What to call "the art world" without resorting to "the art world."
I take issue with your title. It is not art's progressive omertà, but that of the art world or establishment as it now exists, which is purportedly about art but evidently not really.
Agreed. Much needed is a term that we can hang on “the art world” or “art establishment” that does the job better than those inadequate labels.
Every time we use the term “the art world” we reify a concept that does not deserve the import or singularity that we’re giving it. Self-contained, slightly-intersecting communities of taste cover the earth. We have common touchstones at the museums, at least in theory, which is why I attend to them and their apparent foundering. But finally it’s just me and the studio and a handful of people who vibe with me. As James Brown put it, “I got mine, he got his.” I don’t emphasize this enough, but one of the promises of the contemporary situation is that like-minded artists and their audiences can combine over aesthetic priorities instead of geography, and form their own support networks in ways that have never before been possible. It’s a world, if anything, of worlds. The readers of Dissident Muse Journal comprise one of them.
“Art establishment” is closer. I’ve also referred to the “art bureaucracy.” But much attaches to the establishment and the bureaucracy that is not, strictly speaking, a part of it. The critics, for instance, most of whom identify with the establishment’s values but have a cooperative (or if you prefer, mutually parasitic) relationship with the establishment rather than a structural one. It is often good and useful to establish cultural entities. Bureaucracy is a necessity of management and nothing is wrong with it per se. The problems arise when it becomes an end in itself. “Bureaucratism,” as it were, but that’s still not adequate to our task.
So recently I tried the “art machine.” This had the advantage of being vague enough that I could pin whatever I want on it by implication. But it’s still vague. Asked to define it I’m not sure I could. What I really want to get at is what Herbert Read disdained as “culture.” As it was summarized by Nicholas Burman:
Informed by Carl Jung’s notion of “archetypes,” the intersection between Freud’s psychoanalysis and the Surrealist art movement, as well as his wartime experiences, Read’s theoretical anarchism rested on what he saw as universal forms underpinning human experience — forms which could be realized through art and become the basis of a world without nation states. This ontology is the basis of what he means in To Hell With Culture when he talks of the “natural” and of the necessity of returning to such a thing. For Read, “culture” is capitalism’s breaking apart of life and art, and the subsequent fencing off of the poet, the architect, and the painter into separate institutions, giving politicians titles such as Minister for Culture, and making artists subservient not to the “natural” forms of life but the will of political power.
I have a different understanding of capitalism but I agree that something very much like that has happened. Nevertheless, adopting Read’s use of “culture” would require my giving up “culture” as Wendell Berry defined it in The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture:
A culture is not a collection of relics or ornaments, but a practical necessity, and its corruption invokes calamity. A healthy culture is a communal order of memory, insight, value, work, conviviality, reverence, aspiration. It reveals the human necessities and the human limits. It clarifies our inescapable bonds to the earth and to each other. It assures that the necessary restraints are observed, that the necessary work is done, and done well.
This is too precious to abandon.
Instead I propose “the Monoculture,” capitalized so as to distinguish it as a metaphor and not a literal farming practice.1 This captures the important difference in “culture” between Read’s sense and Berry’s, its unnatural will to uniformity. It invokes the some of the indifferent engineering indicated by “machine.” It’s more open-ended than “establishment” or “bureaucracy.” It expresses that like its agricultural referent it is more than anything else a product of perverse incentives, rather than particular bureaucratic structures.
I offer this as its definition: the Monoculture is the aggregate of culture workers who compel themselves and each other toward priorities of safety, agreement, and equal, predictable outcomes.2 The Monoculture turns artists into servants of power. This is in contrast to culture, a natural, unpredictable process of emergent order that produces diversity and hierarchies by allowing artists their due freedom. Culture lets artists serve their hearts.
Now when I refer to the Monoculture, I can direct those not yet in the know to this page. Feel free to do likewise. And serve only your heart.
[Author’s note: I will soon be sending out my low-volume Studio News and New Writings newsletter. Please consider subscribing. Yes, my site needs updating, it’s a known issue.]
Alert readers will recall my previous discussion about safety and agreement. I’m avoiding discussion about the particular details of the compelled agreement, as I tend to think that the concerns are more driven by fashion than principle and that the agreement itself matters more to those who desire it than the topic of the agreement.