Friday, December 29, 2006

Skid Marks: Here's to Hoping in a New Year

I have struggled with my inner desires to generate a long list of "Best Of's" that would mark me as cultured, cool and informed but alas decided that the end of the year should be focused on something a little more meaty just to close things out. The good lists can be found with Tyler Green and Ed Winkleman, as they pretty much cover the culture bases - both high and low. Other Music has my nods for music releases- pretty much spot on (Destroyer's Rubies!). I will just quickly say spend the money on Robert Polidori's After the Flood for all the reasons Tyler Green mentions and yes the DADA show was the best this year. Best blog? Definitely BLDGBLOG - a true force. Read as it as often as possible and you will be edified.

Two posts emerged over the last week - A Quick Comment About Ego (Bill Gusky) and Egoism and Altruism (Speaking of Ashes) that I want to really examine. Bill offers this observation and thoughtful question:

Some have replied that ego is the drive to make one's mark in the world. I suppose that's another side of ego, the side related more to a will to power and self-assertion.

The questions that this drive raises are, "What kind of mark, and where, and why?"

I'd think that the artist whose need to leave a mark on the world is the dominant drive should be asking him/herself the more basic question of why it's the dominant drive. What inner need does this drive to leave marks in the world satisfy?

In his response, Ashes cites David Graeber of Harper's (via Long Sunday) observation that Altruism and Egoism are instrinsically linked, simultaneously rising as a product of market economies. Graeber offers these 3 observations.

Neither Egoism nor Altruism is a natural urge; They in fact arise in relation to each other and neither would be conceivable without the market. (these terms extend beyond the behavioral and apply to the broader social systems and the institutions supporting them)
In the ancient world, for example, it is generally in the times and places that one sees the emergence of money and markets that one also sees the rise of world religions - Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. If one sets aside a space and says, "Here you shall think only about acquiring material things for yourself," then it is hardly surprising that before long someone else will set aside a countervailing space and declare, in effect: "Yes, but here we must contemplate the fact that the self, and material things, are ultimately unimportant." It was these latter institutions, of course, that first developed our modern notions of charity. (Graeber)

The political right has always tried to enhance the division and thus claims to be the champion of both egoism and altruism simultaneously. The Left has tried to efface it. (in the context of American politics of the last 30 years)
In the United States, for example, the Republican Party is dominated by two ideological wings: the libertarians and the "Christian right." At one extreme, Republicans are free market fundamentalists and advocates of individual liberties (even if they see those liberties largely as a matter of consumer choice); on the other, they are fundamentalists of a more literal variety, suspicious of most individual liberties but enthusiastic about biblical injunctions, "family values," and charitable good works. At first glance it might seem remarkable that such an alliance manages to hold together at all (and certainly they have ongoing tensions, most famously over abortion). But, in fact, right-wing coalitions almost always take some variation of this form. One might say that the right's approach is to release the dogs of the market, throwing all traditional verities into disarray: and then, in the tumult of insecurity, offer themselves up as the last bastion of order and hierarchy, the stalwart defenders of the authority of churches and fathers against the barbarians they have themselves unleashed. A scam it may be, but it is a remarkably effective one; and one result is that the right ends up seeming to have a monopoly on value. It manages, one might say, to occupy both positions, on either side of the divide: extreme egoism and extreme altruism. (Graeber)
Alain of Long Sunday states that
in general, "the political left has attempted, in various ways, to eliminate class division by either creating economic systems that are not driven by profit (communism, co-operatives) or replacing private charity with the social safety net of the welfare state. In contrast, the right thrives by constantly reaffirming the antagonism, and even championing it".

I think that this is a valid observation. We always are taught about the class conflict bubbling up from the street, from the riff raff, but rarely does anyone speak of the hostilities manifested and perpetuated upon the masses by the elite. We see evidence in this with the Bush WhiteHouse - the most transparent instigators in ages -the tax cuts for the rich being the most obvious, but the message of class divisions extends to cultural institutions. A local NY example is Lincoln Center, which reinforces that the lower class has one role - to behold the elite. The cheaper seats do not face the orchestra but look towards the "gentle folk" below - the expensive seats.

The Real problem of the American left is that although it does try in certain ways to efface the division between egoism and altruism, value and values, it largely does so for its own children. This has allowed the Right, paradoxically, to represent itself as the champion of the working class.
They can imagine a scenario in which they might become rich but cannot possibly imagine one in which they, or any of their children, would become members of the intelligentsia.... A mechanic from Nebraska knows it is highly unlikely that his son or daughter will ever become an Enron executive. But it is possible. There is virtually no chance, however, that his child, no matter how talented, will ever become an international human-rights lawyer or a drama critic for the New York Times. Here we need to remember not just the changes in higher education but also the role of unpaid, or effectively unpaid, internships. It has become a fact of life in the United States that if one chooses a career for any reason other than salary, for the first year or two one will not be paid... The custom effectively seals off such a career for any poor student who actually does attain a liberal arts education. Such structures of exclusion had always existed, but in recent decades fences have become fortresses. (Graeber)
Alain feels that this claim seems counter-intuitive. "Progressives generally argue for policies that call for a fairer distribution of wealth and resources, along with programs that support working families having access to better health care and education. But Graeber's argument is more subtle - from the end of World War II through the late 60's and early 70's, vast resources were put into expanding access to higher education. This was done with the stated purpose of promoting social mobility, to provide the working class the opportunity to "move up" the economic ladder. But by the 1970's, there was an end to the expansion, just as college campuses were exploding with radical, anti-capitalist sentiment.

