in which you really are at the mercy of the local sheriff), but at least among billions of other people you have as much freedom as anyone elsewhere can reliably count on.

8/31/2010 10:06:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

"A more enjoyable/practical level of individual freedoms" than what, Iran? They should investigate the extent of freedom over there. Maybe start with this.

8/31/2010 11:52:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Is that a new variation on Godwin's law? Citing Iran in a discussion?

Your article begins by citing, as an example of the lack of freedom, the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square. Why not bring up the Shanghai massacre of 1927?

I've never been to China, but friends who have suggest it's changed a bit since then.

As your article notes, it's all relative. Yes we enjoy more individual freedom in the US than they do in China, but in China they're seeing amazing progress in the quality of life of a large swath of the population. For those folks, these are the golden years. How many folks in the US would say the same of 2010?

Again, it's all relative.

8/31/2010 12:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

It's a fair question - a more practical and enjoyable level of freedoms than what?

Why not bring up the Shanghai massacre of 1927?

Maybe because Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975 and the party responsible for Tiananmen is still in power. Why not bring up the Warring States Period? Did you notice that the despite the Tiananmen reference, the article was from 2007, and the last three years haven't negated any of it?

There are many ways of measuring quality of life. Social scientists have demonstrated that quality of life improved in Somalia under anarchy relative to its previous dictatorship. Can I interest your friends in anarchy?

8/31/2010 12:49:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

@Franklin, Bollocks.

The average life expectancy in Somalia is 49.2 years. That's 30% below the world average of 67.2 yrs and 40% below the US average of 78.2 years.

Using just about any other quality of life measurement, Somalia will generally fall into the lowest quartile, hardly a notable argument for anything other than failure.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_life_expectancy

8/31/2010 06:46:00 PM  
Blogger Brent said...

Under various forms of constraint, many types of art can flourish, but I am not comfortable with generalities.

You have to look at the specific output, and innovation and make a (subjective) call.

Not all innovation is useful, furthers the dialogue - and in fact in many authoritarian regimes, the dialogue is set by the regime - either softly through subsidy, or toughly with restrictions.

9/01/2010 12:31:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

In the absence of a Somali state and its institutions, the private sector grew "impressively" according to the World Bank in 2003, particularly in the areas of trade, commerce, transport, remittance and infrastructure services and in the primary sectors, notably in livestock, agriculture and fisheries. In 2007, the United Nations reported that the country's service industry is also thriving. Economist Peter T. Leeson, in an event study of "the impact of anarchy on Somali development", found that "[t]he data suggest that while the state of this development remains low, on nearly all of 18 key indicators that allow pre- and post-stateless welfare comparisons, Somalis are better off under anarchy than they were under government." [source]

Still, on the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia.

I am not comfortable with generalities. You have to look at the specific output, and innovation and make a (subjective) call.

This is wise. It's edifying to reach into generality sometimes but the specifics of art remain as intractable as ever.

9/01/2010 01:25:00 PM  

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