On Boredom and the Arts

I believe that artistic production, including literary production, is a spontaneous order. That means artistic production is an epistemic ecosystem–it creates knowledge. Artists all attempt to solve artistic/aesthetic problems within the artistic ecosystem and create artistic knowledge as a consequence. The one objection–which isn’t a small objection–is what regulates this process?

In the system of trade–properly called the catallaxy, but more commonly mis-labeled the economy (which is a complex system that includes the spontaneous orders of money and technological innovation)–it is profit and loss that (primarily) regulates the order. It is reputation which regulates the scientific order. In technology, it’s simply “does it work?” But what may it be in the arts?

I want to suggest that it’s a combination of boredom and interest. “Boredom” is one of the self-correcting aspects of the artistic order. Enough people get bored, and nobody listens/reads/views the work any more. A work that continues to stimulate people to producing more work–that maintains “interest”–continues to be heard/read/viewed.

Of course, this regulatory process is a slower one than you find happening in the catallaxy, technology, or even the sciences. But speed is no objection. Scientific ideas can lie untapped for decades or longer. Reputations of long-dead scientists can rise and fall. The fact that a poet may have little influence on several generations of poets, then be re-discovered and influence later poets doesn’t mean the process isn’t a spontaneous order.

In fact, we would expect a power law of influence/boredom if it is a spontaneous order. We would expect a few poets to have longevity, or even to be rediscovered long after they were seemingly forgotten, while we would expect the overwhelming majority of poets to be mostly unread in the lifetimes of the poets and for pretty much the entirety of the time anyone anywhere will read poetry. And there will be a medium number of poets with a moderate amount of influence. It’s entirely possible for a poet to have immediate influence and no long-term influence, except through the influence they had on the more important poets they influenced.

The fact is that most art produced by most artists is boring. Most works are uninteresting, uninspired, and uninspiring. They don’t help us see things in a new way or remind of of aspects of being we have forgotten and keep forgetting (Kundera). Or, they may help us see something in a new way that then becomes so widely adopted and “obvious” that the work becomes cliched after the fact and people lose interest. I would think, as an artist, there would have to be fewer worse fates than that–to show the world something that’s so obvious once you’ve shown it to them that its truth is from that point obvious and your work becomes kitsch.

Regardless, such is the rise and fall of artistic influence, of the discovery and promulgation of artistic problems and solutions. No matter what the reason, the worst sin you can commit as an artist is to be boring. Whether or not your work remains boring, though, only time will tell. The same is true of interest–if you create it, you’re golden, while if you lose it, you’re lost. And how do you create interest? By solving artistic problems–and in solving them, creating new ones.

The Cult of Self-Expression

Perhaps nothing has been less fruitful, less artistic, less interesting than the cult of self-expression in the arts. The arts are not and have never been about self-expression. Unfortunately, most people believe that art is almost exclusively about self-expression. But to the extent that an artist or writer believes this, that person is not engaged in an aesthetic enterprise. Their work is anti-artistic, and the degree to which they are engaging in self-expression actually undermines the work as a work of art.

What does it mean to “engage in self-expression”? I’ve seen its most extreme version in creative writing classes with students who would say things like, “I don’t read poetry because I don’t want to be influenced by anyone else in the way I write or what I write about.” The funny thing is that every single poem by every single person who ever said something like this all sounded exactly the same. Somehow, the “self” they were all trying to “express” was identical in nature.

Your pure, unadulterated “self” is pretty much identical to everyone else’s. In other words, you’re not all that interesting or even unique. To become interesting and unique, you have to have experiences with other people, which includes reading a great deal of poetry if you plan to be a poet. Your poetic voice will never emerge by avoiding poetry any more than your actual voice will ever emerge without hearing anyone speak. Your poetic voice can only ever emerge if you immerse yourself in poetry, read poetry obsessively, try to emulate your favorite poets, adopt forms and styles, write in meter and use rhyme, consonance, assonance, and other poetic elements.

The choices forced on you by meter and rhyme, for example, force you to make different choices than what you would have made “naturally.” More often, better and more interesting choices. The choices you would have made without the restrictions of meter and rhyme are your “self-expression,” and most of the time they aren’t as interesting as the forced choices. Now, to what degree can “forced choices” be “self-expression” if they have been imposed from the outside?

If you read about the great artists, you won’t find a lot about their self-expression. What you will find is a great deal about whatever artistic problems they were trying to solve. The Renaissance artists were interested in solving artistic problems around the emergent idea of point perspective. The Impressionists were trying to solve problems with capturing light in different ways. The cubists too were trying to solve artistic problems in trying to capture movement and in trying to render unseen portions as seen in a 2D painting.

