Burning Book Club (Chapter 1) – Let’s kill some myths about artists to better understand some truths about money

(This post is part of a series inspired by reading  Scott Timberg’s Book-Burning-225x300“Culture Crash: the killing of the creative class.” Read all the book club entries)

One of the things I like best about Culture Crash is the way it does away with the some of our more cherished delusions about artists. Delusions that make artists seem like bad-asses, but don’t actually help with the whole “being an artist” thing.

The introduction nicely dispatched with the idea that artists in the modern era are uniformly hostile to the bourgeoisie middle class: in fact they mostly were the bourgeoisie middle class. They might have been the last to tell you, but,it was true all the same.

Chapter 1 effectively kills the illusion that art scenes occur just because artists happen to live in the same place. On the contrary: a culture of art emerges (or doesn’t) as much from the way artists socialize together as work. However much Romanticism and Modernism celebrated “artists” as solitary geniuses who required peace and quiet lest their nerves be shattered, anti-social artists tend to be both outliers and un-influential on the arts as a whole.

Which means that a group of studios filled by working artists is not necessarily going to be more than the sum of its parts – especially if those artists don’t talk much, and absolutely if there is no particular conversation going on about their work outside of those studios.

That conversation is as vital, if not more so, as their proximity. Timberg quotes artist and critic Peter Plagens: “’You need criticism. You need some polemic – a negative commentary in a magazine here, a positive article there.” Conscientious criticism brings heat to the artists subculture, as well as corralling the public into the conversation, in a way that a-good-time-was-had-by-all cheerleading doesn’t. ‘Art criticism has gone hand in glove with modern art since the beginning,’ Plagens says.”

Questions of art are, therefore, in no small sense questions of community and communication. While Culture Crash is primarily focusing on economics at this point, the questions it’s raising apply equally well to the culture created by the proliferation of artists and the infinite babbling of the internet: Timberg makes a compelling case that artists of the past needed a strong critical infrastructure in order to coalesce into a meaningful scene, but what would that infrastructure look like now? It what ways can and can’t it be replaced by a thousand Twitter accounts about art? (more…)

Burning Book Club – The Consequences of Losing our Creative Class

(This is the second post inspired by reading the introduction of Scott Timberg’s Book-Burning-225x300“Culture Crash: the killing of the creative class.” Read all the book club entries)

In between the last post and this one, I’ve been reading a number of articles about how Amazon reviews are gamed – that authors will often purchase hundreds of fake 5-star user reviews to push their books up to the top of the Amazon search engines.

The result is that crappy books by people gaming the system push out legitimately good book – even books with good (real) reviews, just not hundreds of them. For people who want to find and read good books – never mind paying the authors, just finding out about the books in the first place – it is increasingly hard. A system like Amazon’s, that relies largely on the free market, claims to be a neutral arbiter but in fact supports the people who are gaming it rather than the artists struggling to do good work.

I can think of no better example of what Scott Timberg is talking about when he says that the “hollowing out” of the cultural structures has serious consequences.

Timberg isn’t referring specifically to artists here, though he includes them of course. When he refers to the “creative class,” he’s talking about people who support art and culture by serving as gatekeepers: people who help the “good” art distinguish itself from the bad. He’s talking about video clerks, radio DJs who do their own programming, arts journalists, and of course critics – among many others.

The idea of having “gatekeepers” has gotten a lot of bad press in the digital revolution, but the degree to which we need people to separate the wheat from the chafe has never been more clear: without gatekeepers who are not in it for the money, only the art with a publicity budget will ever be found amid the mass production that the digital revolution has unleashed. Sure we can all “vote” with our “likes” and our “tweets” – but these systems are not only easy to game, they exist specifically to be gamed. They drag all art appreciation down to the level of “American Idol,” which is great on its own terms but not really – not really – a serious way to evaluate music. As a result, the good work gets drowned out.

And let me be clear about this: a system that is agnostic about quality is actively against it. To say “our system of publicity shouldn’t care whether art is good or bad” is to dig good art’s grave. (more…)

Burning Book Club – Introduction: We’ll run out of money before we run out of art

(This post is the second in a new book club, and inspired by reading the introduction of Scott Timberg’s Book-Burning-225x300“Culture Crash: the killing of the creative class.” Read all the book club entries)

If there is a crisis in the arts, why do we care?

