I just reread all the posts we’ve contributed to book club this week and, like Matthew, am feeling well satisfied that the time we’ve invested in wrestling with Hickey’s text and trying it on in a music context was an investment well made. Vamping in front of a mirror is almost always guaranteed fun, whether you intend to buy the dress or not.
One issue that hasn’t come up here yet is the idea that some of what Hickey finds missing in today’s art is not missing from the art itself but from the conversation about the art and our experience with it, things that “remain verbally invisible and therefore accidental to any determination we might make in ‘serious’ discourse about the virtues of the work.”
Still, if we don’t talk about it, isn’t it in danger of being misplaced and forgotten? This sentiment connected up in a way with an essay my colleague Trevor Hunter had sent me early last week, a meditation by Jon Baskin on the work and underlying philosophy of David Foster Wallace. Baskin suggests that Wallace worried that his contemporaries were failing to do what he felt their readers needed them to do, “to offer counsel on questions of judgment, emotion, and truth” and instead indulging in “hip nihilism, ‘value-neutral’ morality and an essentially ironic response to life’s challenges.”
Perhaps I overstep, but I think this at least parallels what Hickey is trying to direct our attention to: that we need art, need it to interact and communicate with us, not merely perform a series of clever tricks or abstract theories in front of us. Wallace asks for something similar, and acknowledges how difficult a road it will be:
In contrast to “the old postmodern insurgents [who] risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship… the next real literary ‘rebels’ might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh how banal.’”
I passed the essay to Corey and he suggested that “perhaps the naivete we ‘post-whatever’ artists associate with old-fashioned ideas like subjective consciousness is exactly what’s needed to rediscover ‘meaning,’ to reaffirm that we are human ‘subjects,’ not merely automatons or non-entities, which is, as [Baskin] points out, an end to the conversation. Maybe that naivete is required when we address aesthetic beauty as well.”
Inspired, as per usual, by my reading of Wallace and my conversation with Corey, I went back and dug into an earlier piece of Wallace’s that Baskin had heavily referenced, E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction. I ended up entangled in additional connections (though, admittedly, these perhaps exist only in my own head, so bear with). With a nod toward the need for “the strange” in “the beautiful” we’ve discussed this week, here’s Wallace at some length considering the issue in the context of American fiction and television viewing:
Realistic fiction’s big job used to be to afford easements across boarders, to help readers leap over walls of self and locale and show us unseen or -dreamed-of people and cultures and ways to be. Realism made the strange familiar. Today, when we eat Tex-Mex with chopsticks while listening to reggae and watching Soviet-satellite newscast of the Berlin Wall’s fall–i.e., when darn near everything presents itself as familiar–it’s not a surprise that some of today’s most ambitious “realistic” fiction is going about trying to make the familiar strange. In doing so, in demanding fictional access behind lenses and screens and headlines and re-imagining what human life might truly be like over there across the chasms of illusion, mediation, demographics, marketing, image, and appearance, image-fiction is paradoxically trying to restore what’s (mis)taken for “real” to three whole dimensions, to reconstruct a univocally round world out of disparate streams of flat sights.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that, almost without exception, image-fiction doesn’t satisfy its own agenda. Instead, it most often degenerates into a kind of jeering, surfacy look “behind the scenes” of the very televisual front people already jeer at, and can already get behind the scenes of via Entertainment Tonight and Remote Control.
I carried this passage around with me for a couple of days because it both challenges us to get over ourselves (and our affected pretensions) and to realize that if and when we man up enough to meet our readers, our viewers, our audiences, in this way, creating something that will truly move them is going to be a hell of a lot harder than we ever could have imagined.