Friday, October 3, 2008

more guides for the perplexed

Like Senator Biden, I need to learn how to summarize my points in fewer than ten thousand words. You betcha, as Garrison Keillor's Minnesota Language Systems taught us to say many years ago.

I have been rambling round the thickets of genetics versus social constructionism in order to take issue both with much of what I learned back in the day and with what many readers out there have learned in the day after that.

I started out studying the world before sociobiology reduced us all to a gene's way of making another gene, but long after Husserl and Wittgenstein had declared that the taken-for-granteds of the "natural attitude" were not going to hack it. I cut my metaphorical eyeteeth (whatever those are) on Berger and Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality, which was enough to make me understand that we not only don't start out as blank slates once we learn our first words of language, we are shaped by the state of conversation around us without having to have the ideas drilled into us by the school system or our parents. (The book left out huge chunks of important conceptual issues and is now very, very out of date as well as defective, but it was a start.)

When I started writing newspaper reviews, I took positions that promptly got me irate members of my peer group buttonholing me to tell me how ignorant I was. And I was, though incorporating their criticisms into my next review was not the way to repair ths deficiency.

Very early on I realized I was writing for a wide variety of audiences, and for reasons expounded by Messrs Berger and Luckmann, those who loved one particular style were likely to have (what to them seemed like) "good reasons" for dissing the other guys' beloved kinds of art.

So while trying to develop terminology within which to describe what makes a work of art succeed within its own terms and its own game (its own "form of life," if you will), I felt obligated to say "If you like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you will like," and let the fact of limited numbers of column inches speak for the assertion that the show was worth visiting for at least some reason.

The subtlety of compressed discourse fed artists' natural paranoia, I also discovered; a single adjective suggesting that a show might be somewhat less epoch-making than the Salon des Refus├ęs in the nineteenth century or "Freeze" in twentieth-century London was taken to be a clue that I hated the artist's work with a passion. It wasn't so.

But working around artists who had actually taken to their bed after a withering review and who would rather have their name mentioned in a laundry list than go completely unrecognized made for some interesting distortions in my perception.

So my feeling is that we need a twenty-first century style of art writing that will address twenty-first century knowledge about the human condition: writing that will stretch the boundaries of audience perception by understanding who various types of readers are, and that will present reasons for finding disagreeable work worthy of consideration, whether the work is disagreeable because it is a sugary Impressionist knockoff with a contemporary difference or because it is an intelligent version of the worst lowbrow-style crossbreeding of anime with an earlier generation's comic-book sensibilities. There are reasons why even generally disrespected genres and strategies can give birth to good art, and even more reasons why genres currently worshipped by the art magazines can produce primarily appalling work.

We need, somehow, to grow into the century that is now almost a tenth of the way through, and into the new millennium (accordingly to the commonly accepted calendar) that is looking ever more millennial in terms of shifts in our most fundamental levels of knowledge. This goes for art as much as for other aspects of human society.

The problem is that newspaper reviews (when there are reviews at all, and focus groups tend to say they don't want them) only allow enough space to say "Y'all should come see this, and here's one reason why y'all ought to do that." It becomes ever more difficult to figure out how to educate an audience that not only does not have time for two thousand word blog posts, they have been given no good reason why they should spend any of their time looking for two thousand word blog posts.

In order to educate, we have first to stir interest.

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