Louis Menand on art and anxiety

In his new book The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform Resistance in the American University, Louis Menand discusses the concept of interdisciplinarity and the anxiety it arouses among academics. At one point he approaches this anxiety through a look at the anxiety that arose among artists in the 1960s, whose approach to creating art as well as their final products embedded in them an anxiety about their identity. He writes:

What causes anxiety to break out in a work of art? Self-consciousness. Maybe, in the case of the academic subject, self-consciousness about disciplinarity and about the status of the professor — the condition whose genealogy I have been sketching in this chapter — is a source of anxiety. That status just seems to keep reproducing itself; there is no way out of the institutional process. And this leads the academic to ask questions like, Am I an individual disinterested inquirer, or a cog in the knowledge machine? And, Am I questioning the status quo, or am I reproducing it? More existentially, Is my relation to the living culture that of a creator or that of a packager? (123)

I sense (and, of course, feel myself) some of this same anxiety among producers of Mormon art. The questions aren’t quite the same because we’re talking about artists and not academics, but they revolve around some of the same issues of identity and commerce and relation to society — things like literary vs. genre; indie vs. mainstream; Mormon market vs. national market; prestige vs. audience; Mormon vs. LDS. This is why it was good for me and may be good for you to read the next part of this paragraph from Menand:

The only way to get past the anxiety these questions cause is to get past the questions — to see that they are bad questions because they require people to choose between identities that cannot be separated. A work of art is both an aesthetic object and a commercial good. That is not a contradiction unless you have been socialized to believe that it must be. (123)

Institutions and the cultures that surround them — whether they are universities or churches — do engage in such socialization and because they are not alone in the world we all end up being socialized by a variety of institutions/cultures. Naturally, they are highly interested in the kind of identity formation that leads to their own self-reproduction. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this phenomenon, especially if the institutions themselves continue to engage in good and improve people’s lives.Β  But it does sometimes lead to the idea that we must choose between identities that can’t be separated or worse deny that certain identities must be melded together in order to be authentic (or righteous). Mormon art has traditionally not been immune to such pressures and especially for literature, that has manifested itself in (somewhat) a reproduction of states of creating, consuming and criticizing art that microcosms the rest of the American fiction scene. Much good has come out of that. But so has much anxiety( c.f. the bulk of the discussion about Mormon narrative art).

What happens when a work of art can be both an aesthetic object and a commercial good AND ALSO questioning and faithful, literary and genre, high and low and middlebrow, etc.? I don’t have any stunning answers or insights to that question, and as always, the trick is to dig in to (or create) actual works and see how they are operating in relation to those attributes, but this is, I think, a key project for the radical middle.

31 thoughts on “Louis Menand on art and anxiety”

  1. Once you start commingling identities, you’re fair game for everybody instead of just one or two sectors.

    You have to be willing to take the hits from whichever side they’re coming from at the moment.

  2. Yes, but if you have the right mentality then it’s jujitsu — the bad energy just flows around and past you and perhaps at times is redirected back in an effective manner.

  3. William,

    I’ve read through this several times and still a little fuzzy. Let me see if I have it straight by summarizing a little:

    1. Art anxieties are caused by questions about identity dichotomies.

    2. The way past these questions is to get past asking such bad questions that require separating identities that cannot (or should not) be separated.

    3. These dichotomies are not contradictions unless we’re socialized that they are.

    4. Institutions/cultures engage in that socialization to perpetuate themselves.

    5. Mormon art is but a microcosm of such institutional/cultural socializing (and out resultant anxieties about our various dichotomies are indicative of that).

    6. What happens when we get past that where a work of art can be [various listed dichotomies]?

    7. No answer.

    8. We need to create such art with those listed anxieties/dichotomies, then see how things shake out.

    9. This is a key project for the self-perpetuating socializationating identity-defining institute/culture called “radical middle.”

    Have I got it right? (I keed, I keed) πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

    — Lee

  4. Seriously, though”Β¦

    Although your post today is engaging and entertaining and fun to examine, I guess I’m not sure I buy the premise that the identity-dichotomy-anxiety industrial complex is bad in and of itself and needs to be resolved.

    In several discussions of Mormon lit, I’ve read repeatedly that one of the keys to great literature lacking in Mormon lit (and subsequently holding us back) is tension. To me, the identity dichotomies spoke of in the articles (and their attendant anxieties in the back of the mind of an artist) can serve to bring out those needed tensions in the work.

