30 December 2005


There is a fascinating juxtaposition of two pieces over at Arts Journal that perhaps unintentionally casts light—or, perhaps, a very long shadow—upon the "download wars" (and struggles over fair use and copyright in general). First, Louis Menand's long book review/essay concludes:

Literature is conventionally taught as a person-to-person aesthetic experience: the writer (or the poem) addressing the reader. Teachers cut out English's middlemen, the people who got the poem from the writer to us, apparently confirming his point that we have to deny the economics of cultural value in order to preserve the aesthetics. But, once we're outside the classroom, how rigidly are these conventions adhered to? How many people today really imagine "art" as a privileged category, exempt from the machinations of the marketplace? The literary marketplace has always been a theme of literature: Tristram Shandy reflects on its own status as a cultural good; Aristophanes' The Clouds is a satire on literary competition. Since the nineteen-sixties, the constructed nature of the art experience has been one of advanced art's principal preoccupations. Andy Warhol's Campbell's-soup-can paintings are all about art as commodity. The frenzy of prize-creation in the nineteen-seventies and eighties that English describes may have been a panicky middlebrow reaction against the demystification of culture that was already well under way, or it may have been a symptom and agent of that demystification. It is difficult to see it as a reinforcement of the ideal of autonomous art. That ideal disappeared a long time ago. The Martians have already landed.

"All That Glitters" (26 Dec 2005) (typography corrected). Admittedly, this passage (and the piece as a whole, for that matter) is a lot more persuasive until one gets to the last two sentences, which refer back to a poem Menand cites for no apparent reason in the middle of the essay. Then there's this comment on the usual predecessor of awards—book reviews.

[W]e all know that even the best methods are secondary to the assumptions around which they're built. For those of us who are serious about book-reviewing, here are a few of the questions that nobody—not even the New York Times—has yet been able to answer: In the world of serious literary criticism, where do newspapers belong? The credentials of their editors are often more journalistic than literary, an interesting conundrum assuming that literary merit is the stated goal. Regarding the visual and performing arts, newspapers are mostly event-oriented, with a dominant focus on what's commercially viable (rock music, blockbuster museum shows). Yet book sections often feature books that will sell a relative handful of copies compared to those they overlook.

Margo Hammond & Ellen Heltzel, "Book Reviewing Has Become Just Plain Creepy," Book Standard (26 Dec 2005).

These comments both dance around the edge of the premise explicitly built into the IP Clause: That the way for a government to encourage more art—and "Progress in the useful Arts"—without becoming enmeshed in licensing and censorship schemes is to make sure that artists can get paid for it. These two articles hint that that is not universally true. Then, virtually nothing is universally true in trying to understand or predict motivation for human behavior.