Monday, April 11, 2011

a bit more on Ulysses

OK, I tried the snotty version. Let me give you the sincere version.

Last night I read this at the Daily Dish:
A reader reminds me, apropos this post, of the great quote from Philip Larkin on "difficult art." It's in his wonderful collection of music criticism, "All What Jazz." In it he writes that the great bane of modern jazz and other forms of modern art is that they "take what was once among our pleasures, and place it among our duties."
Rarely has the occasional wisdom of curmudgeonly prejudice been better expressed. Which goes for much of Larkin, of course, that crotchety, reactionary dreamer.
Well, I have a lot of fondness for curmudgeons, but I had to hit the bed and sleep on it cause I was so worked up.

Here's a proposition I'm gonna put out there that you kind of have to just buy into, because it can't be proved: I like reading Ulysses. In fact, I love it. I get pleasure out of it. Now here's a thought that is a necessary adjunct: my liking Ulysses is not a statement of value about what other people like, or even worse, a statement about the value of other people who like different things. People take that for granted with 99% of the art and media we consume. But for some reason, when it comes to art that is considered high brow, avant garde, or difficult, people assume judgment. I can't help but think that this assumed judgment plays a big part in attitudes like Andrew's.

"Difficult," when it comes to art, is a difficult word. The idea that there is a contradiction between deriving pleasure from something and being  challenged by something is undermined by anyone who has ever played a sport or a video game, hiked a mountain or done a 1000 piece puzzle, surfed or sailed or learned to play guitar. There are all different kinds of pleasures to be had in arts (literary, visual, film, musical, and whatever else). Sometimes what you want is art that announces its pleasures right away, where you can't miss what is enjoyable and where the gifts are immediate. Sometimes what you want is art that challenges and undermines your expectations, that gives its pleasures up grudgingly and in part, and that destabilizes you and what you believe. Both have value. The beauty of it is that, in theory, the choice is yours, and there's no penalty for sticking to any one path.

But only in theory. I would like to ask those who don't like difficult art to practice a little empathy. Because those of us who like books like Ulysses or Carpenter's Gothic, Japanese noise rock, the movies of Bela Tar, or sundry other art consistently labeled as intentionally difficult are constantly being denied that choice. I can't tell you how many times someone, in real life or on the Internet, says in one way or the other "you can't really like that" in response to a particularly challenging work of art. So many ideas seek to undermine the very concept of personal taste and idiosyncratic artistic desires: you only say you like this to be cool/appear arty/justify your graduate program/be a contrarian/feel smart, and on and on. It's not enough for people to say "this is bad" or "I don't like this," which is to be expected. For whatever reason, people feel compelled to deny the very existence of disagreement on the merits of these works. And you'll note that, despite the stereotype, the opposite attitude is vanishingly rare. I have certainly never said "you shouldn't go see Transformers 7, that's too lowbrow," and I find that sentiment almost totally absent from discussion. To say that the people going to see such a movie don't really like it is, I would wager, literally unheard of.

If I can't inspire any sympathy in you, please consider the question in purely practical terms. As someone who comes from a geeky/pop culture loving family, I have been sad to gradually become more and more disgusted by the edifice of pop culture fandom online. I have because I find ingratitude such an ugly failing, and if there is one thing that animates the geek/fanboy mainstream (lovers of comic books, video games, sci fi, fantasy, etc.), it's ingratitude. Everything that is produced in pop culture is made for you, yet the constant attitude is "nobody respects us." Every other movie is a superhero movie. TV is packed with sci fi and fantasy. Video games are omnipresent. And yet all I hear from fanboys (a term I have used in the past with endearment) is the idea that they are some terribly marginalized and oppressed minority. Bullshit. The respect that matters is respect from the commercial establishment, and they have given you everything you want.

Meanwhile, consider people who like the difficult, the abstract, or the obscure. Think of opera fans. Think of fans of orchestral music. Think of fans of live, non-musical, experimental theater. Think of fans of drama that centers on tragedy and adult relationships. They get so much less than those who love pop culture. Pop culture is inescapable; "high-brow" (or whatever) culture is hard to find. To act as though we have too many books like Ulysses and not enough like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is to take the conversation into the realm of fantasy. The continued existence of much traditional art is very much threatened. The continued dominance of pop/fanboy culture is assured.

I do like to talk up difficult and avant garde art. Not because I want to lecture or scold, but because there can be such pleasure in it, and pleasure accessible to a far wider array of people than you think. It will never cease to amaze me how many people claim not to like poetry until they have an enthusiastic guide sit down and explore a poem with them. Such a relationship can be a beautiful thing. Also beautiful is the fact that you never need to just choose one or the other. Lord knows I play too many video games.

