Saturday, November 7, 2015

report from Gondolin

It seems to me that in my comments on this post about music and this post about literature, I'm saying the same thing.

I have a theory about the history of art that I call "the hidden city". Read conventional histories of the arts written in the mid-20C, or take college classes in them during that era, which is what I did educating myself in the subject at the time, and you'll find that the declared sequence of masterpieces in any field had the classic and beloved works of the 18-19C succeeded around 1900 by modernist works that were tougher and less user-friendly, and still somewhat controversial a half (now a full) century later. Some of these instructors will even declare that it's the audience's fault for not appreciating The Art Of Our Time (and that it's they, not the audience, who get to decide what part of the multiplicity is The Art Of Our Time). I call this viewpoint the modernist hegemony.

What's not in those history books and courses, but is more considered in newer ones covering the same period, is the hidden city: the artists whose work, while distinctly of 20C origin - it couldn't have been created earlier - follows the tradition of its predecessors and ignores the policy of throwing out the past and starting from scratch that was such a huge fad beginning around 1910 and influenced what came later. This is art whose appeal is to subjective emotion and not to logical rules about what art should be. The hegemony, which made what was considered the canon because it had the megaphones, belittled or ignored this work and the philosophy behind it.

The hidden city started to emerge in the 1970s and 80s. It was partly due to polemics: Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House, which I didn't read until after I'd formulated this theory, is precisely a "hidden city" analysis of architecture. It was partly a generational shift which made high modernism the creaky old conservatives now. And it was a rise in fans of the hidden city and its shinier new successors into the academy, first as students, then as young professors mostly in smaller, less prestigious institutions. There are still people defending the modernist hegemony, but its overall status is far weaker than it was 30-40 years ago.

The argument we're having in these posts is, how hidden was the hidden city? You could argue this both ways; it depends how you look at it. It's not like hidden-city artists like Tolkien in literature, Frank Lloyd Wright in architecture (the hero of Wolfe's book), Wyeth or Rockwell in painting, or Sibelius in music [I'm in the middle of a Sibelius festival right now: more on that later] were unknown, unsuccessful commercially, unpraised in some quarters, or even unstudied academically. The hegemony consisted of the scorn and dismissal by those who set the standards of discourse that others followed, who wrote what was accepted as the canon, who taught the young, and the rigidity and strictness with which this was held. (Merely having different tastes is not enough to create a hegemony.) It was, to borrow a term from more serious and consequential aspects of life, an environment of oppression.

So now there are those who would downplay or even deny the hegemony's power or even its existence, using the success - in fame, commerce, esteem from non-hegemonial critics, and such academic quarters as bucked the trend - of the hidden city as evidence. This is what I bridle at. These writers' motives may be love of high modernism (there have always been some people who genuinely liked it; there's nothing that nobody likes) or simply to prove that the hidden city flourished when it was hidden (which of course it did - my theory is based on the contrast between that and the thoroughness with which it was ignored by the hegemony). The facts these writers present are true, but the view depicted is partial, misleading, or even entirely false. The hidden city was only literally hidden in limited quarters, but it was hidden there and the hegemony was real - in many of those same quarters, it still is.

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