Sunday, July 16, 2006

Alien Intelligence (2)

"We can Understand our political and social life simply by looking around us. The job is not to be intellectual but to be INTELLIGENT – to our best talents. We need to seek a passion for the literal actuality of life, not an abstraction of individualism or the current enterprise built upon irony, lies, and the selfish capital of fashion.

I’m increasingly concerned with the notion of survival – my beliefs, my preferences and my prejudices and what these mean for an artist. Who is the moral personality behind the work? Do I have the ability to be virtuous in the face an ideology of debasement or what Larsen calls simplification? Can I understand beauty and justice? “
In my previous post I posited this series of observations and questions as a reference to Lionel Trillings fabulous introduction for Homage to Catalonia and George Orwell himself. The post was a direct reference to that as I applied these thoughts from Trilling to myself as an artist in response (of sorts) to the week’s art blog euphoria surrounding these posts by Deborah Fisher, Non Prophet Art, and Speaking of Ashes. Eric Larsen, author of A Nation Gone Blind , caught on to Deborah’s post and ran with it on his own website. The result was a conflation of my intention with the Trilling piece (and I think Ashes response to it) but thus is the nature of a discussion that gets caught chasing its own tail, out of sheer excitement for the subject and the personalities behind the discussion. If you have ever tried to have a political debate after a bottle of Jameson you know of which I speak. 

I’m continuing this discussion, perhaps on my own (which is fine), because I am pre-occupied by the state of things, or at my perception of the state of things. I am also trudging forward not only in response to Larsen but because of some thread comments by The Art Soldier and Dilettante Ventures from the previously mentioned post by Deborah Fisher.

Art Soldier
(referencing Eric Larsen on art):
Yet, while making your appeal for an art-art that is opposed to an art that refers to non-art (i.e., socio-political conditions), you fail to explain what makes your "art-art" the product of someone "striving for and implementing the good and just." But you don't have to, as we've seen this line of reasoning before. Its logic is particularly Modernist (having originated with the philosophy of Kant), and argues for the inherent virtue of an autonomous art separated from any reference outside of itself. It's the very justification used for establishing a 'high-art' that is exclusive and elitist. So the question is not "what is the social role of people?", but what kind of art "implements the good and the just?" This officially brings us right back to where we started -- the moral dilemma of art making -- and so far you haven't demonstrated why art-art is any more desirable than an aesthetic that engages with a lived experience outside of itself.
Dilettante Ventures
A few problems with Berman's Twilight of American Culture (which has popped up a couple of times in comments): His "great books" prescription is a bit puritanical. Funny how his argument reeks of indie rock hipsterism - if everyone knows about it, it must suck. He plays pretty loosely with anecdotal evidence of the decline of American culture. Jay Leno's show isn't exactly "evidence" by any reasonable meaning of the term.
He cites Lyotard favorably, and then decries the "nihilism" of postmodernism. Many would consider Lyotard a "postmodern" philosopher. The problem here is that Berman doesn't really get specific about who he's implicating and which "postmodernism" he's talking about. He seems to collapse identity politics, political "correctness," and postmodernism into one big relativist soup.
This commentary is the thing I love most about blogging and has led me to re-examine the book The Twilight of American Culture by Morris Berman as I have not yet read anything by Eric Larsen except his commentary on these various posts. The Twilight of American Culture (in addition to the thoughts by Trilling) is my stepping off point for a series of posts under the title, "Alien Intelligence". I’ll begin however with a comment by Tyler Green in an interview conducted a couple weeks back which in actuality may be what brought me to the broader discussion in the first place.

Interview by Will Lager of

Tyler Green in response to this question:

What is the single non-art-world factor that is the greatest influence on art made today? (For instance, environmentalism, animal rights, worldwide feminism, the spread of digital technology?

This is a big and excellent question. Degeneration, particularly of societies, cultures, and political systems. Regardless of whether I’m in New York, LA or in between, I see artists making art about things falling apart. Look at last year’s top news stories: Iraq, Katrina, the London bombing, the Indian Ocean tsunami, the BTK serial killer, the continuing struggles of the Bush presidency, even the death of Terri Schiavo. They’re all about degeneration.I’m surprised that no contemporary art curator has seized on this and created a big group show about it. It could be a great example of an artist-driven show that mixes contemporary art with contemporary life.
Degeneration and collapse is after all what we are all talking about. To what degree is it happening? How do I adjust to this conclusion of disintegration? What strategies to employ for the sake of changing direction(s) – if that is even a possibility or desire. At the center of this is “the moral dilemma of art making” – as noted by The Art Soldier above. You can assume that I do not separate artist from citizen throughout this discussion but that I do believe artists have the responsibility of being leaders in their own right.