Just like in politics, the idea that someone, somewhere is sneering at you is a terrible guide for your own behavior. You've got a lot to gain by abandoning the idea, and nothing to gain from keeping it. Personally, I think a lot of this stuff is wrapped up in attitudes that we've got to abandon-- conflating close-mindedness with populism and over reading cultural cues for fear of the dread "snobbery." Whatever the case, consider whether it isn't better simply to say that God made fleas and whales and pronounced both good.


Greg Sanders said...

I don't think this line is accurate, even allowing for hyperbole:
The respect that matters is respect from the commercial establishment, and they have given you everything you want.

Instead, I think it would be fair to say that the commercial market has given fandom as much as they give anyone. No one, ever, consistently gets good writing, good direction, good actors/actresses, and large budgets. (That said, I want M. Night Shamalya to stay the hell away from the Avatar the Last Airbender franchise until, at very least, he develops a sense of humor).

Fandom has arrived, but arriving brings the unpleasant realization that the long-desired prize still involves artistic compromise for mass-market appeal. Moreover, the secret language and community of niche connoisseurs is lost as many of the crown jewels of fandom become available with a lower cost of entry.

Balkanization seems like the inevitable result of this process, but aside from showing basic respect to those with different tastes, I think the question before fandom is how best to use the new found power with what remains of a the sense of community.

I do think a wide variety of fan groups, helped shape the usage of new opportunities from digital technologies to get some major wins over the last decade or two:
* Subtitles or quality dubbing are now much more the standard.
* The death off full screen adaptations of wide screen films.
* A wider sense of many and varied forms of animation and sequential art/graphic novels/comics as a medium for adults.
* Availability of a wide range of overseas cultural products through conventional channels rather than bootlegs and rare showings on late night television.

I'll concede that much of that might have happened anyways due to the internet, but I think total technological determinism is a mistake. Regardless, mutual respect is certainly a worthy goal but rather than focusing on gratitude I think old and new fandom communities would do better to find ways to chase new goals that may have been long cherished by other cultural communities (see the sub/dub issues).

Just throwing a few ideas out there, but:
* Championing new mediums, often awkward, rather than responding in a curmudgeonly manner to the next new comer.
* Alyssa Rosenberg has raised the issue of just outright importing more British shows rather than creating new American versions, I think that's a worthy goal that could be steadily expanded upon.
* Find and support economic models for realizing grand artistic visions aren't reliant on big budgets and the commercial interference that comes with them.

In pragmatic terms, there's still a lot of bad stuff in popular culture and uniting against common enemies can be a good way of avoiding counter-productive griping by common groups. That said, sometimes fights about fandom will just be necessary, there can be very good things in emergent medium from a gender/sex perspective but there's also matters that are worse than even the low standards of existing pop culture. I don't think that's a battle that can be finessed.

Anonymous said...

Here's my counter-proposition: Most people who dislike certain pieces of "difficult art" don't dislike those pieces for being "difficult", but for going against their traditional conceptions of beauty and craftsmanship. People like Rosenbaum love Tristram Shandy but can't stand Ulysses (both difficult novels) for exactly that reason. When somebody says "you can't really like that" in response to a particular piece of art it's likely that they're displeased by that piece of art not because they think it's difficult, but because they think it's ugly.

Freddie said...

Oh, sure. And at some point, I think we always will run aground on the subjective realities of taste. I just wish people like Rosenbaum, with his "grad students pretend to like this to show off" attitude, would allow me the grace of deciding what I like for myself.

Josue said...

Great post. I used to be one of those who scoffed at the poetry lovers saying "you just like it because it makes you feel smart." It wasn't until a friend dragged me to a poetry reading and one of the poets took his time to actually explain the concepts and how he was trying to convey his message. After that I was hooked. As for art, I think the art community as a whole is partly responsible for more people not enjoying art as much as they could be. I live in Seattle and the art "critics" criticize peoples tastes more than the art itself.

Josh said...

Two thoughts:

(1) I have certainly never said "you shouldn't go see Transformers 7, that's too lowbrow," and I find that sentiment almost totally absent from discussion. well as the paragraph that follows. I think there is quite a bit of contempt for popular art that's too lowbrow (I mean, Michael Bay and in particular the Transformers movies are a shorthand for "art with no redeeming value of any depth"). And the commercial establishment actually hasn't given fanboys everything they want; it's purported to, but in reality, it actually often gives them art dealing with subject matter that they're interested in, but that is so poorly crafted that it's almost more disappointing than not getting a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie at all. (Which is not to say that fanboys aren't ungrateful. The contempt with which F&SF fans often treat the objects of their affection is really an interesting facet of the genre; I suspect it has its roots in all that stereotypical but frequently true stuff about inferiority/superiority complexes, not getting laid enough, etc.)