Shakespeare wasn’t trying to express himself (thank God!) in his plays, or even in his series of sonnets (there was an artistic problem he was trying to solve in creating a coherent set of sonnets without a narrative holding them together). Shakespeare to varying degrees expressed his society, culture, etc. in his plays, transforming works by Roman playwrights into Elizabethan stories, and sometimes Shakespeare reinforced that world view, and sometimes he challenged that world view, but he always did so through the portrayal of his characters, who spoke with their own voices, who only expressed themselves rather than being avatars for Shakespeare.

Today’s movies are very popular in no small part because the massively collaborative nature of film making makes self-expression nearly impossible. We can always tell when a film has self-expression, because we tend not to like them for being so self-indulgent. And that’s what everyone says about your work when you engage in self-expression: they say that it’s self-indulgent. And self-indulgent work is egotistical and boring.

Of course, much poetry especially is egotistical and boring. Poetry is especially prone to this because there are few market forces working to keep poets honest. Nobody’s paying for poetry anyway, so why not drivel on about your boring self? If nobody is paying, nobody cares, right? But that’s not necessarily true. People are paying–in time. When you write a poem, you are supposed to be trying to communicate with that person. Have you ever had to sit with someone who droned on and on and on about themselves and nothing else? If your poetry reads like that, don’t be surprised if nobody wants to read it. Probably nobody wants to sit with you, either.

I’m certainly not saying I haven’t written poems about myself. I have. Most poets have. But hopefully I’m trying to communicate something to you that goes well beyond self-expression, and in fact has nothing whatsoever to do with self-expression. I’m trying to communicate my experiences in a way that they are universal and universalized in their particularity. My very best poems have been those where I have avoided self-expression entirely. If I have communicated to you beauty, that’s enough. If I have made you think, contemplate, meditate, or want to turn a line or two into a mantra or a koan, all the better. If I have helped you see something you’ve never seen before, or something you have seen before in a new way, I’ve done my job as an artist. But none of those things require self-expression. More, self-expression is the surest way to get in the way of accomplishing these things.

Matt Ridley has recently talked about “ideas having sex.” A true artist’s brain is the bed where these ideas are having sex. For a poet, all of the poems you have read, all of the ideas you have read, all of the facts filling your head are having sex and reproducing in the form of new poems. Your artwork will have the DNA of all the forms, ideas, and so on of everything you have read, experienced, and seen. Self-expression, on the other hand, involves only yourself–and its outcome is sterile and only of interest to the person involved in that self-expression. Art, like sex, is only interesting to others if more than yourself is involved.

The best thing that could happen to the arts would be for everyone to do away with the self-indulgent cult of self-expression. Go out and solve some artistic problems. That’s the one and only way to be any kind of artist at all.

Should Art Be About Beauty, or Identity?

Sohrab Ahmari has a piece in the Wall Street Journal Titled “Remember When Art Was Supposed to Be Beautiful?” that addresses the current situation in art–I would even go so far as to call it a crisis in art. Ahmari actually only hints at what is going on in contemporary art in the West when he first discusses the role the oppressive regime of Iran played in what was allowed to be portrayed in art and then discusses the high degree to which contemporary art only ever deals with identity politics.

Abmari is suggesting a connection between totalitarian thinking and the current avant-garde obsession with identity politics. Totalitarian regimes, especially theocracies, tend to demand the art being produced reflect the identity of that regime–and only that regime. The same is true of identity politics-driven avant-garde art in the West. The difference is that in the West the artists have voluntarily chosen within the artistic orders to accept a fundamentally totalitarian world view and impose it on themselves. Totday’s totalitarians are much more clever than the old-school totalitarians: they have managed to figure out how to get people to impose it on themselves.

Ahmari isn’t the only one to note this. I reviewed a book, After the Avant-Gardes, where this connection between totalitarian thinking and the avant-garde is also investigated. This mentality goes beyond my observation that the avant-garde is very much “normal art” now and isn’t remotely avant-garde–if the “avant-garde” is indeed supposed to be what is out ahead of everything else. It’s not, and it hasn’t been for a long time. Worse, the avant-garde is thoroughly institutionalized in our universities, and even receives the overwhelming amount of government art funds. If avant-garde art is in fact founded in a totalitarian mindset, we should not be surprised to find it supported by the government.

Art is supposed to be about beauty. It can even be a critique of current standards of beauty within the art world, but it is supposed to be about beauty. Beauty expands our worlds and our world views; identity politics restricts them and tribalizes us. The ugly identity politics of the left has now been matched with the uglier identity politics of the alt.right–and it seems a very unfortunate arms-race is in the works, with tribalist attitudes being met with even more tribalist attitudes. This is the inevitable result of identity politics of any sort.

Does art reflect the world or does the world reflect art? Inevitably, the answer to that question is, “yes.” There is a degree to which our art has been reflecting the world as viewed by the artists, but that art has in turn been affecting the way others view the world. Only the artists can fix things, but that will mean a complete wiping away of the current dominant paradigm in the arts. The solution is to return art to beauty, not to answer identity politics with more identity politics.