Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Art and the audience, with a big side of multiculturalism

Great art is impersonal art. – Joan Acocella, I think

A few years ago, I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art here in Chicago. My mind was illuminated by these works. There was a video of a woman sucking her own big toe, looped to play over and over again – her raising her right leg and grabbing it with both hands, putting her big toe in her mouth, and sucking it. According to the placard next to this video display, the artist wished to convey male oppression of women.

Another display was of artificial turf surrounded by barbed wire. The dangers of gridiron football? An easy-to-clean yard for chickens? No, it was about environmentalism, as explained to us by the artist in, oh, about 250 words.

A lot of contemporary art is really bad. An artist who needs to explain to the audience what he/she is doing should not be doing it. (And I do not include artists like R. Wagner here - those who want to explain to the audience because of their own egocentrism.) If you can’t communicate through your chosen medium, you’ve failed as an artist and should find another line of work, or non-work.

The quote above does NOT mean that art is not personal to the artist, but that: 1) the artist should not manipulate, explain, or pander to the audience, for such is the realm of popular entertainment, 2) art is communal and therefore does not need to be personalized.

[An aside: I’m really asking for it re how I define art, how I define popular entertainment, and when the two successfully mix and mingle and when they don’t, but I won’t post about that today.]

I’ll post excerpts from Arlene Croce’s essay Discussing the Undiscussable soon.

On a somewhat-related subject, I’ve realized what it is that I really don’t like about Taymor’s The Magic Flute, besides the cutting of crucial arias (to read my comments, go here). It’s the multiculturalism. Taymor has added, more or less undiluted, pieces of Japanese, Indonesian, Jewish mystical, and who knows what other cultures to a work that is completely in the Western tradition, both in music (Western classical) and plotline (Western philosophy). I’m totally opposed to multiculturalism in art, and I can’t recall a work I’ve encountered that I’ve enjoyed (as art, not as popular entertainment.) Taymor’s The Lion King is successful at incorporating some African themes because the material is so weak to begin with (Elton John and Bernard Taupin to a Disney story? Easy pickings). But Die Zauberflote isn’t.

The consequence of multicultural art (and I’m looking right at your “collaborators,” Ravi Shankar! Yep, you know how you are!) is inevitably dilution of all the cultural art forms. The fact is: no multicultural world culture exists. Art is particular to the culture from which it arises. Art is organic: you can’t graft the best from here and there on to each other and expect it to be communicative. It has impact, yes. But in the end, it’s lazy. And it's arrogant and insulting - it suggests that the artistic traditions as they have organically developed are an insufficient means of expression. It also ignores the spiritual nature of art - great art is ritualistic, and ritual is native to a particular culture.

But AG, isn’t jazz multicultural? Actually, much of jazz is solidly in the Western musical tradition. What makes much of it unique is how elements of Western music were adopted and shaped by those whose roots were non-Western, but this was a process that occurred over decades.


Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

Wow, AG, you have really been feeling prolific lately. Careful with blogger burn-out...

This post is another reason why I suspect that we may have been separated at birth. I feel the exact same way about multiculturalism, and I am a veritable "vox clamantis in deserto" here in Berkeley over this. (I HAVE taken many an Ethic Studies class. Never again!)

There are great cultural traditions other than the Western tradition. I happen to love Indian raga, for example. But they are great by themselves and in their own contexts, not as objects to be fetishized by intellectuals dissatisfied with the Christian culture of the West. And of course, it is safe to say between us that the West is clearly superior in many a genre of art. I remember one story of the California missions in the late 18th century when a hostile tribe was coming to slaughter the mission's inhabitants. One of the friars brought out a portable organ and started playing for them. These "indigenous peoples" were so fascinated by it that they kept the poor European oppressor playing for hours and returned quite contented from their aborted mission of taking out the wrath of colored peoples on the white man, having not injured anyone. Of course, this is how the movie, "The Mission" also opens.

One of the things I have railed against on my own blog is a distorted concept of biligualism. It is great to know two or more languages, but for Heaven's sake don't start mixing them! There is a very fashionable movement in Mexican-American ("Chicano", but I despise that word) literature to legitimize "Spanglish", but for me this is just gutter talk. You can write in one or the other, you can read W.B. Yeats or Ruben Dario, but not at the same time. Also, speaking bad English and mixing it with Spanish does not give you more barrio "street-cred" than anyone else. It just proves that you are too ignorant to speak properly.

But that is MY rant. And I'll cut it off there.

AG said...

Careful with blogger burn-out...

Don't worry, there is a method to my blogging madness...

Thanks for the support on multiculturalism - I'm glad I haven't (yet) read snide remarks along the lines of, "oh, you'd consider it mongrelization" or "you're afraid of miscegenation in art, you racist!"

I appreciate your rant on Spanglish; I will really start ranting in the coming days.