Posts Tagged ‘Howard Becker’

The Short Version / Reviews

February 3, 2015

Art Worlds

As I matured, it occurred to me post-discussion that often groups of people had not really been talking about what it seemed we were ostensibly talking about.  In book groups their conclusions puzzled me.  It was as if while I was discussing the text, they were shopping at Nordstorms; holding up some piece of information or impression to see if it were ‘okayed’.

Moreover, later I suspected that they didn’t really know that they weren’t talking about what they were talking about.  (Definitely, I was puzzled what they were talking about.)  Whatever!   I also suspected that they weren’t having the feelings which they reportedly felt or felt that they had felt.  Their feelings just didn’t ring true to me.  And as I aged out, I also realized that many of my teachers hadn’t lived the advice that they offered, and suspected also, that they hadn’t realized that they weren’t living the advice that they offered.  So often,  in fact, their advice was the direct opposite of what they were doing.  Didn’t they notice?  What the hell?

 Have you ever crafted a very reasoned response for a discussion others are a part of, to find they listen and then carry on without a remark as if nothing had been said – as if you were a spirit which had drifted through the room, shrieked – and left, without a mention?  As an artist, have you watched artistic leaders make the most preposterous assertions without a blush to a fully accepting crowd?  If you have ever considered the artistic community – or any community, for that matter – and come away dumbfounded regarding something or other – this might be the book for you.

Self-Portrait1
As I type this, I am still incredulous that after all of the time I have spent in the art world, trying to find my way, and trying to understand the art world, that it never occurred to me to read what a sociologist would have to say about the art world.  That is, of course, they would study these things!

Well.   I’m certainly late to the game, but feel I’ve arrived.

Because, Typing and Sales 101 are two courses I’ve always felt should be in any practical educational curriculum.  Now I would have to add a third, and that is a study of the book, Art Worlds by the sociologist Howard Becker.

Howard Becker’s book is fundamentally about ‘conventions’; about a conventional thought, about a conventional activity.   Art Worlds discusses how humans utilize convention to organize and to ‘regularize’ production, so that in a professional arena, not everything need be discussed.  This is the bread and butter of Becker’s work.

In fact, very little of any accepted convention must be discussed.   Because the sources of conflict have already fought their nasty little internecine wars and spawned conventions which have been codified as standards, long before you ever arrived, or perhaps were even hatched and people do their work amongst them like fish swim in water.  Dissenters have long ago been herded off (and actually continue to be ‘hauled off’) and penned somewhere ‘beyond the pale’.

These conventions determine the flowcharts of nearly all social organizations.  But they are very apparent in the arts where it is quite necessary that something nebulous be defined so that it might be crafted and produced and then be ‘authenticated’ (which is in the art world a way of being ‘realized’) in order to be understood  and sold to its consumers.  “Art Worlds” examines just this.  But as Becker notes, “the world of art mirrors society at large”.  What would look to be a good book for any aspiring art worker to study – actually, is a good book for any aspiring human to study.  That is, if you would like to get on in life.

Harry51

This is all about getting on in life.  Becker makes no aesthetic judgments.

It's important to uphold standards.

It’s important to uphold standards.

When an arts organization tells you that they “must uphold standards”, they really can’t emphasize this enough.  Because the life of the organization, their jobs, their professional status and their livelihoods all depend upon meeting the specifications of the art product they produce.  Not to do so would be like a blind Sampson pulling down the pillars of the temple.

Becker doesn’t theorize; he observes.  “…sociology does not discover what no one ever knew before…  Rather, good social science produces a deeper understanding of things that many people are already pretty much aware of.”  Becker, as sociologist, explains the functioning of an Art World in a way that those who understand only a part of it can’t.

Art is Social

Art is Social

Becker begins his book by noting that “art is social”.  That whereas we commonly think, in our culture, as the artist being the creator of the work – Becker goes to great effort to describe the community of ‘personnel’ who, taken together, produce the ‘art’ product.  Further, he shows how the art cannot attain any stature without this community of ‘personnel’.  Nor, can it even claim to be ‘Art’.  As Becker observed, “Most history deals with winners.  The history of art deals with innovators and innovations that won organizational victories… (my italics)   Only changes that succeed in capturing existing cooperative networks or developing new ones survive…  Art worlds routinely create and use reputations.”  Art worlds regularly criticize and defend themselves, authorize membership and reject aspirants.  And they all define themselves, their places and their actions through an establishment of ‘conventions’.

