Sunday, January 17, 2016

When Artists And Public Intellectuals Sell Out

American neo-liberalism  has become a juggernaut, Chris Hedges writes, because it has successfully convinced citizens to forget their intellectual heritage:

America’s refusal to fund and sustain its intellectual and cultural heritage means it has lost touch with its past, obliterated its understanding of the present, crushed its capacity to transform itself through self-reflection and self-criticism, and descended into a deadening provincialism. Ignorance and illiteracy come with a cost. The obsequious worship of technology, hedonism and power comes with a cost. The primacy of emotion and spectacle over wisdom and rational thought comes with a cost. And we are paying the bill.

What we used to call "the arts" and a "liberal education" have been targeted as enemies of the people:

The decades-long assault on the arts, the humanities, journalism and civic literacy is largely complete. All the disciplines that once helped us interpret who we were as a people and our place in the world—history, theater, the study of foreign languages, music, journalism, philosophy, literature, religion and the arts—have been corrupted or relegated to the margins. We have surrendered judgment for prejudice. We have created a binary universe of good and evil. And our colossal capacity for violence is unleashed around the globe, as well as on city streets in poor communities, with no more discernment than that of the blinded giant Polyphemus. The marriage of ignorance and force always generates unfathomable evil, an evil that is unseen by perpetrators who mistake their own stupidity and blindness for innocence.

Artists and public intellectuals used to serve as our social consciences -- the people who championed social reform:

There was a time, a few decades ago, when the work and thought of intellectuals and artists mattered. Writers and social critics such as [C. Wright] Mills, Dwight Macdonald, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag, Mary McCarthy, Ralph Nader, Howard Zinn and Jane Jacobs wrote for and spoke to a broad audience. Authors William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Flannery O’Connor, Gore Vidal, Toni Morrison, Ken Kesey, Russell Banks and Norman Mailer, along with playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Lorraine Hansberry, Tennessee Williams, August Wilson, David Mamet, Ntozake Shange, Sam Shepard, Marsha Norman, Edward Albee and Tony Kushner, held up a mirror to the nation. And it was not a reflection many people wanted to see. Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick in film, Allen Ginsberg and Amiri Baraka in poetry, Bob Dylan, Curtis Mayfield, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith in music shook the social, cultural and political landscape.

These artists and intellectuals, who did not cater to the herd, were nationally known figures. They altered our perceptions. They were taken seriously. They sparked contentious debate, and the elites attempted, sometimes successfully, to censor their work. It is not that new independent, brilliant and creative minds are not out there; it is that nearly all of them—Tupac Shakur and Lupe Fiasco having been two exceptions—are locked out. And this has turned our artistic, cultural and intellectual terrain into a commercialized wasteland. I doubt that a young Bruce Springsteen or a young Patti Smith, or even a young Chomsky, all of whom exhibit the rare quality of never having sold out the marginalized, the working class and the poor, and who are not afraid of speaking truths about our nation that others will not utter, could today break into the corporatized music industry or the corporatized university. Sales, branding and marketing, even in academia, overpower content.  

Those who find a platform have sold out. Those who refuse to sell out have no voice. And the problem of how we dig ourselves out of the hole we find ourselves in has become immensely more difficult.


The Mound of Sound said...

It should be obvious, Owen, that beneath this lies a very powerful effort at conditioning the general population. It happens to a lesser extent here. It's another box checked.

Anonymous said...

That's how disconnected we have have become, Owen. The promotion of "it's our duty to consume" ideology has hollowed out any serious rational debate. Where has our voice of reason gone? The use of TV to dumb down, to set examples of "how" to live, "what" to wear - the "idiot box" that dictates to us on an primal emotional level. I think that when "the self" becomes so detached or fragmented from rational thought it will attach itself to the latest fad ideology. This is what capitalism has brought us. Marx had it right when he said that even morals, ethics and life itself would be commodified under capitalism. How many of us would get up on stage practically naked, prancing away, throwing our self pride out the window for "easy" money and then go about our day amongst our neighbours and friends as if nothing happened? Posting naked pictures of oneself on the internet to get a "following"? Look at the followerers of these "entertainers" - the ones ones who "aspire" to be just like them. We used to worship God, follow the teachings of the great thinkers and build for the betterment of all humanity - now we worship money, follow TV icons, think about me me me and want more more more. Most don't know or even care to know how "the value of a life" is calculated under Capitalism.

Curiosity (quest for the truth) and anger at the drivel and incessant ads on TV got me reading Owen - and when my little northern BC library didn't have the books that were linked (or suggested) to the conversations in the blogs, I bought them to read and then shared with family, friends. We joined "the conversation" in the background. We have not had "TV" in our home for 5 years now.


Owen Gray said...

Under unbridled capitalism, everything is for sale, Catherine -- because everything is monetized. We used to believe that there were somethings money couldn't buy.

Owen Gray said...

When we forget our intellectual heritage, Mound, we are only newer versions of Pavlov's dogs.

Toby said...

We humans still haven't come to terms with that "vast wasteland" (as Newton N. Minow called it when he was Chair of the US Federal Communications Commission) of television, particularly commercial television. TV pushes down to the basest of our instincts. The Internet (created to connect intellectuals around the world) has, since the creation of the World Wide Web, become even worse than TV.

It will probably take as long to adapt to these new technologies as it did with the printing press.

Marshall McLuhan was probably right, the transistor changes everything.

Lorne said...

I just finished reading Ann Walmsley's book, The Prison Book Club, Owen; if ever there was an argument for the importance of the humanities in general, and literature in particular, it is found there. The author found that reading good books provoked a degree of empathy in many of the prisoners, an empathy that likely will facilitate their reentry into society. Unfortunately, as your post illustrates, such matters seem of little importance today, drowned out by louder and crasser voices.

Owen Gray said...

Someone once told me, Lorne, that great literature contained all the arts and sciences. There is more to reading than perusing the latest review of quarterly earnings.

Owen Gray said...

McLuhan was right, Toby. The transistor did change everything. But it's we the people who choose to make the change better or worse.

ffd said...

Indeed a large percentage of the population is foolish, always has been, though not usually as eager to be foolish as in our era.

Erasmus wrote In Praise of Folly about five hundred years ago and it is still funny. Folly points out the many benefits and advantages she has given mankind. No one would ever marry or have children without her assistance, she tells us on page one.

Yes, it is jarring to realize how little most people have taken in of the great intellectual smorgasbord spread out before us in our era. It is jarring to meet someone to whom Michelangelo's David is just some naked kid who should put on some clothes, or people who don't know the Germans invaded France in WWII (about 40% of Americans) or have never heard of Napoleon. The mind boggles, though what really bothers me is the aggressiveness of the anti-intellectuals or stupidity snobs as I call them. They really have a hard time understanding that some people really do like to read.

Owen Gray said...

Unfortunately, too many people find watching dysfunctional people -- like the folks who walk onto Jerry Springer's stage -- more worthy of attention than the words in a book, ffd.