BRAIN TUBA: The Bohemians
"These bohemians, Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Williams, and their seven children, Biff, Tina, Sparky, Louise, Tuffy, Mickey, and Biff Number Two, lived in a notorious artists’ colony and planned community," Steve Martin wrote in "The Bohemians," a piece of surreal flash fiction published in his 1977 book, Cruel Shoes.
"Naturally," he continued, "the bohemians’ existence thrived on creativity. Early in the morning, Mrs. Williams would rise and create breakfast. Then, Mr. Williams, inspired by his wife’s limitless energy, would rush off to a special room and create tiny hairs in a sink. The children would create things, too. But being temperamental artists, they would often flush them away without a second thought."
Martin is being funny, of course, but he has a point, and one that has probably been true for all of human history: people everywhere are making things. Sometimes these things are willful; sometimes they aren’t, ranging from lunch to highly modern satire by guys wearing arrows through their heads. The difference, lately, is that we can now see everything. If somebody makes something, there is virtually no barrier in making it available to everybody. While there are still filters — often economic and social — between a creator and people finding out about her work, the contemporary non-folk artist faces two primary challenges above and beyond what her medium calls for: the obscure and the ephemeral.
As the Electronic Frontier Foundation has pointed out, "everything that can be expressed as bits will be expressed as bits." Though originally voiced in relation to the cluster of intellectual property battles known as the copyfight, it is just as important as an observation about the state of art in the world. Movies, music, photography, and literature have all been reduced to computer screens and tinny laptop speakers, which has wreaked havoc in the attendant culture industries. Though the specific effects and context of an album or a film changes radically when it can downloaded and consumed on an iPod, the impulse and meaning behind its creation is hardly changed at all. Why should it? While the mechanisms for distribution are different, the idea is the same: to make something lasting that doesn’t necessarily have to do with strict factual documentation of a subject. The notion of "lasting" is exactly what the digital age, where everything could disappear with the blink of a harddrive crash, calls into question.
This mass change in thinking about culture resonates in a pair of seemingly opposing, but highly complementary, standpoints: tradition and the avant-garde. At risk of stating the obvious, the modern world has always abhorred tradition, replacing it with nostalgia. That’s sort of the point, innit? More, though, the lack of gatekeepers to a vast amount of the world’s information has created a new type of intellectual libertine, able to instantly ingest all kinds of culture from all over the world, even if she doesn’t mean to. Tradition is always mutating, of course, but its function remains the same: to make something lasting by maintaining something that has already lasted.
The avant-garde, whose function is to create something so unique that it will remain standing, meanwhile, has been trumped, too. A military term originally affixed to early 20th century French artists, the notion was that they could lead culture into new and provocative places. Give 1,000,000 monkeys a 1,000,000 wifi-enabled laptops, digicams, and 2.0 technology, though, and surely one will produce something resembling Karlheinz Stockhausen or Erik Satie. But one will also produce "Two Girls, One Cup" — and, really, in this day and age, which is more experimental? What the internet has yielded is a wave of truly fucking weird, boggling, thought-provoking folk art that didn’t need a single self-consciously creative artist to create or claim. It just happens.
Every piece of art — folk or conscious — is like a rock placed in a roaring current. Some will last, others will wither to sand and wash away, and all at different scales, at different speeds.
"I owe a lot of who I am and what I’ve been and what I’ve done to the beatniks from the Fifties and to the poetry and art and music that I’ve come in contact with," Jerry Garcia noted in 1991. "I feel like I’m part of a continuous line of a certain thing in American culture, of a root." And though Garcia was identifying with self-consciously experimental artists, he was also recognizing that — despite attempting to forge something new — those artists were also plugged into rich traditions. In other words: for every weirdo, there was a weirdo that came before, going back from Beat hero Neal Cassady to proto-folkie Joe Hill to Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman and beyond.
Tradition — which is exactly what the avant-garde really is — is more important now than ever: a lineage that one can connect to, both as a consumer of art and as a creator of art. It provides a path of association in discovering new work, and it opens up a dialogue by which to place one’s own work in opposition to — both ways of cutting through the work all those temperamental artists no longer have the sense to flush.
Jesse Jarnow blogs at wunderkammern27.com