Tag Archives: literature

Attitudes Within Artistic and Literary Communities

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 12:  Jars of peanut butt...

WE DON'T MAKE THIS STUFF (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

I was having a conversation with Ted E. Grau and Simon Strantzas on Facebook and it led to a comment I wanted to explore. I believe that artistic and literary communities benefit the most by having an attitude that is free of capitalistic overtones. For example, authors should not see each other as being in competition. There is an purely economic reason for this, and there is a philosophical reason behind this. I know I will need to provide both, because not everyone is quite the idealist that I am.

Economic Reason

The stories we produce are not normal “products”, in the sense that no one else can ever write the same story for a lower price. In a very real way, every story, poem, or other work of art is priceless, because it is unique…there is no way for me to offer Mike Davis, the head honcho over at the Lovecraft Ezine, Joe Pulver‘s newest short story for a lower price. I can write a story with the same plot, and even the same characters (if Joe told me about the work first), but I can’t actually offer the same story without simply plagiarizing the story. Instead, I can offer my story, which is necessarily going to differ from Joe’s story.

Because of this, art has always enjoyed an odd status in the economic world. You see a single painting by a famous artist being sold for $15,000 and a single painting being sold by a guy on the side of the street for $15. This kind of variation will often have nothing to do with quality in any kind of objective way; many people may consider the sidewalk artist’s work to be consistently better than the famous artist. Instead, the pricing on work that people want goes up vastly, while almost all unknown artists work is often unsellable at any price at all. There is no relation between the prices of the two works. It doesn’t bring down the price of the famous artist’s work when the street artist sells a painting at all. If everyone and their dog started painting tomorrow, it would not bring down the quantity demanded for the famous artist’s work at all, but if everybody and their dog started flooding the market with peanut butter, the price would have to go way down to draw the now very low demand.

So when a new artist or author comes onto the scene, it does NOT truly affect the artists or authors who were already there. There are various fame-games within the fields, instead, and these are incredibly unpredictable using normal economic models. No matter how good a jar of peanut butter was, or how few the maker of that peanut butter made, or whether the creator of that peanut butter is now dead…none of that decides the price of the jar of peanut butter. So long as it reaches a base level of quality, below which people won’t buy it, the price is instead determined by a function of the demand for peanut butter and how many other creators of peanut butter are in the market. The competitors will have to undersell each other until they reach a point where they can just barely make a profit. This can only happen because all peanut butter is basically equivalent. This cannot happen with art of any kind, because all art is a unique good, a product that can only be produced by one person one time (though it can be copied after that…we’re talking about selling publishing rights, too).

So when an editor is deciding whether to buy your story or not, they are not comparing it with other stories in the same way as a shopper compares two brand of peanut butter. They can’t. Instead they are buying it or not based on a lot of factors. Some of these factors, such as name recognition, overlap with normal products, but most, such as the quality and content of the work, doesn’t. So while it helps us immensely to improve our own work as much as we can, it doesn’t help us to try to limit our competition.

Philosophical Reason

We are artists. We perform a mysterious and amazing function in the world. A book can change the prevailing culture. A painting can change a person’s life. So long as the artist is sincere, they are sharing their perspectives in a way that can never be taken over by so-called “normal” products. Historically, artists had patrons or were independently wealthy. Together with science, the work of writers, thinkers, and artists was shared with the world through various means, and that work literally shaped our world, bringing about the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Modernity, and Post-modernity.

In light of all of this, and in light of the fact that the greatest of us are often not commercial successes within their own times, it seems to me that we simply can’t afford to allow any authentic art or literature to be silenced, and that is exactly what happens when we treat other members of our communities with hostility and competition. None of us can be sure which story or book or painting or statue or song or whatever will be the one that raises someone up and inspires them. All of us are necessary. While it is true there is plenty of what we would call derivative or cliched work going on out there in every field right now, it may very well be that representation of what we consider a cliched trope or device that survives the test of time. Any one of us could be the next Kafka or Van Gogh, and that means that we can’t play prima donna, we can’t play competition games. We need to instead help and encourage each other. We need to maintain the ideals of our community.

A scene is never so small that it can’t accommodate a new member. A scene is never so complete that it won’t be enriched by a new member.

Living up to my own words

I want to help support each and every artist, writer, and small publisher out there. Look at my blogroll to the left, and if your link, or the link of your publisher, isn’t there, please let me know.

Towards a Radically Subjective School of Art

A picture portraying poetry. Occitan : Illustr...

A picture portraying poetry. Occitan : Illustracion que representa la poesia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over the last few months, I have been producing new poems at a prolific rate, and I am approaching enough to create a worthwhile collection. However, one of the things I have noticed about most of my poetry is that it is extremely personal. Much of it has to do with specific moments and situations from my past, and some of it has to do with people with whom I have shared a deep connection, for good or ill. The question then becomes…should I publish such deeply personal work?

