Lebenskünstler

The unfunny joke and the unartist: the metaphysics of absence? A comedian and an artist walk into a bar…

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 09/20/2015

Excerpts from Welcome to the Age of the Unfunny Joke by Lee Siegel (marked “LS”) juxtaposed with quotes from Stephen Wright (SW) and Allan Kaprow (AK).

LS: “In the unfunny joke, the comedian’s format is the Trojan horse that makes its way into your secret store of feelings as you wait genially to be entertained. The surprise is the unfunny truth that cuts through your consciousness with the force of a sword.”

SW: “…though informed by art-related skills, their work suffers from — or, should we say, enjoys — impaired visibility as art. Yet this impaired visibility may well be inversely proportional to the work’s political efficacy: since it is not partitioned off as ‘art,’ that is, as ‘just art,’ it remains free to deploy all its symbolic force in lending enhanced visibility and legibility to social processes of all kinds.”

LS: “Comedy is becoming an occasion to abandon humor for the exposure of unsoftened truth. Of course, comedians have always had license to be blunt so long as they cushioned their provocations with humor. In the case of the unfunny joke, however, the humor is absent.”

AK: “…the idea of art cannot easily be gotten rid of (even if one wisely never utter the word). But it is possible to slyly shift the whole un-artistic operation away from where the arts customarily congregate, to become, for instance, an account executive, an ecologist, a stunt rider, a politician, a beach bum. In these different capacities…[art] would operate indirectly as a stored code that, instead of programming a specific course of behavior, would facilitate an attitude of deliberate playfulness toward all professionalizing activities well beyond art. Signal scrambling, perhaps. Something like those venerable baseball aficionados in the vaudeville act that began, “Who’s on first?”

LS: “These people are professional comedians and most of their acts are spent making people laugh. But there is a schizoid dimension to comedy now. As fiction merges into autobiography, and movies based on actual events proliferate, the compulsion for comedians to smash through the artifice of comedy and tell the unadorned truth without humor is becoming stronger and stronger.”

“Nowadays the abstractions of aesthetic and intellectual criteria matter much less to me than people’s efforts to console themselves, to free themselves, to escape from themselves, by sitting down and making something.” – Generous criticism for perilous times

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/25/2013

Burying the Hatchet – Lee Siegel

Criticism was socializing by other means. And since socializing in those narrow literary and intellectual precincts consisted of egos battling for position, status, friendship, and love, it was inevitable that the criticism embody and sometimes exemplify what Delmore Schwartz—no mean takedown artist himself—once called “the scrimmage of appetite.” Pulverizing reviews were not taboo because the victims could always make their retort at the next social gathering, or on the pillow, or in one of the journals that served as kitchen tables for the extended family of writers who published there.

In the popular imagination, the intellectuals—especially the so-called New York intellectuals—were hugely influential, but this is a distortion. Hannah Arendt’s “Reflections on Little Rock,” published in Commentary in 1959, caused few ripples outside her own circle, even though Arendt’s argument that the United States was wrong to pursue integration at that moment was incendiary. By contrast, her article “Eichmann in Jerusalem” caught on in the larger culture because she published it in The New Yorker, one of the dreaded “middlebrow” magazines that was then in the process of making intellectuals like James Baldwin, Dwight Macdonald, Elizabeth Hardwick, Mary McCarthy, Alfred Kazin, and Harold Rosenberg prominent national figures.

The insular, hothouse atmosphere of postwar intellectual combat is where, about twenty years after it disappeared, I schooled myself in the dark art of the takedown. I can now see the irony of my situation—or, as those bygone critics would have said, my “position.” My awareness of my own ineffectuality in the world also led me to seek out the power conferred by words. But the world had changed. I was not practicing a shared style. I was cultivating an idiosyncrasy: I was one of the few critics who carried a hatchet.

What had once been nicely divided into highbrow and middlebrow culture—even at the time a crude formulation of a complex reality—had become a wildly eclectic place where “high” and “low” and everything in between existed side by side. A critic I admired as I was starting out was Robert Hughes, who reviewed art for Time, ruminated more deeply on culture in the New York Review and in the back of the New Republic, published serious books on serious subjects, and introduced people to art in television series on PBS. His style was gripping, elegant, and, above all, popular. Though I didn’t share his fierce aversion to much contemporary art, I thought that the way his career blurred the distinctions between “high” and “low” was exemplary.