I’ll begin with some observations by various people that Morris Berman uses to discuss the idea of collapse and the degeneration of a society and its political aims of democracy or civilization at large.

From Berman himself:
The concept of decline often involves organic metaphors – notions of birth, maturity, and senescence. This way of viewing civilization goes back to the 18th century (Giambattista Vico) and perhaps even to the Ancient Greeks, but it came into common currency in the 19th century through the writings of the German Idealist School of philosophy. Hegel, for example, saw history as a kind of spiritual journey, in which Geist moved around the globe, generating the Renaissance in 15th Century Florence, and sowing the seeds of decay when it subsequently departed.
(Note: I’d like to argue that we are in a Neo-Hegelian moment and that perhaps the 19th century actually began with the French Revolution – which Berman himself alludes to in the book. I’ll look at Neo-Hegelianism in a subsequent post)

From Berman to Oswald Spengler who observes:
Civilization was organized around a central ideal, or some of what Platonic Idea, and that the process of civilization involved a stage of aging, during which the Idea hardened into pure form. This process of formalism or as he called it “classicism” was happening to the 20th century West and it would be on the Western agenda for the next few centuries.
Then Joseph Tainter:
It’s important to note though, that civilizations are anomalies and the statist configuration of hierarchy-specialization-bureaucracy, is little more than 6 thousand years old. Constantly reinforced and legitimized. It requires an expanding materials base and a constant mobilization of resources, and the trend is always higher levels of complexity. There is the processing of greater quantities of information and energy, the formation of larger settlements, increasing class differentiation and stratification, and the development of more complex technology. Collapse, which involves a progressive weakening of the political and administrative center, is the reversal of all this, and a recurrent feature of human societies. As the center weakens there is no longer an “umbrella” to guarantee safety. The strong savage the week, and there is no higher goal than survival. Literacy may be lost entirely, or decline so dramatically that a dark age is inevitable.
(FEMA, Homeland Security, Bush Administration)

Berman goes from there stating:
“Economic decline has a spiritual component which shows up as apathy and meaninglessness -Emilie Durkeim’s “anomie”. This lurks behind Spangler’s classicism. In the classicist phase, culture no longer believes in itself so it typically undertakes phony or misguided wars (Vietnam/Iraq) or promotes its symbols or slogans (Plan for Victory) all the more. As the organizational costs rise, yielding increasingly smaller benefits, so does the formalism, the pomp and circumstance.”
The conclusion is that there are 4 basic tenets of collapse:

1. Accelerating social and economic inequality
2. Declining marginal returns with regard to investment in organizational solutions to socioeconomic problems
3. Rapidly dropping levels of literacy, critical understanding, and general intellectual awareness
4. Spiritual death – that is, Spengler’s classicism: the emptying of cultural content and the freezing (re-packaging) of it in formulas- kitsch. (fashion, Chelsea)

* Parenthetical notes are my assertions

I’ll stop here for tonight….

image: Gilbert Garcin


Dilettante Ventures said...

You were just getting going! This thing has spilled over into Edward Winkleman's blog too! We just started reading Berman's The Reenchantment of the World, so this thing is just going to keep spreading...sleep, precious sleep...

highlowbetween said...

Hey! I just commentd on Morris' blog. This is all very interesting. I'm thinking 4-5 installments. perhaps more tomorrow after work.

sleepy time now

Ashes77 said...

good job HLIB. Just let me pipe up as I did with Berman, just because the United States is collapsing doesn't necessarily mean that the West is collapsing. Next year is the 60th anniversary of Taft-Hartley and thus of the good old USA being officially and forever behind western Europe with no end in sight. I like all of the philosophical references you guys bring in, but there are a lot of countries that have considered these thing thoughtfully and who've taken measures to address such issues as rising in-equality, spiritual death (ask a German) and the rest. The idea that these "developed economies" are stagnant and thus irrelevant is another invention of the pro-american press. Big fan of Morris Berman here though, so keep it going.

highlowbetween said...

Hey I saw you on Berman's blog. Like I said this is going to be 4 or 5 parts so just wait and see where I'm going with this - not all hand wringing but I may end up paraphrasing Twilight1 ;)
Seriously, the 19th century thing is on my mind here as well transition "states" in every sense of the word.

Steven LaRose said...

Forget about a reading list for me. This is great!

highlowbetween said...

SLR- I know I spaced getting those to you. I have them should I put it on that thread or email you tonight?

Steven LaRose said...

No worries, seriously. It would be an Above and Beyond gesture as far as I'm concerned. But, if you do have a list, let convenience dictate where they go. It all shows up in my gmail anyhoo.

Again, thanks for the coralling of these threads. I'm in Lurk and Learn mode.

fisher6000 said...

kickass synthesis, HLIB, still digesting...