Sunday, 1 September 2019

Revolution No. 9

Staircase at Tyntesfield

Name-dropping is one of the more tedious habits in the humanities, especially at the fuzzier end of the spectrum, where artists, curators, and writers about art congregate. Indeed, it can sometimes seem that name-dropping is the name of the game. When I was young and impressionable I abandoned a promising academic career, in part because I thought that anyone who repeatedly cited the likes of Plato, Descartes, Wittgenstein, or Derrida must necessarily also have read those authorities. Preferably in the original language. I had not, and didn't much want to, so folded my hand before the stakes got too high. I know better now, but don't regret my decision. The bare-faced fraudulence of much "scholarship" is breathtaking.

Understandably, this fake-it-to-make-it tendency applies ten-fold to actual practitioners. This may be rank prejudice on my part, but it stands to reason that, at the fluffiest extreme of that fuzzy end of the spectrum, the sort of person attracted to mucking about with paint is not likely to have spent much of their time reading, say, Foucault or Deleuze, much less have arrived at a considered view of their place in the traditions of philosophical thought. I'd go further, and suggest they are unlikely to be capable of doing so; very few of us are. Life is too interesting, and making art too much fun, to spend long evenings puzzling over difficult books which engage with dry, twisty issues you hadn't even realised were issues. It's unrealistic, I think, to expect practising artists to have engaged with heavyweight, brain-taxing, aesthetic, social, and philosophical problems, much less to imagine they are in any position to offer useful contributions to the debate, even if that is so often the pitch of much contemporary art-speak. Enough, surely, to wear the Foucauldian black leather and turtleneck, and maybe flirt a little with S&M, at least until the next new intellectual fashion sensation comes along.

Fraudulent or not, it has to be acknowledged that the humanities industry is nothing if not industrious, not to say fashion-forward, so new names-to-know are getting churned up all the time. A cynic might say that merely keeping up with the latest fashionable look is what much "scholarship" has become. Foucault? Deleuze? Really? Are you seriously going to be wearing that this evening? In my former trade as an academic librarian, obviously, this kind of superficial familiarity was not so much a con-trick as an essential professional skill: like knowing how to find a good plumber, rather than pretending to know how to fix a leaky pipe. So I have always liked to think that I know at least enough of – and enough about – the pantheon of unread-but-droppable names to navigate most literary and art talk and, if necessary, bluff my way with the best. After all, it is still my proud boast that I have never read a single Jane Austen novel, and of these Persuasion is my favourite. Consequently, my bluffer's ears pricked up when I read this recently:
This opening was not altogether unlike the dozens of staid institutional receptions I’ve attended in New York—there was a tasteful jazz quartet, an open bar, an impressive spread of canapes, and the guests were mostly rich people who all seemed to know each other—but at the entrance, I was offered a Cato-branded pocket Constitution along with the exhibition catalogue, and people namechecked Hayek and von Mises instead of Jacques Rancière.
Rachel Wetzler, Culture Worriers: the libertarian struggle to understand contemporary art (The Baffler, issue 46)
No, wait... Jacques Who?

Well, it seems I have not been paying attention. Just about everybody has been talking about Rancière, apparently, and for some time. If you care, his Wikipedia article is here, a moderately informative review of one of his books is here, and a lively idiot's guide (appropriately titled "Who the Fuck is Jacques Rancière?") is here. If you don't care, I don't blame you. What possible stake do most of us have in the incessant chatter of academics, aesthetes, or their hangers-on? But I was intrigued: is Jacques Rancière really a name to conjure with in such circles? So much so, that his is the obvious, telling name to drop in an article, in order to differentiate the "OK" woke'n'wealthy art-lover from the neoliberal "Not OK" sort?

I suppose it could simply be the writer engaging in a little sly one-upmanship. Such things are not unheard of in academic-critical circles. But I find it hard to believe that the sort of wealthy patrons, gallerists, and art collectors who are, as I imagine, the usual invitees at upscale gallery events would have the slightest clue about a character like Rancière, or where he fits into the three-dimensional chess game of French philosophy. Although I suppose a hot-cheeked moment of embarrassment over the canapés might lead some humiliated socialite to google "Who the Fuck is Rancière?" later that same evening. Except they'd probably be looking for "Ron Seer".

One takeaway from my own hasty googling is that Rancière seems to have taken ownership of that venerable anarchist credo that, left to their own devices, free from the interference of teachers and bossy experts, people will teach themselves what they need to know. I'm not sure whether the example of this process offered in the less-than-scholarly source cited above ("Who the Fuck is Jacques Rancière?") is the author's or Rancière's own, but I'm afraid I find it hard to accept, at least in the version on offer. I believe, as fervently as I believe anything, that intelligence is evenly spread through the world's population, and that bright kids will always find a way through oppression and injustice to improve the quality of their lives, by innovative criminality if necessary. But I'd want to see some solid evidence to back the claim that a group of kids in Ethiopia, left alone and unassisted with an unopened box of electronic tablets – unable to speak English and allegedly even unaware of the function of an "on/off" switch – ended up not just mastering the device but also hacking Android within 5 months. I'd like to believe it, I really would – just as I'd like to believe in a tablet device that works without a recharge for months on end – but it smells too much of the sort of Panglossian wishful thinking that leads NGOs and charities to crash about the world, unintentionally paving the road to Hell. And I say this as someone who did not cancel his standing-order tithe to Oxfam, following the revelations of the unsavoury activities of some of their field-workers in Haiti and elsewhere.

