Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, September 23, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell

Mary Barton
by Elizabeth Gaskell
p. 1848
Oxford World's Classics 2008 Edition
Introduction and Notes by Shirley Foster

   Like I said yesterday, the mass market makes all Modern Art possible, it is what they call "sine qua non" in the legal profession.  There is no better example of this phenomenon then the example of the so-called Rise of the Novel.  The Rise of the Novel led to the hey-day of the Novel as an autonomous art form, Richardson and De Foe,  a printer and hack writer respectively, gave way to The Bronte Sisters, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens: Self-conscious stylists who were both aware of the novel as a form of art AND the tastes and needs of the mass market.  This is a period that lasted until the "Modern" Literature revolution of 1922, a year in which T.S. Eliot published The Wasteland and James Joyce published Ulysses.  The modernist revolution carried with it a rejection of the mass market and the accompanying idea of the autonomous, independent artist/creator typically in the guise of some kind of authenticity/purity requirement.

   I would argue that this beginning of audience-less art was a wrong turn.  To give an example of how the rejection of mass market appeal began to pollute the form of the Novel, you can look at Elizabeth Gaskell's first novel, Mary Barton.  Mary Barton was published in 1848, but set in the 1830s, in Manchester during a national recession/depression.  Mary Barton is at least partially written in dialect, and it concerns the murder of a Factory owner's son and the ensuing investigation.  Mary Barton herself is a Manchester Dress Shop girl (not a factory girl) who is the shared object of attraction between the murdered and the accused.

     Mary Barton is kind of like the smash-hit book/movie The Help because Barton herself lived in Manchester and was part of the factory-owning social class in Manchester when this book was published.  Awkward talk at parties, for sure.  At the time it was published, Mary Barton was hailed for what critics call it's "realism" but that's probably because the vocabulary for expressing concerns over class disparity was in it's infancy- Marxism hadn't even "happened" when Mary Barton was published.  Realistic depiction of the living conditions of the industrial working class was definitively a "trend" when Mary Barton was written, and the similar factual depictions of these conditions- in Government and reformers reports, had been available for ten years.

     But the introduction of the labor union stuff certainly diminishes the style of the Novel.  Her third person Narrator hovers awkwardly over the proceedings, and the essential tie between the underlying economic conditions and the behavior of the characters seems forced.  At the same time, there is sheer joy in the depictions themselves, as well as the dialect of the characters.  One interesting point along this line is that the word "ask" is repeatedly written as "ax" a linguistic phenomenon that exists up until today.

    Already though in 1848 you can foresee the perilous rocks of social concern and grand artistic purpose beginning to creep into a previously joyous art form.  Critics are beginning to fence off the territory of "realism" from sloppy description and social consciousness is beginning rear its style-wrecking head.  At the end of the process, in about 1922, the novel will take it's leave from the concerns of the audience and depart on a journey into the heart of self-awareness, but in 1848 no one was there yet.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Emergence of Mass Market For Cultural Products in the 18th Century

   Every fact that relates to "Modern" Art vs. any other kind of Art is predicated on the emergence of a mass market for Art itself.  The mass market for Art was itself part of a larger, well documented phenomenon, the emergence of a "public sphere" in society.  The emergence of a public sphere and concomitant emergence of an artistic mass market shared five major characteristics:

  1.   The growth of literacy and the so-called "reading revolution."
  2.   The exapansion of towns and the promotion of "urban values."
  3.   The rise of consumerism and the commercialization of leisure.
  4.   The proliferation of voluntary associations such as reading clubs, choral societies and masonic lodges.
  5.   The improvement of communications and postal service.

   This phenomenon was thoroughly explored in Part II of Tim Blannings, The Culture of Power and The Power of Culture: Old Regime Europe 1660-1789 (Oxford, 2002.) and developed in the context of music in Blannings'  The Triumph of Music (Harvard, 2008.)

  What this means is that modern art arose not DESPITE the "mass market" but rather BECAUSE of the mass market.  Without the Mass Market "Modern" Art of any kind: Literature, Painting, Music simply would not be possible.  A primary, non-musical example of this relationship is found in Ian Rogers, The Rise of The Novel.  Novelists of the mid 18th century, the ones responsible for "inventing" the Novel, were not self conscious literary aesthetes.  We know this to be a fact, because such types were around at the same time in the same place, and they worked in different circles- mostly as poets, not novelists.

