October 31, 2013

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He is on his firmest ground with literature and can summon several major talents to his defense.

Flaubert: “€œThe less [the artist] feels a thing, the better equipped he is to express it.”€

Wilde: “€œMan is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.”€

Eliot: “€œPoetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.”€

To be sure, all three of those gentlemen, even Wilde, were at some bourgeois distance from the Romantic ideal of the creative artist as an outsider pursuing his own inner light wherever it might lead. The pictorial arts are much more the natural home of such spirits, with Vincent van Gogh as exemplar.

Here an original, modern style of sincerity came up, spurred by revulsion from mass-market popular culture. The critic Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) supplied necessary theory, and key artists dropped the pretense of three-dimensionality:

Paintings were just paint on canvas, not the objects they portrayed….Sculpture was simply solid material, not the forms it represented….

The endpoint of all this painterly sincerity was the all-black canvases of Ad Reinhardt, painted from 1953 to 1967, of which Magill says: “€œThey did not deceive. They were what they were. They were themselves.”€ Sincerity at last!

The last full chapter of Magill’s book is titled “€œHip Affected Earnestness.”€ It concerns a social phenomenon called the hipster and is chock-a-block with lists referring to the culture of the past thirty years: moviemakers (he lists 7), pop music bands (5), folk music performers (13), fashion ads (10), hipster accessories (19), and hipster childhood nostalgia (17). This chapter comes with its own six-page glossary, a “€œHipster Semiotic Appendix.”€

I was at a disadvantage with this last chapter in not having the faintest idea what a hipster is. The only thing I feel certain of is that it is not the same thing as a hippie. Almost none of the names in those lists”€”Devendra Banhart, REO Speedwagon, Das Racist“€”was familiar to me. Nor could I grasp Magill’s point about the “€œirony-sincerity”€ matrix, which he claims has been a strong feature of popular culture in recent years.

No doubt the culprit here is my own fogeyishness, not any failing of the author. Sincerity is a pretty good read. I really, really mean that.



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