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Thursday, May 06, 2004
Continuing on in the theme of the radical gardening post (sorta), let's take a poke at that article Scott suggested. And he's right, it's quite a doozy of familiarness, specifically to this, the recently-referenced "art under repression" post.

I think the Rambler's take on it is wrong, astute, and right, in turn. It's wrong to get that mad at the title "The case for communism"--it's fairly amusing in the context of a review, and clearly not meant in seriousness. Plus, while it may be insensitive to say that great art comes from suffering, as much as I hate to admit it, that doesn't mean that it's sometimes true; art isn't the product of justice or freedom or anything wholly good. It just is, it just happens, and sometimes for some pretty horrible reasons and by some pretty horrible people.

The astute bit is in pointing out that it's not that no good art has come out since the fall of Communism, not just that no good art-under-repression art has come out, i.e. since Western critics are looking for works that express the horror of a repressive system and since the repressive system is no longer in place, those works are no longer there, but that doesn't mean that there aren't good works that express other things coming out of the former bloc. Thing is, I have no idea if there is; just because there could be doesn't mean there is, and I don't think he really makes a case for the positive argument. And if there's not, well, that's a pretty interesting phenomenon, no? Personally, I'm not quite cynical enough to think that a Granta editor wouldn't take an otherwise incredible piece of work coming out of Poland if it wasn't dealing with repression, but more on that in a second.

The wholly right thing is this:

I think there's a much more logical, and honest reason for why art created out of appalling political conditions is more successful. It's simply that art, in general, is about telling stories, creating myths. And one of the most hackneyed, yet enduring, myths is of the struggling artist fighting the life around him in forging his art. It makes a great story, and gives us, the audience, an easy way in to the work without having to struggle too much with comprehending it on its own terms, grappling with its specific form and content. It's simply a Product of Struggle (with one's government, the system, race, deafness, whatever). It's never, ever, granted the dignity to be a creation in and of itself.

Bingo. But, similarly, you can't exempt the artist from this equation; if the work is never allowed to stand on its own, this must be, in part, because the artist is not trying to let it stand on its own. It's easy to throw around the kind of signs that Western critics are looking for without including much of substance. The article's misguided, I think, in endorsing Roth's metaphor of the state as a mother just behind the door from masturbating artists, and its wrongness seems startlingly obvious to me in this context. Roth's concerned with the artist's position, but that's onanism, pleasing yourself, whereas what we're concerned with here is pleasing others. The artists in the exhibition may very well be quite pleased with their work. It's just that critics aren't.

I still believe, as I said in the previous post, that the problem is not the removal of the repressive state but the laziness of creators. Tim's 100% right to say that the struggling artist myth is hackneyed and enduring, and what that makes it is easy. (It's telling, for instance, to see "a banality" in the artwork; the old stuff was banal, too, it's just that the banality was way more exciting. So maybe we should rethink our problems with banality, eh?) Artists are constantly faced with the problem of What Is My Subject? This leads visual artists to get fixated on certain images or processes, writers to get fixated on themes, musicians on genres, etc., not because they like them so much as there's enough energy in the chosen focus to sustain creativity. In a repressive society, the subject is so easy it seems almost criminal to write about anything else. Why write about love when you can write about repression? Why write about love when it will just be interpreted as being metaphorically about repression? (Possible review from 1989: "Although there are no specific references to his country of residence, it's undeniable that Polish writer Mikal Svortsky's novel about monster truck enthusiasts in rural Ohio is, at heart, a cry for freedom...")

And so what do you do when that unitary subject is removed? Well, for one thing, you write about different things than everyone else, which takes away the illusion of a "movement" that would be easy to get a handle on, or, to be more charitable, takes away that peer motivation of "raising your game" that others have discussed, and which I'm inclined to endorse. For another thing, it robs you of the kind of moral focus that makes for more unambiguous, and thus easily graspable, art.

But more than anything else, I think it knocks out the crutch of transgression. And, make no mistake, transgression is a crutch. Nice as it can be as a tool (see South Park post below), it can never be the point, because it's almost never a practical reality. Art was transgression under Soviet regimes simply because the regimes said it was; whether it had any actual subversive effect or not wasn't really the issue. When we prize transgression as a cultural value, all that needs happen for great art to bloom is to create something to transgress against, and that doesn't really seem to make any sense, does it? Valuing transgression is probably the worst element of the adolescent view of art that most people never seem to grow out of; viewing the artist as a teenager makes no sense when they are, in fact, fully grown, and viewing the audience as their confidante makes no sense when they may, in fact, be the mother.

Artists are lazy because it is easy to create this stuff, because sadness has more cultural capital than happiness.[1] But it only has cultural capital because it's supposedly harder to create, because something tragic reflects suffering and maturity and so forth. But as someone[2] said, "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." Creating something good and fundamentally positive seems easy right up until the point where you try to do it, at which point you realize just how hard it must have been for that scattered collection of creators who managed to nail it--and whose lives we seem eager to make tragic as if to compensate. We're none of us happy creatures, we humans, but we do manage to make a good go of it sometimes.

When the restraints are removed, what do you do? This is a question that's important not just to Eastern European artists, but to Western ones as well. The impulse seems to all-to-often be to pretend like there is still oppression there to justify what you do. But this is not true, and not productive. What is always more heartening to see is when people take that freedom and play with it in the same way they played with repression. You can and should impose limits and restraints on yourself, but you can't pretend that someone else did it for you. Take the restraint of freedom and do something wonderful with it.

[1] Although the article does make a great point in this regard: "Communism was officially optimistic, insisting that a better life for everyone was on the way. It was, in everyday life, insistent on niceness, backed up by state violence. The great quality of the culture of dissent in the 1970s and 80s was therefore an overt selfishness, aggression, and bad humour..."
[2] Possibly Oscar Wilde, possibly Sir Donald Wolfit.