[-empyre-] complicity

Johanna Drucker drucker at gseis.ucla.edu
Wed Jan 6 02:04:10 EST 2010


Thanks, Joshua, for the nice, succinct and very clear statements. I  
want to build on that discussion of origins of autonomy a bit, because  
it is useful to recall that the aestheticist movement in England,  
particularly the critical writings of Oscar Wilde and others,  
advocated their art for art's sake version of autonomy. They were  
responding to other precedents -- academic, moralizing, realism, and  
the socialist activisms of their own era, and the overwhelming  
Arnoldian legacy with it own oppressive expectations of moral  
improvement through exposure to high art. Wilde, after all, was  
concerned with "The Soul of Man under Socialism" and this is all in an  
era when socialist and communitarian experiments were springing up in  
small communities as well as in the political arena (alongside  
anarchism and other extremes). So the autonomy of aestheticism is  
motivated somewhat differently than the autonomy of 1930s theorists.  
The aesthetic movement was intent on preserving art, but, if we recall  
Greenberg's cries of despair, in the 1930s, the desperate condition of  
European culture made it seem that an autonomous art might preserve  
some part of culture through encapsulation. Greenberg's own earlier  
optimism about abstraction came up against an unprecedented threat to  
survival. Greenberg, like the Frankfurt school theorists, saw mass  
culture as the enemy because of the way it worked on the population,  
instrumentally. Between the two extremes of dumbing mass culture and  
fascist annihilation, autonomous art seemed essential. But one bit of  
legacy from the formulations that followed, particularly in Adorno's  
work, is the belief that difficulty creates resistance and thus puts  
high art in a category apart. The difficulty with difficulty? Simply  
that it is too limiting, particularly when used as a way of judging  
other approaches or modes in a negative way. So, my students used to  
get upset when an artist like Jenny Holzer got successful -- they  
called it selling out -- as if there were an intrinsic virtue to  
marginal status. These are mythologies, as we know. I have no issue  
with engaged art, activist art, beautiful art, art that is about  
imagination, fantasy, pleasure, politics, feminism, post-colonial  
issues, engagement or any other approach -- I think artists should and  
do make many interesting works across a wide spectrum that should  
remain as open and innovative as possible. The issue is with false  
claims about work. And here, again, Joshua's succinct restatement of  
Adorno's critique of Brecht is to the point. But on the other hand, do  
we want to do without Brecht? Of course not, we just want a critical  
language that is specific to different practices in their complexity-- 
one that doesn't take Brecht as the finger-wagging at the rest of us  
morally-superior only-serious-voice-in-the room against which Ernst  
Lubitsch has to be discounted or the Marx brothers dismissed.


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