The appreciation of poetry, or any other art, is an odd thing, and people vary wildly in their tastes. I am almost omnivorous, myself, and am capable of enjoying and appreciating many diverse forms of art. That’s not exactly the point. This isn’t about enjoyment, per se. What I want to discuss is whether the genre of “personal” or “confessional” poetry really has a place in the literary world; in a phrase, should it be published? It is at this theoretical level that I wish to have this discussion. The question becomes: what is the proper subject of art?

It seems to me that, despite various theoretical schisms, movements, and schools over the years, many people still work from the point of view that art is attempting to explore, reveal, and express universal truths within the human experience. It can then be argued that there are very few truly “universal” truths about anything, and that, if anything, the most universal truth about the human experience is its idiosyncratic, extremely subjective nature.

To a certain extent, the “style” or “approach” I use in my work, both poetic and prosaic, is based on this philosophical stance; I focus on the radically subjective aspects of experience and attempt to bring out what it would “be like” to be in a particular, usually unusual, situation. In this way I attempt realism, though in effect it becomes a form of surrealism, because I feel that the radically subjective, when presented realistically, becomes the surreal. People’s perceptions are inevitably idiosyncratic and unique to them. The structures of our bodies and minds, though encompassing many similarities, are never identical. Every single one of us is living in a universe unique to them, expressed in categories, symbols, and objects that differ to some degree from those of the other people around us. Thus, the real, raw, and subjective account of any event will always be characterized and, to some degree, surreal. At least to others; my “real” is your “surreal”, and vice-versa.

To my thinking, all experience is rendered unique and worthy of artistic investigation and elaboration by the movement away from the objective. We do not live as a spectator to a movie, and literature/art that attempts to present life in that fashion is doomed to failure. It lacks a certain primal vitality, and for a very good reason: it lacks an agent. It invites the audience to perceive rather than participate. I believe that instead art should be an invitation to participate in a certain relation, which is revealed in some way by the artist. That relation may be of any sort whatsoever, thus the proper subject of art is anything, so long as it is presented in such a way that the relation is revealed and made accessible by the artist. In this sense, I do not mean accessible in the sense of “easy to read” or “easy to understand”; some relations are extremely complex, and I would argue that any truly human relation is necessarily complex, though that complexity may merely be implied, rather than revealed.

Some the simplest images when pantomimed, the classic “boy meets girl” for example, become profoundly complex when explored through a specific love affair explored in all its exactitude. Just compare Lolita to The Idiot. Both novels, of course, are “about” many things, but it is at least (at very least) an exploration of love. To some degree, one can say the great flaw that distinguishes the bulk of the clichéd and soulless “romance novels” and “romantic movies” out there stems from its lack of idiosyncrasy. In the attempt by Hollywood and publishers to create a “product” universal in its appeal to “customers”, by trying to hard to be “accessible”, they create only caricatures of human beings have caricatures of human relationships. It is the lack of the subjective that makes these “products” such artistic failures (although I doubt if many of them were ever considered “artistic attempts” in any real sense, so perhaps they aren’t failures).

So in light of this philosophy of aesthetics, I believe that the extremely personal becomes the universal. Thus the extremely personal, confessional forms of art are not only justified, they are a necessary niche within art, a place that we have to be willing to go, at least some of us. However, this is not an argument for “realism” in the sense of the mundane, quotidian, slice-of-life style prevalent in some corners of the artistic world, or rather, it doesn’t have to be limited to that. The fantastic is as approachable in this sort of extreme subjectivism as the mundane; what I am referring to is not the choice of subject for a given piece of art, per se, but a stylistic or methodological choice to create a work “from the inside”. My poems, in their apparent form and content, are “about” extremely idiosyncratic aspects of my existence, but I would argue that the eternal themes of art, the universal aspects of human existence, are instantiated within that extreme subjectivity.

In a sense, I am still arguing a type of realism, but I am also arguing a form of expressionism, or rather, I am saying that expressionism, taken to its natural conclusion, is the only “realism” that is truly possible. Other attempts to be “objective” end up either so bland as to reveal nothing, or privileging a particular view of reality as THE view, a type of bias that I consider the basis of propaganda, not art. I am making a metaphysical claim, as well as an aesthetic one, that such “eternal themes” as love, justice, good, evil, compassion, cruelty, life, death, pain, and so on only exist as the set of all instantiation of that theme. “Love”, and all other possible semi-platonic “ideas” or “forms” that art attempts to deal with,  exists as all of the experiences, acts, and expressions of love (or other idea) that have ever existed or will exist. So if we really wish to reveal truths about these universal themes, we must do so through revealing instantiation, or imagined instantiation, of those themes. That’s all we have. We can’t say anything about life, death, love, hate, or anything else without talking about the instantiation of those things within our experience. There is no “view from nowhere” that we can access to talk about fear, or justice, or even what it’s like to simply exist; there is only our own, individual, limited, and embodied view from ourselves.