The Re-Enchantment of Art 1: Preliminary Thoughts
I find I've lost my patience (again?) for the arguments about what is right and wrong, who is right and who is wrong, in all this. I look instead for the re-enchantment of the art world, as well as the world in general.
I remember thinking, as I was gathering driftwood in Mendocino County in California, that if I were to live out there, my art would no doubt become even more shamanic, more rooted to land and natural materials, more focused on process and relationship and connections—those very things that have made my art "fail" in most urban art-world settings. More than one of my artist friends have pointed out to me, however, that I'm also more likely to find an audience there than I ever have in the big cities of the Midwest, which is where my art has been so often rejected. Or at least misunderstood.
I've long since come to accept that the art I make out of my own need to make art—which is the opposite of artistic "self-expression," but rooted in the world and in connection both physical and spiritual—is going to be largely passed over by most people, for various reasons, but mostly because it seems to make them uncomfortable. I chafe at that, on occasion, less than I used to, but still a bit; not because I wish to be rich and famous, but because the art itself seems to carry seeds of reconciliation and healing. I've had people tell me they feel like they're getting an energy-healing treatment when engaged with some of my music, some of my art; I don't plan that, it just sort of happens, yet it does please me when someone tells me that they feel changed in a positive way by their encounter with the art that I've made. (The fact of making, to be clear, does not presume ownership on my part.)
I've long since come to accept that the usual commercial art world of galleries, showings and art-criticism will never be a home for my art. It's too outside the usual expectations of that art-world. That chafes too, on occasion. But then, I'm not an artist who buys into much of the assumptions of that art-world, to be honest, and I find some of them to be horribly toxic. How do we measure "success"? How do we measure fame, or wealth? How do we decide that great art must meet these criteria, and not those? We live in the time of a massive cultural paradigm shift, and the art-world is not exempt from it.
What's deeply wrong with the post-avant-garde is that its stance of opposition is ridiculous: the former maverick avant-garde of Modernism has been entirely bought out and co-opted by the mainstream of reproduction, repetitions, and commercial application of art as design: so there's nothing to rebel against, which makes the post-avant's stance of permanent rebellion appear silly in the extreme. The Mexican poet-critic Octavio Paz, Nobel laureate and renowned poet, had this to say about avant-gardism:
Many have commented on the disappearance of a true avant-garde and its replacement by avant-gardism. . . . I see this as a prolongation of experimentation usually leading further on from collage and montage into ever-increasing fragmentation and eventually into a degenerative disease which, adapting an already common usage, I call "disjunctivitis." The argument, used by some producers who, correctly locating the seats of available power in the academy, have ensconced themselves therein every bit as much as the establishment "mainstream," to the effect that the disruption of the common linguistic coin is part of a war against "late-capitalist" discourse is singularly inept. I do not see oppressed workers of any kind devouring the products of avant-gardism. The death-of-the-author thematics, as commonly adapted, are another inanity: when society does its very best to homogenize us, what is wrong with a strong, knowledgeable, and responsible ego crying in the darkening wilderness?
The post-modern disruption of meaning, its denial of the possibility that art has any utility or meaning or social usefulness, is not in fact "post-" anything, but is the final flowering of the Modernist disruption and destruction of the the pre-Modernist established canons of meaning. But when nothing means anything anymore, when it's all a homogenized equal playing field, what is there to revolt against? Nothing. As Paz says, I do not see oppressed workers of any kind devouring the products of avant-gardism. That alone should tell us how silly the post-avant-garde truly is: nobody devours their products but themselves, in an endless hermetic cycle of theory and self-presentation, self-promotion and incestuous marketing. Nobody outside Poetryworld remotely cares. Paz was and is read by non-poets; the post-avant is not. That's also because Paz had something to say, that he wished to say, and said most articulately.
Perhaps Language Poetry, and it offspring-sibling post-avant poetry, didn’t start out as avant-gardism, but it has ended up there. When the LangPoets started out they had some fresh things to say, they viewed themselves as a necessary rebellion against the existing poetic establishment—already dominated by the academy, in turn dominated by the New Criticism and the post-Eliot, post-Pound varieties of Modernist poetry. But now the LangPoets and the post-avant have become the establishment, and are fighting hard to keep their well-fought turf. You cannot claim to be an outsider poet when you win all the academic professorships and literary awards. If the post-avant-garde began as a rebellion, it has nonetheless become ossified into the new establishment. Which is precisely what Paz is describing as avantgardism, because once you're the establishment you cannot realistically claim to be rebelling against the establishment.
Of course, and this is one of my strongest personal reasons for my lack of interest in the post-avant poetry world: One thing that most LangPo or post-avant poetry does not leave room for is silence. Rather, LangPo is a theology of grammar, of meaningless content, of style over substance, of surface over meaning: it lauds that, it applauds it, it rewards it. In this, it is indeed the ultimate flowering of the Modernist disjunctive and dislocative trends. I've said before, half-humorously, that postmodernism isn't really post- anything, since it includes "Modernism" in its very name; it's own rhetoric proves itself to be the end-result of Modernism, rather than anything Other that genuinely comes after Modernism. That other is coming into existence, all over the art-making world, in the works of dozens of artists—most of whom are still working below the radar of the art establishment, which cannot perceive or acknowledge them because they come from a genuinely different paradigm; a paradigm not of disjunction but of connection, not of heroic individualism but of communal justice, not of rebellion but of gathering-in.
A prophet's voice in the art-world wilderness was Albert Camus. We still haven't caught up to his insights, especially with regards to the art establishment or avant-garde. Camus once wrote:
A man's work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.
In whose presence his heart first opened: to me, this is one of the keys to the re-enchantment of art. The rediscovery of what we first loved about art, about viewing it, about making it. This is the living key to how we can still approach a work of art, or engage in the art-making process itself, and let it be a living process.
Whether or not it's the academy, art schools, or the commercial gallery and art-criticism scene that denatures and destroys that open-hearted first love, it's observable truth that most artists in those scenes have lost that first love. The definition of success, commercial or in terms of fame, is of an innovative elite, in that world: a world of individuals, of hero-artists, of rebellion against an establishment. The whole history of art, as it come to be taught, is a list of individual artists (almost all men) who rejected the past, innovated the future, and made changes in technique and/or in subject matter that demonstrated artistic "evolution." The titanic struggle of individual genius against the dead and deadening packs of establishment conformity. The rebellion of the genius-hero against the stupid masses. If you get the sense from this description that the history of art is taught from the same mindset as military history, you're not far off.
Camus and Paz both speak of the open-hearted encounter with the real as the source of art, and art-making. Both speak of art as a response to life: a dialogue, an engagement, a web of relationship and connection. As poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, The universe is made up of stories, not of atoms.