"Graeber believes the system offered many radicals a sort of "settlement." These folks became "reabsorbed into the university but set to work largely at training children of the elite." As education costs have increased exponentially, the number of working class students at major universities has been trending down for decades."

For an art eductaion context just look at the cost to attend Yale and Columbia and then compare that to the success rate of their MFA graduates to land prized residencies, top gallery recruitment, NY Times reviews, and the better university jobs around the country. Talent is not the unifying factor here - elite status is.

And so Alain asks, "Why do working-class Bush voters tend to resent intellectuals more than they do the rich?

Campus radicals set out to create a new society that destroyed the distinction between egoism and altruism, value and values. It did not work out, but they were, effectively, offered a kind of compensation: the privilege to use the university system to create lives that did so, in their own little way, to be supported in one's material needs while pursuing virtue, truth, and beauty, and, above all, to pass that privilege on to their own children. One cannot blame them for accepting the offer. But neither can one blame the rest of the country for hating them for it. Not because they reject the project: as I say, this is what America is all about. As I always tell activists engaged in the peace movement and counter-recruitment campaigns: why do working-class kids join the army anyway? Because, like any teenager, they want to escape the world of tedious work and meaningless consumerism, to live a life of adventure and camaraderie in which they believe they are doing something genuinely noble. They join the army because they want to be like you. (Graeber)
Speaking of Ashes brings up the point that so many working class kids join the ART army for similiar reasons - elevation, social validation and more recently, status as a marginal entertainment celebrity. It's a hard row to hoe being an artist but its lure is that it wears much better than working at Wal-Mart!

But back to what Gusky wants to know -"what inner drive does this mark-making want to satisfy? Is it just, again, escaping tedium and consumerism?" I think many of us share the same fear that largely and currently the answer is yes. The market mind almost defines that desire. The religious impulse towards creating has been dismissed and the pursuit of genius has been discarded so all that is left for many is escapism from the mundane realities of lower consumer identity and the precept that I will be chosen by the elite because I am special and therefore marketable to the ones who never had to escape in the first place (or so the assumption goes).

I am on the same pages as Ashes and Gusky, in wanting more art and less ego, more art where the artist is transparent. An art that calls upon meaning as living context, which is inclusive of all - the artist, audience, and the environment as the real participants, not simply the ego fatigued ubercollectors and taste makers of the artworld. This meaningful practice cannot be viewed as an exercise in ego or charity but a real thing for the purpose of answering the larger questions who we are and who we may be tomorrow. These are times of crisis and we need to get our act together and get serious about meaning and inclusion. The corporate model of the Museum whether it's Kimmleman's brand or the Krens affair will not make this boat float. That 1% doctrine will ultimately fail institutions and the public at large. Artists have to lead here along with conscientous gallerists, modest collectors and progressives within academia and the larger political body.

Going back again to Gusky's original question, I have to agree that the ego is largely a construct of the westernized mind, and in agrrement with Graeber that altruism is the bone handed out by the egoism of the elite. If I may borrow a phrase, A dog with a bone is less likely to bite! Altruism is ultimately a pacifier that only masks the problems of the lack of larger participation and in its current form only re-enforces class and education divisions within the artworld and by extension the political world. After all the market makes winners and losers and that's what "we' like about it.

I'll close with this thought by Ashes, "Ego-less art will be decidedly emasculated and profoundly personal, almost limp to those still carrying egos. But don't confuse its veracity by judging it with the Western Ego. It will have no borders and it won't carry well in glossy magazines. It will probably sell. Just not enough to impress."

Here's hoping the New Year will reveal some artists that are brave enough to leave their egos behind.

image: HLIB


Anonymous said...

High Low & in between, thank you for the thoughtful discussion. I hadn't really thought about the implications for artists doing art but your ideas seem dead on. I think the desire to create, to be the medium or to participate in creation, is a natural urge - but one that inevitably gains expression in the place and time of one's birth. To be authentic, to not become defined by the logic of the market (either as a producer or rebel) is a challenge one must constantly tackle. I wish you well in the New Year.

highlowbetween said...

Alain - thanks for the reply. Yes we are the same animals ultimately and there is a big challenge facing each of us individually and collectively.
The artwolrd is really a microcosm of the larger entity and far too often services that entity but there is still enough plasticity left in art where daily practice and intentions can make for real change. Looking forward to adding you to my blog roll and best in the New Year as well.