A Summary of Everything I’ve Written at Big Other

The shifting, the transformation, of the relationship between individual artistic components became the central issue in Formalist investigations. […] It was the Formalist research which clearly demonstrated that shifting and change are not only historical statements (first there was A, and then A1 arose in place of A) but that shift is also a directly experienced synchronic phenomenon, a relevant artistic value. The reader of a poem or the viewer of a painting has a vivid awareness of two orders: the traditional canon and the artistic novelty as a deviation from that canon. It is precisely against the background of the tradition that innovation is conceived. The Formalist studies brought to light that this simultaneous preservation of tradition and breaking away from tradition form the essence of every new work of art.

—Roman Jakobson, “The Dominant” (final paragraph) (my emphasis)

Using Viktor Shklovsky

My hero.

[This post began as a response to some comments made by Douglas Storm on Amber’s most recent post.]

The name “Viktor Shklovsky” comes up a lot at this site (I’m guilty of mentioning it in perhaps half of my posts), and one might wonder why the man and his work matters. Below, I’ll try and lay out what Viktor Shklovsky has done for me, and what he might be able to do for you, too! Because Shklovsky might be the single most interesting and, above all else, useful critic I’ve ever encountered…

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David Foster Wallace, on Television, on Television as the Dominant

I’m very fond of quoting from Roman Jakobson’s 1935 essay “The Dominant”. Lately I’ve been thinking about this passage in particular:

We may seek a dominant not only in the poetic work of an individual artist and not only in the poetic canon, but also in the art of a given epoch, viewed as a particular whole. For example, it is evident that in Renaissance art such a dominant, such an acme of the aesthetic criteria of the time, was represented by the visual arts. Other arts oriented themselves toward the visual arts and were valued according to the degree of their closeness to the latter. On the other hand, in Romantic art the supreme value was assigned to music. Thus, Romantic art oriented itself toward music: its verse is musically focused; its verse intonation imitates musical melody. This focusing on a dominant which is in fact external to the poetic work substantially changes the poem’s structure with regard to sound texture, syntactic structure, and imagery; it alters the poem’s metrical and strophical criteria and its composition. In Realist aesthetics the dominant was verbal art, and the hierarchy of poetic values was modified accordingly.

I think we can at least agree that some mediums resonate more strongly in the culture, in a given time and place, than others. Opera and ballet no longer have the cultural influence they once did—nor does painting. And neither does literature, not since the very early 1900s. They were all supplanted in the 20th Century by radio, then cinema. (In this post from yesterday, I was exploring some of the influence that cinema, being a dominant medium, has had on the culture.)

Some have argued that cinema started losing its dominance in the 50s or 60s or 70s, being supplanted by television (which has, since the 90s or the 00s, been supplanted by the internet). I find argument that very plausible; even the major film studios have acknowledged by this point that theatrical film releases are essentially ads for later DVD releases (multiple DVD releases).

This morning, I found a nice contemporary illustration of this idea of television as the dominant medium of our time—or at least of the 70s through 90s: David Foster Wallace discussing the dominance of television while on television (and now on the internet):

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The 1970s vs. the 2000s (in Hollywood film, at least)

From "Love Story" (1970)...

...to "Avatar" (2009).

Paul’s post “Science in the Ghetto” got me thinking about the infantilizing of Hollywood movies. I wanted to see if reality matches my impression (which is that Hollywood films these days are less oriented toward adult audiences), so I gathered the lists of the top-ten grossing English-language films for each year of the 1970s and the 2000s. Let’s compare.

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Alternative Values in Small-Press Culture

This follows J. A.’s post here, which sprang out of conversation here; it’s also motivated by Greg’s recent post about Rilke. In all three places, I’ve been criticizing some “dominant values” in US culture and small-press culture:

There’s nothing inherently wrong with celebrity. There’s nothing inherently wrong with youth. There’s not even anything necessarily wrong with having money! (I wish I had more, much more.) But when those things become the dominant values in one’s life, and the basis of what one does, what most people do, then things go out of whack.

The US circa 2010 is a youth-obsessed, wealth-obsessed culture, where many many people want to be famous, and spend their time thinking about famous people. That is the dominant culture. And I submit that, to the extent that any small press is pursuing these aims for itself and for its writers (especially to the exclusion of other goals), it’s not being part of a counter-culture.

…Of course, being a counter-culture isn’t inherently desirable, either. But if one does want to oppose those dominant US values—love of celebrity, youth, and wealth—then what can one do? Below, I’ll try proposing some alternatives.

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Art as Experience

Like John Cage said: "Not a peep."

In the comments section of my last post, Can Video Games Be Art?, I sketched out a definition of art as experience, or even as an attitude, rather than as a thing or a collection of things (see here and here). At the risk of repeating myself, I’d like expound on that position, in case anyone is interested (and wants to discuss/debate it).

But first, and briefly: I really do consider Roger Ebert’s argument—that video games aren’t art and can never be art—easily refuted. (I suspect Ebert thinks similarly; he’s obviously being polemical.) Here are two different ways:

1. Redefine art so that it includes video games. (As far as I’ve seen, no one caught up in the Ebert-inspired debate has taken the trouble to actually define art—always a big mistake.)

2. Demonstrate how video games display, in their own way, artistry (formal elegance, originality, personal expression, ingenuity, response to an artistic tradition, etc.). This is what I see most people trying to do, but the key is to find that artistry in the video games themselves, without comparing them to paintings, literature, cinema, etc. If they are an artistic medium, then video games should have their own unique artistic integrity.

That said, Ebert’s right when he asks why anyone really cares whether video games are art. I think it’s self-evident that they can be, but despite that most of them still totally suck.

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What Is Experimental Art?

Edgar Degas, "Les Danseuses Bleues" (1890)

One typically hears unusual art called three different things, often interchangeably:

  • Innovative
  • Avant-Garde
  • Experimental

But what do these three words mean? Do they mean the same thing? I don’t think so, and in this post I’ll point out some basic differences between them. I’ll also define what I think experimental art essentially is, and how such art operates.

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The Dominant and the Longue Durée

"Hi, I'm dead!"

It’s a very familiar story: Romanticism began in 1798 and ended in 1900, when it was replaced by Modernism. …Although maybe it wasn’t replaced until 1901; it must have taken a while back then, in those days before cellular phones and email, to “get the memo,” as we say today. How long did it really take for everyone to hear that they were to stop making Romanticist works, and start making Modernist ones? Why, in some of the outlying regions, Romanticism may have limped on until 1902—even 1903!

Pinpoint the year when Romanticism died, or when Modernism perished. Can you have two eras at one time? Some have argued that Postmodernism is over; have you heard? Stop making Postmodernist art! It’s sad; I liked Po-mo; I’ll miss metatextuality (plus I had a killer idea for a story that became self-aware, and demanded the right to vote). But there’s also an upside: no more Shrek movies! (Well, not after this year’s Shrek Forever After.)

All of this begs the question: What happens to eras? And what are they? Surely they exist—Modernism happened—and if they exist, they must have beginnings. Right? Modernism surely began at some point. Do they also have endings? When Modernism started, what became of Romanticism?

Let’s see if we can’t find out.

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