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.


  1. a song you might like

    1. Thanks for passing that along. It's nice, though a little too precious and self-aware.