Sociology of Arts

For these reasons, many of our greatest books and essays on the recent revolutions in arts are written by men under forty, often thirty-five, and even under thirty. What Stanley Edgar Hyman did at twenty–nine in The Armed Vision towards defining the uncharted territory of the recent development of sophisticated criticism, Irving Howe did at thirty-two for William Faulkner (1952), Edmund Wilson did at thirty-six for the literature of the twenties in Axel's Castle (1931) and H. L. Mencken in his thirties did some fifteen years before him for an earlier new literature. Likewise, some twenty years ago, Alfred Kazin, then in his twenties, defined the recent phase of American prose literature in On Native Grounds (1942) and Randall Jarrell, recent American poetry in “The End of the Line” (1942); while Joseph Frank, also in his twenties, wrote in “Spatial Form in Modem Literature” (1944) one of the seminal essays on the modem sensibility. In the years following, each of these men did excellent work on pre-contemporary literature, for the coin of critical insight has its other side-the best books on classics and classical problems are written by men over forty.

The New American Arts (1965)

My presupposition is that the structural customs of a literary scene—the ways things happen—considerably determines the writer's career; it follows that the cast of his career influences his intellectual style and tone. The first question is how an English literary critic, in contrast to an American, initiates his trade? One eminent, politically radical English critic informed me that every successful literary journalist he knew had “come down” from either Oxford or Cambridge.

In America, in contrast, nearly every writer of note I know, whether of fiction or criticism, was discovered by mail—by approaching editors he had never met and with whom he probably had no mutual acquaintances, with an unsolicited manuscript he had prepared in advance. Even later in their careers, many, if not most, active American critics, unlike English, write for editors they have not met before (and may never meet at all); and they know personally only a few, if any, of the magazine's other contributors.

In practice, then, the young Englishman must personally know persons of authority—whom you know and who you are— while the American must have something to show for himself— what you know and what you've done. This contrast produces and parallels other differences. . . . Most important, whereas the English writer seems to believe that forces and circumstances outside his control shape his future, the American writer knows that man makes his own destiny, that his own limitations are his biggest enemy; and this is, to me, the decisive spiritual difference between En­glish and American culture.

Although [book] reviewing hardly resembles boxing, the sport offers the appropriate analogies. An American reviewer catches the book as he leans forward, swinging his weight behind a premeditated plan; the English reviewer, more over–worked, catches the book on the back of his heels and, dazed, directs his facility toward getting rid of it as soon as possible... Furthermore, since the American critic writes so much less than the British reviewer and since his editors are less inclined to use him regularly, he tries very hard to stand out from the page, assuming, sometimes almost desperately, that no one will ever notice him unless he distinguishes his work from the mass of prose. The Englishman knows he has an audience; the American feels the need to make one for himself.

The English reviewer seems to want to blend into the page, perhaps marginally differentiating himself, especially if he is young, by a slight sharpness of tone; even if he has some spe­cific thoughts to express, he is not obvious about his point, of­ten muffling his message beneath a patter of polite rhetoric and shy didacticism. John Bayley's remarks on V. S. Pritchett (“our best critic of fiction today”) epitomize these values: “He is also one of the rare critics who lets us continue the argument and draw conclusions for ourselves, instead of insisting every step of the way.” Whereas the serious American critic fears dullness and conspicuous soft-heartedness, the English review­er feels the worst sins are sloppiness of style, heavy-handedness of manner and opinions that might be considered evidence of rudeness or bad taste.

Although the existence of Established Opinion in England is apparent to everyone, it is difficult for an outside observer to discern its precise origins. Quite often, for instance, I asked who was the first to suggest that Angus Wilson was England's major contemporary novelist—an opinion accepted in most es­tablished circles (but not in America or on the continent)—and my respondents could offer either no explanation or a reply as evasive as, “No one. It just happened, because his novels are so good.” The reason for such mystery is that primary opinion in England is not usually exposed to the public; it is thrashed out at private parties that, unlike those in America, are really attended by the prime shapers of opinion. These prime movers are few in number, and many of the few double or triple in role among the following functions: university teacher, translator, BBC producer, publishers’ reader (if not director), literary adviser, reviewer, review editor, television and/or radio panelist, juror of prizes, Arts Council official; and the power of certain British writers is, by American standards, incredibly concentrated.

