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Shock and Awe’t

by Open-Publishing - Monday 7 September 2009

Art and Culture USA

I went to school with a guy who became big in the art world, and that’s how he pronounced it: awe’t. He was from New York. He called himself Reggie in those days, but now he prefers Reginald, thinking it I suppose more befitting of his age and social status. I can understand that. I had an aunt that everybody called "Baby" until she died, in her late 70s, which must have been hard. But Aunt Baby didn’t die in a penthouse, in fact never lived in one, though she did once invest in a racehorse. She and her husband Helmut, who has also since died, liked nice things and only bought the best, even if they had to buy it in installments. I by contrast am still prone to buy the cheapest stuff that will do the job, so there you have it, the difference between an aesthete and a philistine. My idea of a good novel is one I can finish. I judge works of art in museums by how fast I walk by them, although I did once buy an oil painting in Portugal, probably because it was black and white and fit our furniture and I didn’t have to deal with the colors.

I guess I should admit that I envy Reggie, though I honestly think it is less for his fortune than for his love of art. He seems to have it in his blood, the very person Keats was adressing when he wrote

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Of course the world, especially the art world, is full of phonies, but Reggie has always been this way, even before he became a billionaire, and Aunt Baby was probably at least a little bit this way too because I know she didn’t buy the few nice expensive things she had to impress anybody. So let me not put too fine a point on it. Everybody, even me, probably has some appreciation of beauty. It’s a matter of degree.

What confuses me about Keats is that phrase "need to know." He was too early to know about the CIA, and maybe just too young period to know about a lot of things, but Reggie is long past 26 and still going strong. It was Reggie, not Keats, that came to mind when I read a recent article by socialist critic David Walsh:

Marcuse argued that art was particularly problematic because it has the unique capacity to provide an illusion of happiness in the present, unlike religion or philosophy. Through the beauty of a work of art, according to Marcuse, the individual’s discontent with the world is momentarily suspended, and thus art, by making the beautiful appear possible within the existing oppressive conditions, “pacifies rebellious desire.... Men can feel themselves happy even without being so at all.”

Marcuse suggests that centuries of culture have served to accommodate human beings to the contradiction between the society’s professed ideals and its brutal reality, and, in fact, play no small part in the willingness of individuals to “march with so little trouble in the communal columns of the authoritarian state,” that is, participate willingly in the fascist movements or armies.

These are false views, in my opinion, whose ideological roots lie in German subjective idealist philosophy. There is an actual content to art, not simply the beauty of form. Not content as a lump, or a single “message,” but “a living complex of moods and ideas which seek artistic expression.” (Trotsky) Art can make a deep, objective penetration of existence, its development, its history, its contradictions. What if—in and through art—individuals learn something about their “unfreedom,” about their social existence, what if their discontent, in fact, is deepened?

This is all a bit too rarefied for me. I think I agree with both Walsh and Marcuse, but it doesn’t really help. I still feel like I’m missing something. Something big. That’s one minute. The next minute I’m wondering if Reggie is missing something. Something big.

Shock and Awe’t. Ground Aught. How do you get that on an urn?