Authority is a slippery thing, and its nature is going through yet another permutation in literary life. There are plenty of young, gifted critics writing fiercely and argumentatively in relatively obscure Web publications. But they are keenly aware that, along with the target of their scrutiny, the source of their own authority is also an object of examination. Macdonald simply took for granted the fact that membership in a community conferred on him a certain accredited brilliance. This is what, for me, makes reading him now an incomplete experience, because the group that certified his judgments has disappeared. Literary criticism on the Web, on the other hand, draws whatever authority it has by renouncing any claims to authority. The Web critic relies on his or her readers for attentiveness and approval. A social style is gradually replacing an idiosyncratic one—whether it’s n + 1’s collective tone and worldly references to literary coteries and cliques or Choire Sicha’s slyly self-deprecatory exclamation marks.

Twenty years ago, Robert Hughes might have taken up the subject of Andy Warhol with a demon barber’s gleam in his eye. Instead, this article by Nick Faust in the online journal The New Inquiry, though its occasion is a reflection on Andy Warhol, captures the new spirit of criticism. It is a positive critique of the genre’s social possibilities, and it is expressed in a social tone:

    Likewise, art writing must attempt to draw new connections, weaving in unpublished, hushed talk that always gets spoken but generally not on the record. The documentation of the piece, the Facebook posts, tweets, and vines that surround such work, the gossip about the work in the bathrooms of the gallery and outside during the smoke breaks and back in the patios and bars after the opening, the press releases both in unchecked email and listserv format, and the 10,000 art-opening invites that networked artists receive each day on social media, the write-up of the work, the studio visits, the sketching out of the ideas, the conversations that influence and sustain the practices—all these are rich and evocative and can provide tremendous energy and meaning to a work and extend its life out beyond.

In other words, the critics will leak the total secret context surrounding a work of art—Edmund Wilson meets Edward Snowden! The French Annalistes wrote history in such a way, characterizing a moment in time by reconstructing its finest, most mundane details. Why not a criticism that draws from the same energy? I have no idea whether it would be successful, but I love the possibility of it.

Applying old standards to a time when everyone is throwing everything they can at the proverbial wall to see what sticks is like printing out a tweet, putting it in an envelope, and sending it to someone through the mail. The very fact that reading and writing are in jeopardy, or simply evolving, means that to try to put the brakes of old criteria on a changing situation is going to be either obstructive or boring. In our critical age of almost manic invention, the most effective criticism of what, in the critic’s eyes, is a bad book would be to simply ignore it, while nudging better books toward the fulfillment of what the critic understands to be each book’s particular creative aim. The very largeness and diversity of present-day audiences make less and less relevant the type of review that never gets beyond the book under review. It’s the critic’s job nowadays not just to try to survive and flourish amid ever-shifting modes of cognition and transmission, but to define new standards that might offer clarity and illumination amid all the change. Quite simply, the book review is dead, and the long review essay centered on a specific book or books is staggering toward extinction. The future lies in a synthetic approach. Instead of books, art, theatre, and music being consigned to specialized niches, we might have a criticism that better reflects the eclecticism of our time, a criticism that takes in various arts all at once. You might have, say, a review of a novel by Rachel Kushner that is also a reflection on “Girls,” the art of Marina Abramović, the acting style of Jessica Chastain, and the commercial, theatrical, existential provocations of Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus. Or not. In any case, it’s worth a try.

New demands for new times are the big-picture reasons I’ve lost the taste for doing negative reviews. I have smaller, personal ones, too. Having become an author of books myself, I now find that the shoe is most definitely on the other foot. I once dismissed as maudlin the protest that one shouldn’t harshly disparage a book because the author poured the deepest part of herself into it. What, I replied, has that got to do with defending civilization against bad art and sloppy thinking? Nowadays the abstractions of aesthetic and intellectual criteria matter much less to me than people’s efforts to console themselves, to free themselves, to escape from themselves, by sitting down and making something. In my present way of thinking, mortality seems a greater enemy than mediocrity. You can ignore mediocrity. But attention must be paid to the countless ways people cope with their mortality. In the large and varied scheme of things, in the face of experiences before which even the most poetic words fail and fall mute, writing even an inferior book might well be a superior way of living.