In America, primary highbrow opinion can be traced to public outlets, usually quarterlies; and as there are a multiplicity of quarterlies, one hierarchy of potentially primary opinion must compete with the others. Thus, it takes more time in America for primary opinion to enter the mainstream of a culture—usual­ly signaled by its unanimous acceptance in Time, Newsweek, The New York Times Book Review; and even then, it succeeds only in a distorted and compromised form. Much of the currently established literary opinion in America was, for instance, first posited in Partisan Review some twenty years ago; and certain writers who appeared extensively in Partisan at that time—Bellow, Mary McCarthy, Sartre—are now the reigning lu­minaries; similarly, Faulkner's reputation had essentially co­terie origins before it became general currency. What separates England from America in this respect is, once again, the American pluralism; no one group in America can ever control or even influence enough of the media to foist its enthusiasm upon a large public without the implicit consent of other hierarchies. In England, one is amazed to learn how many eminent native writers, methodically praised by their peers, are rarely read at home and never abroad. Had Kingsley Amis not written Lucky Jim, he would be in the same sad situation as John Wain.

All this resistance to sustained disagreement partially accounts for the general unanimity of English critical opinion across the entire spectrum that extends from the quality Sunday papers through the weeklies to the monthlies like Encounter and The London Magazine. Indicatively, it is not unusual, as it would be in America, to find many writers frequently contributing to all three types of journals, nor is it unusual to find a mediocre book by a respected writer receiving suspiciously faint praise in every public medium (only to be sometimes damned in private conversation).

In England I once happened to tell a literary editor that such-and-such was a very bad book and explained why. Some days later, I encountered him again; and he told me the book's publisher thought my arguments were pernicious and that I was a less-than-reputable person for hold­ing such opinions. The editor suggested that I explain myself in writing to the publisher, which out of deference to the edi­tor, I foolishly did. If the publisher investigated the sources and earlier American reviews I suggested he check, he offered no evidence of such care, replying only with some platitudi­nous defense of his author. The point is that no American liter­ary editor I know would accept a publisher's authority as great­er than that of an independent critic; indeed, if anything, Am­erican editors too easily side with the critics, regardless of their authority, against the publisher.

“The English Literary Scene” (1966)

The central merchandizing difference between visual art and literature is that the latter is wholesale while the former is retail. That is, an art dealer takes from an artist works that are largely unique (one-of-a-kind) and sells them directly to customers that he mostly knows. A book publisher, by contrast, takes a manuscript and produces it in an edition of several thousand copies that he sells not directly to the ultimate customers but to bookstore managers who think they are familiar with the tastes of their regular customers. Therefore, in visual art, unlike literature, the artist is often personally acquainted with his customers who indeed sometimes cultivate not only the artist's friendship but his advice on other purchases. To me this central economic difference explains why both dealers and artists feel obliged to be personally charming in ways that writers and book-publishers do not. For the latter pair there are middlemen to insulate them from ever having immediate contact with the ultimate customers. Indeed, the publisher hires minions to package not only the book but the author and the publishing house itself in their public relations, initially not to impress the customer, who has almost no chance of meeting a live author, but the intermediaries who review books and interview authors, which is to say the proprietors of the prominent channels of publicity.