    Furthermore, oftentimes those dichotomies can often be created after the fact. Dickens’s novels are today considered literary (vs. commercial), yet when Chucky-boy wrote them, he was scribbling them out like mad (as serial installments) as commercial entities to pay the bills and fill pages in his publications.

    Shakespeare wrote great art, _knew_ he was writing great art, but he also knew he needed it to be commercially successful or he didn’t eat and knew he needed to be politically pleasing or he’d wind up in the Tower. Good Queen Bess (and later James) was a past-master of creating socializing identity/cultural anxiety in playwrights. I rather suspect that anxiety helped, rather than hindered Will’s art and without it there would have been less Shakespearian cannon and, in the case of a visit to the Tower and its headsman, rather less of Shakespeare himself.

    You asked:

    “What happens when a work of art can be both an aesthetic object and a commercial good AND ALSO questioning and faithful, literary and genre, high and low and middlebrow, etc.?”

    You get Lord of the Rings.

    Are there any great Menand truths we can glean from LOTR? Any great mysteries solved? Any answers we can dissect and replicate? I’m not seeing any, at least not in a Menand context.

    Tolkien certainly wasn’t writing to a category genre (the Fantasy genre was later created around _him_). He was writing a highbrow aesthetic work that’s since become a low-/middlebrow commercial blockbuster. I rather doubt he every saw himself as a cog in the knowledge machine.

    I think Menand is inviting more cog-spinning, rather than less. My two cents.

    — Lee

  5. Lee, I see it as a commercial thing. What was commercial with Dickens and Shakespeare isn’t analogous with what’s commercial now.

    The dichotomy I see in Mormon v national/commercial is that that tension you speak of *doesn’t* in fact, exist.

    You don’t have much national/commercial fiction where the Mormon element is explicit, and you don’t have much Mormon fiction that has a broader national/commercial appeal. Everybody’s working in a niche of identity, not working in the center of a Venn diagram.

    I think the point Wm via Menand is trying to get at is the willingness to write in the intersection of all these identities. And maybe people *are* willing to do that, but they look at the COMMERCIAL landscape and decide there is no good ROI on that course.

    @Wm

    Yes, but if you have the right mentality then it’s jujitsu — the bad energy just flows around and past you and perhaps at times is redirected back in an effective manner.

    Yes. But the first step is actually putting on the hamaka and stepping onto the mat. You have to be willing to do *that* first.

  6. Tolkien certainly wasn’t writing to a category genre (the Fantasy genre was later created around _him_). He was writing a highbrow aesthetic work that’s since become a low-/middlebrow commercial blockbuster. I rather doubt he every saw himself as a cog in the knowledge machine.

    No, but the “write the book of your heart” is lipservice. I would argue that Tolkien got lucky, no more no less.

  7. Great points. I don’t know literature, but I do know art. Luckily for the World, I think the group that proved that commercial works could be art was the Beatles.

    And I think in this respect, the Beatles deserve every bit of credit they got. Before the Beatles, musicians went into the studio in order to reproduce a live show. Bands would crowd into a little tiny room with drums and record a song 50 times till they all got it right together. The Beatles were really the first band to say, “We’re going to record an album the way we want to, with crazy backwards loops and overdubs, and we don’t ever, ever intend to try to recreate these songs in a live setting.” So albums became works of art, every little sound crafted intentionally to produce an effect. They brought in Indian musicians, horns, harpsichords, everything.

    I don’t think the Mormon music world has seen The Beatles yet. We’re in a strange microcosm of the music world that never made it past the ’60s. Which is quite strange, but understandable. I am fully convinced that it’s possible to create Mormon music that seamlessly intertwines all sides of your dichotomies above but it requires a Mormon Beatles.

    Now, I could name a few candidates… Low, for instance. But Low is a purely art-rock band and never had too much commercial success. We’re still waiting, basically.

  8. It’s funny you should mention Low, Syphax. I’m at the very minute on my lunch break watching the documentary Low in Europe. Alan has just talked about the Big Questions that he thinks everybody has. They are, of course “Where did we come from? Where are we going? And why are we here?” And I love that he added a fourth “Is it worth it?”

    And obliquely that’s what I’m trying to approach with this excerpt from Menand and a bunch of other posts on this site — Is it worth it? Or more importantly: What is worth it?

