January 20, 2015 § Leave a comment
“the stakes are high. As Clark wrote twenty years later, looking over ‘On the Social History of Art‘, he wanted not ‘a recipe for reading “social content” out of art works,’ but ‘a framework within which it might be possible to rethink, historically, the very process by which a particular work produced its meanings and lost them.’
Sometimes, though, the question needs to be twisted. Clark’s question makes sense for high or fine art – for art self-consciously made and received within a tradition that has, for works that pass certain tests, so to speak preapproved their illumination. For low art – or vernacular art, or everyday art – one always has to begin with an argument that a work produced in, or dropped by, this sort of tradition, has any meaning at all beyond ego , commerce or sociology. The notion of works that in some way or another contest their time is basic to the criticism of fine art; no critic approaching vernacular art has ever really beaten back the premise that work in popular culture is made by its time. Clark rightly dismisses the idea of a work of art reflecting its era, or some facet of it, but such a dead and deadening notion rules in the criticism and the history of popular art – and when you work within the terms of cultural reflection, you always find exactly what you’re looking for.
For popular art – art made within a tradition the operating premise of which is to replicate a work and sell as many copies as possible as fast as possible – the question is not that of letting the social into the art. It’s a question of freeing the art from the social – and here too the stakes may be high. It may be that unless certain works of art can be loosened from the social circumstances that seemingly produced them, there can be no history, social or otherwise – no history we have to answer to, a history that is more than the sum total of, to quote Clark again, ‘the topical needs of the moment.’*… To refuse to account for ourselves – or to be unable to, to be unable to see history as the product of certain choices made at certain crossroads, a commingling of private motives brought to bear on public works – is to leave nothing to writing history but burying the dead.
As Marx loved to say, let the dead bury the dead. Some artists are dead to the degree that they are subsumed by the social, and alive to the degree that the social can be distanced from their work; as with any attempts to bring the dead back to life, it’s easier said than done.
[…] The blues was something new. Just as Robert Johnson’s music made a breach in my white, middle-class, modern world, around 1900 blues made a breach in the known world of southern blacks. It wasn’t like the old field hollers, work songs, animal fables, ring shouts, spirituals, though musicologists have traced the lines back so that you’d think a breach had never been made. A leads to B & B leads to C, & who can deny it? But the testimony of those who were there counts – & what those who were there said was that they’d never heard anything like this before, & weren’t sure they ever wanted to hear anything like it again. A white woman heard her black teenage maid moaning to herself as she folded laundry – whatever the song was about, the white woman testified, if it was a song, if it was about anything, it wasn’t laundry. W.C. Handy was waiting for a train late one night; two men with guitars sat down beside him & began to play; later he wondered if it hadn’t been a dream. […]
Compared with Skip James or Tommy Johnson, Robert Johnson does not sound particularly individualistic. He sounds very traditional – & also as if the tradition, this particular racial/economic/social/religious happenstance, is meaningless, as if it had never existed…. Robert Johnson takes the tradition as a given, in the same way that we take it as a given that the people we meet will speak, eat, & sleep; he then goes beyond the tradition to such an extent concepts of speaking, eating, & sleeping lose their meanings, or acquire entirely new ones.
Robert Johnson, his music says, worked & lived with a deeper autonomy than other blues singers, most of whom came forth to affirm autonomy. He made his music against the limits of that autonomy, limits he discovered & made real, & he did so with more ferocity, & more tenderness, than other blues singers, all of whom encountered similar limits. The difference is this: other blues artists dealt with that problem within the bounds of the form of Mississippi Delta blues, speaking that common language. If the tradition allowed them to refuse the limits on their lives, they accepted the limited power of the tradition to affect those limits, to make sense of them.
Robert Johnson did not do this. As an individual, sparked by the blues tradition to wanted more out of life than he might have otherwise demanded, he refused to accept the limits of the blues tradition itself – a tradition that, as an aesthetic form, at once inspired & limited his ability to make demands on life, to protest against it. Just as around 1900 blues made a rent in black American life, in 1936 Robert Johnson made a rent in the blues.
Blues was his language, his only means of making a mark on the world, of leaving it even slightly different than he found it. He mastered the tradition – he formally extended the vocabulary of blues guitar, formally raised the level of song composition, deepened its formal possibilities for vocal strength & delicacy. … You hear a man going further than he could ever have been expected to go – even if you know nothing of the particular limits of Mississippi blues, you can hear those limits being smashed, or hear the artist fall back violently before them…. So you begin to ask: what would it mean to want that much? what would it mean to lose that much?”