We live in unsettled times – climate change is throwing the whole planet into environmental chaos; there is a constant buzz of military action in a “war on terror” that shows no sign of ending and theoretically never could; global hotspots between major powers like the U.S., China, and Russia, threaten to erupt; antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria are becoming an increasingly common fact of life; government power, especially for surveillance, is running unchecked …

When we say “it’s a problem that artists can’t make a living,” this is the competition. This, and the fact that as a result of automation and corporate policies there may soon simply not be enough jobs to go around for anyone.

So a guy can’t make a living painting paintings? So a woman can’t make a living sculpting sculptures? So I can’t make a living writing little stories? So what? What’s at stake?

It’s not like we’re going to run out of paintings or sculptures or stories. If anything, digital images and 3d printing and the internet make all these things easier to come by than ever.

Scott Timberg opens his book “Culture Crash: the killing of the creative class” by making a case that art itself is in danger.

“If we’re not careful, culture work will become a luxury, like a vacation home,” Timberg writes in his introduction. “The price we ultimately pay is in the decline of art itself, diminishing understanding of ourselves, one another, and the eternal human spirit.”

As an artist, I would very much like to think Timberg is right – and that the world will not go on turning in some vital way without me and the work I do. As a human being, however, I think Timberg is very cogent in his analysis of the problem we’re facing, but very wrong in his analysis of what’s at stake.

Art is not in any danger. And I think Burning Man, as an arts and cultural institution, inadvertently demonstrates why. (more…)

You got your money in my art! You got your art in my money!

This is one of my favorite stories about a piece of art.

michelangelo last judgment
Michelangelo’s Last Judgement

After Michelangelo was commissioned to paint “The Last Judgment” on the wall of the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican’s Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, examined the painting in progress and said it was shameful for a sacred work to depict nude bodies, and that it was a painting more fit for a public bath than the Holy See.

In revenge, Michelangelo gave one of the devils in hell da Cesena’s face, and added donkey ears.  (Lower right hand corner:  he’s also got a snake wrapped around him.  Close-up below the jump.)

Da Cesena complained to the Pope, but His Holiness replied that there was nothing he could do, because this was a devil and his authority as Pontiff did not cover hell.

The painting remains on the wall of the Sistine Chapel to this day, viewed by millions of tourists each year, and while Da Cesena was a rich and powerful man at the time, the only reason we even remember his name today is because Michelangelo snubbed him.

Aside from being hilarious in its own right, this story sits right at the intersection between art, sacred culture, and commerce. Michelangelo was a hired gun, paid a lot of money to make sacred art by people there is every reason to think he didn’t particularly like or respect, and the result has become a fixture of western culture. (more…)

What I’ve learned about Burning Man from reading “Culture and the Death of God.”

Burning Books 2(This post is inspired by reading the final chapter of Terry Eagleton’s “Culture and the Death of God.” Read all the book club entries)

So here’s the thing about cults:

Every time one’s in the news or does something big – no matter where in the world – everybody in the media rushes to assure themselves that only losers belong to this organization: it’s for sexless poor people who just can’t hack it in modernity.

And every time – from Aum Shinrikyo in Japan to ISIS in the Middle East – they’re wrong.   Every time we’re stunned to learn that many of the cultists/fundamentalists/terrorists were actually economically successful. That they had relationships, and families, and ties to the community.

Our delusion that successful IT managers or people with friends wouldn’t join a cult or strap on a suicide vest is the conjoined twin of a larger cultural delusion: that modernity offers everything we need to live satisfying lives.

The evidence is clear that for a huge swath of people, it doesn’t. If you add up:

 

  • The people who seek solace and meaning through religion;
  • To the people who (unprecedented in human history) need to take medication just to be functionally free of depression and anxiety
  • To the people who are clinging to pseudo-scientific and New Age platitudes about “quantum weirdness” to find a sense of meaning
  • To the people who are fanatically devoted to radical politics because the world as it is needs to change
  • To the people who hold some abstract notion of “ART” as something that can never be understood except as a pure bringer of purpose where nothing else will do;
  • To the people who hold some abstract notion of “SCIENCE!” as something that can bring all purpose and meaning to life if we were to just try harder to turn ourselves into beings of pure thought;
  • To the people who aren’t any of these things but are unhappy and unsatisfied and running on a treadmill that feels like it isn’t getting anywhere …

 

Then you get most of the world’s population.

Let’s stop deluding ourselves: modernity has many good points. It offers unprecedented freedoms and opportunities and social advancements. But it leaves a giant void in most people that it cannot fill because it’s always trying to commercialize and monetize it. Turning lonely people into consumers does not make them less lonely – it only makes them consume more.

