Crimes of art

Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks while we’re tryin’ to be so quiet?/We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it.
Bob Dylan, Visions of Johanna

After what’s happened the last couple weeks, I wonder if we don’t need to take a deep breath, or hold our breath and count to 700 billion, for a start. No colorful displays of Wall Street or Main Street pyrotechnics. No illustrations. Black and white. Or black. Simply dark night and our eyes closed.

The argument whether 2000 or 2001 launched the new century ended on 9/11. That is the defining moment, we are told, in speech after speech, book after book, dividing our lives into “before” and “after.” Why this desire for a life-altering shift? The Wall Street bailout is characterized as a 9/11 rerun, the mortgage crisis as involving instruments of mass destruction. Too bad the president didn’t launch the bailout bid this last 9/11. It would have added a touch of, I don’t know, fearful symmetry to the last seven years.

Art is not immune from this crisis and re-boot mentality. Even literary criticism is burdened with its share of this cataclysmic dread and re-tread. An extreme example is the 2003 book, Crimes of Art + Terror, by Frank Lentricchia and Jody McAuliffe, professors at Duke University. I read it when it was published and thought at the time it was something worth a later revisit, a reality check, after hysteria became cliché. Now we need the hysteria before the morning cup of coffee.

Well, here’s what Lentricchia + McAuliffe had to say in the shadow of 9/11. L + M assume that the impulse to create art and the impulse to commit violence “lie perilously close to each other,” and they want to understand why. They compare “literary explosives” and “actual explosives,” equate “imaginative acts” to “bloody deeds.” Their most curious example is the conjoining of America’s home grown terrorist, Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, with Joseph Cornell, maker of enigmatic shadow box constructions which induce (or contain) “a blast of illumination.”

And L + M are serious about the trajectory from literary/artistic moment to mail bomb. “A literal bomb explosion in the manner of Kaczynski, a serious artist and himself a maker of boxes, is the extremity of James Joyce’s idea of an epiphany, the gentler shaping of consciousness.” How do they arrive at such a conceit for the creative process?

They begin by characterizing the artist’s relation to society. The “ Romantic” artist, and the modern equivalent, the “transgressive artist,” have been in active rebellion against the prevailing culture’s need to suppress “all idiosyncratic impulse,” to “commodify” the artist’s production, and thus to manipulate artists into “mindless mechanisms of repetition, effectively producing standardized artworks.” L+M cite the example of rogue director John Cassavetes, who had to act in Hollywood movies, “the aesthetic equivalent of murder,” in order to pay for the art house movies he directed on his own. The crime of the “authentic” artist, then, is “originality.”

L+M question how writers go about being “original.” The serious artist, from Wordsworth’s time to ours, they argue, has sought to alter the consciousness of readers in order to reorder the design of society. “The desire beneath many romantic literary visions is for a terrifying awakening that would undo the West’s economic and cultural order, whose origin was the Industrial Revolution and whose goal is global saturation, the obliteration of difference.” L+M don’t seek to prove or disprove the second element of the equation, the West’s supposed goal of economic and cultural dominance, which is the same claim made by among others the Islamic fundamentalists responsible for 9/11.

And it’s here that L+M engage in a bit of literary demagoguery. On the one hand they assert that the act of violence can be “a work of art.” 9/11, they say, embodies “traditional” artistic elements: author, plot, characters, and audience. And they cite Karlheinz Stockhausen, a German composer, who torpedoed his own career when he quipped that 9/11 was “the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos.” On the other hand, L+M make the curious claim that the creative act itself is violent. Wordsworth wanted to write prosaic poems in the flat idiom of the street (or the country lane). But he violated the “contract” of expectations with traditional readers. It was “an act of cultural first-degree murder, the assassination of the current idea of poetry — a deed of literary terrorism on behalf of originality.”

So the argument is this: Terrorists seek to “kill strangers, on purpose, on behalf of an idea (for a better world).” A terrorist act can be characterized as “a work of art.” Therefore, writing a book is a terrorist act. That’s logic worthy of our president. To L+M the transgression is not inciting riot, like a shout of “fire” in a crowded theater. It is the act of creating a work of art that is a conflagration in and of itself. Thought is act (though metaphorically as much as conceptually), but there’s an improbable leap, isn’t there, from the thought-act to the terror-act? Even if they are, say, ten degrees apart as conceit, you’d have to circle round 350 degrees from thought to act to make more of them than that.

At least it seemed so to me then, and even more so now.

L+M are not trying to explore how art can help us understand why terrorists commit the acts they do. Instead, Crimes of Art + Terror is metaphor terrorism run amok. L+M’s real target is any claim that art might be socially relevant. The writer who tries to “influence” the reader loosens an act of bio-terror, an “influenza” infecting the reader. L+M’s analysis is wide-ranging and quite interesting apart from the theory: Herman Melville, Jean Genet, Frederick Douglass, Thomas Bernhard, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Bret Easton Ellis. But what is striking is the totalizing vision, the choice of terms and comparison, the language in extremity.

In part L+M’s provocative readings are in search of an Art-for-Art’s-sake alternative: the artist on the margins who will “relinquish all ambition for radical social change,” and thus live “free to create beautiful, challenging things.” In other words, L+M characterize an old debate in terms of 9/11 hysteria.

Admittedly it is difficult to separate our deepest feelings about life and art from today’s news, the politics of the moment, yet another pitch for a charitable contribution, a bailout, or the balance of war’s costs, bodies on one side, billions spent on the other. But readers, of all people, should be skeptical of “before” and “after” fissures. All memory is open. Before and after do not mark a ridge imposing some meanings and excluding others. Likewise a book (or any work of art), no matter what claims are made for it as inspiration outside the mind, is never as profound in the world as it is in the mind, be it cataclysm or shudder.

We need a different shift – or, perhaps, we need to see shifts differently. Tzvetan Todorov, in The Conquest of America, says that to become conscious of the arbitrariness of any feature of culture “is already to shift it a little,” and that history “is nothing other than a series of such imperceptible shifts.”

A blast of illumination, indeed.

I want to sit here in my dark and quiet and think about it for a minute more.