Sunday, April 11, 2010

New Philistinism

New Philistinism

In an older period, roughly in the mid to late 20th century, philistinism was rather easy to recognize. The caricature of someone with narrowly provincial habits and who was fearful of ambiguity, lack of closure, or even basic adventures was the reality of an uncomprehending businessman or Rotarian standing in front of a Pollack or Rothko and exclaiming in anger and fury that his ten year old child could draw the same thing or even better. Later on it was the person outraged by Chris Burden shooting himself in the foot, or a notice that his child's college tuition money had gone to a screening of Carolee Schneeman's FUSES. The philistine took the existence of LOLITA to be tantamount to an advocacy of its hero's behaviors or the philisitine might agree with Olivier's inept summary of HAMLET as a play about a man who couldn't make up his mind and proceed to watch Olivier's production with that single guide in mind, looking for confirmations of the statement in every monologue, narrative development or moment of dialogue throughout.

Today there is more philistinism than ever - if only because there are more people; also there are more bad artistic productions than ever for people to praise, and finally there are more gems and even works of genius to be dismissed because the works do not initially appeal to the basest human desires for pleasures organized around dramatic conflict and flattering heroes for whom an audience is practically coerced to root.

But there are no individual philistines (if there ever were). Philistinism refers not to a type of human being at all but, rather, to both a general condition of the soul and an abstract tendency of the culture that waxes and wanes and that is more or less dominant in this or that age.

Philistinism is chiefly about two propositions. Firstly, the reader wants to know if it feels good or not and if it doesn't feel good, the reader wants to be rid of it as quickly and urgently as possible as if it were the reader's own bowel movement.

Conversely, a philistine might fail to recognize greatness in something precisely BECAUSE it is so deeply pleasurable in a most immediate sense. Pleasure in itself is neither suspect nor the last word. The two responses- condemnation of the pleasurable and celebration of the difficult and vice versa, though opposite in motive and outward appearance, are united in being rooted in an inability to read. There is an illiteracy of the soul where people cannot read texts, whether the text is a television show or a dance or a painting or anything else made. They cannot read the landscapes in their environment and cannot read architecture and many other things in direct experience. It is a blindness related to what psychologists talk about when they work with couples who cannot listen to and comprehend each other. One can enjoy something without being able to actually read it.

But to make a virtue of illiteracy or ignorance leads us to the second proposition.

If the first proposition is, if it feels good it must be correct - (my own impulses and pleasure principles are correct by virtue of their being immediate responses) - then the second proposition states that there is a kind of authority in this response that is immune to objective evaluation. This is a kind of "sophomoric relativism" in the phrase of the late philosopher Rick Roderick of Duke University. Sophomoric relativism says that we have to respect a speaker chiefly because the speaker grounds an assertion in the authority of personal opinion and then ties that authority to some overreaching doctrine of individual rights or democracy itself.

In its worst cases the newer Philistinism refuses to take seriously the distinction between value in the world and personal history, story, and temperament. Truth becomes a majoritarian proposition. Thus if AVATAR has in it sound or noble political goals and messages then it is elitist or rude to argue that AVATAR is an ugly film. But in face AVATAR IS ugly: it takes its visuals from the worst of 1970s popular and commercial album cover and custom van art. (To call attention to AVATAR's ugliness is especially hard when nearly every critic and reviewer in America remarks on the film's surface "beauty"). Those political goals are too noble and useful and inspiring for them to be "ignored" by treating Avatar as an aesthetic object. To ask serious questions then about AVATAR, to ask if a propaganda of the Left (which is what AVATAR is) can be as simple and single-minded as propaganda of the Right (and just as dangerously one-sided), is seen as the grossest impertinence.

I have encountered the most brilliant, learned minds who nevertheless fail to be moved by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films because in them Fred Astaire sometimes takes the lead, thus condemning an entire epoch of dance traditions under the criteria of some kind of correct politics. That is the philistinism that cannot recognize certain immediate pleasures. They are unable to read all of the myriad details that constitute the dances - the rhythm, the movement of the bodies, the dramatic details of flirtation, chase, play - because rather than see what is in front of them they have consulted some guide as a checklist.

If philistinism can be unable to read immediate pleasures, at other times it may regard immediate pleasure as sufficient for evaluation.

The older philistinism that continues to complain of book that don't have certain plots in them or visual media that lack beautiful "models", that complains that this or that book is "depressing" is actually just as much as a problem, but perhaps it is more of a problem today because of its vindication by sophomoric relativism, a doctrine that tells us that our feelings are noble for the tautological reason that they are felt.

The filmmaker Anna Biller makes original, expressive narrative films. They have many elements that yield immediate pleasures, though there is much more at work in her films. But every one of her film production practices reads like a deliberate violation of the Dogma 95 manifesto. Whereas Dogma95 says to film everything using only found locations and no design whatsoever other than what is originally present, and only natural light and non professional actors and so on, Biller uses elaborate costumes that she often makes herself, consciously films with heavy older lighting, creates environments from scratch, and uses actors who project a persona.

