Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Individual Autonomy, Artistic Expression and Social Context

Are artists autonomous or are they responding, consciously or not, to prevailing social, political and economic forces? The critic Jed Perl's answer, which he argues in his essay, "Private Lives," in the December 4, 2008 New Republic is that "Art ... represents the triumph of private feeling over public pressures, or at least the ability of private feeling to assert itself in the face of public pressures and public values." He goes on to argue that his position seems to fly in the face of much current critical opinion, which holds that cultural expression is inevitably conditioned by the artist's location within the social order and response to it; and by the expectations and needs of the artist's audience. Perl responds: "It is true that there is no artist who has ever stood entirely apart from his or her time. But whatever the complexities of the artist's shifting social and economic situation, the artistic act is also an individualistic impulse rooted in the sense of self that is at the heart of the human condition."

Perl is thus arguing that no individual is reducible to a mindless cipher, that in the end we are always making choices, be these aesthetic or ethical. Any two people living within the same if not identical social conditions may make radically distinct choices, develop radically distinct programs and plans. As Sartre said of the poet Paul Valery, Valery was a petit bourgeois, but not every petit bourgeois is a Paul Valery. But even a Paul Valery was working under certain conditions, stylistic conventions, a given technology, world views and ideological horizons.

Can we then formulate how individual autonomy and social conditions intersect? This is the kind of question we will be posing, and working at, as these posts continue.


claire-in-the-bronx said...

How does this interaction--between individual vision and the world in which the artist lives--relate to the work of Bernstein?

Barry Seldes said...

Dear Claire,

Your question goes right to the heart of my forthcoming book. Bernstein was not only very alive to political currents of the day: the texts for which he composed his music were almost invariably responses if not commentary on those currents.