Your all-access pass
A few days ago, Steven Beattie provoked me into thinking. That this post appears only today illustrates either that (a) even when provoked, I think slowly, or (b) I’m just plain lazy.
The provocation was his post on Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word, and another book, The Automatiste Revolution. The latter doesn’t concern us here. That is to say, it may concern you, but it does not concern me; if it concerns you, therefore, go be concerned about it someplace else.
Where was I? The point is here:
Still, regardless of whether the sting of Wolfe’s satire has dated, the general premise of his book – that the American art of the postwar years was so disdainful of easy comprehension that art theory itself became an art form and its proponents (not the actual consumers of the work) became the tastemakers who decided what qualified as high artistic achievement – is a provocative one. The closer art came to the “flatness” that Wolfe suggests Greenberg prized, the more it retreated up its own fundament.
I’m not interested in Tom Wolfe’s view of the abstract expressionists, correctness and defensibility thereof, so much as in the general point: what happens when theory itself becomes the point of art, and you find yourself up the fundament without a flashlight?
This is, of course, an old argument, and mindful of the number of times it’s been rehashed by undergraduates, I’ll attempt to avoid rehashing it unecessarily (and, no doubt, will fail).
It’s just that I was struck, at the same time, by the discussion of accessibility in the recent Cage Match of Canadian Poetry. Carmine Starnino kicked this off, saying that accessibility was the elephant in the room. The ensuing discussion set up the usual (false) dichotomy, in which work is either avant garde and inaccessible, or a populist rehash. Absent (even when Christian Bök made a point of Eunoia‘s commercial success) was any acknowledgment that Eunoia, which was held up as an example of avant garde work, was successful because of its accessibility.
That is, the very work held up as an example while rehashing this dichotomy itself illustrates that the dichotomy is false.
(Any person declaring that Eunoia is not avant garde because it is accessible will be tied up in a sack knotted with a circular argument of his own making, and tossed in the nearest river. You have been warned.)
Eunoia is immediately accessible, at some level, to any literate, intelligent person. It does not exist in rarefied mountaintop air, available only to those with breathing equipment, Sherpas, and an MA. And this accessibility is the reason for its success.
It seems to me that any artistic endeavour that relies primarily on theory and which is accessible only to participants is essentially no more than a glorified circle jerk. The old game of supposing that ground-breaking work must be inaccessible is nothing but a means of excusing that. And it’s hardly surprising that these efforts are marginalized, while work that succeeds in being both fresh and accessible succeeds.