(2) As someone who (like everyone) has occasionally liked "difficult" art for the sake of appearing cool, I think the really great thing about that much-maligned mind-set is that sometimes, you end up liking the art anyway. Obviously, you have to do the work for this to happen. But even if you start out just wearing a pose, if you wear it hard enough, it can eventually morph into genuine enjoyment.

Freddie said...

Lots of great points, and well said, Greg.

SDL said...

This is a great post, and I'll probably give it to my intro to poetry students in the fall. One day of the class, early on, is devoted to the question of "difficult" poetry.

Paul said...

Awesome piece, Freddie. I'm a jazz musician and I have to deal with this crap regularly. It's always highly educated, highly literate people like Sully---incidentally, the least musical class of people in America---who are unmoved by great jazz, and have this need to deny that anyone else could be moved by it either. They can't just dislike it and leave it alone.

Leonard Pierce said...

That Slate article is a perfect example of the persistence of what Roland Barthes so perceptively called "blind and dumb criticism", where the critic, unable to appreciate something on its own merits, therefore insists that it cannot be appreciated at all, and anyone claiming to appreciate it is either a liar or a poseur.

"TO be a critic by profession and to proclaim that one understands nothing about (a work) is to elevate one's blindness and dumbness to a universal rule of perception," he wrote, "and to reject from the world (the work): 'I don't understand, therefor you are idiots.'" Barthes was speaking mostly of Marxists and existentialists, much despised by the critics of the day, but he could easily have been speaking of any difficult art. In a way, it's a terrifying form of reverse snobbery (Barthes called it a "terrorist position"): since non-difficult, mainstream art already dominates the culture, critics attempting to eliminate highbrow art -- whether on the grounds that it's pretentious or some other rationalization -- are fighting a battle that's already been won, and disguising an attempt to wipe out a minority culture as an admirable anti-elitist populism. It's disgraceful, and is exactly what's not needed in criticism today.

Barthes isolated it in 1954, but it shows up every few years, as the Slate piece proves. (Jonathan Franzen, of all people, pulled much the same trick in 2002 with an inexplicable attack on William Gaddis.) It never changes, and it never gets any less absurd.

Alex Temple said...

This is a wonderful post.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's really fair to compare the reactions to people who like low-brow art and those who like high-brow.

The reason you never see someone accuse a Transformers fan of pretending to like it is because there is nothing to gain by such deception. Conversely, there's nothing to lose by admitting you hate Transformers. The same cannot always be said about high-brow art.

Greg Sanders said...

Glad you liked the comment Freddie, I worry a bit when I go long.

I wonder if it would be possible to make it an active virtue to acknowledge as part of criticism when a piece of work is too technically advanced for you to appreciate. There's a lot of art out there and I don't know anyone with the time and talent to understand all of it. Such an admission could be the end of the conversation. After all, explaining the context of jokes is notoriously unsatisfying. But it could be an opportunity for the person to seek to learn more if they wish to.

I tried to pull that off with a write-up of a recent Kronos Quartet concert. There were parts I loved, parts I don't think I had the context to appreciate, and one piece I actively disliked. In turn, I think it makes sense to advertise the difficulty and necessary context of pieces when praising them, but any would be recommender will be taught that lesson repeatedly by friends.

dorkismo said...

SO well said. Thank you for this. In fact I would like to send you a copy of my book just out of sheer gratitude, because I wrote a whole book about this very thing.



( dorkismo at gmail dot com )

Hal Espen said...

It's great to read a vindication of the pleasure in Ulysses. I started trying to read it in high school, and even then, when it made very little sense to me, it seemed like the most sensual sea of psychedelic words outside of Shakespeare. As for high and low, I've just been re-reading a bunch of Pauline Kael, and her criticism is (among many other things) a long meditation on these connections and tensions between great art and low pleasures. But to me the funny thing about this daisy-chain is that I followed the links back and read Ron Rosenbaum's Slate piece, and it's clear he absolutely loves Ulysses, or at least he loves big significant swathes of it, and has clearly read all of it, deeply. That makes Andrew Sullivan's riff about the "unreadability" of Ulysses a revealing strange inversion of the actual case. But much as I religiously read and benefit from The Daily Dish, it's a dunderheaded place to get anything at all deep or committed about art and literature (especially fiction, and as the jazz musician commented, all challenging music outside artsy disco) unless your idea of art starts and ends with the Pet Shop Boys, Matt and Trey, and Sunday-devotional poetry.

Richard Kerwin said...

I don't know that I have an opinion regarding your specific stance on Ulysses, but this strikes me as perhaps a little off:

Sometimes what you want is art that announces its pleasures right away, where you can't miss what is enjoyable and where the gifts are immediate. Sometimes what you want is art that challenges and undermines your expectations, that gives its pleasures up grudgingly and in part, and that destabilizes you and what you believe.

