Joe Alterio's blog on illustration, comix, design, animation, and other bouts of total awesomeness.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Tyranny of Ideas


OK, folks, put your brains back in: back to story school. This is a slightly edited email from from my friend Kevin, over at Video Haiku. It's a long one, but worth it, I feel:

So I spent two weeks in the mountains this summer with this French family (I did a handful of video haikus from there), and the father of the family is this really well respected sociologist at the Sorbonne named "Michel Maffesoli".

He basically built a name for himself, over the last 30 years or so, developing kind of an all-encompassing theory of modern society, which I found pretty interesting. It's built on a base that comes partly from Nietsche, which in turn comes from Aristotle, way back. The idea is that just like there are two different currents in dramatic storytelling - tragic and heroic - those dynamics can be applied to society as a whole.

The heroic idea postulates that man is master of his life, his destiny and his fate - that character can prevail, that great things are possible, and that victory (however it is defined) is achievable.

The tragic idea, by contrast, postulates that man is ultimately vulnerable to forces greater than himself, and ultimately doesn't choose his path - he can only react to the world around him, the choices he is given, etc.

Maffesoli applied these terms to modernity, and then postmodernity - the modern is marked by the believe in heroic ideals - we WILL change the world, utopia is possible, we can win this war and create an enduring peace, etc. And postmodernity, then, the opposite - civilization is inherently violent, there is a more or less constant amount of suffering in the world, we're doomed already by climate change, plague, nuclear war, etc. etc..

And so, in the last hundred (or maybe fifty) years, we've basically passed from a heroic epoch (expansion, colonialism, utopianism, empire) to a tragic epoch, from maybe the late 70s onward.

So how this relates to art... one of the encouraging things he talked about was the social aspect of modern (heroic) art vs. postmodern (tragic) art. Modern art as a kind of impersonal force - modern society selects its artists, its Voice, and they say sweeping and inspiring things, pointed toward the future...

Whereas the postmodern artist's role is local, immediate... in tribal societies, and pre-modern (I guess you could say tragic) societies, everyone was an artist - everyone created things, played music. You were responsible for your household and your community, so if there was going to be a party, someone would have to play the guitar and sing... plus things that seem mundane, like painting family portraits, quilting, furniture making, even cooking - were all opportunities for expression.

So now, in our current age, we're finally seeing a reemergence of community art - and digitial video, youtube, and myspace are all elements of it. People making things in spite of their limited knowledge, experience, resources, etc... just because they want to.

But things like writing, and especially cinema, (and I'm sure like gallery/fine art, painting and photography) are still in this really unhealthy "modern" place, where people want something, and pursue something, without any visible path to get there... and that's why people get frustrated and ultimately bail out altogether. Put another way, the audiences for those things aren't scalable - except, now, with blogs and flickr and youtube.

Which comes back around to your "narrativist" and "academic" construction - makes a hell of a lot of sense, and it's maybe a nicer label than "Postmodern" and "Tragic" (which are both weighted terms) - the academic is trying to confine their process and output to a modernist template, make it "fit in" to the larger world, of cinema or whatever - what's newer, better, bigger. Whereas the narrativist is choosing to make something for its own sake, to contribute to a community, and therefore naturally will evolve to a sort of equilibrium between what the community wants/needs and what the artist chooses/can provide.

While it's probably not interesting to a lot of young artists, the thought of rising only to the community level (Go Public Access!!) it is the natural order of things, that everyone doesn't get to be famous, and it fits into kind of a more mature sense of finding one's place in a system - what fits, what works - rather than insisting upon conquering that system.

But the thing is, the societal structure for "art" (except maybe music) is still set up for the Modernist era - it's kind of a relic.


Thanks, Kevin. Someone give this man a teaching post somewhere.

This brings up obviously a lot of interesting points, the largest of which is really the 900-pound gorilla in the corner: Did the rise of all-encompassing gatekeepers really signal the end of the the Heroic/Academic establishment as we know it?

To make such an argument gets you called a socialist at best, and an anarchist at worst, and while I know some of y'all may relish such labels, I'd like to keep the discussion focussed more on art. However, the intersection of these two forces- overwhelming commercial institutions involving themselves in art (or "content", in the parlance of our times) aquisition, and the established adademic meritocracy founded more on self-reflection rather than true experience- makes for a mighty convincing argument as to why artisans find it harder to get by on their craft these days.

But what does this have to do with my original dissection of the way art is made (In summary, either from the brain or from the gut). I think Kevin makes a good point, in that the established art world- as well of those "Outsiders" to the Crown - is still in the heroic/academic model: make nice with the right people, get in the right shows, get on the covers of the right magazines. This is a specifically top-down enterprise, nearly feudal in it's manifestation (witness, for example, the trend of the most famous installation artists like Cristo not even doing their own sketching anymore, but rather having a sycophantic grad student drafting at their bidding).

I guess this gets back to the arugment of whether "art" is the idea or the execution, but I find this a spurious argument. I think the only way this idea got legs was by operating under a sort of tryanny of ideas, the assumption that the idea of the hero, agreed upon by the powers that be to be "important", is so hallowed that his or her ideas are the currency. And again, politics intersects art: this to me seeems a type of aristocracy of ideas, in which the individual is nothing, and only the chosen lords are then accepted idea makers. Execution is art, by any pluralistic standards: anything else veers off into the dangerous territory of biased interests making judgements for the good of the whole: essentially, art oligarchy.

This model of society, and how it is reflected in the art world, makes sense in their comparisons in some regards: after all, "the art world" for a long time was nothing more than the results of patron's whims: even The Great Masters were nothing more than extensions of European merchant largess. Art schools have their ancestry rooted in master's apprenticeships, all of which depended on the full free flow of patronage, and as a result -surprise!- often times the master would teach specifically to what certain patrons wanted.

I suppose the one missing link for me is the notion that the 'Heroic'is, as Kevin puts, "an is master of his life, his destiny and his fate - that character can prevail, that great things are possible, and that victory (however it is defined) is achievable": to me this postivism is not based in reality: it is positive about expansion and manifest destiny, and correctness about the established norm, but not, I would argue, true 'heroism': the 'tragic' empowerment of every artist to me is a much more liberating and positive notion.

It stands to reason such a system would eventually entrench itself in the world, and if there' one thing we can all learn from history, those in power don't like to give it up. So, if Kevin's drawn parallels are correct, the established 'academic' art process and creators are merely drawing on the heroic top-down colonialist system that has controlled our age up until this time. The freeing of human thought since the early 60s: the end of colonial powerstates, civil rights, sexual and gender movements to freedom, as well as the empowerment of such user-based technologies as the internet, desktop publishing, home recording and the like, all engender the more 'Narrativist' art movement that was established early in the 20th century and is only coming to full blossom now. It means we are in a new age of enlightenment, one in which the traditional power structures, from art schools to movie studios, fall to their knees under the onslaught of single "tribal", user-generated art. It means that we all can't be on the cover of national magazines any more, but you WILL sell out a show at your local bar.

I don't think I can in good conscience call that "Tragic".

3 comments:

Kurt Landis said...

Interesting. I'm not sure if you're supposed to see the terms of 'heroic' and 'tragic' in a literal way. But your argument that the entrenched art world is promoting souless art is a compelling one, with a lot of evidence in galleries all over America.

Kevin O said...

I didn't call it tragic, dude. Maffesoli called it tragic.

None of those ideas were actually mine - I just took his ideas, and your ideas, and put them together.

So I guess I am ready to teach...

Joe Alterio said...

But what is teaching besides drawing parallels? Leave the philosophy to the philosophers...this man needs tenure!