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.  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.