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Past Valve Book Events

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Apostles for Art

Posted by Daniel Green on 08/10/05 at 03:35 PM

On the one hand, Camille Paglia thinks that “Mainstream America looks at art and the artist as a scam and they don’t want to support government funding of the arts. Who pays the price for this are working-class talented young people who don’t have access to arts programs. Across the country school budgets are shrinking, the arts programs are being dropped right and left. I’m saying to the art world and all these coteries in Cambridge, San Francisco, Manhattan, ‘You have not been good stewards of art. You need to get out of this. You need to be apostles for art.’”

On the other, she believes that creative writing programs are “producing a kind of antiseptic writing, a certain kind of polished professional writing” and that “to be a good writer you can’t just study writing. You have to live, OK? That’s the problem. The best writers have drawn from actual experience, have had some experience. What experiences do people have any more?”

The contradiction between these pronouncements seems to me unbridgeably wide. If you believe that academic study almost necessarily produces “antiseptic” art (apparently this is a synonym for “polished, professional” art), why insist so clamorously that artists and writers get with it and help make American education more amenable to arts programs? If the best art comes from “actual experience,” what difference does it make that school budgets for art are shrinking? Experience is cheap, college tuition and good public education are not. If art and artists are out of touch with “regular people,” as Paglia contends they are, should their apostolic mission be in schools? They would inevitably be ministering to those students who show an interest in or facility with one or another of the arts, who will only go on to belong to one of the “coteries” for which Paglia has such contempt. ("Coterie" is just another way of identifying a group of people with a developed interest in some particular subject or pursuit. Isn’t this always the ulimate outcome of education if the process is taken seriously? Does Paglia believe that the “working-class talented young people” to which she refers will know better than to take education that seriously?)

And since Paglia thinks that religion and sex are “the most substantive” subjects of art, does she truly think that “art education” in the United States could ever teach students the real truth about art? I agree with Paglia that great art is inherently provocative and potentially disturbing, but for that very reason it seems unlikely in the extreme that American education will ever do anything with it except distort and defuse it. And that “government funding of the arts” will anytime soon extend beyond the most “antiseptic” of art seems far-fetched indeed. According to Paglia, if artists would “stop the snide references to the rest of the world who didn’t vote with [them] in the last election” and “address America,” they might get more support, but what it would really take is for politicians and their constituents to stop being afraid of the very art Paglia herself likes (at least if her analyses in Sexual Personae are to be trusted). Does she think this will happen?

If Camille Paglia wants to take art to the masses, she should probably stop thinking that school--in any form--is an appropriate forum for such an effort. I also believe that the academy has marginalized those who “just want to do literature and art,” as Paglia puts it, but I for one never believed in the notion of the artist as shaman. A taste for serious art is a minority taste, and testifying for art’s power as something magical or mystical isn’t going to enlist many converts.


Comments

Paglia’s criticism of government cuts for arts programs and her criticism of creative writing programs address separate issues. As I understand it, most of the governmental cuts in arts programs are in the area of public education—the wide-scale dropping of art, music, and theater programs from American public schools. Paglia’s criticism addresses this state of affairs and its larger cultural effects—one of which is the lack of appreciation for the so-called fine arts in the general population.

If these programs had not been cut, then presumably an appreciation of the fine arts would have been inculcated from an early age in the general population. This lack of gov’t support not only affects appreciation of the arts, but also its creation—young, aspiring artists in, say, the visual arts, are not receiving the technical training and historical education that act as a foundation for a vocation in the visual arts.

As a result, students who are poor and working-class and therefore (usually) financially unable to seek art instruction outside of their public schools are denied opportunities that remain available to middle- and upper-class students. Unlike the visual and performing arts, so-called creative writing is far less rule-governed than the former disciplines—there are recognizable, teachable techniques for manipulating the materials of each respective medium to achieve certain recognizable outcomes and effects. Obviously, each of these domains is not as highly rule-governed as the others—music is more rule-governed than the visual arts, the visual arts more rule-governed than acting, etc.—but each does have a body of knowledge and teachable technique that often requires years of apprenticeship to acquire and employ effectively to one’s own artistic ends (what used to be called “mastery").