Because art is retail, rather than wholesale, it is purchased in a different way. Book publishers advertise and solicit reviews not only to persuade customers but to persuade bookstore managers in stocking their stores and filling their windows. Art dealers do not need advertisements (though they may take them to appease the artist). They scarcely need reviews, because they are selling to individuals who generally buy for one of other reasons: 1.) they actually like the work and think they would enjoy possessing it. 2.) they have been advised that it is good, important and/or worthwhile by someone they trust. That advisor may be the art dealer, especially if the buyer has reason to be pleased with the dealer's previous recommendations; it may be another artist whom the buyer has already collected (and thus thinks he "knows," if not "trusts"); it may be a museum curator whose friendship the buyer has cultivated. Only an art-buying bumpkin would respect the advice of a periodical reviewer, no matter if his notices appear in Artforum or The New York Times. In truth, published reviews are influential only if an agent must justify his or her purchase with someone else--only if, say, a curator at a university museum must persuade his or her board of directors. Every time I see a Philip Pearlstein in a university museum, as often as I do, I calculate that Hilton Kramer's reviews in the NY Times helped sell it.

The Literature of SoHo (1982)

When you exclude from your club people who should belong, you show only that you are practicing snobbery pure and simple. Some readers (and book publishers) have a taste for such outrageous deception, regarding it as indicating artistic ambition and/or the existence of appreciative associates; others for good reason do not and, for that reason, justifiably question the character and motives of those who do. Bernstein is not above protesting a gross exclusion that involves himself, objecting that a New York Times Magazine survey “that purported to map contemporary poetry. . . carefully excluded from their list of ‘Language Poets’ every one of the many participants” in a magazine he co-edited, adding that the omission exemplified “a nasty business unfortunately characteristic of the sort of cultural disinformation practiced at places like the Times.” The sin of fascism, don't forget, is claiming that people who resemble you in nearly all respects but are different in minor details (e.g, race, religion, residency, affiliations) should be excluded, if not eliminated.

“Charles Bernstein Thrice” (2010)

New York is perhaps the most culturally pluralistic city in all the world; for not only are its resident artists socially disparate, but there are a plethora of distinct audiences that have as much relation to one another as cars on the same highway.

The point is that for music, for theater, for nearly everything else in culture here, there is not one New York but many, not a monolith, but a plurality. For example, few other than professional music critics would attend all three kinds of concerts in the course of a season. For this reason alone, any group known as (calling itself) “New York Composers” or “New York Intellectuals” inevitably comprises not all the poets, composers, or intellectuals living here, but a self-selected few who have appropriated the geographical title for themselves. Perhaps because so many writers live in New York, there are also more coteries, which divide and unify themselves in various ways, than I can possibly count.

“Living In Manhattan” (1969)

Although the nonliterary arts are basically international, had a book of this kind been written before 1940 it would surely have centered upon Paris. By the same token, the focus of this work is inevitably American--and within that New Yorkish. In the era it covers, New York is where the art world's action has been in most of the arts, where the world's ambitious painters, sculptors, composers, and dancers have gone to freshen their imaginations and update their educations.

Metamorphosis in the Arts (1969, 1980)

One recurring theme of recent esthetics has been a greater appreciation of the art of proposing. It was a point of Conceptual Art that a statement about an artistic experience had esthetic validity apart from any realization. In 1976, our Bicentennial year, Alison Sky and Michelle Stone compiled Unbuilt America, which collects architectural proposals that had never been built and, in some cases, were never meant to be realized. In my opinion, it is a far richer book than any documentation of American architecture that had been realized.

One subsidiary theme of Unbuilt America holds that critics and historians should consider an architect's proposals as important as those buildings that had been realized. Esthetic judgment should not be dependent upon practical success. From this follows an even more radical hypothesis about the importance of fantasy in our measure of art, which is another way of saying that print can be as valid a medium for dance as the stage, just as cyberspace is no less valid than hard-rock reality. Understand that last conclusion and you've entered a whole new world.

Preface to Imaginary Dance (unpub.)

Off-Off-Broadway, which has come into existence only in the past six years, is characterized by makeshift productions, generally presented in rooms patently not intended for theatrical purposes: churches, refurbished basements, lofts, large studios, an abandoned factory; only a few of the performers belong to the professional union (which means that most necessarily take another job during the day), and the plays probably have not been presented before. The people composing the audience tend to be decidedly informal, if not slovenly, in dress; often they sit in shabby chairs (rather than rows of theatrical seats); the price of admission is usually a contribution solicited at the entrance or exit door (averaging about two dollars per person); and most of the audience lives nearby.