I have nothing but the deepest respect for Dogma 95 and a few of the films coming from that tributary. But Lars Von Trier and company are wrong if they feel that the problem of Hollywood studio filmmaking can be solved by deliberately violating its procedures in a mechanistic way. (This leaves aside the question of the Dogma group's literal veracity in its statements - shades of the Factory here). The problem of Hollywood is not that it is storyboarded and designed with intricacy. The problem with Hollywood rests in what fills the storyboard, in its simplistic procedures and assumptions about a whole host of things from storytelling, to selfhood, to agency and what counts as socially relevant. Anna Biller, in her own fashion, overturns all of these things in her work in the most radical of ways, and yet it is entertaining in the way, say, Billy Wilder was, and is entertaining.

But anyone who says that Dogma practice is the only or best way to make a movie, because of some mystification about "reality" or "authenticity", is afflicted with a philistinism of the soul and as such would be utterly blind to a whole universe of cinematic possibility. Biller has not had the wide distribution that other independent filmmakers have enjoyed. One wonders if this difficulty is due to the fact that certain purveyors of taste "decided" in advance that certain cinematic styles were over and dead, were but only commercial detritus from a very old Hollywood, and have lost their relevance. Thus if a movie shows a certain attitude towards craft, seems highly produced, then it is, ipso facto, a commercial mediocrity unworthy of serious attention. Thus a film with a great deal of certain kinds of production gets misread as being exactly the same as any other film with similar production practices. But what of an artist that want to make a movie that has lots of production and preparation because that is the only way to express what the artist is trying to express? In the end there is no such thing as under or over production. There is whatever is needed for the effect to be achieved and the procedures and answers will necessarily vary.

Lydia Davis is a master at ellipsis and indirection in her short fiction. But what if someone decided that that was the only or correct way to write fiction today? What would be the fate of an older and, in my view, greater master like Alice Munro, who continues to write stories in a way that is far from minimalist, treating subjects in less experimental a fashion, and filled with the fullest expression of emotional entanglements. Though both hold to the principle of what "lies between the lines", Munro simply includes more whereas Davis leaves out as much as possible. Both are masters but, luckily, in literary culture, there seems to be a great deal more room for artistic variety in the politics and distribution of the work.

All of these examples go to show that, for all of the cultural talk of the decline of master narratives and our newfound suspicion of progressive utopia we are still captive to a most ruthless historicism and progessivism. This is the belief that there is a single correct artistic practice that best suits the current age. This is the obsession with "relevance" and context. It is not so far apart from Isaiah Berlin's quip about those that felt Ibsen to be a more updated Shakespeare.

We tell ourselves we are post or hypermodern, that we have left behind the assumptions of earlier modern societies. But we still believe in progress in the most naive sense. We believe that there is a list of artistic practices and styles we have to consult to know what is the most appropriate style at any time, something like a New York Times Style book. This is often little better than consulting our initial sense of plain and pleasure in reception.

In the end it is no different, in the most ironical of ways, than the older resistance to the avant-garde because it didn't feel entertaining. We retain the old errors of the avant-garde (which WAS historicist and progressivist) but we are neither able to read the work of the avant-garde very well, though we agree with the pronouncements of their creators (we would do well to always remember D.H. Lawrence when he reminded us to "trust the tale not the teller") nor are we able to read work that is classical or of some older vintage. But we also hold to the errors of the entertainment industry which asks only that we consult our basic drives to consider whether something is of any value or not.

Styles and works that are extremely popular satisfy certain needs of the soul in certain ways. Styles and works that are doomed to marginality also satisfy certain needs of the soul, and not just the needs of the marginal. Much resistance to certain kinds of culture is a LEARNED disability. Contra the evolutionists, it has nothing to do with an innate need for storytelling or surface prettiness. There are too many examples in history of individuals cut off from all privilege and advantage who yet created things that are extraordinarily difficult and discomforting, and their legacy has been critical for the history of civilization.

We must become better readers: to read what is in front of and all around us, in life as in art. And, though there many interpretations, surely there are better and worse readings just as there are better and worse texts.


  1. This is one of the most fascinating and illuminating posts (nay, ESSAYS), that I've had the pleasure to read in a long while. It's crammed so full of truths about the problems of our day in receiving artworks that I would hope that it could eventually be considered a seminal work for our times, much as Sontag's AGAINST INTERPRETATION was for the '60s. Bravo, and I hope a lot of people will get to see and read this at some point, because it needs to be read! What i would love to see, too, is more of your own reading of texts, as someone who embraces myriad styles and who sees beyond the limits of current trends.

  2. A comparison to Sontag is the highest praise. While I can't, of course, be hubristic enough to agree with that comparison, Sontag IS an influence in certain areas, and this post has been an essay in progress for awhile. Thanks so much for your supportive words. I will pick some things to read of course and we shall see what happens!

  3. I agree with Anna, this needs to be read. What I was saying earlier that the environment is made up of shadows and shadows and that it's considered bad taste to have any personal taste is not necessary to say that intelligence is far above average, but it is a disquieting power. I love this and I want to read more.