Not so with creative writing—there is no recognizable body of knowledge or technique that one must master in order to produce work esteemed by one’s artistic peers and the population at large. I think this is why Paglia feels she can be so critical of creative writing programs—what exactly are these programs teaching? There are the rudiments of plot, narrative, voice, tone, mood, literary mode, genre, etc, but almost all of this could be learned (and indeed, has been learned by thousands of writers throughout the history of literature in English) on one’s own.

The artistic development of writers has been historically very different from that of visual artists and musicians. Almost all of the composers, performers, and visual artists in Western culture served long apprenticeships to other artists and musicians in order to learn the various elements of the craft they hoped to master. Writers do serve apprenticeships to “masters” that they hope to learn from, but the writer’s has typically been a more-or-less private apprenticeship, reading and rereading and imitating those authors that have most seized their imaginations.

One should recognize the important role that artistic communities and associations can play in the development of individual artists and writers—Wordsworth and Coleridge, Bloomsbury, the Fugitives, Lowell, Bishop, Jarrell and Berryman, the New York School, the Language poets, etc.—and one could argue that creative writing programs provide (or at least engender) these communities and associations more so than explicit instruction in how to write. However, it seems creative writing programs have succeeded instead in helping to create (in unwitting collusion w/ other cultural forces, namely the apparent lack of interest in or appreciation for “literary” fiction or poetry from the general population) the infrastructure of an almost entirely institutionalized “literary” writing culture—something I think Paglia is right to lament and speak out against.

By on 08/10/05 at 07:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I haven’t finished the interview, yet, but I’m struck by the hypocrisy on display.

Paglia says, “People in the art world are full of [a] sanctimonious sense of superiority to most of America.”

This comes right after

Paglia: “The best writers have drawn from actual experience, have had some experience. What experiences do people have any more?”

RB: [laughs] “Shopping."

Hmm.

By gzombie on 08/10/05 at 07:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh Paglia is very silly, but I don’t think she is contradicting herself in the way you point out, Daniel. 

I think her two claims are:

(1) College creative writing programs produce sterile writing;

(2) Certain epater les bourgeois artists in the U.S. have caused contempt for art among mainstream Americans, leading unfortunately to decreased funding for the arts, etc.

I don’t see the contradiction. 

But as long as we are searching for contradictions, here’s one:

That’s the upside but the downside is that to be a good writer you can’t just study writing. You have to live, OK? That’s the problem. The best writers have drawn from actual experience, have had some experience. What experiences do people have any more?

And then:

We are getting worse writing, worse art. Part of the reason for the much worse writing is that young people have so many other distractions in terms of their time—so many things to do, that reading books has just shriveled. They are assigned books, but few kids read books for pleasure. Too much else is going on.

By on 08/10/05 at 08:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I can’t find any discernible coherent logic to what Paglia is saying in this interview. Her book sounds interesting. The interview not so much. Clearly she’s unhappy about the state of the arts in America, but as to her explanation of causes… *shrug*

I think her interviewer gets to the heart of the contradictory things she asserts when he asks her to be clear about whether she’s “blaming the segment of the population that is artistic” or is “acknowledging that [American] culture is not fertile for arts.” She doesn’t provide a satisfactory answer, imho.

Paglia is suffering from what John Holbo has, in another context, identified as puffer fish syndrome (click and scroll down). She can’t just say “I’ve written a good book about some great poems.” Like a puffer fish, the book has to take on a greater significance than it seems to merit. American civilization is falling apart! Professors are corrupting our youth! The left has contempt for religion! Derridean dingos ate my baby!

Whatever.

In the interview, specific examples of contemporary writers and artists are very few and far between. There is practically no mention of any recent work of scholarship concerning art or literature. She appears to be unaware of the recent upsurge in humanities scholarship on religious topics. For all I know, she reads all the contemporary scholarship that’s coming out on these topics, but if so, it’s strange she would not mention any of it in her interview.

