I’m in the middle of a major editing project and my computer just posted this message:
The SMART system of this device is reporting problems. This may be a sign of imminent device failure or data reliability being compromised. Back up your data and replace this drive as soon as possible in order to avoid losing any data.
Said device is a hard drive running the operating system that has been working on my desktop for two measly months. Repairs require a firmware update via a utility that only runs on Windows, so my Kubuntu installation is toast. Left untreated, the drive is expected to fail into read-only mode and become incapable of booting. Essentially, if I turn the computer off it probably won’t come back on. At least Kubuntu had the decency to warn me.
I tend to do the worst possible thing when I have technical problems like this: get emotional about them. It’s stupid, but I obsess about Boomers in my field retiring comfortably from institutional careers in which they could address such issues by emailing their IT department. This is connected to a thesis - probably irrational, certainly unfairly broad - about Boomers atoning for the situation they left for the rest of us by transferring the remaining cultural capital to woke Millennials, who are their children’s generation and whose politics most closely resemble their hippie values. Meanwhile, the bypassed Generation X is not okay. It is showing signs of imminent device failure.
Don’t just take it from me, take it from Regan Farquar (b. 1978) better known as Busdriver, who released a new album, MADE IN LOVE, twelve days ago. It is a series of blistering collages of machine-gun-tempo rhymes and sonic collisions. At times it is barely recognizable as music. The tone is dire, starting with the opening track, for which a desperately low-budget video was made. The release track, “Return to Chillzville,” is decidedly short of chill. Yesterday Busdriver posted on Instagram:
MADE IN LOVE was forged during a turbulent stretch for the artist. A time of marital bliss and amicable splitting. A time of familial unity and disassembly. A time of uncertainty. A time pilfered with personal denial. A time awash in grandeur, grandeur sustained in support of a work ethic. There will not be another work made under similar circumstances. There will likely not be another work.
MADE IN LOVE is soaked in recreational substance abuse. MADE IN LOVE could have sounded any variety of ways yet chose to sound like a fight against elements, elements that should be at the artist’s command. MADE IN LOVE is both exhilarating and bewildering. It reeks of Los Angeles while the voice was captured elsewhere. The fragmented psyche is on full display for MADE IN LOVE. Not the screen-tested performance, but an actual fissure played out in song. Can one trust an artist in postmodern times to not hammer behavioral hiccups into some sexy pathology? Can one trust art when most available art is an extension of business motives?
There is no performance in MADE IN LOVE. It is the act as the artist needed it to be during a time of personal undoing. It should have never been made public but because it is public, the world must understand it. No one will understand it. It will be another blemished statuette cluttering the artist’s trophy room.
Competition is fierce. Misinformation is rampant. Many want the artist to disappear. The artist is humbled by the audience. The stage was the artist’s home. The stage is no longer an option.
Replay MADE IN LOVE loudly, as its origin story is not a reality for you. It’s merely a reminder that actual underground music, unwanted by industry business heads, unaided by propagandists, unburdened with the prospects of success within markets, can be made by seasoned practitioners. The artist owes everything to you. Thank you dearly for being with us for this journey. We care for your sense of the world deeply. Peace.
Say what you will about this, one does not wonder whether Busdriver has hired somebody else to manage his social media presence.
Busdriver’s case of visionary art grating against its constraints connects to a brilliant essay by William Deresiewicz, “We’re All Bored of Culture.” “Culture now is strenuously cautious, nervously polite, earnestly worthy, ploddingly obvious, and above all, dismally predictable,” he writes. The proximal reason is wokeness, but citing Dave Hickey, he blames the institutionalization of art that took place in the era that the Boomers came into adulthood.
It is no coincidence, from that perspective, that the [1960s] witnessed the creation of the NEA, the NEH, PBS, and, in 1970, NPR: organs designed to furnish the college-going class with an officially sanctioned consciousness. The same years saw the overhaul of admissions practices at elite colleges and universities, those bastions of the WASP aristocracy. Jewish quotas were removed, affirmative action was instituted, and the great unwashed—or, at least, their future leaders—were now to be initiated into the cultural folkways of high Protestantism. Meanwhile, the MFA, which had been invented in the 1920s, was proliferating. From 1940 to 1980, the number of institutions awarding graduate degrees in studio art increased from 11 to 147, with comparable numbers in creative writing. Artists became creatures of the university: produced there and more and more often employed there, which meant socialized and homogenized there…. Art emerged as a substitute religion, but a religion in the old, persistent American mode. Into culture flowed the moral energies of Anglo-Calvinism, in all its joyless, witch-hunting glory.
Readers of my post “Secular Deracinated WASPism” from last year may remember my hitting the same beats: art drowning in the sluice of anachronistic, haughty Social Gospel attitudes as they leak out of late-stage American aristocracy. But even more culpable, to Deresiewicz’s mind, is the audience.
We can’t help being boring, but we can help being lazy, and we are lazy now as never before. It is easy to laugh at the postwar audience, with its aspiration to culture, but at least it aspired. At least it felt that lack. Aspiration was indeed an obligation then, at least in certain precincts. I’m thinking of the college students of the 1960s and ’70s, the seriousness with which so many of them set about the task of winching themselves up to a higher level of consciousness: reading Kafka and Sartre, watching European films, scrutinizing modern art, puzzling out the messages of Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed. It was her embodiment of that approach to life, as much as anything, that made Susan Sontag a cultural icon. I don’t much see that kind of aspiration anymore (it was already fading out when I arrived on campus in the early ’80s), that sense of urgent incompleteness, that hunger for a higher other. What I see is narcissism: a demand that art affirm us, never threaten us, never make us feel inadequate or ignorant or small, echo back to us our precious little selves.