I don't know that it is the case that art can easily be divided into the immediately enjoyable and the challengingly enjoyable. Or rather, I feel the distinction is misleading. It implies an either-or situation I don't believe exists; ie art that the immediately enjoyable is not challenging and art that is challenging is not innediately enjoyable.

Good art can be one or the other, but both are required for great art. A great work can be quite complex, intricate, or even concretely inaccessible in its many and varied levels of understanding, but it MUST (absolutely MUST) be immediately and viscerally enjoyable.To deny either the visceral or the immediately inaccessible is to create an un-whole work neglecting to make use of an entire mode of understanding. Great art not only grabs you and pulls you in by the cojones, but damned well keeps you there.

I think rather that you are arguing the wrong point. The criticism of Ulysses comes not from a knee-jerk abhorrence to "difficult" art (or if it does, it is mistaken in doing so), but rather from a proposed deficiency in the work. There are, after all, many easily enjoyable works which, upon closer inspection, are found to be brimming with hidden treasures.

noisejoke said...

I've arrived here via the Sullivan express and darn glad about it. A great post and great conversation following. My wife, a classically trained flautist who studied under Petr Kotik (and whose Coney Island High School boasted John Cage as a visiting lecturer - he signed her diploma!) has great knowledge of and takes great pleasure in most classical music forms, not the least being opera. However, her favorite band is Rush. She's also a resolute and geeked out Star Wars and Tolkien fan-girl. She has first hand experience with the differences between marginalized high-art audiences and defensive, embattled, yet numerous comic/sci-fi consumers. It's hard to feel ghettoized when you're amongst thousands of middle aged white men at Madison Square Garden, as we were this past Sunday, enjoying the same music (that being Rush).
The following, however, is what I emailed Sullivan in a pique of knee jerk defensiveness. I guess it's even more incoherent than what I've just written. But, I've little college education and a huge, yet willfully obscure, chip on my shoulder, no doubt waiting to fall on your foot. Because, obviously, at 47 years old, my consumption of whatever art or entertainment, remains primarily in the context of who I'm trying to impress (whilst in the privacy of my home):

"And that's the thing about "difficult" art. It's often, though not always, a synonym for bad." You have any links, stats, a quote from Lester Bangs, perhaps, to make that claim?

Wow, Andrew, dissing Joyce (The Unreadable Masterpiece), yet positively referencing Christian Marclay (Movie Time) on the same day. Cognitive dissonance much? Have you had the possible displeasure of exposure to Marclay's previous audio or visual work over the past thirty years?

You even recently made a second hand reference to Captain Beefheart. Have you since attempted to listen to any of his work? Certainly, most of it might be considered difficult, and likely, unlistenable, by the greater music consuming public. But, you know, he changed my life. Yeah, in a good way. Joyce, too. Maybe, it just can't all go down easy, maybe it takes a little work, education, context. Maybe, it's just taste. But, all that means is that you don't like it. Not that it's bad.

It can't all be Pop (Pet Shop Boys, South Park). What fun would that be?

miss_modal said...

I think that it is a shame that most people don't realize how much all forms of art - popular and otherwise - owe to the work of prior generations of avant-garde artists. Avant garde art is often difficult - sometimes that is the very point - but what it really represents is artistic risk and the benefit is that it opens up space in that medium or genre for future generations of artists to hone and refine the things that were once so shocking and difficult.
The art critic, Leo Steinberg, who just passed away, actually, wrote a nice essay titled 'Contemporary Art and the Plight of its Public' in which he talks about (among many things) the artistic risk that Matisse took in adopting a style at odds with both the impressionist movement and any attempt at realism. His point is that Matisse was one of the most accomplished draftsmen to have ever come along, and he certainly could have made a name for himself doing more realistic work (Degas, in fact, was still doing that very thing). Yet he chose to move his own work (and the wider art world) in a new direction that challenged the assumptions of what constituted beauty and talent.
This kind of thing is, more often than not, what motivates people to create 'difficult' art; their impulse is not to be anti-art, but to present a challenge, both to themselves and to the public. Did Joyce have to write such difficult books? Did John Cage have to write and perform the music that he did? Of course not; they were both talented at their respective art forms, and could have found success or at least comfort along more traditional lines. But they risked that to do something else; not to be difficult for the sake of being difficult, but because they believed in artistic progress and that artistic truth is always waiting to be uncovered. And we reap the benefits of their sacrifice to this day in our expanded notions of genre and form.

ovaut said...

Do you like Finnegans Wakee?

Freddie said...

I don't understand Finnegan's Wake, personally.