Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Toward Pretensionism 1

Observation. Creation. Pretension.

So I'm going to break one of my rules today. Since I got back from Viable Paradise, I've worked on the novel first thing every morning. But yesterday I finished my current batch of line edits, and right now the missus is in bed sick. She finally fell asleep after a night spent wrestling with some respiratory illness -- lots of hacking, snorting, and snottery of diverse sorts. I've got a manuscript downstairs I want to get off to the Windblown Coalition today, but I don't want to turn on the light and risk disturbing her.

And I've been up since three, thinking about pretensionism. (Also trying to drive the songs Oh, Mickey and Twilight Zone from my mind. Hatin' the eighties right now...)

Long-time readers know that I've been wrestling for some time with my sense of identity as an artist. The events of the last year, year and a half have changed my attitudes toward myself and my work radically. My communications with Glendon Mellow and more recently Catherine Schaff-Stump have crystallized my thoughts, and now I feel as if I have a basis for explaining things to myself.

I always say that I don't know what something looks like until I draw it, and that I don't know what I think about something until I write about it. I've been fixating on this issue recently, and I've realized that it's time to write an artistic manifesto. I may well repudiate it at a later date, but I am on the verge of being able to explain my intent -- and let's face it, us insecure loudmouths love our manifestos. And I've always wanted to be part of an artistic movement. Now that I'm engaged in a number of artistic communities, I'm thinking the time has come. And if no-one else is gonna make a big-ass pretentious gesture, it may as well be me.

So for the next while I'll be blogging as a means of exploring my thoughts, making them more concrete. Afterward I'll organize my ideas into a real manifesto, but for now I'm engaged in a process of exploration.

Why Pretensionism?

Let's face it, labels are fun. They're also useful. To name something is to claim it -- and literally, that's what pretension is. It's the act of claiming something. Pretensionism is, in one sense, my personal claim to the status of artist. It's my hope that it may allow others to feel more comfortable in making that same claim.

It's also a reactionary statement. For the last while, I've referred to myself as pretentious. That's because I've thought of myself as a fine artist, as a literary writer, and I've become willing to make that statement in public. And I've had a few people tell me, "Man, you've got balls to say that about yourself." Others have acknowledged some pretension on their part.

That's because in my culture -- which is a big component of the burgeoning monoculture -- to call someone pretentious is to insult them. It's interpreted as a claim to a station which you haven't really achieved. From below, you look like a snob. From above, you're gauche.

But pretension isn't about making a false claim. It is (hit the dictionary) about making a claim, true or false. You can be pretentious and right at the same time. Or, as Dizzy Dean said, "It ain't braggin' if you can back it up." Yeah, the name Pretensionism is a reactionary statement -- but if the culture pushes you, if you're marginalized, fucking push back.

If you want to claim you're a Pretensionist? Then you're in the club.

So Where the Hell is this Going?

The Pretensionist Manifesto is going to concern itself with the issues relating to a sense of artistic identity, including but not limited to:

What makes a person an artist?

How do we cope with the schism between high and low art?

What is the role of the marketplace?

How is an artist to find his feet in a culture that is becoming all cultures, where it seems as if everything has been done before and done better?

How is one to process the tsunami of possible influences, goals, and directions now available?

Are traditional modes of art still valid?

Are Modernism, Post-Modernism, and other such movements still valid?

What is the role of appropriation in the arts?

Of what real value is art, both personal and public?

Can the act of artistic creation be regarded as a legitimate form of labor?

How can one function in a system that is clearly unstable, a world that is unmistakeably on the path to disaster?

How does one reconcile personal and public art?

What are worthy artistic aspirations? Worthy artistic values?

These questions are inherently subjective. They will not produce answers. They will provoke opinion. And my opinions will be oriented toward providing me with a basis to work well.

Yeah, I'm talking about producing a philosophy of art, when my knowledge of art history and theory is far from complete. But this is not really art theory. It's the product of a working artist, intended to support and encourage both myself and other artists.

It comes from inside an experience growing out of a post-post modernist world, a digital world, a world where the boundaries separating times and cultures are being shattered, rebuilt, stirred, and confused on a moment by moment basis. We are living through a phase change, a singularity. The monoculture is emerging and the apocalypse is threatening. This is my attempt to engage them both forthrightly, without blind optimism or reflexive pessimism. To find a way to work productively and effectively in a world whose future is unimaginable.

Of course that's pretentious. I am, after all, a Pretensionist.


Catherine said...


This is a very interesting beginning. It looks like it could be a long term project!


Zachary said...

I totally agree about not being able to understand something (like, a new dinosaur) until I can draw it. Animals known from fragmentary remains are a total mystery to me, and I forget it exists at all.

I'm excited about this Pretensionism movement, and look forward to reading your manifesto!

Sean Craven said...

It's gonna take me a while -- but it'll come. And Zach, I had you and your Alaskan paleo-art scene in mind when considering this stuff.

Glendon Mellow said...

A quick comment:

Are Modernism, Post-Modernism, and other such movements still valid?

I wish they weren't! You still see them everywhere - I don't understand how the appeal of post- modernism still rings its bell and trumpet after so long. It's annoying.