As to the contradiction you highlight, Daniel, can we chalk it up to a consistent inconsistency?

By gzombie on 08/10/05 at 08:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

blah: You can’t at the same time maintain that too much “study” of art--in this case literature--makes for “antiseptic” art and that what this country needs is more study of the arts.

You can’t really believe, can you Richard, that “If these programs had not been cut, then presumably an appreciation of the fine arts would have been inculcated from an early age in the general population”? In the general population of the United States? In the interview, Robert Birnbaum tries to argue “the culture is not fertile for arts” but Paglia merely replies that, damnit, we’ll make the culture fertile. Good luck.

And you think that the American school system can include arts programs sufficient to provide a “body of knowledge and teachable technique that often requires years of apprenticeship”? Double good luck.

I wonder how many writers will agree with you that writing serious poetry or fiction requires “no recognizable body of knowledge or technique that one must master in order to produce work esteemed by one’s artistic peers and the population at large”? Or that learning to write merely involves mastering the “rudiments of plot” et.al.?

By Daniel Green on 08/10/05 at 09:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

blah: You can’t at the same time maintain that too much “study” of art--in this case literature--makes for “antiseptic” art and that what this country needs is more study of the arts.

Of course you can.  You can coherently argue that U.S. writing programs focus too exclusively on the writing, but that in other areas there is not enough study of the arts.  In both cases, you would be shooting for an optimum level of study.  In the case of writing, we have gone beyond the optimum level.  In other areas, we are below the optimum level. 

I don’t necessarily buy any of these statements, and, but I don’t think its a contradictory position.

By on 08/10/05 at 10:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What does it mean to “focus too exclusively on the writing”?

By Daniel Green on 08/10/05 at 11:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That was my attempt to paraphrase Paglia: “to be a good writer you can’t just study writing. You have to live, OK?” I thought it was pretty much what you meant by “too much ‘study’ of art.”

By on 08/10/05 at 11:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Daniel: What I meant was that writing is not a domain like music—there are no parallels that I can see in the domain of writing w/ harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, etc in music. These things form part of a larger body of knowledge in the domain of music that is teachable; music students can learn and gain a basic competency in the writing of chord progressions, contrapuntal technique, and the like b/c music is so highly systematized.

I never said nor implied that “learning to write merely involves mastering the ‘rudiments of plot’ et.al.” Learning to write serious work and write it well obviously requires enormous effort on the part of the aspiring writer.  What I am saying is that creative writing is not nearly as highly systematized as a domain like music—there aren’t a whole lot of rules that a creative writing teacher can pass on to her students for writing a short story, or a novel, or a poem. As far as the writing of “serious” poetry and fiction, I’m saying only that there isn’t a great deal to teach—I never said that there wasn’t a great deal to learn.

By on 08/11/05 at 05:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A few myths in Paglia’s interview:

1. She says school budgets have shrunk. Not so. Federal funding for education has risen more than 300 percent since the early 70s (inflation- adjusted dollars), and the greatest increases have taken place in the last few years. The problem with school budgets is rising costs, especially in areas of special ed and technology.

2. Mainstream American doesn’t support public funding for the arts, Paglia says. Not so. Support for public funding for the arts is secure, and recent votes in the House for arts funding prove the trend.

One thing people forget about public funding for the arts is the incentives the tax code provides for giving. See the document “How the US Funds the Arts” (http://www.arts.gov/pub/how.pdf).

By on 08/11/05 at 10:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

So far as I can tell, Paglia is criticizing cuts in funding for arts education in US public schools. As I understand it, the NEA has no jurisdiction over public education; funding issues for arts education in public schools would fall under the jurisdiction of the federal and state departments of education as well as the local school boards.

By on 08/11/05 at 05:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Federal funding for education may have risen over the years, but in recent years has significant federal funding gone toward arts education? Recently, federal funding for education has increased, but in support of NCLB (No Child Left Behind Act). Funding and general support for the arts in public schools has suffered.

(http://music-for-all.org/CBESurvey.html)

By on 08/11/05 at 05:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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