Artistry and Social Construction

Reading an article in The Atlantic just now I am struck by an idea of two different sorts of obstruction that it’s easy to confuse for one another. I’m going to call them:

  1. What Other People Think
  2. Aesthetic Quality

They are not one and the same, but it’s hard to tell the difference. It can be easier to collapse them into one, to treat Aesthetic Quality as if it were just a projection of What Other People Think. This confusion is abetted by the fact that, as far as social roles go, What Other People Think rules.

It helps to not give a fuck, as the saying goes, about What Other People Think, should you be interested in creating anything… like a life. But, this escape from one obstacle doesn’t grant you freedom from the other. In fact, I think worrying about What Other People Think can be a form of avoiding the real obstacle of Aesthetic Quality.

I think the issue in art is a subset of a larger issue that’s intrinsic to us a social beings. In fact, the whole “not giving a fuck” idea that has become so popular over the past decade involves, as I see it, an inability to distinguish between socially constructed values and real values. And this inability is complicated by the fact, as Hamlet puts it:

There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.

Submerging ‘reality’ inside social construction, and combining this with the idea that there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so, seems to offer a shortcut to freedom. Just change your story! It’s all the rage.

I think, though, that the author Philip K Dick had it right when he talked about how to build a world that doesn’t fall apart the next day. All stories are not created equal. Calling an empty box a spaceship will not get you to the Moon.

Except, how do you know you’re not at the Moon? The regress of uncertainty is impossible to think you’re way out of. That’s why, I think, the Masters traditionally say “don’t try this at home” – and by “this” I mean unraveling the subject/object tangle.

But it’s too late for we who have committed ourselves to the idea of artistry, outside the company of any real teachers.

I might go on, but I’ll wrap it up with these excellent lines from Elvis Costello:

And then, they told me I could be somebody
If I didn’t let too much get in my way
And I tried so hard just to be myself
But I keep on fading away
And then, the lights went out
I didn’t know what to do
If I could fool myself, then, maybe I’d fool you

There’s so much to appreciate in that verse, but it took me years to get that the last line wasn’t about sex, but about the start of a musical performance. It’s obvious now.

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