Image by G. Tod Slone.
Originally published in The American Dissident.
I suppose it would not be too controversial to state in these pages the following. That one of the only ways to attain commercial viability as a poet is to effectively sell out. But to what? In an abstract way I would like to suggest it is to a hierarchy of value which implicitly abhors any criticism that is directed at it from the bottom up.
I will call this the elite standard, and I will assert that the form critique generally takes in our society is all about upholding this elite standard. That—in the same way a news program reveals bias through what it does or doesn’t choose to focus on—it implicitly forecloses on other potential aesthetics; and why this is bad is because it postures to be objectively the only viable form of aesthetics, and ideologically presents itself as if there was no other alternative.
I will go ahead and grant that elite aesthetics tends to be a measure of excellence. I will also claim that to excellence we might oppose vitality. This concept of vitality is coming out of the ideal that many inclined to the spirit of radical democracy hold; that the role of the writer, critic, artist, journalist, etc., in a democratic society, should be one that is adversarial to power. The elite standard that prioritizes excellence in aesthetics, is also a part of a chain of value linked to related qualities like status or prestige. But the elite standard is also the force which determines popular or commercial culture. Here is the contradiction; where one might assume that the vital in culture would be related to current force, what is popular, a measure of the democratic; it is really, in point of fact, the imposition of an elite standard on a popular culture. Through a specific apparatus of control, that is in my view chiefly economic, it is at the root of the question when we ask, ‘what does it mean to sell out? To what?’
The term sell out clearly carries with it the connotation of a person who must in some sense put youthful ideals behind to embrace adult material ones, and it may be our modern archetype for the struggle between capitalist and anti-capitalist forces in the domain of culture. I’ll try to refine my usage of it here, sell out, by pointing at the uniquely capitalist modern predicament we face; where the hierarchies which determine the shape of our society are ones in which wealth and power have become equivalents. In a way, to criticize power, is to criticize money, which in the case of most endeavors, means to risk the source of funding, or employment. This has an implicit and explicit effect on everything we do. It cannot be denied that it represents the primary form of domination in our society, to where taking the position of anti-sell is synonymous with the imperative to resist.
What is being resisted, I claim in the abstract, is a hierarchy of value which implicitly abhors any criticism that is directed at it from the bottom up. And; a social order through which we are conditioned to understand that an aesthetics which deviates from the elite standard is not commercially viable. The irony is that, what is commercially viable gets put forward as if it were a measure of democracy. If not democracy exactly, then surely a measure of what is worthy, of quality. This assumption is tied explicitly to our concept of the market, and to the idea that competition invariably produces quality; or that it is a fair measure of assessing or determining quality. What I would rather argue is two things. First, that the paradigm of quality as determined by judgment, as in competition; where works of art are placed in competition with one another, critiqued by a panel of qualified judges; is only one paradigm for determining aesthetics that we have difficulty seeing outside of. And second, that this paradigm represents a power imbalance. One where it is taken as a given that judges will critique the value of the demos but the idea that the demos would become critical of the arbiters of what shall and shall not pass, becomes an inviolable taboo. Furthermore that the paradigm is grounded in a deeper power imbalance at the core of our society, and that, contrary to popular opinion, this paradigm stifles creativity, stifles that vigor we associate with freedom of expression, and, most crucially for our present purposes stifles dissidence, or the tendency of art and writing to be in a unique position to criticize unjust power structures; to take positions which are adversarial to entrenched power.
The problem of elite aesthetics and judgment as a paradigm for quality, is part and parcel of a deeper problem. This is that we are fully dominated by a disempowering consumer culture determined through the elite standard. In the same way the elite standard forecloses on the idea that we might rebel against it or step outside its paradigm; a thought ruled absurd because it would effectively destroy our ability to win the game—often directly a correlate of economic survival—consumer culture, which is supposed to be a representation of the collective will and the fruits of capitalism, is really a deceptive reverse of the same coin of being economically dominated. This is what I mean by a trap; or a way of thinking we find difficulty in seeing beyond. It is also why one form of art or mass media reigns supreme; that of escapism. For; if in the past art served as an existential catharsis, these days it is more an opium balm for chronic surrendering to powerlessness; a lack of democratic control. To consolidate the idea, the elite standard has a double, contradictory quality in the creative industries. As the force which both determines the consumer culture and makes a claim as to the objectivity of its quality or worthiness, it takes a posture which is a paradox. It claims to be both a representation of the popular will and an objectively meritocratic determination of excellence—perhaps identically to the way that representative politics does. Thus what is identical to these structures is that they are paternalistic, and not participatory.
A participatory aesthetics would value a form of critique that challenges power, or that comes from the bottom up. We might imagine that a participatory aesthetics—and I’m using participatory to mean directly democratic—that it would need premised on challenging the financial incentives which bring about the production and reproduction of static; excellence-producing, but also conformity-reinforcing, hierarchies. What needs investigated about the elite standard isn’t how it produces excellence but why it produces conformity. Related is whether we believe the conformity has a negative effect on its aesthetics and thus renders its claim, even its monopolization on excellence, as suspect. But we might ask; to what extent is it the excellence, and not the conformity, that is really being maximized here? In the domain of the commercially viable, is where I would like to suggest it self-evidently skews towards conformity. This is generally attributed in an elitist way to the uncultured tastes of the masses. But it is the elite standard which gatekeeps the production of this taste. What I will attempt to conclude on is why I think this is happening.
It is perhaps because the elite standard is dependent upon leaning on the masses as consumers. A flattened power dynamic in aesthetics, or a participatory aesthetics would make a structure in which elites are content with dictating the masses’ tastes to them no longer commercially viable. While this may lead to an “anarchy” of potential excellences, I see this as a good thing. It is not entirely clear to me why one would need to uphold a single standard for excellence were it not for these other social and political factors which makes an intellectually corrupt rationalization of one particular brand of aesthetics as objectively best, a necessary project.
Why do we value what we value in art? Do we value the ability of an artist or writer to speak truth to power? Do we find that such a mechanism is crucial for a functioning democracy? If so then a structure which is a hierarchy of value that implicitly abhors any criticism directed at it from the bottom up should concern us.
If we find this structure objectively correct, I do wonder if we have been indoctrinated to believe that. However if we can agree on the coherence of a term like sell out; one that seems to express a specific cultural and historical truth in the experience of needing to conform to an imposed standard in order to survive; and also one that is as though the death of a certain vigor within us that we implicitly identify as valuable; this should get us started thinking about one of the biggest problems of our time, that money and power have become fused. The problem this creates has everything to do with realizing universal human values like freedom and equality, and if we do not value these important ideals, then we certainly do not value truth and democracy.