Friday, October 30, 2009

Toward Pretensionism 2

A color scheme for Halloween...

Okay, let's start off with something easy. This will draw from the following questions.

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?

I've run across the statement in more than one place that traditional art forms are over. They're done. They're played out. Because they've been around for so long that everything that can possibly be said in them, has been said.

In my opinion -- and you shouldn't take my opinion too seriously -- it that this statement is hogwash. Balderdash. It's the monkey's bathwater. Bullshit. Utter nonsense. Without any value whatsoever. You with me so far?

Here's why.

First off, here's a hypothesis of mine. When a particular form of behavior shows up repeatedly throughout human cultures, throughout the span of time, throughout the world, it might not be a bad idea to see if there's something about it which essential to human nature. A view common in Post-Modernist thought is that everything is essentially cultural. To ignore our fundamentally biological nature, to assume that the human mind is not a function of the human body, is reflective of a retrograde mindset, a profound ignorance which is difficult to respect.

The picture, the story, the song -- these all answer human needs which are physically built into us. It is possible to consciously reject these forms, but to do so is to isolate oneself from the mainstream of humanity in a way which can be unhealthy. And I've noticed that frequently creators or critics who are relentlessly avant-garde in one arena will be surprisingly retrograde in another -- or will have personal tastes that are strongly at odds with their own work.

The song, the picture, and the story satisfy us -- and for most people, they prefer to have art that is reflective of their times and their experiences. I like to expose myself to a wide variety of cultural influences, but as a creator I am dedicated to working with the material provided to me by my life, my times, my experience of the world.

The story, the song, and the picture are vital, living means of communication that spring from deep roots -- they are intimate reflections of the physical nature of our minds. To disavow them is to render oneself unable to speak truth.

We are living in a period strikingly different from any other in human history. We are experiencing things no one has experienced before. The amount of information and the rapidity of change we live with are increasing on a daily basis.

No one has created works about the current human experience until now. And the old forms are old because they work for us. To constantly seek radically new methods is a dead end -- and one that is specific to our culture.

To seek the new is an essential artistic impulse, but it's one that has been short-circuited. To flee commercialism, to flee tradition, to flee the predictable, the comprehensible -- try as you may, your attempts to do these things will be co-opted before you can blink your fucking eye. We've developed an art culture capable of commodifying quite literally anything you can create. How much is Picabia's canned shit worth these days? Transgression for its own sake is over.

But just because something is a creative dead end, that doesn't mean it lacks value. All experiments teach us something -- and an open-minded creator can gain much from the study of flawed or limited works.

I may speak poorly of Post-Modernism. There really is no clear and functional definition of the term, and there is a lot of nonsense associated with it -- but I have learned a few things from it. There are times when a work of art may be more enriching when regarded as a social construct as well as an entity in itself, for instance. It's now a truism that works outside of the traditional Euro-centric canon of older academia are worthy of examination. Let's not throw the monkey out with the bathwater.

(That said, there are a lot of dead white male Europeans who fucking rocked, and who have legitimately earned their position in world culture.)

Most importantly, Post-Modernism recognizes that the world is changing, that our attitudes and beliefs shape our perceptions of reality in ways that we can only escape through radical experience or dedicated self-criticism.

As creators, most of us are adrift. Our cultures are shifting, untrustworthy things. As an American, I come from a nation that's younger than the bars in which many people drink -- and the popular culture of my country has infiltrated virtually every other nation on Earth.

The current interpenetration of cultural influences can act against the sense of personal identity which enables an artist to work with confidence and power -- it goes hand in hand with the feeling that everything's already been said and done.

But to say that one should or should not make use of the techniques and approaches of previous artists is foolish. All artists exist in a continuity of influences. They may act in reaction to those influences or they may embrace them, but no artist has ever sprung fully blown out of a cultural vacuum.

Right now we have more different kinds of art readily available to us than at any other time. To reject any of them on the basis of being tired or worn-out is absurd. "Can I use this? Does this speak to me? Does this tell me the truth and can it help me tell the truth?" These are the questions we need to ask, not, "Is this overdone? What's the next thing?"

Rather than feeling overwhelmed by what has gone before, we need to embrace it, examine it, and find our individual ancestors. Speaking for myself? The musicians of Mali are my ancestors. The printmakers of Japan are my ancestors. The pulp writers of early Twentieth-century America are my ancestors.

I have many ancestors, and the more I look at the history of the arts, the more ancestors I find. The history of art is not a burden to me; it reaches out to give me the tools I need to speak my truths.

We are unique. We are in a new world, and when we wake up tomorrow morning we will be in another new world.

We have lost tradition, or retain it as a pose. Transgression has become a tool of commodification. The search for novelty has become shallow and reflexive.

What do we have left?

Truth. The human constants. Our lives as we live them.

These are enough, because they have to be enough.

Rather than feel overwhelmed by the works of the past, by the vast history of human creativity, we should take pride in them. And we should be willing to go to the effort of creating works that will be part of that history, so that those who follow us can benefit from our lives long after they've ended.

Should the species live long enough, our time will be studied.

Do you want the art of our time to be regarded as the trivial creations of a confused and troubled people?

Or do you want to have our time and ourselves reflected in works worthy of their place in the history of the arts?