The result is seen in its starkest terms when people who have everything to live for in a modern society run off and join what amounts to a death cult: they need to make a drastic break because other is no other kind. There is no soft opt out. (more…)

Burning Book Club – Chapter 5: Sweeping the corpse of God under the rug and pretending it never happened

Book-Burning(This post is part of our continuing “Book Club” reading of Terry Eagleton’s “Culture and the Death of God.” Read all the book club entries)

Many of the kinds of people who would ever bother to wonder “who was the first real atheist?” think that the answer is Nietzsche.

History’s highlight reel would tend to confirm the call: the very words “God is dead” are captioned “Friedrich Nietzsche.” He kind of owns the franchise.

But in the first chapter of “Culture and the Death of God” to really approach modernity, Eagleton has his doubts. These doubts reveal just how difficult it is to live in a world free of religion, given just how conditioned the culture we live in is by its assumptions and epistemology.

Nietzsche himself understood these difficulties better than most. “Nietzsche sees that civilization is in the process of ditching divinity while still clinging to religious values, and that this egregious act of bad faith must not go uncontested,” Eagleton writes. “You cannot kick away the foundations and expect the building still to stand.”

You can’t base morality on something you believe to be false without living in a constant state of hypocrisy. But no one has convincingly rethought moral principles from first-principles … or even agreed on what those would be.

It’s like saying: “we want to live in a world free of air.” That’s all well and good, but how exactly would we breathe? Assuming it can be done, that Man does not breathe by air alone, it would be a radically different world. (more…)

Burning Man as a Maker Movement for Jungian Archetypes – the return of book club!

Burning BooksHi Everybody:

Last year I started reading literary scholar Terry Eagleton’s book “Culture and the Death of God,” and I was so struck by what I saw as its relevance to Burning Man’s place in the modern world that I said “I’ll start a book club on the Burning Blog so anyone interested can read it with me!”

It was a terrible idea.  Just terrible.  And then Burning Man happened, and I was so busy that I stopped reading the book for a while and … just terrible.

It’s 2015 now, and I’d really like to finish the book, and as long as I’m reading it, I might as well finish the book club thing to.  Why?  Because my parents always said “Eat everything on your plate, young man,” and that’s why I have high blood pressure today. 

Going over old book club entries, I also continue to be impressed by what I see as a connection between the long-standing cultural movements that Eagleton is incisively presenting and the potential place for Burning Man in contemporary culture.  So .. what the hell.

The next book club entry, on Chapter 5 (“The Death of God”) will appear in about two weeks.  In the meantime, if you don’t want to read (or re-read) all the previous entries, here’s an “our story so far” summary – not, strictly speaking, what Eagleton is saying about history and culture so much as my gloss on what the subjects covered all suggest.  (more…)

Burning Book Club – Chapter 3 (part 2) – Money and Revolutions

(We’re basing this discussion on Terry Eagleton’s “Culture and the Death of God.” Read all the book club entries)

To everybody who’s apologized for falling behind on Book Club:  I’ve fallen behind too, so let’s make it official.  Book Club moves slowly, and nobody has to be embarrassed.  A chapter a week was just not going to happen.

But we’re making progress!

Okay … here we go …

Today we’re going to talk about money and economics.

If Burning Man, as I’ve argued, has many of the attributes and contradictions if Romanticism, there’s one more that should be noted.

Here’s Eagleton’s description:

“If the movement is divided against itself, it is largely because it is both a product of middle-class society and a protest against it.  Its flamboyant individualism is among other things an idealized version of the entrepreneur;  yet it is also a rebuke to the faceless civilization he is busy fashioning, one in which men and women are reduced to so many cogs and ciphers.  Spiritual individualism is to be prized, but its more possessive variety must be countered by some more corporate forms of existence, whether in the form of Nature, Geist, art, culture, world-spirit, political love, medieval guilds, ancient Greece, utopian communities or the Kantian consensus of taste.”

There is it – and Burning Man has been living that contradiction for decades.  Burning Man as we know it could only exist in a world of capitalist excess, and it is easiest to participate in by those who are living high on that excess.  Can there be any real argument on these points?  Yet Burning Man’s values explicitly call for us to undermine the motives and impacts of these same systems of excess.  Burning Man is like the landlord who raises the rent while voting for public ownership of buildings.

(more…)