There’s a line on the second page that pangs me with a guilty conscience, “…entropy drowning everything in sight, entertainment and technology and every four year old with a computer, everybody his own artist…” Gaddis finished this book about ten years ago and rather presciently diagnosed what was to come in the art world. It does seem like anyone with a word processor and a computer can suddenly call themselves an artist; I say this from experience, since I just self-published a book online. As Gaddis suggests, a gifted four year old could have too.
Gaddis, in his last novel, is writing about many of the same things that Walter Benjamin complained about seventy years ago in Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. He mentions his predecessor several times throughout. The argument is also expressed in Thomas Adorno’s work, especially in The Culture Industry. Essentially, these books all question just what sort of validity artwork now has when it can be mass-produced. Furthermore, they question what the downsides might be from the spread of egalitarianism in the arts (i.e. everyone can be an artist, or everything is art–that mentality). If everything’s art, and anyone can be an artist, then what’s there to differentiate between Chopin and chopsticks?
So much of twentieth century art was created as a product of aesthetic bolshevism. Previously, art had been so wrapped up in the bourgeoise establishment, where artists were supposed to spend so much time on their work, and display such good breeding and culture in their art. As the twentieth century progressed, it became vogue to spend less time on art and produce things faster; this distinguished the new artists from the old guard. Compare the Wings of the Dove with The Subterraneans, for example.
Now, I’m not in any way trying to start an argument about what’s better. Henry James and Jack Kerouac both have their merits. Think of the present though, when we can produce art by potentially spending no time at all on it. It’s become more of a choice to allot time and energy to art, not a requirement. For instance, with digital photography, take a thousand photos and one or two are bound to be good, whether you’re a good shot or not. This create’s a problem for the consumer too, such as, when buying a self-published ebook, how can you know that the person didn’t just crank out the novel while mainlining coffee in one night?
What Gaddis mourns in Agape Agape is the loss of the sense of art as work, or art as a trade. He himself treated writing as much like work as he possibly could, shunning the public eye not because he was necessarily a recluse, but because he wanted to be regarded as a writer, not a celebrity. I miss this sort of work ethic. Now, it’s celebrities who want to be seen as authors. The following celebs have published entire books recently: Snooki, Paris Hilton, Keith Richards, Madonna, Rob Lowe, and Steven Tyler. Did they ever pore over Ulysses on sleepless nights? Did they spend hours honing their style or weighing out their syntax? Did they have to go through the long, tedious, depressing process of receiving rejection letters? What about the people who only wish to be writers?
So there’s the paradox we’re living in: we’re living in an age where everything is art and nothing is art. That, if you ask me, is the madness of art.
Gaddis writes of this conundrum by using the player piano as an analogy. There, all you had to do was buy special perforated paper and sit behind the keys and feel like you’re Beethoven. You could play some bits yourself, but the player piano would spare you the immense hardship and work that comes from learning a craft. If you use a word processor, you don’t have to learn spelling or grammar: a machine will do that for you. You don’t have to learn how to sing because there’s auto-tone and other computer effects that can hide your flaws (try playing around with garage-band if you have a Mac). You don’t have to learn how to paint because no one paints.
So, it seems artists, you’re out of work.
About the novel itself: Gaddis strives for originality in this book by taking apart the formulas of the novel. Anyone can learn the formulas and produce a book. Gaddis threw them out and wrote a book resembling nothing you’ve read (unless you’ve read Thomas Bernhard, whom Gaddis was inspired by). The novel’s big innovation is that it’s written in the form of a single paragraph that stretches on for nearly 100 pages. It’s conceived as sort of a long interior monologue by a man on his deathbed trying to compose his thoughts for a book about the player piano that he will never finished. Gaddis himself wasn’t long for this world when he wrote this book, dying before it was published. He did at least manage to finish it though. It stands out as a great late work like Ravelstein by Saul Bellow. Fans of Samuel Beckett or David Foster Wallace will also likely appreciate Agape Agape. This is one of the few books on this site that I’d recommend you buy if you can’t find it at a library.
So read this book and learn something about art–you’ll feel nostalgic.
Am I an artist or a four year old with a computer? Buy my book and make up your own mind.*
That sounds contradictory, doesn’t it?