The Solution Is The Soapbox

The conversation about art, pleasure, discipline and craft is afoot at The Valve, and I thought I’d reprint my long comment from there over here, redacted slightly. I like how it ends. -JK


Rich Puchalsky writes,

I suspect that it’s going to be a willing embrace of the arbitrary—a willingness to spend the time “listening” to each reasonable worthwhile art / text that you encounter, even though this inevitably means that you spend time with less aesthetically worthy art, and therefore miss more worthy art. But, in effect, this is like a return to childishness, when you are fascinated by ordinary things.

…which is echoed to some extent here, by Ray:

I look at Cory Doctorow and I see someone who does seem to take genuine delight in his “toys”. I wouldn’t want to be him; he wouldn’t want to be me. But that formula seems like a solid basis for friendship rather than something to fix.

The difference being that Rich puts it in terms of a valuable (though not mandatory) moral precept, while Ray makes it external to himself by referencing Doctorow.

Perhaps it’s heresy to say it, but most blogs are good because they spark conversations, not because they are on par with the best that has been thought and said. It’s also a pleasure to read up-to-the-minute documents that analyze contemporary culture, politics, and products; many blogs are like editorial columns. Right now Spurious is the only non-comment blog I’m willing to read, and I think many blogs owe their popularity to the fact that you can read them at work, whereas a book is a little too obvious.

There have always been people who delighted in toys; it would be great if, thanks to them, we had more Creative Commons novels about Disneyland and more sites like Boing Boing. I have to be honest, though, about the fact that libraries and museums appeal to me more than the obsessive clutter of private collections and private Wonderlands. I don’t just mean spaces for books and paintings; I mean common spaces of all kinds. While I enjoy the nostalgic collector’s joy driving artworks like American Splendor and Ghost World, both of which began as comic books, I don’t think the phenomenon of male analog culture has much to contribute to the overall debate, in part because I see it as an ultimately doomed reaction against digitalization. There’s always a limit to what someone can actually use, and within those limits, I have nothing bad to say about other people’s pleasures; on the other hand, a private collection is not limited, and can’t automatically be brooked.

As for the artwork of friends — like blogging, I understand this through the model of conversation and exchange, rather than as a painful series of mutual obligations. And a lot of it can be extraordinary; the profusion of new independent music has actually raised standards. On the other hand, a huge marketing effort goes into suspending questions about the value of new, mediocre cultural artifacts. I’ll emphasize how complex these issues actually are by pointing out that one of the reasons I like Ghost World is that the characters feel a tremendous imperative toward culture. No matter how eccentric or superficially ordinary the thing might be, they don’t experience it that way, and they certainly don’t think of it as mere “entertainment.”

Finally, I should point out that Pater was more critic than artist. If blogs are any indication, most people do want to have a soapbox for their critical views on culture, politics, and society, all of which require rhetorical skill, research, erudition, and craft. I wouldn’t want to set any limits, in advance, on what their capacity for insight or beauty might be.