“Living In Manhattan” (1969)

Television is a mass medium; video, a private one. As television is treasured for its credibility, especially when bringing the day's news into our homes, video should be valued for its incredibility. Literary video is destined for an audience that is ideally both visually sensitive and literate; television for an audience that is neither.

Literary video differs from video literary-reportage in which, typically, a poet is interviewed or is seen reading aloud; for in literary video, the author becomes an artist, exploiting the indigenous possibilities of the new medium--instant playback, overdubbing, selective vision, synthesis of both images or letters/words/sentences in live time, image distortion and so forth. In literary video, the screen is intelligently active, the author-artist visually enhancing his own language; in video reportage, by contrast, the camera's eye is visually dumb.

“Literary Video (1975, 1987)”

Within [New York] city's literary world, nothing appears to define a writer's allegiances, or to classify both him and his work, more distinctly than where he lives. Writers residing on the Upper West Side of Manhattan are considerably different from those on the Upper East Side, while both in turn have little in common with those on the Lower East. What all these distinctions suggest, in short, is that New York has not one literary community but several, each of which has its own life styles and gathering places, as well as its characteristic impact upon its literary residents; several milieus, each of which has only occasional contact with the others.

As for downtown New York, it has become customary to refer to everything south of 14th Street as “the village”, or “Greenwich Village”; but this area turns out to be as various as the city itself. There are at least four distinct “villages” whose differences can be sensed by anyone walking cross-town from one river to the other-the “West Village”, extending from the Hudson River to Seventh Avenue; the “middle”, which falls between Seventh Avenue on the west and Broadway on the east; and two more sections to the east of Broadway; and each of these villages, inevitably, harbors its own breed of writers.

“Living In Manhattan” (1969)

I read the book [Brad Gooch's City Poet (1993] for intelligence about New York literary life and found its principal truth to be that troubled, "bitchy" writers must latch onto power if they expect to survive professionally.

“O'Hara, Si; Apollinaire, No” (1994)

There exist two distinct avant-gardes in each of the nonliterary arts: one that would isolate, if not purify, the intrinsic attributes of a particular medium, and another which would miscegenate with the other media. In the chapters on painting, sculpture, modern dance, music, and film, I concentrate upon the first of the two avant-gardes, only mentioning work that eventually slips off into intermedia--which is covered in the book's second half. There I introduce such categories as "Inferential Art" "Word-Imagery," "Environments," "Mixed-Means Events," Machine Art" and "Artistic Machines," all of which I regard as new and genuine forms of art.

Metamorphosis in the Arts (1969, 1980)

As an historian of the arts in America—all the arts—I've come to regard Aaron Copland as our single greatest art politician. The measure is, simply, that in no other artistic field has any major American artist made so many moves successfully to advance not only himself but his colleagues. From his professional beginnings in the 1920s, Copland organized concerts; he met everyone important; he introduced people to each other; he got rewards from patrons whom he later advised; he made crucial connections for himself and others. Asked to conduct his own music, he also programmed the work of his contemporaries. And even though he attended not a liberal arts college but musical conservatories, he wrote prose and yet more prose, not only publicly but privately, about music in general and other composers. Just as he composed music away from home, so he wrote not only letters but essays in unfamiliar places. My sense is that essentially Copland wrote not as a scrupulously disinterested, independent critic but as a cunning advocate of certain vanguard positions and many people, his words often reflecting ulterior motives. Indeed, one interest in reading Copland is pondering what motives were in the back of his mind as he drafted certain words.

An Aaron Copland Reader (2003)

Whenever the current state of an art is generally received as decadent or expired, then a new avant-garde is destined to arise.

The Avant-Garde Tradition in Literature (1982)