Monday, June 2, 2008

The afterlife of culture

Chew on this, a review by Alex Good of Stephen Henighan's latest. You may know Henighan as an accomplished poet, essayist and short-story writer. Or you may know him as the author of a silly essay he wrote in Geist that garnered a lot of attention last year which offers a preposterous theory purporting to explain how Vincent Lam came out of nowhere to win the Giller. The whole thing reeked of sour grapes. Henighan's a smart guy and a good writer who's been snubbed by the establishment of literary prize-givers. Still, like Alex, I have a lot of sympathy for his crusade against the corporatization, institutionalization and monopolization of the arts. By those terms I mean that artists, like all producers in every marketplace, serve the people who pay the bills. In the arts that has increasingly meant government bureaucrats, the funding agencies they run and the arts establishment clustered around university departments. The result is art that has become disconnected from the interests and concerns of the general public. It's a situation that is particularly stark in the visual arts which has become almost entirely a purview of elites (funding by government, institutions or the extremely wealthy.) In other artforms the disjunction has expressed itself in severe bifurcation, for example in music, where you have wholly popular product ie. hip-hop which tends to pander to the lowest common denominator in terms of taste and subject matter, and "unpopular" product, the stuff that's deemed good for us but is not viable in the open marketplace, which is funded by and panders strictly to the tastes of elites. I'm guessing that's what Henighan means when he writes about the state of the novel (as quoted by Good) History ceases to be what shaped us and becomes simply the raw material for new book-shaped consumer products. We package it up in the forms of popular entertainment in order to dispense with it. Some of the novels even articulate an explicitly anti-innovative, anti-chronological critical ideology; nearly all abdicate the realist novel's responsibility to engage with the present. The disjunction between popular and non-popular culture, (I don't like the terms "high" and "low" art), if it indeed exists, can't be a good thing for the art being produced. If there is one thing that an artist (writer, painter, musician) should strive for is an art that aesthetically trancends the quotidian while at the same time speaks with immediacy and urgency to the concerns of everyday people.

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