Our minds on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.

There is No Aesthetic Anymore

I received the honor of having lunch with Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Robert Olen Butler a few days ago and it was a refreshing experience. It is always enlightening in some way to meet with a truly passionate person–even when you disagree with them. Butler has developed for himself, I think, a very inventive and useful way to get to the heart of stories; namely, to focus on that which every human being innately has: their desire. He likes to say “yearning”.

Boy, does he like to say “yearning.” But what has struck me as astounding, what has stuck with me these past few days, is that he has taken his tool and claims that he, alone ((His contempt for the “establishment”—the majority of English departments in the US is commendable. He claims that writers have the creative element of writing fiction robbed from them. In fact he said, writers “that I meet know the second through tenth thing about writing, but they don’t know the first thing.” and went on to tell us all that none of us, he was willing to wager, could give him a story that would possess “yearning”. I will leave the opinion of the existence of “yearning” in my own work as an excercise to the reader.)) can identify what constitutes art—real art! At this point you might be able to guess that the thing that constitutes real art is yearning.

There’s little question in my mind that he is absolutely correct when it comes to the idea of a character’s desire being a central and important feature of most good writing. But it hardly applies to other artforms like architecture or music, which to me, makes it suspect as a qualification for art. Moreover, the art of storytelling has rendered many tales that easily belong in any canon that may not even have a human for a central character. ((They might be a cat for instance, or a city.)) Regardless, the main difficulty I have with his attempts to define what constitutes good fiction is just that it isn’t fuzzy. That’s the best way I’d been able to put it until this morning when I stumbled (again) into this quote from Baudrillard:

Everything is political. Everything is aesthetic. All at once… everything is now aestheticized: politics is aestheticized in the spectacle, sex in advertising and porn, and all kinds of activity in what is conventionally referred to as culture… When everything is aesthetic, nothing is beautiful or ugly anymore, and art itself disappears.”

Thank my simulation of God for Baudrillard! THAT’s why you can’t define art as this and not that. There just isn’t any such thing anymore. Andy Warhol jammed <a rel=”lightbox” href=’http://www.banapana.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/04/warhol.jpg’ title=’Campbell’s Soup Can’>that soup can up there and we were off. Even commercial products have become art. The smart businesses have merely moved on from producing items that function into the realm of forms. Good profit margins come from the aesthetics of music players, computers, and vacuum cleaners. ((I’ve made this point a more thoroughly in Good Design is Profitable.)) Many high concept artists might poo-poo the idea of the iPod constituting art, but then they also probably own one so we know that they paid a premium for it, and doesn’t that really say all we need to know?

The long and the short of it, write whatever the hell you want. It will be art, period. We live in a post-postmodern world. ((I gagged a little bit on that last phrase.))

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