  9. “I would argue that Tolkien got lucky.”

    I would argue that, too. In fact, I thought I was! πŸ™‚

  10. Lee:

    1-5 = pretty much

    6 = maybe, I don’t really know

    7 = Don’t know that either

    8 = No, I don’t think that reproducing the self-conscious art (the meta-fictions and pop art and performance art) is going to help much.

    9 = Exactly. But to your later comments — I too think that the tensions are important. In fact, part of how I define the radical middle is by those tensions. It just seems to me that there is a difference between tension and anxiety and part of moving the anxiety in to a place where the tensions are more productive is to be more aware of how the boundaries that set up some of our anxieties operate and may not really be where and how we think they are. Not that awareness is always the answer because awareness is also what leads to self-consciousness.

    Let me just give one personal example:

    When I first entered the world of Mormon letters, one of my desires was to write some amazing piece of post-structuralist meta-fiction as a way to prove my chops but also to tweak all the earnest fiction I was seeing — laying behind that, though, was also a certain insecurity and anxiety about my own capabilities as a writer as well as the fear of being seen as anything less than literary. What better way to assert the literary than to be uber-literary? As things progressed, I decided that that project was foolish and should be abandoned and I also had doubts about how it would be received and if I could do it or not.

    Now I’m at a place where I could see myself writing it (although I have at least 7 other works that are priorities for the next 5 years [I’m slow]), but the hope is that there would be much more love, craftsmanship, wisdom and humor involved.

  11. “rather suspect that anxiety helped, rather than hindered Will’s art and without it there would have been less Shakespearian cannon and, in the case of a visit to the Tower and its headsman, rather less of Shakespeare himself.”

    Absolutely. But how much of the anxiety is helpful and how much is crippling? And how often does it lead us to duck the challenge and reproduce comfortable patterns of artistic production and consumption?

    To get back to Low again: Alan talks about how starting out, the band’s slowcore approach was out of defiance. It was to make people mad because he was seeing them embrace punk (which he had fallen in love with as a kid) but not really get the audience baiting avant garde stance behind the form. So what could Low do that was punk? That baited the audience in the same way punk originally did? Play really slow and quiet and use these beautiful harmonies. The irony, of course, is that the approach then leads the band in to providing an experience that, once the fans shake out, is in many ways much more compatible with the Sparhawk’s Mormonism or at least has more apparent crossover in to Mormon forms of worship and music.

    Yes, it’s a cliche to cite Low in this context. But it’s fresh in my mind (see above).

  12. I’m a bit confused by your reply on this one, William:

    “8 = No, I don’t think that reproducing the self-conscious art (the meta-fictions and pop art and performance art) is going to help much.”

    My summary point #8

    “We need to create such art with those listed anxieties/dichotomies, then see how things shake out.”

    came from your

    “and as always, the trick is to dig in to (or create) actual works and see how they are operating in relation to those attributes”

    (“[T]hose attributes” being the “both an aesthetic object and a commercial good AND ALSO questioning and faithful, literary and genre, high and low and middlebrow, etc.” dichotomies listed by your immediately previous sentence.)

    I’m not quite understanding the insertion of meta-fiction/pop-art in your reply. We may be mis-reading each other. (Likely on my part, as tired as I am today.)

    — Lee

    Postscript:

    Tengentally, the Shakespeare cannon has quite a bit of meta-fiction running through it — the Mousetrap in Hamlet, much of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, numerous asides to the fourth-wall of the audience by the Fool in KING LEAR, etc. Meta-fiction has its uses in high art, too, I believe.

    Closer to our time, one of John Gardner’s better and artistically more satisfying books (some say his best ) is OCTOBER LIGHT featuring a meta-fictional novel-within-a-novel.

    Parenthetically, I don’t seem to recall John Gardner’s last book (published posthumously), MICKELSSON’S GHOSTS discussed much in Mormon lit circles. Mormonism, Joseph Smith, and the early New York days of the Church play quite a role in the book, satisfying somewhat, I think, Moriah’s lament that “You don’t have much national/commercial fiction where the Mormon element is explicit.”

    Then, again, the book is out of print. πŸ™‚

  13. Moriah,

    “Lee, I need to read your post again. Clearly I have reading comprehension problems. πŸ˜€ ”

    No, you’re fine. I have “I forgot I deleted the paragraph from the first draft of my response so it’s not there for you to read” problems instead. DOh!

