For a very brief while, I was a political speechwriter. At the beginning of every political speech is a brief panegyric known in the trade as "the suck-up." Ours is an odd format, with one of us (er, me) addressing a set of public letters to a writer (er, you) about his newly published book, The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa, and if nothing else it requires a suck-up. You've made my job blessedly unawkward, though, by writing a terrific book—really and truly, a thoughtful, unpretentious, funny, pop (in the best sense of the word) monograph (in the best sense, etc.) about the delightfully vexatious relationship between art and life. I have to admit, I cringed a little at the subtitle (the title I unreservedly like) as it reminded me of all the grim and condescending middlebrow vade mecums recently published, touting the Oprah-esque therapies available in the Great Works. But this book is both so immediately companionable and so nuanced that my fears were quickly banished, and what followed was a pleasure from beginning to end.
Am I right in thinking that the subtext for the book is an open question of your own about how to assume the proper attitude toward art as a critic? Those dangers being: humorlessness, pedantry, in-group preciousness? When someone like me looks at art, he also sees implied behind the canvas or installation a complex economy of competing egos and interests, and sometimes decides to check out of the whole affair. To put it bluntly, as the chief critic for the New York Times, aren't these your Scylla and Charybdis: a philistine majority culture that "knows what it likes"—i.e., Thomas Kinkade—and a hyper-refined minority culture, made up of absurdly fastidious palates? How do you find room to turn people on to the Good, when you have provincial distrust on one hand, and cosmopolitan ego-jockeying on the other? Was this book an answer to that dilemma at all? As I read it, in The Accidental Masterpiece you were saying our own lives, as we actually live them, help arbitrate our tastes and keep them from becoming either too vulgar or too precious. And to conclude: I liked hearing the voice of my own distrust, especially directed at someone as gigantic in egoistical proportion as Donald Judd, echoed by none other than Clement Greenberg, who claimed Judd trafficked in little more than "aimless surprise." Isn't that an apt description of everything bad about the art world these days?
I like this political speechwriting format that you've clearly perfected. I could really get used to the suck-up.
I suppose (forgive me for this bit of pedantry) the problem is a spillover from Marcel Duchamp's urinal. It was a short step from his urinal to the bottle of Paris air that Duchamp called a sculpture, after which Yves Klein invited Parisians to the opening of an exhibition at which there was nothing to see. If there was no difference between Duchamp's urinal and an ordinary urinal (plumbing aside) and an art show could consist of nothing, then art no longer necessarily resided in the thing itself but in those who interpreted the thing. Meaning it resided in what you aptly call the in-group. This by definition created an out-group, a majority, whose alienation greases the exclusionary system. The art market depends on this—the spectacle of rich people paying obscene amounts for somebody else's underpants or similar objects of dubious art providing compensatory dollops of black comedy.
Even so, I've found that good art is, by its nature, generous. It's about opening our eyes—about encouraging people to look more closely at what's around them (this was Klein's point). Art is too important and interesting to be left to the art world. This is why I am frequently attracted, as you are, to serious obsessives, often of a more private temperament, who, if not always divorced from cheap fame and passing fads, are at least legally separated from them. They throw themselves into their work, for its own sake, and are willing to fail.
Or, in another vein (why doesn't Mark Greif get himself a blog?), consider this Agambenian thought from Ken Rufo:
Blogging is at this point a somewhat battered and banal example of what many see as a more pernicious confession and collection of information that removes from the individual the power to resist authoritarian impulses (be they governmental or corporate), which at least theoretically rely upon information control and knowledge over and interpellation of their targetted subjects. And the many who see this aren't wrong, necessarily. But it occurs to me that the concern might well be alleviated if we followed Lanier's suggestion or parallel loss: that nullifying some of the force of any "right to privacy" means also nullifying that force for all sorts of actors that claim a privilege via it, from the individual citizen to the corporation to the government. If we had as much information and (and this is a hugely crucial componenet) information-processing as did these larger and more complex organizations, it may be that privacy would turn out to no longer be a necessary check on the authoritarian principle...The Internet, complete with Web 2.0, is not going to get any more private any time soon, but it may force us to rethink community, and to rethink the "essence" of belonging, in such a way that we may code a digital scene in which the secret is freed from the presupposition of community. Perhaps a religious intonation isn't really necessary if, with the distrubuted agency of smart mobs and creative commons communities, the data sphere (and the law) become properly public, which is to say, open.
One wonders if there isn't something of a third way between these two arguments (Mark's and Ken's) about privacy, or if they really aren't agreeing despite appearances. Cultivating an inner self, somewhat in the manner of Bob Dylan, is perhaps not about constructing a vain fortress of solitude against a hostile (much less disguisedly authoritarian) enemy (that is the myth, enforced by such stories as him walking down the opposite side of the street from his family), so much as about the relentless carving of an impossible solitude out of the myth, or negotiating the myth with all the seriousness that a ruthless solitude – to make as if such a thing were possible – would have demanded. Maybe it is this sense of privacy, apart from its juridical or legal meaning, neither technophoric nor -phobic that is not incompatible with Abamben's vision of The Coming Community.
Which is to suggest another form of solitude, maybe one that (yes) hasn't even arrived yet, and somewhat contra Zizek:
So, when we are bombarded by claims that in our post-ideological cynical era nobody believes in the proclaimed ideals, when we encounter a person who claims he is cured of any beliefs, accepting social reality the way it really is, one should always counter such claims with the question: OK, but where is the fetish which enables you to (pretend to) accept reality "the way it is"? "Western Buddhism" is such a fetish: it enables you to fully participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game, while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it, that you are well aware how worthless this spectacle is - what really matters to you is the peace of the inner Self to which you know you can always withdraw.