April 29, 2009

Twilight of the Idols

Until recently, there were always centers of culture where those who created and sold it collected, so as to be close to the outlets and markets for their products. But since the late 1970s, there has been no real cultural or intellectual center in America. Its disappearance seems to be part of large, complex cultural changes in America, with many different causes, but which came together by the end of the twentieth century to transform the cultural landscape.

It was once New York City. In 1963, a year after moving to New York from Houston, Donald Barthelme found a rent-controlled apartment on West Eleventh Street in Manhattan, which became his permanent home in New York. The rent, his admirably thorough biographer Tracey Daugherty tells us, was $125.00 a month. John Ashbery found a similar apartment on Twelvth Street in 1949 after graduating from Harvard. The Abstract Expressionist painters, before they moved to Long Island, were centered around Tenth Street in studios converted from storefronts. The "New York School" of poets and painters was subsidized by low rents until they grew eminent enough to be self-supporting; there was no shame in poverty. The last time this would happen was in the early 1970s, when a new generation of artists found industrial loft spaces in Soho and Chinatown, but change was coming fast; already by the mid-1970s you might find a loft, but reconditioned by its previous tenant, and to move in would cost you ten thousand dollars for all the fixtures he had installed. After artists made Soho chic and drew the real estate developers, the center of the art world left Manhattan for Brooklyn, if not farther away to places that could never be real centers of anything, Las Cruces, New Mexico, or Marfa, Texas. A rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan and a long, uninterrupted tenancy in it was one precondition of intellectual and artistic life in New York, but rising real estate values meant that the next generation of young writers, artists, and intellectuals would be unable to afford to live in Manhattan. It's hardly necessary to add that by the mid-1980s young college graduates were no longer interested in establishing themselves as artists, writers, or intellectuals. They went to New York to work for Morgan Stanley and Goldman, Sachs. New York meant Wall Street.

By the 1980s, though, much had changed besides rises in rents. The first generation after World War II had not thronged to New York with the intention of getting rich but of belonging to a world, what Ashbery called "the city of fantasy," the hope of making a name and a mark and contributing to art, literature, and ideas. By the time the boomer generation came of age, these goals no longer attracted as many, partly because the idea of general or humanistic education was dying away. Their children, now finishing college, have been schooled in a way that makes it almost impossible for them to form a concept of an intellectual or artistic activity pursued for its own sake. What a young person wants now is to have a career, make money, and meet the demands of the market just like any other maker or marketer of goods.

The loss of low-rent apartment stock may have made New York inaccessible to the "independent intellectual," but many factors other than a general real estate boom affected the values of the middle-class in America, and in concentrated form in New York City. When I read the chronology of John Ashbery's life in the recent first volume of his complete poems in the Library of America series--a chronology so detailed as to amount to a full biography in outline--I was struck by how long Ashbery spent in great financial insecurity. He was poor. Occasionally he won a grant that freed him for a time, and sometimes he had a job that lasted more than a few months, but he was a well-known and esteemed poet long before he had financial stability. Then I reflected that Alan Ginsberg never had anything like financial security until, late in life, he sold his papers for a million dollars. What makes such thngs striking is that throughout the 1950s and 1960s an artist, writer, or critic could live in relative poverty without being seen as a failure. An important intellectual journal, such as the Partisan Review, paid next to nothing for articles that sometimes changed the world (Clement Greenberg's "Avant Garde and Kitsch," Susan Sontag's "Nots on Camp"). Even a well-heeled and high-paying magazine like the New Yorker paid a only fifth of what the "more commercial" Saturday Evening Post offered: because of the difference in prestige, John Cheever stayed with The New Yorker even when the Post offered him five times as much money.

After the end of the War in Vietnam, followed quickly by the oil shocks of the late seventies, public intellectuals, once the product of "general education," and mainly literary in their orientation (they were writers, after all), became political commentators, often employed by universities or foundations.

Not to say that in the past intellectuals took vows of holy poverty. (Some, like Norman Podhoretz, were Republicans). In fact, one thing that disappeared in the prosperous years following the Reagan presidency was a self-supporting group of major novelists, literary critics, and political thinkers who survived without strong ties to academia, government, or think-tanks, and who almost never wrote for Hollywood, people like Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer, Edmund Wilson and Dwight MacDonald, and Hannah Arendt. The first generation after World War II produced a solid cohort of successful novelists, painters, thinkers, and poets--and of these, only the poets were doomed to live in poverty. Today there are few self-supporting novelists, but most fiction writers and poets were long ago forced into the university to survive.

