Sunday, November 17, 2013

Serious Art

In the greatest work of criticism and literary history, Auerbach places the conclusion of the European history of realistic representation in the French 19th century, specifically in Madame Bovary. Flaubert’s novel culminates the development of what Auerbach calls “objective seriousness,” in which the serious treatment of everyday life is finally achieved. Here, the everyday—from the vulgar aspects of street life to the crude desires that often rule people’s actions to the cloistered rooms in which intellectuals toil in search for whatever it is that they consider valuable—is freed from its artistic association with the comic and the low and comes to be treated as something that is capable of expressing the tragic or transcendent. The everyday, boredom, and even stupidity are then seen as not only worthy of artistic representation but as perhaps the privileged themes for depicting the truth of the times.

The rise of the everyday in literature is related to a broader shift in European culture. The early modern period saw a transformation toward what Charles Taylor calls “the sanctification of ordinary life” in Western Europe. The Protestant rejection of the Catholic idea of higher vocations made the prosaic world in which we live as sanctified as any other. While the church remained the place in which people could congregate to praise the Lord, the ordinary became the space in which one lived a religious life. This democratized religion because no longer was one’s spiritual existence necessarily mediated through a dominant church. The entire world became Jesus’ temple. But even as the everyday seemed like an eminently spiritual domain, the spread and consolidation of capitalist modernity also turned that domain into a space marked by consumption and routine. Everyday life from the late 18th century on has become more and more determined by routinized labor and domesticity. Everyday life has been subjected to strict schedules and the homogenizing pressures of consumer culture and mass media. Art has focused on the everyday precisely in order to show the hypocritical disconnection between the promise of the elevation of the prosaic as a sacred space and the crudeness, banality, and hollowness that often marks bourgeois life. If the everyday once promised the possibility of encountering the holy, it has become the arena in which stupidity, repetition, and the surrender to crass materiality rule. Literature’s objective seriousness and art’s insistence on depicting the prosaic attend to this reality.

But the serious treatment of the ordinary comes at a cost. We have come to associate seriousness with art itself, as if in order for representation to be art it also has to be somber. No doubt there is a great deal of playfulness and joy in some artistic works, but it seems to me that as a general rule we associate art with solemnity and the playfulness of something like Pop Art only works because of the contrast it exploits. Museums often feel like mausoleums for a reason. I, for one, know that I have side-eyed some yokel for being too animated in a gallery. This attitude has filtered to popular art forms. There is, I think, a marked division in the minds of many people between the entertainment of commercial popular music and the grave introspection or ironic self-awareness of serious pop. Lady Gaga, a real goddamn artist as far as I’m concerned, tries to bridge that divide in her single “Applause.” Not only does she reference artists and artistic movements in this song, she positions herself as a synthesis of art and entertainment: “Pop culture was in art, now art’s in pop culture, in me.” How successful is it? How much can a dance song be considered art? I don’t know, really. But my sense is that those who want to enjoy it as a dance song probably don't think that much about it as art and those that think a lot about art probably won’t take it very seriously.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Love and Emotion

The fruitman’s cart is white but behind the glass everything is color. We buy $5 of fruta mixta. This gets us jicama, mango, coconut, pineapple, watermelon, cucumber, cantaloupe, orange, honeydew, a transparent bag, and a white plastic fork. Echo Park is full of brown-skinned families, the children overdressed and uncomfortable. There are also plenty of people that look like either one of us. We lay a blue tarp on the green grass. We are going to read. We put the books and the bag of fruit on the grass and lie down on the tarp. We eat fruit and talk. You are wearing grey shorts and a red sweatshirt. You are chilly in the shade and pull the hood over your head. I don’t remember what I was wearing. Eventually, I’m on my back looking at the sky. You press next to me. We don’t notice but people watch us. I can hear the churning of the fountain that aerates the lake, the peal of children playing, the vendors selling, the movement of the trees in the breeze, and the birds making their noises. Black coots have followed us from one lake to another without realizing it. Los Angeles, Los Angeles, Los Angeles. I have driven far and waited long to be here. You don’t touch your book. You fall asleep. I hear you sleeping. I would have driven father, waited longer to hear you sleep next to me. The sky is Los Angeles blue, and up there, in the current of air, the brown tips of the green palm tree fronds move around erratically. I try to make metaphors. I keep staring at the leaves moving as my side warms while you sleep next to me. I think you are undecided about me. I know you don’t talk about me. There are good reasons for that. Eventually, I read my book because it’s what I know how to do. Earlier or later, we listen to Drake’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home” (this video is stupid) in your apartment. I tell you I like that song a lot. We listen to other songs. We go to bed. At some other point, “Hold On, We’re Going Home” comes on the radio as we drive to a bar where later a crazy man will come in and yell incomprehensible oaths at everyone, you will get silly drunk, and we will have a fine time. As the song played in the car you sang along quietly and perfectly in tune and I sang along terribly. Though we stared straight ahead and it’s all in my imagination, I felt that when we sang “I can’t get over you/ You left your mark on me/ I want your hot love and emotion/ endlessly” we meant it about each other. It doesn’t matter if your singing didn’t really mean anything at all. That changes nothing for me.