Sunday, March 29, 2009

Fie Again

With all of last Thursday’s furor about whether or not “grad student” is a professionally dismissive term, and whether one literary camp gets to beat up the another camp (about which I will only say that taxonomy tends to serve the critic rather than the text under consideration), perhaps it is instructive to think about accountability. Neal Stephenson has a nimble breakdown of same in this Slashdot interview (scroll down to the second question), where he makes a few salient points:

The great artists of the Italian Renaissance were accountable to wealthy entities who became their patrons or gave them commissions. In many cases there was no other way to arrange it. There is only one Sistine Chapel. Not just anyone could walk in and start daubing paint on the ceiling. Someone had to be the gatekeeper---to hire an artist and give him a set of more or less restrictive limits within which he was allowed to be creative. So the artist was, in the end, accountable to the Church. The Church's goal was to build a magnificent structure that would stand there forever and provide inspiration to the Christians who walked into it, and they had to make sure that Michelangelo would carry out his work accordingly.

Similar arrangements were made by writers. After Dante was banished from Florence he found a patron in the Prince of Verona, for example. And if you look at many old books of the Baroque period you find the opening pages filled with florid expressions of gratitude from the authors to their patrons. It's the same as in a modern book when it says "this work was supported by a grant from the XYZ Foundation."

Nowadays we have different ways of supporting artists. Some painters, for example, make a living selling their work to wealthy collectors. In other cases, musicians or artists will find appointments at universities or other cultural institutions. But in both such cases there is a kind of accountability at work.

A wealthy art collector who pays a lot of money for a painting does not like to see his money evaporate. He wants to feel some confidence that if he or an heir decides to sell the painting later, they'll be able to get an amount of money that is at least in the same ballpark. But that price is going to be set by the market---it depends on the perceived value of the painting in the art world. And that in turn is a function of how the artist is esteemed by critics and by other collectors. So art criticism does two things at once: it's culture, but it's also economics.

There is also a kind of accountability in the case of, say, a composer who has a faculty job at a university. The trustees of the university have got a fiduciary responsibility not to throw away money. It's not the same as hiring a laborer in factory, whose output can be easily reduced to dollars and cents. Rather, the trustees have to justify the composer's salary by pointing to intangibles. And one of those intangibles is the degree of respect accorded that composer by critics, musicians, and other experts in the field: how often his works are performed by symphony orchestras, for example.

Later on, he says lots of great stuff, including a comment that Beowulf was “created at the behest of lots and lots of intoxicated Frisians sitting around the fire wanting to hear a yarn.”

[Side note: Wikipedia says Frisians are among the blondest people in the world. Notable Frisians: Mata Hari, Lenny Dykstra, and Jane Fonda.]

Stephenson also recounts an illustrative little anecdote where he realizes that the reason why someone at a literary festival had not heard of him was because he was famous. (“Famous” is clearly the wrong word to apply to most literary writers. William Gibson’s “magnificently obscure” [originally used to describe a desirous anonymity on the internet] seems more appropriate.) He uses this as a jumping-off point for a split between Dante writers (literary writers attached to institutions) and Beowulf writers (writers who earn a living solely by sales of their books, usually novels), and the critical firewall that has sprung up between them for the reasons described above.

This split was very quickly articulated for me in my very first undergrad lit class, where someone started off the first session by making fun of Frank Herbert’s Dune. To which I say “Fie upon them.” Full stop.

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