My first impulse in writing about this topic for this issue of Scene4 was to lay out an argument that relied on a metaphor of "verbing." It would work this way. Instead of trying to define the noun called "art" — that is, trying to capture some sort of "essence" — I instead wanted to concentrate on art as a verb, as "arting," efforts made by people to create something beyond the utilitarian and the instrumental, to create something special out of the coarseness of life. In short, the usual aesthetic plea that art is something different from, or other than, "ordinary life."
But doing it that way feels a little embarrassing, actually, old-fashioned, even sort of geezerish, a special pleading nostalgic in its roots and intentions. And this reticence comes of recent reading of people like Richard Rorty, Umberto Eco, Michel Foucalt, Alain Badiou, Slavjov Žižek, Jean Baudrillard, Jean Nouvel, and many others — call them post-modernists or deconstructionists or post-post-modernists — the name doesn't matter. Despite the contradictions and controversies among these writers, they share one trait, and that is to see the world created by humans as contingent, predicated on chance, bare of certainties, shorn of essences, a battleground of interpretations some of which can be privileged only by the exercise of power and domination. There are no "better angels" in this world, only language shared about what the words "better" and "angels" might mean in a given historic context mediated by competing political and cultural interests.
My parents hate this sort of world because it takes away from them the self-importance of believing that their principles — and the holding of principled stands — are a bulwark against chaos. It steals from them a feeling the pride that comes from standing fast against the barbarians of relativism, greed, discourtesy, foul language, atheism, and the rest of the disintegrations ushered in by modernity. They see themselves as a kind of hero, standing up for standards, that is, for civilization.
I understand why they do this. They have, as the base for their intellectual and emotional lives, a sort of Platonism, the belief/hope that outside of or beyond the corruptions and delusions and mutability of the "real world," there is a "realer world" of unchanging guidelines for living that will outlast their corruptible flesh, truths and truisms good for all times and places and available to anyone who cares to take the time to learn and practice them.
This is, of course, Christianity as filtered through modernity and capitalism and reduced to an adjective called "conservative" — this belief that there is a world beyond this one only visible to, and usable by, the elect. This is also a Christianity shorn of a concern for social justice and resistance to power — but that's a Platonism shared by the other side of the aisle, the progressives, who build their own wishful barricades against a different class of barbarians.
Now, having just said what I've said, I know it's dangerous to assert that "the world" is one way rather than another since any "way" seems to have no privilege of truth over any other "way." But here's how the world seems to me. I don't see any evidence of any Platonisms of any kind. In other words, if tomorrow — today — all human life disappeared, there would not exist in some noumenal realm a vault of collected principles that some other species, if it achieved its own version of human consciousness, could access and download. It seems more likely to me that we simply make up whatever we need to believe whenever we need to believe it. Some of these made-up maxims take on weight through a connivance of history and power and thus acquire the feel of eternal solidity, but it's just a feel, and a "feel" is not evidence of anything except itself. (An aside: I'm always amazed at how people believe that if they feel strongly about something, then that something is real because they feel strongly about it — as if a strong feeling validates something other than itself and is the ultimate litmus test for authenticity.) Accepting that "time and chance happeneth to them all," as Ecclesiastes states, is not a comfortable option for most humans since it means accepting that life is pretty much a crap-shoot rather than something more exalted and purpose-driven.
But if life is a crap game, with the odds always in the house's favor, that fact doesn't mean we are powerless to do anything with the situation. (Notice I did not say "do anything about" the situation. Until we come to a point in our science where we can banish mortality, we cannot change our own demise, and our death is the only sure thing in an aleatory world.) We can choose a life of crime or justice, sloth or endless "projects," and so on and so on, the point being that we can narrate ourselves into any shape we want. In other words, we need other words to create an individual life — I would go so far as to say that each individual human life, outside of its biological creatureness, is a creation of language. Richard Rorty, in his "Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity," makes the same point. We are the vocabularies we use. "Human nature" is a language game, and if the words stop, then we stop as well.
So what does this have to do with art in 2008? Just what it would have done in any other year. There is no Platonic "principles of art" out there somewhere that can be appealed to as tests or proofs of whether a particular artifact or activity is "artistic" and thus merits some level of heightened attention and praise (or blame) on our part. There are no cosmic apothegms about the "nature" and "purpose" of art which we can job in to settle a dispute or prove anything one way or another. There is only our "art-talk," and this art-talk is simply our deployment of vocabularies to justify and explain why something I personally like should be, or at least might be, liked by other people, just as "art" itself, as a human activity, is simply private obsessions made public with the hope that they will remain public, in the public eye and ear, for quite some time.
If art is just art-talk, then everything becomes art-talk's subject, making Brittany the equivalent of the Sistine chapel, and appealing to "standards" is just another vocabulary come out to play. And it doesn't matter which art-talk is applied, be it the commerce of an auction at Sotheby's or a personal blog on a sliver of the music world, since any art-talk is just as good or as bad as any other art-talk. In fact, "good" and "bad" are irrelevant terms — there is just the talk and your personal response to it, which can lead to more talk and still more.
