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A Few Thoughts on “The Death of the Artist”


When works of art become commodities and nothing else, when every endeavor becomes “creative” and everybody “a creative,” then art sinks back to craft and artists back to artisans—a word that, in its adjectival form, at least, is newly popular again. Artisanal pickles, artisanal poems: what’s the difference, after all? So “art” itself may disappear: art as Art, that old high thing. Which—unless, like me, you think we need a vessel for our inner life—is nothing much to mourn.

This is the final paragraph of William Deresiewicz’s recent essay in the Atlantic, “The Death of the Artist”. It is somewhat of a relief how this last act, like Christ’s, redeems the piece. Reading all that precedes it is a lesson in frustration, and there is plenty to contend, which I will do below. But I’ll say up front how battle-ready I was until at last realizing that it was unnecessary, that that, indeed, was one of his main points.

This is exactly what people like me have feared all along. Art, the tradition of art, has been attacked primarily on two fronts: a dwindling audience, and a co-option of terminology. It’s always been much easier for me to take the former than the latter. The takeover of terms is never pleasant for those happy using them as they are—though it happens, and they move on—but when this takeover is particularly covetous, or invidious, or done in ignorance, as it has been with ‘art’, ‘poetry’, and ‘literature’, I find myself resisting. One of Deresiewicz’s arguments is that these terms are now ineffective enough, undesirable enough, that they will cease to matter. They become obsolete. Deresiewicz predicts that the term ‘creative’ will replace ‘artist’, and thus the semantic battle will come to an end, no hero’s welcome for any of our efforts.

As for the first, the dwindling audience, this may now become art’s only refuge. I, unlike Deresiewicz, do not think it is the end of art as we know it. I do believe it to be the end of criticism as we know it, and as such art’s connection to the greater populace. This is too bad, and hopefully the trend will slow or even reverse itself (though it’s hard to see how this is possible). If not, however, art can go the way of anthropology: a serious study no longer supported by the market, with a smaller and smaller audience and corresponding influence. In its place we will all be duly entertained.

Before that happens, however, there are plenty of great contemporary artists, literary and visual and aural, to celebrate. I, for one, intend to do just that.

My first contention with Deresiewicz’s essay comes in the form of a question.

What we see in the new paradigm—in both the artist’s external relationships and her internal creative capacity—is what we see throughout the culture: the displacement of depth by breadth. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? No doubt some of both, in a ratio that’s yet to be revealed.

I would argue there’s not a single area of anything good that ever benefited from breadth over depth. Mathematics? No. Physics? No. Representative Politics? Sound economic practice? Engineering? What about fracking? Debatable. Breadth is good for wars, whores, and s’mores (talk about bad taste), and things like Manifest Destiny and Monroe Doctrines. What about Education? That’s a tricky one, but we’re currently seeing one of the wrong answers to it—i.e., breadth in terms of test ability instead of a liberal arts style curriculum—and we may live to see depth the victor, the more we hear about other countries surpassing our kids in all areas of study. One problem with the question is that depth breeds breadth, as in the maths and sciences, but it doesn’t work the other way around.

I don’t believe, of course, that Deresiewicz himself is claiming a displacement of 100% breadth over zero depth, but it is curious how he ascribes (in that final graph) to this same group of modern breadthers the embracement of all things ‘artisanal’, a practice firmly rooted in the depth side of things. For a pickle, the artisanal is a culmination, an apotheosis, both in terms of quality and of commodity (though you’d make a lot more money factory farming those babies). For a painting, however, an attention to process and provenance is not enough. We already have artisanal painters—they shell out pieces for interior design shops and Bed Bath & Beyond stores. This is not what the contemporary ‘artist’ or even ‘creative’ is aiming for. They are more like start-ups than artisans—they cultivate their niche only insofar as it ingratiates them to the big bucks. They sell out and then they start again.

Another phrase Deresiewicz uses in conjunction with this idea is “the democratization of taste”. The phrase is meaningless (Deresiewicz does not use it ironically). It is oxymoronic. Taste, the social construct, is exclusive, and without exclusion there is no taste. The common lament of the layman, that ‘taste is subjective’, is, of course, true, as all of life is subjective, and certainly all of art. The historic role of taste, however, is to make art less, not more, subjective.

Judgment rested with the patron, in the age of the artisan. In the age of the professional, it rested with the critic, a professionalized aesthete or intellectual. In the age of the genius, which was also the age of avant-gardes, of tremendous experimental energy across the arts, it largely rested with artists themselves.