Which is an impossible situation for his “bohemians, modernist vagabonds, and visionary wackjobs.” This is to some degree blaming the victim, but he has a point: the algorithms that deliver the safe cultural substitutes for unruly art are curated to reflect the priorities of the regime. It takes work and courage to discover the alternatives, as the obvious sources for culture, the germane public institutions and private corporations, are failing to provide them. The audience’s reluctance to do so is not only a matter of laziness, but it is firstly a matter of laziness. That said, the laziness may not be born of torpor, but repeated defeat.
Ultimately I side with the audiences. All over the West, the institutions have now been claiming for decades that the cultural patrimony entrusted to them is too white, too male, too straight, and too capitalistic to value without compunction. Certain Boomers made long careers for themselves on those premises. They chased out everyone who thought otherwise. Of course the audiences for their subjects threw their hands up and found other things to do. Now such long careers are increasingly inimitable, mortally wounded by the hands of they who enjoyed them.
In recent times the corporations have followed suit, churning out serial viewing such as black (that is, culturally appropriated) Cleopatra on Netflix and Diverse Girlboss Middle Earth on Amazon Prime. Audiences hate them and the market bludgeons the companies for it. But instead of reforming they blame the failures on white supremacy and racist backlash and keep lighting piles of money on fire. People who point out that this can’t go on forever may not adequately appreciate how high those piles are stacked. Vice Media, which went woke and went broke as hard as any company in history, is about to be sold in bankruptcy to Soros Fund Management.
I remain convinced that small-scale creators who protect their integrity and respect their audiences have a shot at survival if not riches. My model is Mike Silverman (b. 196X), better known as That 1 Guy, who played joyfully to an audience of dozens in Asheville back in February in a performance captured on video.
I don’t doubt that Silverman has dark nights on occasion and that Farquar has moments of delight. But it’s apparent from their respective examples that seeing your work in a context that ought to include you, but doesn’t, is a recipe for misery. That 1 Guy is a world unto himself, and Busdriver could be if he would only evict those people who want him to disappear from their rent-free squats in his mind.
While I want to be more like Silverman, I am more like Farquar.Whether it’s a product of temperament or an occupational hazard of professional criticism, I carry a detailed model of my context. In spite of how it presents itself, and what it believes itself to be, the context has all the dignity and high ideals of a chimpanzee fight.
The only other choice is to make one’s own context. Writing about Calder almost ten years ago, I observed:
Sometimes we art writers are pressed to make predictions about the next important phase of art. My prediction is the phenomenon of worldbuilding. Narrative media like film, writing, and digital gaming seem to be advancing while visual art takes a cultural back seat. The driving force of those media is immersion, so art will be required to compete by building worlds that compel the viewer's attention, pulling it into an invented universe made convincing through the vision of the artist - “an atmosphere in which to move,” as Greenberg put it. Calder will remain inimitable, but in his ebullient body of work he left us clues about how to create such atmospheres, and the opportunity remains to pick them up and run with them.
It took a long time for me to figure out how to build my own world, but it is now finally under construction. What I realized today is that the worldbuilding has to extend to the audience. The good news is that the new platforms enable the artist to do so without depending on the institutions. This platform, for instance.
On that note, I have activated an option for paid subscriptions to Dissident Muse Journal. For now, a paid subscription gets you the same thing that a free subscription gets you, so there’s nothing extra in it for you. This is only about opening a channel through which you may want to send some energy. It helps a particular kind of world come into being, one that survives the actual and cultural device failures, and persists into the new as the old passes away. As Busdriver says, in spite of it all, thank you dearly for being with us for this journey. Here’s to the sweeter honey. The honey is worth getting emotional about.
The title of this post is a lyric from That 1 Guy’s song “The Moon Is Disgusting.” See mark 1’09” at the performance video.
Regard Silverman’s mighty beard. Is the difference that he found God?
I've been getting my art directly from the artists since forever, because that's the only way I can afford it. Having a semi-steady part-time job for the first time in two decades has allowed me the luxury of buying books from places other than thrift stores, subscribing to the occasional podcast or Substack, and not only buying works directly from artists, but framing them.
A few of my professors used their institutional imprimatur to make awesome art without financial anxiety, and to mentor students with heart and wisdom. Most of them made mediocre art and ate the young out of envy and bitterness.
Institutions are only as good as people. Long live art, in humility and grace.
However predictable or understandable it may be, the audience has failed itself regarding art, though heaven knows the art establishment has failed the audience. True, art is not a necessity, and people are not required to concern themselves over it, so there is that. Still, even those who pay some degree of attention to art have been far too passive and dependent on the supposed experts and presumed authorities, when they should have asserted and exercised their own primacy in the matter--meaning art should be primarily between the individual viewer and the work, and all other factors should be not only secondary but dispensable at the individual's discretion. One does not owe any art person or entity anything unless one deems it justified based on one's personal judgment.