         The novelists of the 18th century tended to be people already writing for a mass market of some sort and that fact probably delayed the sacralization process for the novel into the 19th century in that the existing "gatekeepers" of the mid 18th century, were prejudiced against art produced in order to "make a living."  Well tra la la.  It's funny that this prejudice towards economically successful art maintains itself, and strongly, to the very present. You can't begrudge the anti-Mass Market faction their opinion, since it is so strongly maintained, but it is appropriate to note that, historically, holders of this opinion come out the losers.  Like the Marxists from the Frankfurt School.  Look how that worked out.


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Civilizations of the Western American Deserts

          The California Desert is a large portion of an even larger desert Eco System that stretches all the way up to Eastern Oregon, across the American states of Nevada and Utah up to the Rocky Mountains, and then includes Arizona, New Mexico and West Texas, as well as North and Central Mexico.

          Linguists have hypothesized that the dominant language family in the larger American Desert scene, Uto-Aztecan, had a northern and southern branch, and that the northern branch probably came from the Death Valley area of California, that the southern branch came from Mexico, and that the language itself came from today's Arizona.  It's also well accepted that there were complex civilizations in this desert area as early as 500 A.D.  What scholars don't know is what language the people in those civilizations spoke.  They do know that these civilizations collapsed around 1200-1300 AD and that people generally moved south, from Utah and Nevada to Arizona and New Mexico, and from Az/NM into Mexico proper.  This movement is echoed in the origin myths of the Aztecs, who claimed that they had "come from the North."

         Although no one knows for sure what "happened" to these lost civilizations of the Western American Desert, it doesn't take a lot of imagination to point at climate change as a culprit.  But looking at the ruins as well as the successor cultures, it seems fair to say that this North American civilization of the European Middle Ages- likely developed by Northern branch speaking Uto-Aztecans and incorporating other pre-existing linguistic groups and groups that migrated towards the larger settlements- belongs among the ranks of "known" World Civilizations.

        You could say that they "barely" qualify on the basis of simply having some kind of water sharing arrangement and an organized religion of some sort, but based on my experience in this landscape, their achievement was damn impressive.
     I think you can almost make an argument that even today this period is a "lost" civilization, and requires further inquiry.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

From Blues To Indie: The Impact of Recording Technology on Artists and Audiences

Deep Blues
by Robert Palmer
p. 1981
Penguin Press

      Before I get started- a recent post of mine inspired some minor controversy on a social media website, and I'm not going to get into it, but generally, the point of view of this blog is meant to be difficult to understand, and describing my writing as "post-post-modern" or "sarcastic" shows that the person making that statement is pretty dumb and specifically DOESN'T understand my blog: My blog is neither post-modern nor sarcastic.  Saying that a specific blog post is "cryptic" or "confusing" is appropriate, and intended on my part.

    I've been reading about the Blues lately, Robert Palmer's 1989 opus Deep Blues comes highly recommended (Cover Blurb: "A lucid..entrancing study. - Greil Marcus.") and the fact that my mass market copy is in its tenth printing and is itself twenty years old is a testament to Deep Blues being a very successful book about the Blues, indeed.  The super-header to Deep Blues is "A Music And Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta"that super-header tells you all you need to know about where Palmer is coming from: He takes the Blues seriously and writes from a point of time well after Blues had been revived and adopted as a primary influence by million copy selling rock bands of the 60s, 70s and 80s (and 90s, and 00s and forever as long as rock existed as a popular music genre.)

    Palmer is participating in what Lawrence Levine described as "the sacralization of culture" in his pioneering work of cultural history, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America.  The sacralization of culture is the process by which religious concepts are transferred to non-religious art forms so that the Art form becomes a new type of religion, with people who appreciate that art form becoming "believers" and people who don't appreciate the art form becoming "non-believers."  The sacralization of culture is a process at the heart of the opposing concepts of High Brow and Low Brow, and Deep Blues was actually published a year before Highbrow/Lowbrow, so Palmer must be forgiven his ignorance.

   The sacralization of blues was achieved only in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  Blues emerged as a distinct art form only in the early decades of the twentieth century.  Importantly, Blues was one of the first new musical genres to emerge AFTER the invention of the phonograph and the associated playback technology.
      This is an important point, particularly in light of the fact that for 30 years after the emergence of Blues, it was widely considered "low culture" unworthy of the sacralizing treatment being given to Opera, Symphonic and even Marching Band music recordings from the same period.  The generational gap between Blues actually happening and the sacralization process being applied is what I would call the original sin of popular cultural studies.  Specifically, that while the entire intellectual universe of popular culture studies emerged in the middle part of the twentieth century, it steadfastly ignored one of the most artistically significant music genres of the middle part of the twentieth century.