Quite why this sort of thinking has taken a hold in the rarefied field of art theory is a good question, and is one of those subjects that would require a book-length examination, not a mere paragraph in a blog post; it would certainly take more googling and more reading to resolve than I am prepared to do. Libri longi, vita brevis, and all that. But I suspect it must be connected with that strange, century-long urge of some artists to remove all traces of their own skill and agency from their work, an urge which is the democratically-inclined cousin of the equally strange, but rather more aristocratic urge to produce work that hardly anybody actually wants to hear, read, or look at.

These two related tendencies clearly originate in the artists' perennial desire to disrupt and refresh the exhausted or compromised artistic traditions and practices that went before, but both have relied rather too heavily on a series of theoretically-inclined guides who have led them down some strange paths indeed. Take serialism and atonality in music, for example. I know nothing about "serious" music, really, except that I am certain that if I never hear another piece by Stockhausen or Boulez I will be perfectly content. Which may, of course, mean that I am just a smug, narrow-minded, parochial philistine. That is, assuming the definition of an engaged, open-minded, metropolitan aesthete is someone who can stand more than two minutes of aggressively tuneless plinky-plonk, or can happily chuckle over the Sanskrit puns in Finnegans Wake. So be it: such people must exist, although I have yet to meet one; perhaps they cross the street when they see me coming. Or perhaps they are never to be encountered in the public street, and are those name-dropping patrons of art, insulated by wealth from any infectious contact with our trashy bourgeois complacency?

I very much doubt that, however. One of the most annoying things about the improbably rich, apart from simply being improbably rich, is their desire to corner the market in admirable but actually demographically-widespread attributes such as intelligence, education, and taste, exclusively rebranded for an upscale clientele as sophistication and savoir faire. It's a game long played by the aristocracy, and since taken up by their modern-day equivalents: a mask to wear over the ugliness of the essential injustice and exploitation that lies behind all disproportionate wealth. I'm sorry, but we're just naturally smarter and better than you! This charade is constantly reinforced by portrayals of the rich in popular culture. In TV shows and films, toffs and Trump-alikes are rarely portrayed as morally ugly, gold-plated twerps, semi-literate monsters of ego haunting characterless, hotel-standard accommodation. On the contrary, they are inevitably elegant, beautifully-dressed alumni of top universities, fluent in a dozen languages, connoisseurs of fine things, occupying tastefully-decorated pieds-à-terreMy God, is that a real Matisse? – or book- and antique-crammed mansions surrounded by park-sized lawns. Now, I have even less evidence for this assertion than the advocates of teacher-free education do for theirs, but I'd guess this assemblage of traits and tropes actually belongs to no-one: these are merely the signifiers of wealth in the popular mind, and are never its diagnostic symptoms in the real world.

No, what I'm pretty sure is the case is that, guided by gallerists and art advisors (this is an actual job), the rich buy the art they are advised to buy – whether they like it or understand it is irrelevant – just as I expect they wear what they are advised to wear, support the Good Causes they are advised to support, and delegate all financial investment to their trusted brokers. Personally, I admit I have a tough time differentiating the Good Rich from the Bad Rich; I'm no connoisseur of wealth. But maybe it's just a case of which advisors they choose? And perhaps it's those same advisors who hand out executive summaries of what names to drop this season, and why.

So, at the same time as you invoke the egalitarian, armchair-revolutionary anarchism of Rancière, you drop a few mill on a large smeary daub by Gerhard Richter (when you'd really rather have a Jack Vettriano), simply because you have been told that the Richter best denotes the intelligence, education, sophistication, etc., that you would like to be presumed to have. You being rich, and that. It must be quite something, though, to be in a position to carry off the material embodiment of name-dropping, by hanging some eye-stretchingly expensive piece of canvas on the living-room wall. Oh, sure, that's a Richter... Goes quite nicely with the upholstery, don't you think?

Besides, hold on to it for a few more years and then you can get Sotheby's to flog the bloody ugly thing for a fat profit. Bad rich person! Or maybe lend it to a museum, where arty proles can gaze admiringly on your discards, free of charge. Good rich person! Why, sir, you're practically a revolutionary yourself!

Baby, You're A Rich Man...


Paul Mc Cann said...

On my occasional contact with the nouveau riche I find them very ordinary. Apart from their penchant for believing luck had no part in their wealth they believe they can walk on water, often, with delightful schadenfreude results.
Now old money I find fairly intolerable.

Mike C. said...


"Old money I find fairly intolerable" ... Me too: as soon as any notes get rumpled or dirty, I have them taken away ;)


mistah charley, ph.d. said...

re 'old money' - spouse and self often send fairly large denomination dollar bills to her country of origin on the pacific coast of south america - worn notes are considered undesirable and sometimes unacceptable - to me this seems illogical - such notes have been passed from hand to hand time and again, suggesting they really are genuine, not recently manufactured facsimiles

amolitor said...

Kids will work out a great deal about tablets on their own, but the Ethiopia story does indeed smell pretty bad.

It starts out from the probably incorrect notion that kids "in remote villages in Africa" are somehow only familiar with stone tools, and treat fire as a terrifying mystery. In fact, there are probably cell phones all over that village. "Hacking" Android is not the same thing as "enabling the camera" I suspect, while we're at it.

The starting premise that giving kids more access to electronic bullshit is a great educational leap forward is wildly irritating, and absolutely universal as far as I can tell.

Mike C. said...

Mustang chatley, amoligor,

Thanks for the comments — currently en route to Hamburg (ah, this jet-set life ...).


Mike C. said...

Mustang Charley?? Spellchecker on a plane...