I've often wondered what happened, because the boomer generation produced no novelists, critics, painters or poets with reputations like those of the prvious generation. Someting had changed not only in the economic climate, as seen in the rise of property values, but also in the very machinery of fame. But this too is a result of the decline of New York, since it was among New York's intellectuals and artists that reputations were made, first, and only afterward trumpeted out to the rest of the world. We now live in a culture of celebrity, and the star-making machinery is decentered media like People magazine and the tabloids. It is sometimes said that since the end of modernism the mixture of high and low, elite and popular culture, has had a leveling effect, but the dominant culture is not popular culture but mass culture, with units in the millions and a need to go platinum. The effect of mass culture on publishing alone was to shift the attention of editors from literary fiction to best-sellers. Just as rents have gone up and rental units dwindled in number, the cost of print media, whether books, magazines, or newspapers, has gone out of control, forcing prices up and profit margins down.

Some hope that the current financial crisis will return us to the values of another era, and there is some reason to hope that if they have no way to make any money, artists and intellectuals will revert to doing what they do best. Most likely, they'll have to do something else.

Rising property values set the floor for residence in Manhattan, and this alone may have killed literary culture, but in addition, during and after the Reagan years the values of the whole society changed in concert with the new economic realities. The changes were so pervasive and interconnected that it is hard to tell cause and effect apart. If you weren't making a lot of money you weren't worth--well, you weren't worth whatever you weren't making. Money became the only measure of value, not only in New York, but in much of America--wherever prosperity reigned, and in other places, such as rustbelt cities, where it was gone from everything but the songs of Bruce Springsteen. If the American dream had ever meant freedom in some Kantian sense, it now meant freedom to shop--and the money to buy things, anything you wanted. It was not altogether evil. The era that has just ended was a time of almost unparalleled prosperity in America, for one has to look back to the Gilded Age of the 1890s to see anything comparable. Economic expansion can have cultural benefits. For example, the prosperity of the 1890s made the Yellow Book possible, and in those years Henry James was able to publish his "blessed" novellas in that magazine and long, long, long novels. But the nineteen-eighties, the nineties, and the oughts in America no longer provided such benefits to writers and intellectuals, although there was an art-world boom (and bust) fueled by Wall Street and real estate money.

The collapse of literary fiction, or the rise of the best seller, had many causes, including changed tax laws that made it impossible for publishers to warehouse backlist titles, the rise of chain booksellers starting with Waldenbooks, and the absorption of publishers into conglomerates, which deprived literary-minded editors of the power to make decisions based on personal taste. (I have written about these changes in publishing in previous posts). Again, which of these factors was most important would be hard to determine, and it may be that what mattered most was that they came along together, making it literally impossible for American publishers to maintain any commitment to literary fiction. Everywhere, it was entirely a matter of what made money; increasingly, lots of money. (Prices went up, too; a book sold for $2.95 in 1965 would cost no less than $20.95 today.)
The best-educated generation in American History, the boomers, didn't turn out to be sophisticated consumers of high culture. This generation, which is mine, was indeed well educated, but humanistic education even in liberal arts colleges was not the standard by which we were judged. For one thing, we were the Sputnik generation, and with the rise of standardized tests, education-worthiness was increasingly measured in terms of quantitative skills and quantifiable achievements. The Deweyan ideal of education as learning by doing (no pun intended) fostered an approach to education that emphasized technique,know-how over knowing-what. For another, from the postwar GI Bill on into the ARPA era, government funding was aimed at supporting science and technology. Even the "new math" of our childhood was primarily aimed at teaching children how to think in binary arithmetic.

America, it is true, has always been the nation of know-how, of "Yankee ingenuity," and throughout the industrial age our technical mastery gave us an edge over the rest of the world. Henry Ford said he didn't like to read books because they "messed up his mind." He needed his mind clear and empty of confusing knowledge to be able to focus on how to make cars. Nothing about the can-do aspect of American life is truly new, but the disappearance of intellectuals is.

