Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The new age of anxiety

Evidence for a widespread anxiety about art abounds. In any one week you can read articles drenched in concern for its future. On the 2nd, Edward Rothstein (via TRE) observed that "art music has become almost quaintly marginal". On July 5th, John Freeman worried that the audience for the novel has been usurped by a TV series. On the 9th, Donari Braxton wrote that he can’t remember seeing anyone "pull out a collection of poetry on the subway and read through just for the sheer pleasure of doing so". It's a staple of print and blogs. On the 4th, there was a variant in Chris Wiegrand's call for "more respect" to be paid to Crime writers.

Of course, not one of these is really concerned about the future of art. They're concerned about the public life of art. Somehow, if "art music" meant something to those to whom it doesn't mean anything, if the viewers of The Sopranos would read "writers with plenty of lively ideas", if poetry critics didn't exclude the "layman" ... i.e the ninety-nine percent of the human-race who hasn't studied the intricate theoretical systems of Italian philosopher Agamben, and if genre fiction was given the same status as literary fiction then ... then ...then what?

Why is it that, from the conservative New York Times, to the liberal Guardian, to the "edgier waters" of 3AM Magazine, a personal engagement with a piece of music, a novel, a poem, is replaced by a search for wider cultural worth?

Perhaps it is the channeling of the true anxiety behind the public face. The art they wish more could experience involves not only the enchantment promised in all art, but also an exclusion. The Eden of modern art is a cold and bitter place. Mitigation of the sense of exclusion from the real thing is sought. Ian Rankin seeks it in the "biting exploration of contemporary social issues" offered by his crime novels. Might sociological studies be seen on future Booker Prize shortlists then?

The two together, enchantment and exclusion, constitute modern art and our experience of it. No matter how much one might embrace escapist art, the experience of exclusion remains - hence the denial inherent in nostalgia for the mythical golden era of Victorian fiction.

What we see every week is anxiety about personal exclusion. It would be better if critics, rather than hiding, mitigating or condemning the exclusion, brought out how the dual experience is liberating. However, this requires a certain amount of patience. Studying the intricate theoretical systems of Italian philosopher Agamben might also help too. Why protect people from it? I certainly recommend The End of the Poem and The Man Without Content. One trick I've found when reading supposedly difficult books is to, well, just read them.


  1. Christ, but that Donari Braxton article is truly vile:

    "Rhythms not devices, tonalities not ‘schematics,’ resonance not lyricism, feeling not category, being not meaning, aesthetics not meter.These are a few ways, it would seem to me, that poetry can be healthily, and intelligibly, presented to a non-academically orientated poetry public. Because, yes, poetry is an art form derived from language, like fiction and like non-fiction. But poetry too expresses, as Valéry once said, a “state of mind,” not necessarily an excursus into intellectuality, nor simply a set of cerebral variations on expression."

    Has he any idea what he means by this? Did he pause for one moment before identifying health with intelligibility, or differentiating between 'intellectuality' and a 'state of mind'? Does he know anything about Valéry beyond some gobbet he picked up from The Artist's Way?

    I'm feeling a very intense hatred after reading that article.
    Thanks for the link.

  2. Anonymous4:03 am

    The New York Times is what you call "conservative"? And the far-Left Guardian rates merely the description "liberal" (a term much abused anyway in present-day political discourse, meaning something different historically and in Continental Europe than it does in American and British political usage)?

    Thanks for adding some humor to my day!

    When you stick to literature, you write well, but politically, if your're so far Left as to think the NYT 'conservative', you're merely a caricature of the knee-jerk, bien-pensant Leftism that passes for thought among the Europeans.

  3. Anonymous8:11 am

    Excellent. Thanks for this Steve.

    "Why is it that ... a personal engagement with a piece of music, a novel, a poem, is replaced by a search for wider cultural worth?"

    Because, I suspect, "wider cultural worth" is given to pop music, tv, cinema, etc. so the would-be defenders of "culture" want books etc. judged in the same way, in the same cultural newspaper pages, and given the same coverage and worth.

    All nonsense, of course.

    And, yes, read Agamben!

  4. Yes, excellent post, Steve. People are anxious about this "wider cultural worth" and get extremely upset when some random columnist or blogger doesn't think highly of their own personal favorites...

    And I want to thank "Anonymous" for bringing humor into my day with his highly comical comment.

