Where Did Great Art Go?

’Lo again, Jeff:

So: We’re going to celebrate the anniversary of a book widely believed to be the greatest of the last century—and indeed chosen as such by the Modern Library’s panel of experts—by taking it down a notch or two. My God! What arrogance!

I suspect, in fact, that I have slightly less admiration for Ulysses than you do—not much less, but enough to make a difference. The twist is that I find Joyce himself hugely impressive—just not for that book. “The Dead” is the most nearly perfect short story in the English language. Joyce need not have written anything more to make himself immortal. And at times I wish he hadn’t.

You are right, of course, that it’s inherent in the very idea of the reinvented novel that one can’t see it coming, and to that extent, I have to concede that it’s possible in the abstract. But I wonder if it’s historically possible; if the culture will allow it.

Which brings me to my point about 1977—a thesis I’m quite proud of, though I know it’s riddled with holes. ‘77—and the two or three years around it on either side—was the last moment for modernism, in both its popular and its rarified forms—the final efflorescence before its death, and I think understanding as much helps explain why Joyce and his peers and followers seem less central to literature than they did even 20 years ago. Round about ‘77, something ended.

Look at it this way: Has there been a movie as great as Apocalypse Now (1979) in the years since it was released?Has there been an artist as significant as Warhol (who died in ‘87, but flourished a decade earlier)? Have there been poems as profound as John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (1975) or James Merrill’s The Changing Light atSandover (published in 1982, but mostly written in the late 1970s)? Photography as groundbreaking as William Eggleston’s Guide (1976) or Cindy Sherman’s FilmStills (1977-80)? Reportage as new and fresh as Dispatches (1977)? Theater as revolutionary as Einstein on the Beach (1976)? Belles-lettres as brilliant as The Lover’s Discourse (1977)? Or even: rock music surpassing Never Mind the Bollocks (1977)?

My answer to all these questions is “Nope,” though I can hear the objections even as I type them. One is that I’m mistaking the influences of my own youth (though I was 14 in ‘77—too young to encounter much of this) for milestones in a culture. Another is that I’m substituting the dictates of my taste for historical facts—that I’m willfully ignoring all sorts of great work, from Kushner to Koons to Public Enemy to Anne Carson. I readily plead guilty to both these objections; but then, does anyone who looks at their own culture ever do otherwise? Nonetheless, the only counter-example I’m willing to concede—or indeed, that anyone I have ever surveyed on the matter is willing to insist upon—is hip-hop, for reasons which will become clear in a moment.

Let me admit, too, that there’s something fatuous about my posing things this way. Art is not a matter of rankings and stations; there are subtleties and nuances that I’m barreling past; and the hyperbole here is deliberate and self-evident. But I do think something exploded and ended just about 25 years ago, and I think it has something to do with modernism, and it affects the novel, too.

There are various ways to describe just what happened; you can think of it as the beginning of the end of white, male culture (though, interestingly, of the 10 works I mention above, half are by gay men); or you can think of it as the end of the idea of the masterpiece; or you can think of it as the end of the avant-garde. Probably all of these descriptions are related, but it’s the last of them that I find most compelling, especially in a discussion which has begun with a reconsideration of Joyce. So let me just say it: The avant-garde ended in 1977. The game has run its course, and those who played it have been caught in a cul-de-sac.

So be it. This bothers me not at all. I’m disinclined to sit here bemoaning the passing of the Colossi; our culture got by without a vanguard from its origins up to, say, Baudelaire; we can certainly get by without one again. I was like you: raised on the idea of an avant-garde. To be artistically ambitious was to search for the next thing, the next form, or a leap in the mode of rendering consciousness, and I spent most of my 20s chasing after that very idea; I suspect that you cottoned on to the futility of it before I did.

The question remains: What’s an ambitious young writer to do? Like you, I’m uncomfortable just saying, “The hell with it: Let’s just crank out another ‘realist’ novel.” Much as I like the excuse to type out the word “antimacassar,” I’d just as soon not see such things reappearing. (I’m tempted to insist, “No, no, no: let’s be pro macassar.”) I’m not so concerned with tearing up the bourgeois parlor, though I’m not especially comfortable in it, either.

What I’m slowly learning is that vanguardism isn’t the only form of ambition. There are others, and always have been—lyric, epic, and so on. The very idea of an avant-garde was made possible by a sense that history was relatively uniform and discrete: the sort of thing one could compass, harness, lead. But the patterns of the past are much too complicated, now; there are too many of them, and they’re too varied. Again, this is fine by me: The more the merrier, and maybe “do what thou wilt” shall be the whole of the law, after all. But I guess it implies that I do think the “multicultural” novel is indeed new; so I invite you now to fulfill the promise of your last remarks, and convince me that I’m wrong.