Writing is (not?) Art
I’ve been noodling the question of art for years. Or Art, as the case may be. The assumptions that we carry with us when we talk about it, the baggage inherent in those assumptions, the privileges artists assume and that audiences may grant or resent. Or grant and resent. Because for all the high-minded talk that lots of artists and philosophers bandy about, there’s an inevitable muck up involving “what art does” that plays strongly against “what I want art to do.”
I used to read about aesthetics – a natural consequence of grad school. There’s a complicated-sounding field of inquiry called ethnopoetics, but what it does is not particularly complicated at all (unlike how it’s done, which is terrifically hard). Ethnopoetics is the study of aesthetics from within a culture that produces a particular body of work.
Lemee give you an example. You can’t look at rap music through the lens of classical music and say “Rap music is déclassé,” and vice versa, looking at classical from the perspective of rap leaves you with, “What’s up with that, yo?” From the standards of rap, there is good and bad rap. There is good and bad classical. You can like both. It’s just unfair or irrelevant to judge one by the other’s rules.
The goal of ethnopoetics is to determine the rules that govern expression not based on our own experiences and perspectives, but on how that expression is… expressed. It is an observational approach (verging on the phenomenological, for those of you interested in deconstructing it) that attempts to derive conclusions from interviews and observations, balancing and taking into account what people say and how they execute their work. When I was researching my dissertation another life ago, I interviewed theater artists in the Czech Republic so that I could see how people talked and compare it to what they did.
Because a lot of what we say is so much bullshit and a lot of our artistic justification comes down to “it’s art because I’m doing it, and I’m an artist, and artists make art,” as though artists weren’t just as capable of self-delusion.
A lot of what we say is rhetoric designed to convince ourselves and others of what we want to believe.
One of the books I read in the course of my dissertating life was Arthur Danto’s The Transformation of Everyday Life. He was wrestling with “art after the end of art,” by which he meant, what the hell did Andy Warhol do to us? Basically, if everything can be art, and Andy did a pretty good job of making a case for everything he wanted to be “art,” then the idea of art is meaningless.
Unless you’re on the other side of the argument, in which case:
And now, here I am, trying to be a writer, wherein everyone in the business already talks about the division between “commercial” and “literary” fiction. It’s inescapable.
Apparently, we should blame the Renaissance.