Decline of civilization here? Surrender to the barbarians? A misguided melting-down of categorical boundaries? Maybe. Probably. But my take on the argument I've laid out is not that understanding art as art-talk flattens anything or devalues anything but shifts the focus from making distinctions that have no grounding in what, for lack of a better term, I'll call "fact" to an expansion of personal freedom to view the world and talk about it any way one feels moved to talk about it, and not have that talk subjected to a barrage of unsupportable critiques based on aesthetic "principles" that have no existence outside of their breathy intonations released by a human throat and mouth. I, for one, welcome anything that expands personal freedom, that is, the conditions that support and cherish continual self-creation, especially if that expansion comes at the expense of the outing of capital-T "Truth" as the chimera and alienator that it is.
This argument would drive my parents crazy, wedded as they are to the belief in "standards" and "principles" that exist outside of, and outlast, their own individual existences. Their rebuttals would include variations on the following: humans are beasts unless they are made to adhere to values that are cosmic and eternal, such as those found in their own Catholicism (and "made to" is the operative phrase here); without defensible, and defended, distinctions, everything becomes flat and coarsened; older is better than newer and "the new"; humans cannot handle freedom and need to punished often to remind them of this. I cannot deny that some of what they say has weight — history provides them with some support — but in 2008, we cannot really reject — and do not really want to reject — the post-enlightenment, post-French Revolution, post-modern legacy of the freedom for individuals to realize their understandings of the world in ways they choose to live out those understandings with some large degree of private unrestraint.
So, the big question comes down to this: do we want freedom or do we want Truth (with that initial cap)? And, in terms of the subject of this essay, do we want art or do we want Art? Here is my art-talk about an answer. The old ways — canons, the Great Books, etc. — are gone as arbiters and reagents and measurements. This doesn't mean they don't have value, and their value as gatekeepers may come back around, as things often do, but at this historical moment, they exercise little or no power — in part because their power was always bogus, a matter of class interests, but also because fewer and fewer people know this history — certainly our schools don't do anything to promote it and keep it alive. So let's recognize that the old ways exist well off to the side of our cultural lives, possibly in an on-deck circle that has yet to come to bat but not currently in play.
This means that everything we consider "art" is now level with itself, that no standard is commonly accepted as a way to distinguish and rank. All there is, is talk, and more talk about that talk, and endless and instantaneous circulation of all this talk through the Internet, texting, and so on. As well as endless talk about how coarsening all this is, how commodifying of our human essence, and so on.
Now, we can hunger for Art and the mild but corrosive authoritarianism that comes with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down attitude at what passes by us in the human parade. Or we can be patient with this welter of vocabularies, pay attention to what is happening, and use what we learn to exercise our own freedom to (re)imagine ourselves into a continuous existence.
It is also important to remember that the art of any age — what an age, however defined, calls "art" — is always, in the words of Jean Nouvel, a majority of minor works. Our notion of "great art" is an anointment based on prejudice and self-interest and a certain amount of "magical thinking" about essences and eternalities, which then gets solidified into institutions called museums and approved ways of seeing and responding called "aesthetics." The truer truth about an age's art is that what moves, delights, prompts, dismays on a day-to-day basis are things that simply come and go — that make their entrances and exits and then wait around for a desperate PhD student to find them for a dissertation. I have recently started to haunt YouTube and have been taken by how much of what is there is worth my time to watch. Most offerings would not be considered "great" by any canon's checklist, and, unless they become viral, will not have a long shelf-life. But at work is the freedom that digitalization has enabled — now everything can be sampled and recycled, low-cost technology has taken away the gatekeeper imposed by expensive equipment, social networks can reach millions in an instant. It doesn't matter if most of what is produced is not considered "art" by the doyens of culture (if such people even exist anymore) — the most important points, at least to me, are that people are making things rather than retreating into silence, and that others are both finding worth in the things getting made and moved to make their own things. What more could a culture want in order to maintain its vibrancy and survival? If technology permits anyone to get into the game — if technology allows anyone to become an "artist" — then the upshot is not that there will be no "real artists" but that people are turning their lives into a kind of art — they are "arting" themselves — and what could be wrong with that?
So, for art in 2008? May Web 2.0 continue its tentacular reach into every crevice in its search for connection and audience. May some of this urge towards private self-articulation find a mode of public expression that feeds into and nurtures political changes for greater justice, less suffering, an actual, rather than rhetorical, equality. May more children in their decrepit schools get more chances to make art, both as a way to give their voices an out and also to help them arm themselves against an adult world that seems to have little respect for them. May we simply keep moving forward in expanding and expanding our imaginative selves, building new vocabularies and new humanisms. If we use art to do this and more, then the "great art" of the age will be us — in reality, the only art-product really worth striving for.