    — Lee

  14. I haven’t read the Gardner novel and have never heard it mentioned. Why is that I wonder? I have read “On Moral Fiction,” of course. Thanks for bringing it up.

    —-

    To get back to point #8: I thought that by saying “we need to create art with those listed anxieties” you meant that you thought I was saying that Mormon artists need to create art that self-consciously addresses the tensions. That’s what many writers and artists did when all the tensions and dichotomies and self-reflexiveness about art and commerce arose in the 1960s and ’70s.

    I don’t think that at all (although I leave room for some experimentation — I’m too steeped in post-modern lit theory to not do so). In fact, one of the hopeful trends I see in Mormon narrative art is post-September-6 (or whatever terminology you want to use) writers who are aware of the tensions and difficulties in Mormonism, but have worked/are working through them and don’t make them quite such a preoccupation.

    Part of the problem with the two sentences you quote above is that I’m speaking (as I often do) as both a writer and a critic. So the dig in = what artists should do (and hopefully they can do so from a position of productive tension rather than of anxiety) and the see how = what the critics should do with the works that are created.

    As an example: _No Going Back_ took me by surprise because it was not what I had expected. I’m not sure how he did it, but I was impressed by how Langford was able to take all the tensions inherent in the issue of SSA and the LDS Church and make a bunch of decisions that maximized the ability of the novel to be read. It hasn’t caught on like it should have. But the elements are there.

    I would have preferred a more literary, more layered, more ambitious approach*. After reading _No Going Back_ and thinking about it quite a bit, I realized that there are some real strengths to Jonathan’s approach, and I began to arrange some of them in relation to the novel (and ended up providing a blurb that tried to describe what I was seeing).

    *Part of that, no doubt, was because of _Angels in America_.

  15. Mormonism, Joseph Smith, and the early New York days of the Church play quite a role in the book, satisfying somewhat, I think, Moriah’s lament that “You don’t have much national/commercial fiction where the Mormon element is explicit.”

    Then, again, the book is out of print. πŸ™‚

    Well, see, this is what I’m trying to do with my books, and I’m gaining a following, little by little, building the 1,000 true fans.

    I believe that if we step out of our cultural fear of ridicule and write as *humans* with X belief system, Y culture, and Z jargon, that we struggle like everyone else, that having this cockeyed faith doesn’t make us The Other–

    –that everything will be just fine. And maybe, just maybe, there’s a place in the national marketplace, the commercial (genre), for explicit Mormonism.

    I set out to write a romance, first and foremost, but didn’t quite achieve that goal. “Soap opera” or “women’s fiction” or “mainstream” or (said affectionately) “potboiler” is more what I ended up writing. But while I was writing the religion, I went ahead and threw in the politics and money because…well, why not? I was already treading on thin ice so why not go for the trifecta?

    I dunno. I wrote what I wanted and hoped to get lucky. I’m still hoping. But people (ones I don’t know! ones who aren’t LDS!) have liked it enough to offer me help.

    I believe, rightly or wrongly, that I’m doing something that hasn’t been done before. It would be awesome of other LDS lit types who are struggling with identity bailed out of the overcrowded niche and explored they way I *think* they really want to.

    All that said, if they do decide to, they are also going to have to decide whether to let their work languish in a slush pile–or go forth to the nearest internet street corner and perform.

  16. William, thanks! Much clearer now!

    Now how’s about you bringing me up-to-speed on the phrase “post-September-6”? πŸ™‚

    I’ve not heard the terminology or, I guess, the concept you used the term as shorthand for. (I’m still playing catch up from being gone from Mormon lit for so long.)

  17. #10. The Alan Parsons Project was one of many, many semi-progressive and progressive bands that were directly influenced by what The Beatles did (like Genesis, King Crimson, Yes, ELP, Pink Floyd, The Moody Blues, sometimes Led Zeppelin, Gentle Giant, Camel, etc.). But they weren’t around till the mid ’70s, maybe 10 years after The Beatles’ greatest work.

  18. Interesting. I just read that Alan Parsons was an assistant engineer during the Abbey Road and Let it Be sessions. He sat at the feet of the masters!

  19. .

    Wow! So much discussion for a Friday. This might be unprecedented.

    But, to cite Card, the enemy gate is down.

