In one of my recent posts at the Clyde Fitch Report, I proposed that artists can and should be more proactive in articulating our common shared values. My suggestion was born out of my sense that we have democratized the definitions of value and quality, increasingly accepting individual definitions of these judgments, each of which has equal validity. As a result, we have lost a common ethos that, amongst other things, provided a basis for culture to occupy a central place in our society.
I have previously written about an axis of artist intentionality that spans from pure self-expression to pure community expression. While an artist is always expressing him or herself, the impetus for that expression can lie anywhere on this spectrum. Prior to the Enlightenment, artists in the West had little choice but to operate at the community expression end of the spectrum because of the ubiquitous presence of the church. Through a common narrative that defined the contours of life generally, the church was the keeper of social order and even provided the legitimacy for rulers of the time. Whether people liked it or accepted it, there was a defined set of values that the religious framework imposed, which also determined artistic value during this time. With the shift engendered by the coming of the Enlightenment, individuals gained greater autonomy and agency and rich patrons were able to set the parameters of artists’ expression, though this still left the artists in a position serving others’ needs and desires.
Since then, we have undergone a multi-century process that shifted the locus of value and validation from the outside, whether societal as in the church or individual as in the patron, to the individual. The latest stage of this process, so far, is the deconstructionist/post-structuralist position that each individual is the creator of his/her own valid truth and experience. Such a framework, however, results in an environment in which each person’s unique set of values has the same validity and where competing realities - at least conceptually - co-exist equally. Judging by the public dialogue in this country, it is easy to conclude that we have fully embraced this understanding.
At the same time that the locus of determining value has shifted from the community to the individual, I note that artists have relatively recently shifted, probably in a related fashion, the point of view of their expression. Whereas artists formerly worked to express the world around them, often in an aspirational way, more recently artistic work gravitates towards expressing the artist’s inner life in reaction to the world around him or her. In this context, the line of artistic development passing through impressionism, expressionism, fauvism, surrealism, dadaism, abstract-expressionism, and conceptualism, deals in the individual impressions, senses, and experience and represent the ascendancy and triumph of the individual.
At the same time that the center of value has shifted, there has been a concomitant slow steady process of expanding access to self-control over one’s life to a broader and broader set of people. Persistently, groups have fought for and often gained the right to be included and “equal.” While this shift has allowed us to begin to address some of the inherent inequities and rejections that our previously held common narrative produced, we have further to go in order to truly say that we can have an inclusive community that values and validates each of its participants.
Along with the shift of determining value from the communal to the individual and the enlargement of those with access to self-determination, there has been a natural shift in determining quality. The result is that the only arbiter of quality now - outside of places where the market applies - is the individual, yielding a loss of a communal experience. I believe that this shift, along with a myriad of other factors, helps explain the diminishment of the importance of "culture" in our society and why so many of our institutions are struggling to find an audience and, essentially, a raison d'etre. In addition, it has given rise to what I refer to as the "balkanization" of culture in our society where there are multiple groups and aesthetics existing with little connection to each other. As a result, they often do not generate sufficient scale to have a collective impact and often are actually unsustainable in the long-term.
To be sure, this debate - in which individual “control” of determining quality and beauty is in opposition to a common universal definition - is an ancient battle, at least as old as the Greeks. And like so many old rhetorical dialogues, the poles of argument are logical and clear, but do not accurately reflect the complexity or nuances of the world we live in.
I am not suggesting a definition of culture that is common and excludes groups that don't align. Nor am I suggesting that the hi-culture/lo-culture distinction should be restored or is the best. What I am suggesting is that all of the democratized aesthetics, cultures, styles, practices, and groups are actually driven at some level by a set of common values - things their proponents find important. However, there is no attempt to articulate this commonality nor is there any discussion of this, so we all continue in our separate worlds.
What I envision is finding the commonalities so that we can build appreciation for and acceptance of those things that we are not familiar with, based on the commonalities that exist. If we can relocate that sense of value of culture in a more common place, as it used to be for better or for worse, we would be able to have a stronger need for and acceptance of all of the various practices and styles that are with us.
You can read the entire text of my previous post on Culture & Kibbitz at the Clyde Fitch Report on which this post expands here.