I want the latter. And I work hard with the desire to participate in the arts as an equal to those who have gone before me and who will go after me.

That is what makes me a Pretensionist.

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.

Monday, October 26, 2009

About the Novel

Here's the cover I've used for print copies over the last few years. Maybe it's time to do a new one, one that uses grown-up design instead of this punk stuff.

Before I left for Viable Paradise, I printed up a copy of the novel and had it spiral-bound. I started doing line edits on the flight to Boston; this morning I finished them. I still have to incorporate quite literally thousands of pages of crits from my writer's groups, and The Homework Club has just passed the halfway mark in the manuscript, but the bulk of the work is now done; I'll be able to start revising this week.

This got me thinking about the novel, and the impact it's had on my life. I never intended for it to be this big. My original idea was simple; I wanted to tell an M.R. James-style story about a haunted garage band. This was in 2004.

The story got out of hand. The first version was the longest piece of fiction I'd written at that point. The criticism I got from the original cast of the Monday night group was that the naturalistic scenes were good and the supernatural scenes were good, but they didn't seem to belong in the same story.

At that point I was strongly focused on short fiction. I was at the start of the learning curve, and I needed to be able to experiment. So I set the story aside as a failure, and went on to do other things.

But I kept going back and pecking at it. It was the first fiction I'd written in 'my' voice, the voice I speak with. (The voice of this blog, actually...) When I picked a setting for the initial story, I used the Santa Cruz of my late teens and early twenties, and used myself as the narrator. As I said, I kept pecking at it from time to time, inserting more and more autobiographical details.

After a couple of years it was apparent that I was working on a novel. It became the focus of my creative life without any conscious decision on my part. I had to do it; it was a compulsion.

I've written about this before, but for those who missed out on those hysterical self-pitying posts, I've got fairly serious psychiatric issues. During the years I spent in Santa Cruz, I was suicidal. I was also hallucinating. If I were to literally write about my experiences, it would be like a more depressing version of Communion, and Whitley Strieber's already written that one.

That's something that a lot of people have a hard time with. I've seen Strieber called a liar in print more than once. While I do not believe in the physical existence of visitors from another planet, I can assure you that people do have these kinds of experiences. When you experience a break from reality, its form is shaped by your culture. Other people would have seen Jesus or spies or a dead relative.

These experiences are not without value; the trick is to accept them in a way that allows you to continue to interact with conventional reality. (Which, like Gibson's cyberspace, is a consensual hallucination in its own right.) Because I've had these kinds of experiences, in order to write literally about my life I'm obligated to include elements of the fantastic in my work.

Anyway, at a certain point I realized that the novel was a conversation with three participants. One was myself, the writer. I was addressing myself-the-young-nutbar, telling him to hold on. Telling him he was of value. Telling him that things would get better.

I was also addressing -- shall we call it the feminine principal or should we be honest and say 'every girl in the world?' I was saying, yeah, I'm a man. I'm a big, hairy, trash-talking dangerous stinking animal. Please, tell me there's room for me in world fit for you.

It wasn't until I went through my epiphany at Viable Paradise that I realized the core story I was telling. A wounded man is healed through his determination to be worthy of love.

Writing that sentence brought tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat. That's not just the story of the novel. That's the story of my life. What I hadn't expected was that the novel itself would be an agent of healing.

Part of this has occurred through the act of writing itself; I've come to understand myself in a way that would not have been otherwise possible. I've come to realize that I'm much more of an intuitive person than an intellectual one, for instance. By regarding the protagonist of the novel with sympathy, I was able to begin the process of having sympathy for myself -- and without that grounding, my recent transformation would not have been possible.

Beyond that, it's changed my relationship with the missus immeasurably. After my back went out on me, she'd begun to regard me poorly. She hates it when I'm weak, and my inability to find a place in the world due to my disability led her to a certain attitude of contempt. It wasn't that she was going to dump me, but she was permanently impatient with me. To be blunt, she had no respect for me as a man. Which, naturally, went hand-in-hand with my contempt for the masculine, and my loathing of it in myself. We weren't in a downhill spiral, there was a lot of good in our relationship, but it was deeply flawed.

But a couple of years ago, she started reading the manuscript on impulse. She couldn't stop. And when she got to the end her reaction was to be furious that she didn't have the whole story. (I treasure the image of her shaking the manuscript at me and saying, "Look at these pages! They're double-spaced! There's hardly any words here!")

After that, her whole attitude toward me changed. She saw something in me not just worthy of love, but worthy of admiration. She saw value in the work I did, and in my dedication to my chosen art. (She still wishes I'd focus entirely on writing, but I think she's coming to understand that it's just part of the creative stew and that I need to do everything I do.) As a result, our relationship has grown, deepened, and strengthened. And again, her changed attitude helped make it possible for me to grow.

So now I have a new hope for the novel, one that goes beyond being readable or salable. I hope that some of the healing that the book is about, that the book has given to Karen and myself, carries through. That in some way it can be an agent for positive change in others. That it can make life better for someone else.

Part of me feels like an idiot for feeling that way. But the rest of me is working hard to try and make that hope come true. Every comma, every word, every tiny detail is there to bring that sense of hope, of growth, of healing and love to the reader.

Plus, there's a knife-fight with a two-headed dead guy.