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The despotism of theory and careerism – Slackers, the humanities, and understanding the difference between laziness and leisure

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 08/27/2013

Deinstitutionalizing the Humanities? – Peter Augustine Lawler

[This addresses a piece by Lee Siegel that I posted earlier. Sometimes I roll with conservatives.]

Siegel reminds us that literature wasn’t taught in our colleges until the end of the nineteenth century because reading novels and poetry “were part of the leisure of ordinary life.” That’s what an educated person did, and not, of course, for college credit. Thoughts and imaginations were shaped by literature as much as anything else. Sometimes they may have been silly thoughts and romantic imaginations—such as the chivalrous southerners who were moved by Sir Walter Scott to choose a very bloody and very optional war. And sometimes, as in the case of Abraham Lincoln, Shakespeare and the Bible almost all alone were enough to discover and “communicate” both the urgency and poetic/theological significance of the seemingly prosaic American proposition.

There was, as Siegel suggests, a kind of “existentialist” moment that began after World War II and persisted through part of the Sixties. The focus on one’s personal destiny in a world distorted by technology and ideology—a world that produced unprecedented mass slaughter—privileged literature over other forms of “communication.” Insofar as philosophy was existential—and so obsessed with Camus, Heidegger, and Sartre, even it seemed more like literature than a technical or “theoretical” discipline. The goal was to save reflection on the truthfully irreducible situation of the particular person from the clutches of theory. The predicament of the person born to trouble—or at least a brush with absurdity—is what novels are about. And the insufficiency of philosophic prose to display that predicament explains why Sartre, Camus, and Walker Percy, for philosophic reasons, wrote novels. It is close, at least, to why Plato wrote dialogues and why St. Augustine wrote his Confessions.

As the great critic Lionel Trilling pointed out, it might have been near-ridiculous to teach books that should make us radically discontent with our ordinary lives in the newly standardized format of American higher education in the 1950s. And it increasingly became doubly ridiculous to have those books taught by careerist professors with the souls without spirit and heart of specialized scholars. It might be triply ridiculous to expect administrators, bureaucrats, and other certifiers of competencies to be able to understand—much less articulate—a credible defense of “the humanities.”

The existentialist point of “the humanities” is to experience the mysterious singularity of the particular being stuck for a moment between two abysses, born to love and die, to be moved by the sometimes inexpressible suffering of the being who must love and die, to experience the joy of “insight” with others, an experience that has nothing to do with “collaborative learning.” …

…They were about concerns that should animate one’s whole life. But today, we sadly say, the humanities aren’t typically a refuge from either the despotism of fashion or the despotism of theory, much less the despotism of careerism. That’s one reason among many they seem like a boring waste of valuable time for most students.

Given what most of our institutions of higher education are really like today, Siegel celebrates their abandonment of the humanities. Now literature is free to flourish somewhere else. It’s true enough, I can add, that Socrates never taught for money. And he never could have gotten tenure. He didn’t publish, and his student evaluations would have been uneven. It’s far from clear why it would help a great writer to get any degree at all, and certainly not one in “creative writing.” Someone could argue, of course, that things were different when people routinely read real books outside of class. But there’s no reason why they can’t do so again.

There is probably something to Siegel’s perception that the effort to defend the humanities everywhere in our educational system might be misguided. Maybe the focus should be on “countercultural” (which doesn’t mean all about the Sixties) institutions that exist in a communal context and that have what it takes to resist standardization, trendy theory, and the understandable but still excessive focus on techno-productivity. Maybe they can in some indirect way elevate us all.

Or maybe we should ask that there be just a lot more celebration of the diversity that still characterizes higher education in America, even in particular institutions and sometimes within particular departments. The enemy of this diversity is standardization—what comes from shamefully intrusive accrediting agencies, government bureaucrats, the use of “branding” and various forms of management-speak to describe liberal education, the adoption of the skills-and-competencies model (which is okay for tech schools) to evaluate higher education, and the insistence that the standard of productivity should drive all educational funding.

