From the Shelf: A Mirror for Artists

I’ve written before on the degradation of the art world, and specifically Modernity’s impact upon both the interpretation of art and its creation.  In short, the commodification of art, the development of the art market, and the disintegration of art patronage by an aristocratic class has had a twofold impact upon the development and presentation of the arts: on the one hand, art has become inaccessibly obtuse and designed for the consumption of a philistine elite, and its market increasingly a platform for money laundering; on the other hand, art has been reduced to the most base common denominator of a banal and equally philistine public, in which consumption and marketability are the deciding barometers of its success.

Well, as it turns out, it doesn’t take the wretched state of the market in 2018 to have figured all of these things out.  Continuing on with our brief excursion into I’ll Take My Stand, Donald Davidson approaches the topic of the arts in the wake of an industrialized society in his essay, which follows up John Crowe Ransom’s piece that I touched on last night.  Davidson’s work, “A Mirror for Artists,” directly attributes the over-commodification of the arts to industrialization’s tendency to reduce all objects and peoples into economic units which can be measured according to terms like scarcity and surplus.

Davidson outlines rather clearly how the revolution in thought that both precipitated and got energized by the industrialization of the last three hundred years left its tracks all over the gradual shifts in artistic output beginning with the Romantics of the nineteenth century.  The Romantics, he argues, emerged as artists who pitted themselves against the societies in which they functioned as artists; art became removed from its proper place and in turn became a vessel for critique or for fantasy.  It’s not hard to follow his logic when one considers how suddenly artistic output shifted from not only the aesthetically pleasing, but also the glorification of the religious and the veneration of the past, into an outright glorification of ancient paganisms and eventually the myopic interest of the mundane, as exemplified by the impressionists and realists.

As that perfidious herald of Modernity crept into the brush strokes of artists and the pens of poets, they ceased to deliver content made explicitly to serve an audience—and not simply to please but to elevate that audience spiritually—and instead produced works of increasing rational opaqueness, limiting its reach until works were made with only the artist himself in mind.  “In short,” he says, “the condition of the arts themselves, whatever the field, gives little ground for thinking that they are actually cherished by an industrial civilization” (47).

He continues by separating, I think unsuccessfully, the democratic politics which have endangered the art world so catastrophically from the industrialization that allowed that democracy to crystalize into its current form:

“Democracy did not, after all, disturb society unduly.  It was a slow growth, it had some continuity with the past, and in an agrarian country like pre-Civil War America it permitted and favored a balanced life.  Industrialism came suddenly and marched swiftly.  It left a tremendous gap.  Only as democracy becomes allied with industrialism can it be considered really dangerous, as when, in the United States, it becomes politically and socially impotent; or, as in the extreme democracy of the Soviets, where, converted into equalitarianism within class limits, it threatens the existence of man’s humanity.” (49)

I mention that this separation is unsuccessful because the democratizing principle at work in the arts, which turned the reverent artistic content of the past into the naval-gazing output of the nepotists today, was already at work prior to the rampant growth of the industrial age.  It was the ideological schism with the past—the philosophical revolution of the Enlightenment in particular—which brought this change on.  When Donaldson is referring to industrialization, he’s only referring to the tangible, economic results of the sudden philosophical changes that had run roughshod over the eighteenth century elite.  America, as you can note in a reading of Alexis de Tocqueville, was birthed as a direct result of this schism.

Donaldson wraps up his essay by drawing the contrast with the Southern way of life and its relationship to the arts, and here he is fairly undeniable.  The South’s style of architecture had remained, at the time of his writing, quintessentially Southern; its great writers had already begun to peak, and they wrote not against the Southern tradition but directly within and in line with the arteries of its culture.  The Southern artistic traditions did not lapse into the broadly self-obsessed and indulgent culture of narcissism that awaited their industrialized counterparts in Europe and New England, at least for the most part.

What we see with Donaldson’s piece is an optimistic glimpse of what was perhaps the last worthwhile American artistic movement before the academies, universities, and institutes were so fully compromised as to make the arts—be it visual, literary, poetic, or musical—unaffordable, useless, stupid, and irrelevant endeavors.  In retrospect, it reads in some senses as a timeless commentary on the dangers of industrial modernity and how damaging it is to artists.  On the other hand, it is also a product of its time, as Donaldson here failed to fully grasp the utter wasteland of the arts that awaited not just the South, and not even just America, but the West as a whole in just a few scant decades.

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From the Shelf: Reconstructed but Unregenerate

I recently obtained a used copy of I’ll Take My Stand, a “manifesto” of Southern Agrarianism written and published back in 1930 by Harper Press.  It’s a collection of essays by the Twelve Southerners, a collection of men who represented a minor, but important aspect of American Conservatism prior to the Buckley-Goldwater movement of the fifties and sixties, which forever altered Conservatism in the United States (some would argue for the worse).

I’ll limit today’s post to just the first essay, written by poet, essayist, and critic John Crowe Ransom, entitled “Reconstructed by Unregenerate.”  It’s really good.

The piece serves as both an overview and a preview of the themes that rest of this manifesto gets into: the impact of industrialism on social cohesion, the decline of man’s dignity as a worker and his reduction to a unit of labor, industrialism’s direct attack upon the environment and countryside, and the generally unlivable conditions afforded by large-scale industrialization in comparison to widespread populously-dispersed agrarianism.  This comes with a direct attack on the modern notion of progress, a vaguery which “never defines its ultimate objective, but thrusts its victims at once into an infinite series” (8).  Specifically, Ransom places progress within the context of Man’s willingness and intent to abolish the environment, which extrapolated a little further, comes to reflect Man’s incessant desire to control all things.  Nature, being innately uncontrollable, remains forever unyielding to the advances of Man’s interests in absolute control; industrialization’s answer to this is to simply try to destroy what cannot be controlled.

Naturally, Ransom characterizes this as something intrinsic to the North/South divide, even in 1930.  The war, obviously, had ended more than two generations before; some veterans still lived to tell the tales but, by and large, the memory of the antebellum South was not a living one.  It remained alive as a cultural artifact, but not as a tangible myth to be recounted by old-timers on back porches.

This makes his dichotomy both a bit easier to digest and harder to pin down.  The North/South divide, for the purposes of Ransom’s point, is an industrial/agrarian divide.  It’s a divide not altogether uninformed by the passage of history, but it should be remembered still that most if not all of the Founding Fathers believed fundamentally in the agrarian life of the United States—Jefferson being the most famous proponent.  Even Tocqueville, during his travels around America a full century before this piece was written, recognized the decentralized, small-community method in which the American experience unfolded.  The North, back then, showed signs of industrial equipment, but it maintained the fundamental cohesiveness of classical communities.

What’s fascinating about his essay here isn’t really its cultural divide that recognizes industrialism as a fundamentally Northern infringement upon Southern identity; it’s bigger and deeper than that.  As he alludes to at the end with his brief critique of the Democratic party’s embrace of progress—the party that was once a conservative bastion of Southern Agrarianism a mere quarter-century before—industrialism and it’s attack on what is fundamentally human remains one of the key problems that has yet to get a coherent and convincing answer even today.