Since Gilbert Ryle, in The Concept of Mind, reduced intelligence from faculties that had held executive power over the brain to performative competences, by arguing that it was not always necessary to think about how to do something in advance before doing it, the distinction he bequeathed us between knowing-that and knowing-how has been widely accepted, even, it may be, by people who are not altogether aware of accepting it. (Of course, their unawareness of doing so is only a furter confirmation of the Rylean argument about knowing-how). That there is value in this distinction is beyond question, and that a great deal of intelligent activity is carried out--executed--without a higher executive function taking note of it; that automatic activity does not necessarily imply activity that is not intelligent; that the intellectualist myth is, in case after case, a myth we can dispense with; that theorizing occurs, often, after competence is achieved; all these things are granted, yet the result is, from another perspective, an extraordinarily impoverished picture of the mind. It is not that Ryle's innovations were mistaken, for they stiumulated much productive work in philosophical psychology for a couple of generations. But the intellectual was a casualty: for whatever the intellectual is, he is not a doer. That is, the intellectual, the general purpose all around intellectual of the type exemplified by Edmund Wilson or Lionel Trilling, thought and wrote against a background of knowledge that was rich, wide, varied, and deep, nonspecialist but deeply informed. Such men were sometimes art critics or art historians, like Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, or their more specialist contemporaries like Aby Warburg or Meyer Shapiro. "Meyer Shapiro," his obituary read, "regarded all forms, schools and systems of knowledge as interrelated and interdependent. As far as he was concerned, he had been put on earth to know, and to make known, the correspondences between them all." I will call this the heroic position.

In fact, however, intellectuals don't do anything and change nothing. They stand outside the corporate, academic, and political worlds. They are like sentinels, or perhaps like a canary in a mineshaft. That is, they were. ("The poets are the true antennae of the race.") The old-fashioned type of intellectual, in fact, had a role for which there is no longer a place in our cultural and intellectual life. One may point to various factors that make it seem as if something has gone wrong in the social and cultural fabric, or even to certain things that have actually gone wrong, such as overspecialization and cooptation by business and government, for the smart people are in marketing now, or in spin. The explosive expansion of the universities has indeed sucked many intellectuals into academic specialization, and narrowness was never the public intellectual's mode. The most significant feature of the intellectual stance, however, as an imperturbable, cool-headed, impartial judge, depended on a belief that there was a place outside the culture in whioch to stand. This belief is one that postmodernism of any flavor disavows. There is no Archimedean point, whether in the sciences (the triumph of the quantum over the mechanist model) or the humanites (no final vocabularies). With Rorty and Derrida but also with Warhol and Barthelme we have become ironists with no fixed place on which to stand, and no background myth or body of knowledge. Meyer Schapiro's ambition to link everything may still linger in our minds like a Platonic ghost, but now without the illusion that the interrelationships the thinker thinks he sees are anything other than what he manages, through imagination and force of will and intellect, to think up. But that is better than having supreme arbiters of anything. I suggest, then, two more reasons (besides rent increases) for the disappearance of intellectual and artistic authority figures. The first is the pluralism intrinsic to pragmatist postmodernism: Nobody is an authority. But also, and related to that change in the sense that it's another aspect of pragmatism, intelligence is now measured in a different way, in Rylean terms as knowing-how, and therefore intelligence is recognized by measureable traits, by practical results, by speed, by performance, by mastery of skill. I believe this change of emphasis is due primarily to the overwhelming necessity of technological mastery in the world that came into being after the atom bomb, the computer, the discovery of DNA, and the enormous expansion of statistical analysis. The truth is, in the present technical culture, a general intelligence of broadly humanist outlook, with a range of reference or allusion that connects many different areas of thought and discourse, is no longer where we look for judgment. Instead, we look to people who are mainly propagandists, experts, or advocates. Our universities specialize in the reproduction of ideology and technology. Equality has replaced liberty as the ideal of our society--for the two are not compatible--and besides, we are outgrowing heroes and with them heroic visions. The last heroes are athletes, and they all turned out to be on steroids.

1 comment:

  1. Extremely interesting post, David. On the main issues, I'm with you, but I have quibbles with two of your comments in passing. 1) The 80s, 90s, and 00s have not been as prosperous as you suggest for the non-affluent. Median income in real terms has not budged. 2) I don't see why liberty and equality "are not compatible." They were compatible in eighteenth-century America and seem to be compatible in Scandinavia now.