This is highly oversimplified, and even somewhat false. Taste is discretionary, discriminatory, yes, and it is based upon traditions that go back thousands of years. Like a science, it has evolved and disproved itself. It was never one patron or one critic making an absolute judgment, but the conversation between many leading to a consensus, with plenty of dissenters. To claim it as subjective in the same way that a democratization is subjective—that is, absolutely—is to deny an entire learned tradition of cultural and artistic life. There are certainly exclusionary traditions whose persistence was horrifying—slavery, for example—but artistic taste is hardly that, and the fact that criticism and theory have served art since its inception should be enough to put off any question of whether it has done good in the pre-postmodern art world.

What happens after taste has been sent packing is that the void left behind is filled by one thing only: popularity. This is the era we live in, and it is the direct legacy of the ‘democratization’ of which Deresiewicz speaks (by the way, I don’t like the term, which assumes there’s no difference between everyone having an equal voice, and everyone leading the discussion). Aside from popularity, little or nothing is done by many of today’s leading artists to promote enduring engagement with their art. There has been little change in the ethos or direction of the arts in general since the 1960s, particularly in the visual arts. Not knowing where to turn after Warhol, they have remained in the same place. Having put a river between them and their capitalistic pursuers, they simply sat down and started preening whilst the rafts were being built and the knives sharpened. Works of art are no longer Warholian commodities, they’re just plain commodities, as Deresiewicz claims, without the irony or social commentary embedded.

As for the literary arts, they have for the most part receded, like the aforementioned anthropology, into academia. Only, for them, being relegated to such a sideline is too unbearable, too unworthy, and as a result they have built up the onerous monstrosity that is the MFA.

Deresiewicz addresses this ‘institutionalization’ of art, but groups residencies and fellowships alongside MFAs and corporate-funded projects. The former two are not institutions in the sense of the latter two. They have no creed, no burdensome reciprocation, no system of any kind (some of the residencies, it should be said, or perhaps reported, are lacking even proper hygienic facilities). They are the patrons of our time, and as such are a godsend. MFAs are patrons too, of course, though they try and masquerade as something ridiculously official, and in doing so the more adamant among them produce institutional effects. Firstly, the entire system is a pyramid scheme, as you can ask any unemployed or underemployed-in-boondock-nowhere MFA grad about. Secondly, MFA defenders say there’s no way they are teaching or encouraging conformity or homogeneity—well, then we must be raising a ton of mediocre kids in this country, because ninety percent of what comes out the other MFA end is shit that smells remarkably similar.

Lastly, Deresiewicz uses the term “creative entrepreneur” to describe the new millennial artist, the epitome of whose practice is the art of ‘networking’. Again, like ‘democratic taste’, this is a term that has no meaning in an artistic sense. There is no such thing as creative networking, it’s just networking. You are not being an ‘entrepreneurial’ artist when you’re doing it, you’re being a businessman. The imagination and production that goes into the creation of a work of art is neither concerned with nor remotely similar to the skills used to meet people and advance one’s economic aims.

So it is that it becomes, after all, about the co-option of terms, that old demon. Or else, perhaps it’s that in trying to explain this new cultural trend in terms of the tradition of art—a tradition that, in my view, the trend is firmly and irrevocably against—Deresiewicz is forced into the very same co-option of language used as a bludgeon by the new ‘entrepreneurial’ generation. This is as sure a sign as any that they have already won the day.

W S Merwin, writing in 1968 on poetry’s relevance in the modern era, writes that today’s poets

cannot even be certain whether the pretense to such certainty that characterizes some later periods of society…is one of the absurd disguises that can help art to survive, or merely one of the shrouds that are hardly more than wasted efforts to lend decency to its burial.

Merwin’s attempts, over the past sixty years, have been to resolve this uncertainty on the side of the affirmative. To believe in both traditional form and modern “resonance”. You can always work within the former to achieve the latter, and, in fact, this is what makes art Art. It’s this tradition of Form that has been lost in the contemporary postmodernist’s democratized credo that who shouts first shout loudest, and who shouts loudest shouts last.

So it’s not Art, you might say, who cares? Which is exactly what Deresiewicz brings to our attention in that last redeeming paragraph. How he gets there is full of faults, in my opinion, and equivocatingly confusing, but how we all got here is perhaps now less important than where we go from here. In that same 1968 essay, Merwin writes that “it seems to be characteristic of a technological age that means come to dwarf and eclipse or destroy their ends.” Our means is popularity, commodification, the pursuit of which has left our ends useless for anyone who wishes to spend more than a moment digesting, contemplating, savoring—among that minority I count myself.

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