“Is there an art that is dangerous? Yes. It is that art which upsets the conditions of life.”–Charles Baudelaire.
What are the conditions of life? Simply put: that which sustains it.
Does art sustain life? Does literature? Does poetry? No. None of those practices are required to sustain life. And we are better off for it. For who would want to rely on failure for sustenance? And yet, that is precisely what we have today. Failure. And lots of it. And that’s a good thing–for the arts and for life. Precisely because the very conditions that sustain life require failure in the realm of the arts.
This is, in part, the premise of Ben Marcus’s essay ‘I HAVE WRITTEN A BAD BOOK’ published on McSweeney’s. No apologies necessary. Failure is art’s bread and butter. It is that which keeps things going the way they are–it assures us that things will remain the same. Art’s failure is the success story of the status quo–and it fulfills all our dreams. Especially if those dreams revolve around a career in the arts. For without art’s failure how could life go on? Life requires everything that art–even and especially bad art–gives it.
One doesn’t have to read very broadly to realize that we are living on a trash heap. Look around you. If you believe that things have always been the way they are now, then you are probably 19 years old. And that’s okay. Cultural transmission is not one of America’s strengths. What’s not okay is if you believe Lady Gaga or Lil Wayne or Justin Bieber or any one of the other corporate-produced pop-star robots will provide you with the necessary ammunition to destroy this insidiously hateful society which seeks to destroy you. And in turn, turn you into a consumer automaton, denying you the chance to fail artistically.
It’s what we all want. History. To make history. And Marcus is right. For a book to make history, the ingredients are right there: concepts as characters; deadpan humor the tone of which sounds like an instructional manual; deliberately ‘bad’ writing; very little or nothing that happens; a near total absence of any kind of pathos. This is the stuff of great literature. And Marcus knows it. Which makes his novel in question–although it isn’t really a question so much as a black celebration–Notable American Women (Vintage, 2002), a veritable masterpiece of literature. And like all masterpieces a failure when compared to what sustains life. And yet, consumer life, life as we know it–boring, shallow, trite, insufficient, wanting, and, thus, wonderful–would be nothing without its masterpieces. Ben Marcus’s essay is a masterpiece of conformism. And don’t mistake that last pronouncement as an attack or a condemnation, for it seeks to be the sharpest kind of praise.
Much like the praise Joshua Cohen heaped on Tao Lin on Bookforum last year when reviewing Lin’s Richard Yates (Melville House, 2010). Again, the ingredients of ‘failure’, this time from Cohen: empty characters; a writing without useful or illuminating adjectives or adverbs; the use of regular language; deliberately short sentences devoid of descriptive language; hackneyed phrases put in quotation marks; the use of little or no commas or semicolons; a proximity to verisimilitude that’s too real; the employment of apparently pure transcription to generate text–and so on and so on and so on. It’s as if art–or culture, or political economy–or failure can somehow be prescribed, used also to elevate. Which in both cases–the Marcus essay and the Cohen review–the invocation of failure is used to do, intended or not.
Is this what we want art to do? Or is this just a ploy to make us feel better (Marcus) and to make others feel worse (Cohen)? Failure and the arts have gone on long enough. Perhaps, if we really want the kind of world artists dream about, it is time to end art. End art as a failed experiment so that we can realize its successes–if it has any–in the real world. Whatever that means. But for now let’s take it to mean our failed world.