My first quarter playwriting teacher might have agreed with Becker on at least this first point.  The first question our instructor asked our class was about what is the defining characteristic of theater.  His answer was that it is “social”.   Becker continues though, to extend this  observation much further than what my playwriting teacher might authorize.  In fact, Becker’s exploration uncovers so vast an area of questionable action as to make at least this art worker wonder, ‘What the hell am I, or was I, aspiring to be a part of?”

It’s a personal belief of mine that any true appreciation of reality is an ‘unmooring’ experience.  T.S. Elliot remarked, “Most people cannot stand too much reality.”  In truth, most of us fight the Alice in Wonderland, topsy-turvy quality of reality.  We really cannot stand to be a part of this.  We’d rather manufacture something with more stability.   “That is our story, and we’re sticking to it,”  is rather the nature of how we go about it.

So a book like Becker’s “Art Worlds” – which can leave this artist/reader feeling unmoored – to my mind, is quite a book indeed.

Photos by Carl Nelson

Alien Abductions Are Loud, Bright Affairs

Alien Abductions Are Loud, Bright Affairs

 

Culture

January 10, 2015

2014 Best American Poetry

 

How to Read a Poem?

(You may need help.)

 The current state of Poetry is that there are a spate of aspirants and a dearth of audience.  There is also a spate of hierarchy and a dearth of quality.  You needn’t read much further to deduce this latter than the current “Best American Poetry 2014”.  I’m two thirds the way through my reading of it, and I’ve come across four poems I’d read again, none especially timeless, and yet, nearly to a person their bios detail honors, awards, recipientships, publications, fellowships, and prestigious academic positions up the yin yang.  The introductions and bios run for pages and pages.  Topically, the poems run the same playlist as People Magazine, Facebook and the tabloids.

So.  Here we have me, just one person – some tiny little non-entity, who writes poetry with some small success with a nearly non-existent audience, from a fly-over state, – versus, them, who apparently write poetry with great success and a virtually non-existent audience also!  And I find them seriously lame.  But who is to know?

In many ways the situation of Poetry has parallels with the situation of Jazz.  Each suffers a dearth of (earthly) success, but a spate of aspirants.  And the reaction of the general public, to each, is to toss up their hands.  However, each, as the years pass, spawn their aspirants and their fanatics.

I mention Jazz because of this piece by Adam Gopnik, (which I am just going to crib shamelessly from the New Yorker), discussing the work of the American Thinker and Sociologist, Howard Becker:

 

“Tristano taught simple ways of solving puzzles that come up in improvising – for instance, ways of adding flatted fifths and minor ninths to otherwise too familiar chord sequences.  “He showed how to create an essentially unlimited set of possibilities to work with as I played through an evening in a bar,” Becker recalls.  Jazz solos, he learned from his models, were concocted almost entirely “from a small collection of ‘crips,’ short phrases that can be combined in a million ways, subjected to all possible variations.”  The lesson that social performance, even of the highest kind, was more a string of crips than an outpouring of confessions remained at the root of Becker’s understanding of the way the world works.”

Noodle as Editor

Perhaps the reason the majority of poems in the 2014 Anthology seem lame to me, is because I don’t understand what these Poets are doing.  One Poet, Tony Hoagland, whose poem, “Write Whiter” was included in the Anthology, and who has always seemed to me to be preternaturally discerning, wrote this about his poem in his bio:

 

“I don’t consider “Write Whiter” a great poem, nor an exceptional example of TH’s volcanic talent.  Someone easily could have written it.  However, it defines, like a station of the cross, a place in the conversation we are having; its ticket needed to be punched, and so I punched it.”  (italics mine)

 

Perhaps what these poets are doing is playing crips of tunes cribbed from People Magazine and the other ‘Glossie’ Media.  Not being cognizant of the crips – or perhaps being too cognizant of the crips and the source material as heavily clichéd, trite and intellectually shamless leaves me passe’ (to say the least).  Neither their ‘crips’, nor their placement of them, hold the charm for me apparently as they do for their true believers.

But what aggravates me no end is of the beautiful sound, rhythm and meaning which is either abandoned or not even considered in order that the included poem and poet become an included part of the current ‘conversation’.   Most of the beauty (and enjoyment) of poetry is tossed aside, in order to make the secret handshake, pay the coin of the realm, and be taken in by this secretive league of poetry Brahmin.  I’m all for social organizations, but not when their bent is to go about ruining art.

Hey!  I get indignant.

 

Or – perhaps I don’t understand what Art is?  (This realization really chills me…)

 

(Hey!  You don’t care.)  (smiley face)

 

…and I just like Beauty.

 


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