One advantage of standardization, of course, is that it holds slackers accountable. But we shouldn’t work too hard to get rid of all those slackers (such as those “tenured radicals”). Otherwise, we’ll too often mistake leisure for laziness. We might even mistake metaphysics, theology, poetry, and so forth for self-indulgent pursuits that don’t prepare students for the rigors of the competitive twenty-first-century marketplace. More than ever, it seems to me, it is essential to hold members of our “cognitive elite” to a standard higher than productivity. All Americans’ lives would be less pathological—and so, for one thing, more productive—if imaginations were, once again, filled with “real books.”

The fig leaf for mediocrity known as “theory.” – Literature vs. The Academy

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 07/30/2013

Who Ruined the Humanities? – Lee Siegel

The disheartening fact is that for every college professor who made Shakespeare or Lawrence come alive for the lucky few—the British scholar Frank Kermode kindled Shakespeare into an eternal flame in my head—there were countless others who made the reading of literary masterpieces seem like two hours in the periodontist’s chair. In their numbing hands, the term “humanities” became code for “and you don’t even have to show up to get an A.”

The college teaching of literature is a relatively recent phenomenon. Literature did not even become part of the university curriculum until the end of the 19th century. Before that, what came to be called the humanities consisted of learning Greek and Latin, while the Bible was studied in church as the necessary other half of a full education. No one ever thought of teaching novels, stories, poems or plays in a formal course of study. They were part of the leisure of everyday life.

…In that moment, teaching literature as an investigation of life’s enigmas struck a deep collective chord. Majoring in English hit its zenith, yet it was this very popularity of literature in the university that spelled its doom, as tendentious pedants of various stripes accelerated the academicization of literary art.

In contrast to the effects of World War II, the purposeless bloodshed of the Vietnam War made all authority suspect. That was when teaching literature acquired an especially intense ideological fervor, when university radicals started their long (and fruitless) march through academic institutions armed with that fig leaf for mediocrity known as “theory.” And that was when majoring in English began its slow decline. The rest is today’s news.

Only a knave would applaud the falling-off in the formal study of books that cultivate empathy, curiosity, aesthetic taste and moral refinement. But the academic study of literature leads to nothing of the sort.

Trilling was exasperated by the absurdity of teaching morally subversive modernist works in the morally conventional precincts of a university, to the point where he somewhat hysterically exaggerated what he called the “force and terror” of modernist literature (there is terror in Syria, not in Gide). But he was, after all, a college teacher, and he was not able to see that the classroom also ruins literature’s joys, as well as trivializing its jolting dissents.

But once in the college classroom, this precious, alternate life inside me got thrown back into that dimension of my existence that vexed or bored me. Homer, Chekhov and Yeats were reduced to right and wrong answers, clear-cut themes, a welter of clever and more clever interpretations. Books that transformed the facts were taught like science and social science and themselves reduced to mere facts. Novels, poems and plays that had been fonts of empathy, and incitements to curiosity, were now occasions of drudgery and toil.

Every other academic subject requires specialized knowledge and a mastery of skills and methods. Literature requires only that you be human. It does not have to be taught any more than dreaming has to be taught. Why does Hector’s infant son, Astyanax, cry when he sees his father put on his helmet? All you need to understand that is a heart.

So you see, I am not making a brief against reading the classics of Western literature. Far from it. I am against taking these startling epiphanies of the irrational, unspoken, unthought-of side of human life into the college classroom and turning them into the bland exercises in competition, hierarchy and information-accumulation that are these works’ mortal enemies.

The literary classics are a haven for that part of us that broods over mortal bewilderments, over suffering and death and fleeting happiness. They are a refuge for our secret self that wishes to contemplate the precious singularity of our physical world, that seeks out the expression of feelings too prismatic for rational articulation. ****They are places of quiet, useless stillness in a world that despises any activity that is not profitable or productive.****

Literary art’s sudden, startling truth and beauty make us feel, in the most solitary part of us, that we are not alone, and that there are meanings that cannot be bought, sold or traded, that do not decay and die. This socially and economically worthless experience is called transcendence, and you cannot assign a paper, or a grade, or an academic rank, on that. Literature is too sacred to be taught. It needs only to be read.

In “Moby-Dick,” Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, declares that “a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.” Soon, if all goes well and literature at last disappears from the undergraduate curriculum—my fingers are crossed—increasing numbers of people will be able to say that reading the literary masterworks of the past outside the college classroom, simply in the course of living, was, in fact, their college classroom.