    When it comes to the impact of recording technology on the Blues, Palmer adheres to a the conventional viewpoint of a sacralizer of culture: Records and Records Company are something between a necessary evil and a blood sucking parasite.  At the same time, many of Palmer's primary sources are interviews conducted in the 1960s and later by writers and intellectuals who traced the history of Blues with recordings that had been neglected for a generation.

   Does this sound familiar?  It certainly should to listeners and artists who perform "indie" music in the present day.   This dynamic of the 60s Blues revival, with both commercial and intellectual aspects: rooted in the recording technology that allowed this music to survive among communities of Artists and small audiences for 30 years, is something that lays at the heart of every indie band/label trying to produce music today.

   I certainly don't need to list any of the numerous post-punk cycles that ape this original Blues revival sacralization, but the original process- what happened to Blues, is the cycle that is most interesting.  A major move in the Blues specific sacralization process is the listing of pre-American African influences on the Blues.  Palmer fairly represents a state of the art take on this theme in Deep Blues- you get analysis of West and East African vocal and instrumental traditions.

   As Palmer moves closer to the roots of Blues, he appropriately talks about the social and economic conditions of the Mississippi Delta area, noting the fact that the Delta was a newly settled area, and after the Civil War it had a great deal of (relative) social and economic mobility.  That was also the case in the other geographic area where the Blues emerged: East Texas.  There, the petroleum industry provided a spur to African American migration and economic prosperity.

     In both the Delta and East Texas, writing about the Blues BEFORE recordings started being made is pretty impossible, because few people- Artists, writers, etc were paying attention.  In fact, I would wager that 95% of the pre-recording information about the Blues is derived from interviews of Blues Artists that took place 30-50 years AFTER the recordings themselves were made.

   This generational gap between the emergence of blues and the appreciation/sacralization of the blues is a phenomenon sorely in need of an explanation, but you won't find it in Deep Blues.  I have an explanation that I have derived from reading Highbrow/Lowbrow, Deep Blues and Looking Up At Down.   My thesis is that recording technology allowed Artists and Audiences to become self-conscious outside of the process of sacralization.  In fact, recording technology, and specifically the shellac/vinyl 78/33/45 record is at the heart of a process of culture creation that has particular power at the "Low" end of the High-brow/Low-brow continuum.

  For relatively well off but often illiterate African Americans living in the time between the invention of the phonograph and the beginning of the great depression, Blues records were a powerful cultural transmitter.  Before the Great Depression,  Blues Artists derived little financial benefit from recorded music, but the records were sought after by the artistic community itself, and helped create demand for Artists in other communities.  Almost all of the Blues artists interviewed in Deep Blues describe the process by which they learned about developments in their own art form- by a combination of listening to early blues records and seeing the artists perform.  The recordings created a consciousness among the Artists and Audiences that had been previously lacking.

    This a process that would be replicated among teenagers during the first flourishing of rock and roll, a period where emerging Artists were able to successfully assimilate both what they had seen live with what they had heard on recordings.  Like the Blues, it is unlikely to impossible that Rock and Roll would have emerged without recording technology creating a shared consciousness between Artists and Audiences.

   The creation and improvement of the phonograph qualitatively changed the relationship between Artist, Audience and Critics.  Specifically, it allowed economic success (number of sales) to replace artistic success (via critical approval) as a value criterion.  Recordings allowed specific Artists to persevere entirely outside of the realm of critical approval by creating a long term Audience for live performance.  After the Depression, World War II and thirty years of critical ignorance, recordings allowed Blues to be "revived" by white intellectuals and musicians.

  The positions of the contemporary Indie Rock Artist is exactly that of the Bluesman between 1933-1945, only instead of the twin shocks of the Great Depression and World War II we have the MP3/Streaming formats and our own recent Housing Bubble Recession.  It was 20-30 years in the wilderness, and the revival came too late for most of the original Artists, but Blues came back and today it's an integral part of Popular Music.  There are books like this one, indie labels like Fat Possum, and Artists like Eric Clapton are Knights of the British Realm.  Things worked out OK for the Blues, once it got sacralized, but the length of the time that the process took is proof that the critics who were developing modernist art theory had gaping holes in their field of vision.

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