    What I mean is that these dichotomies are not a line or a Venn diagram or a simply matrix. We’ve got dozen of dimensions here and we’re situated differently in each dimension. Trying to control for each and every variable is absurd. Failing to control any results in a mess. Controlling for some to maximize, for instance, “commercial viability” or “great art”, can be done — probably should be done.

    I agree with the general sentiment that these are false questions, but these false questions have real-world fallout.

    ————

    And Moriah, come on. Even if you don’t like the Beatles, you know your history well enough to know they matter. I think Chaucer’s a hack, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t make a difference in English literature.

  20. Even if you don’t like the Beatles, you know your history well enough to know they matter.

    No, I really don’t (know my history, I mean). I have no idea who influenced who and/or what’s considered art and what isn’t and why. I know what I *like*, my taste is eclectic to say the least and my collection is massive, but who fits where and why? No idea.

  21. Irp. That doesn’t mean I’m not willing to reconsider.

    I was 15 when I read Gone With the Wind. Scarlett scandalized me. I judged her with the surety of black’n’white Young Women’s morality.

    Now…probably not so much. Or at all. (When you meet Cassie, you’ll see what I mean.) I’d commit to re-reading GWtW, except I probably won’t get around to it until I’m 80, at which point I’ll probably wonder why the girl was such a weenie.

  22. Wikipedia “September Six” entry — it sort of crystallizes the Mormon version of the late ’80s/early ’90s culture wars. I’d like to come up with a different term or way of saying what I was trying to say, but I haven’t come up with anything yet. Post-New Mormon History? That only tells part of the story. Post-post-modern LDS? Not quite. Yeah, I don’t know.

  23. The problem with anxiety (unless it’s deadline panic–which can be a remarkably effective prod) is that it chokes off creativity or leads us to over-analyzing what we create in the heat of creation and destroys the tissue of artistry.

    Tension is a completely different thing. Tension is the lifeblood of fiction–the building blocks of drama. The tension between Mormon culture and belief as it intersects with mainstream culture and non-belief is what made the publication of my explicitly LDS young adult novel palatable for the national market. If I tried to over think or literarily define exactly what I was doing, I would have never made it past the second chapter. To go back to the bard, the story is the thing. We need to get over ourselves and write it.

  24. Coming to the party late…

    The quote from Menand that caught my eye was, “Is my relation to the living culture that of a creator or that of a packager?” That seems like an unbelievably pretentious dichotomy. Both options seem like elitist distancing of a sort that I doubt is really helpful to creating good art.

    I’ve heard art described as an act of aggression against the audience. Based on William’s comments about Low, it seems like that was at least part of their motivation for making their music. (I know nothing about them or their music, so I speak in the perfection of ignorance.) On a theoretical level, though, I have problems with that. “I’m gonna make my readers/listeners/viewers mad” seems so innately juvenile. I also think it’s an attitude that’s done little good and plenty of harm in Mormon letters and culture. Is this not the kind of pride that creates of artists a separate class? I can’t see that this kind of class-ism is any less dangerous than the wealth-based classism that you find in the Book of Mormon. But maybe I’m missing the point that was being made.

    I also don’t get the references to Tolkien. Sure, he was lucky. He was also very, very good. And LOTR would never have been written or published if he or his publisher had been greatly concerned with commercial success. (Publisher Junior to Publisher Senior: “It’s a work of genius, but it will lose us a thousand pounds.” Publisher senior: “You’re allowed to lose a thousand pounds on a work of genius.” But they still didn’t pay Tolkien any advance.) So in following his muse, is Tolkien supposed to be the example we imitate, or the example we shun?

    Theric wrote, “I think Chaucer’s a hack.” But that’s precisely what Chaucer wasn’t, if you take the accepted definition of someone who writes garbage solely for money. Chaucer’s writing may or may not be garbage (that’s a matter for esthetics and literary criticism), but no one was paying him for his writing. He was a diplomat and customs agent. Last I checked, literary historians had even cast doubt on whether his literary composition served him at all in the form of patronage for his political career.

    Personally, I find it pleasingly appropriate that two of the giants at the wellspring of English literature include an amateur elitist (Chaucer) and a cutthroat professional populist (Shakespeare). It nicely embodies (I think) at least one of those creative tensions William is always going on about, that I like in theory but so often prove that I didn’t understand when it comes time to comment on them…

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