Birth of the bourgeois artist

The bourgeois novel, according to Lukacs (I think), has developed in order to stage the conflict between the individual and society, two abstractions that capitalism created and opposed to each other. The purpose of novels is to show how the individual confronts society (aka “the system,” aka “reality,” aka “the human condition”) and learns that society is too large and entrenched and complicated to be affected by the efforts of any one person, and that in fact the mature thing for any individual to do is to accept the status quo and the small private pleasures it affords. The quintessential example may be Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, which ends with its would-be revolutionary hero content to get some casual nookie in a brothel after abandoning all his aspirations.

The go-along get-along mentality advocated by such novels predominates in contemporary culture, and it has become the basic paradigm for maturation — you “grow up” when you get a job that alienates you and get a spouse who seems to compensate for it. But there have always been those who have historically resisted this maturation process, ppeople who choose to live outside of the system, or in opposition to the rules it lays out (work 40 regular hours a week, be monogomous, procreate, collect material possessions, etc.). Zaretsky, in Capitalism, the Family, and Personal Life, runs down some of these conscientious objectors in his account of the creation of private life, or “intimacy.” The earliest ones to reject this maturation process were the Romantics, who clung to a radical individualism for its own sake in the face of capitalist organization and the divsion of labor. The Romantics “argued that one’s work should be an expression of oneself rather than just a means of survival.” Hence art becomes a matter of expressing oneself as an individual as well — the only message worth expressing, in a climate of bourgeois commercialism and depersonalization, is my work is unique, my work transcends value, I, as an artist, am unique and not interchangable like dollar bills or proletarians. “Real” art thus becomes self-referential, about itself, about the artist’s sense of self. Art becomes a matter not of craft, discipline or social reality, but a matter of originality for its own sake. The artist becomes a role model for separating the private from the public, of “pitting oneself, one’s inner feelings, private thoughts, and dreams against ‘society.’ ” In this way then, in the process of critiquing them, art reinforces the divsions instilled by capitalism rather than healing them. It champions the private “inner life,” which is the product of the alienation art simultaneously laments. And at the same time art surrenders any claim it might have had on effecting social change, since any changes it advocates can ultimately be dismissed as merely self-promoting. All bourgeois art is understood now as being an artist’s attempt to claim special transcendent status; thus all art is held to be elitist unless it reproduces the formulas that justify the sacrifices we make to mature. Art will continue to be irrelevant until it surrenders “creativity” and “originality” as goals, as criteria.

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