  5. Anonymous4:54 pm


    You are precisley the reason that articles like Braxtons are pretty essential. he expressed the need for petry to reconnect with a readership outside of those studying literature and poetry snobs. and there you are, representing the knee jerk poetry snob position, calling the article vile and feeling 'intense hatred' because someone expressed quite a common sense viewpoint.


    i am remaining anonymous because i am a writer, and i dont have any desire to get drawn into a public debate, and then have to waste time considering if everything repreesents a position that i am later going to have to defend. but this article was pretty represntive of the reactionary nature of this blog. everytime i read it (because i get sent a link, not because i read this thing reegularly out of some sense masochism) i am astonished by thge authors ability to express a one line thought in no less than 300 words.

  6. Anonymous, just because an article is sweary and full of fratboy 'tude ('fuck it', 'eat your heart out mother fucker', 'get over yourselves', etc., etc.) doesn't necessarily mean it expresses a commonsense viewpoint, or an interesting one. Braxton's article is a particularly egregious instance of what Stefan Collini, referring to Hitchens, called 'no-bullshit bullshit.'
    My point was that beneath the tiresome in-your-face posturing, Braxton substitutes argument for a string of meaningless verbiage.
    Take this sentence, far from the worst example I might have chosen:

    "Permit a perhaps self-evident comment: Poetry, in a way that is distinctive from most other art forms, is particularly difficult to critically and uniquely appropriate from an artistic standpoint."

    What sense, common or otherwise, does this convey? What's a unique appropriation? How does a 'standpoint' appropriate?

    I called the article vile because of the barely concealed tone of coercion and violence underlying every flip statement Braxton makes.
    "Conoley’s verse could nevertheless not escape being presented in the poetry world as some tract of cabalistic reincarnationism. Myself, I doubt this is what Ms. Conoley was hoping for when she wrote the poetry, let alone when she decided to publish and give it to the world. However, even if this is exactly what she was hoping for, fuck her."

    P.S.: "i am remaining anonymous because i am a writer"... And by day you're, what, a mild-mannered reporter?

  7. I am writing with a name because I am a restores of Norwegian whaling ships and the advertising might come in useful down the road. I'm so far up my arse btw that I think we start from a center-point of neo-conservatism and everything is either right or left of that.

  8. Anonymous1:12 am

    "i am remaining anonymous because i am a writer, and i dont have any desire to get drawn into a public debate, and then have to waste time considering if everything repreesents a position that i am later going to have to defend."

    Are you in the habit of taking positions you don't really want to defend? Must be quite a writer.

    On arts/cultural matters, the NYT is an *extremely* conservative paper, verging on reactionary. Probably only bien-pensant, know-nothing conservatives are unable to see that.

  9. Anonymous11:17 am

    i agree with last anyonmous’ comment. i mean, just look at kenoma. “hateful,” foaming at the mouth, spitting, now even leaning on some totally vacuous and purposeless semantics bent to dismiss the article (“hey look at this sentence, it doesn’t mean anything! ok, now look at this one!”). Typical.

    apparently it was intelligible enough for him to spend a lot of time getting riled up and to furiously blog and spit about it, but really there’s only one question he should be asking himself:

    “why is my response to this article so emotional?”

    since none of his blogs demonstrate he’s capable of answering this question, i'll do it for him.

    the reason is, he’s acting like a man who’s been PERSONALLY insulted. totally defensive and over-eagerly belligerent.

    and why does kenoma feel personally insulted? easy. he is, as anyonmous just pointed out, the very personification of the reactionary, standpat pretentious crank described in braxton’s article.

    kenoma – instead of feeling “hateful” and lashing out like a child does when he gets his feelings hurt, maybe you should take a look at yourself.

  10. I have a wonderful mathematical/linguistical equation that goes along the lines of

  11. Anonymous10:14 pm

    The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
    Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

    TS Elliot


  12. Anonymous11:05 am

    Anonymous is on the money.

    It is a blog that discusses literature, but with no understanding of literature at all. The writer has confirmed before that he can't write fiction or poetry. Just as a musician would not take seriously the critique of the tone deaf, or a chef listen to a restaurant critic with no taste buds, why should anybody other than the writer of this blog, be in the slightest bit interested in what is said here.

    The blind man from birth who writes this blog continues to discuss his theories of colour with never a pause to consider the hopelessness of the course he has set out on, presumably voluntarily.

    It is a sad fact that the bloggers libido seems wrapped up in this exercise to the point where only death or a further depredation of his miniscule faculties shall put an end to all this futility.

  13. Anonymous, please link to your blog. No need for modesty. If you're right about criticism, then your assertions about qualification to criticise a blog will surely depend on being a blogger.



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