People R Us: I am, we are, internally heterogeneous while being homogeneous with the people (Homoousian), containing and contained by Them. The popular is less a question of my ability to go slumming and feel what the People feel than it is of my inability to avoid that feeling. I don't have to listen to a recording like "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" in proletarian disguise; on the contrary, it catches me unaware as it reveals that other of myself. Elite refinement is, to some extent, mere pretence. I can disdain that recording's banality, say - but only at the cost of first recognising banality as part of myself: identifying it, labelling it. To know what I abjure, I must know it after all. But, by the same token, refinement is unavoidable: education in taste (cultivation), as Plato teaches of education in general, simply illuminates what was always already there. To like "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" is already an act of taste, to love it, another, to revere it, another still; and to recognise it as a work of art may be a refinement - or perhaps it is the origin - of all of those. Art is not only something that separates me and you. At bottom it is what, in our diverse ways, we hold in common.
Yet, of course, art does separate as it unites, and it would be foolish of me to insist otherwise. You probably do not think "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" is art, and I probably would not recognise some of the works in your canon either. If "popular" is a word undermined with termite passages and connected by parlous tunnels to other colonies, "art" is so big and blank that we can only make blinkered sense of whatever bit we happen to have hold of at the moment. Although I would like to, I do not imagine I will be able to say everything about art, no more than I have about the popular. What I want to say is what everyone knows but not many seem to have considered.
This is at once a simple and a scary thing to do. It is simple because the topic of popular art makes it simple. I can (and will) delay more important considerations until some of the implications of our common notions of art have been (once again) spelled out. But you know and I know that there is another understanding of art. In that understanding, art is the most important thing there is. In that understanding, art is what They (or we) imagine it to be, art is what transcends the social and the political, art is what the social and the political ultimately exist to protect. And this is a scary thing to write about because it is so hard to think about, so hard to analyse - and so hard to justify. When I write this way I think I will lose most of my friends.
Raymond Williams' Keywords traces the evolution of the usage of '"art"' from the thirteenth century, when it pertained to skill in general, through its nineteenth century capitalisation into an abstraction associated with creativity and imagination, to its elevation to the sense of 'the fine arts' - which still holds sway today (41-42). He relates this development to 'the changes inherent in capitalist commodity production, with its specialisation and reduction of use values to exchange values' and the 'consequent defensive specialisation of certain skills and purposes to the arts or the humanities where forms of general use and intention which were not determined by immediate exchange could be at least conceptually abstracted' (42).
This understanding is, broadly, an institutional one. The word, as Williams has described its use, refers to a set of ways of doing things and of dealing with what was done. Williams' task is a general work of cultural description, an encyclopaedia, rather than specific enquiry into a specific area, and perhaps for that reason he says little about the experience of art. At other points in this text, he does emphasise the relation of art to individual, 'subjective', 'original', experience in discussions of the words 'aesthetic' (31-32) and 'creative' (82-84). These senses are very important ones, and will be set against the stronger institutional understanding in a relationship of fragile tension further on.
Art seems to be as much determined by use - or uselessness - as it is by appearance: an artwork is sometimes only whatever is regarded as an artwork (a forgery, for instance); but equally, at any given time within any culture, the art in a work is marked as something in excess, or superfluous, outside of utility, and can be identified by anyone familiar with those markings. The uselessness of art is what makes it unimportant in almost all commonly practised ways of thinking these days and, consequently, why so much time and effort has been devoted to trying to demonstrate that art has some utility (didactic, ethical, social, political) after all.
It seems to me that it is commonly accepted that art is a way of seeing, a framework or a meta-language, but a way of seeing certain things (usually) made especially for that special regard. People experience many natural phenomena as aesthetic (landscapes, storms, flowers, beetles), but it is more customary for one to recognise that aesthetic sensibilities are involved when it is a question of responding to things one recognises as art already (certain paintings, poems, pieces of music). The gaze and the work are symbiotic. The institutional aspect of art actually makes for quick and easy identification: whatever is in a museum is art. But sometimes personal experience conflicts with institutional nomination: the museum piece fails to evoke a response similar to that called forth by a sunset or by a neighbouring museum piece. Most people, suffering from the anxiety of taste as we all do, then abrogate personal experience and uphold the institution ("it is not art for me, but it must be art for those who know art"). It follows that - contrary to the well-known saying - everyone actually does know what art is, but no one can be very sure of what she likes.
Now I need a witness. No, I need an assistant. I have to have something to point to in order to go on, someone to stand up here and allow me to pull eggs from her ear. Perhaps such an exemplum will deflect the audience's annoyance at having to watch a clumsy performance of tricks it has seen before. I want an artist you will not think right away is an artist, and also someone who has confessed and thereby provided a text we may pore over together (which none of those involved with "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" has done), and finally someone outrageous so you won't go to sleep on me. And, of course, I already have what I require. My assistant for this performance is Roger Corman, director and producer of The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), The Fall of the House of Usher (1960), and The Wild Angels (1966). Corman and his work should already be familiar to most popular culture enthusiasts. He is a litmus test for cheap popular taste and an icon for French-influenced cinphiles like me. In 1990 Corman published an autobiography, written in collaboration with Jim Jerome, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime and thereby, unwittingly, joined my act.
Corman's book opens with the following avertissement:
My career has been an anomaly in Hollywood. I have been called everything from the King of the B's to the Pope of Pop Cinema - directing over 50 low-budget independent motion pictures, and producing and/or distributing another 250 for my own companies, New World Pictures and Concorde/New Horizons. While there's a tradition in Hollywood that no one sees profits on a movie no matter what the box office, I've seen profits on probably 280 of those 300-odd pictures. Despite their low budgets, my films have been shown at prestigious festivals, and I was the youngest director to have retrospectives at the CinmathÉque Fran½aise in Paris, the National Film Theatre in London, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (vi)
Before continuing I must inject a warning of my own: I am going to be taking Corman at his word in what follows (even to the extent of pretending that neither Jim Jerome nor the interpolations by Corman's associates that pepper the book exist). I will be discussing what the text of the book attributed to Corman says about art and about Corman's films. What I may or may not know or think about those films is not of any moment whatever. To those who may detect elitist irony or populist idolatry in this practice, honi soit qui mal y pense.
I assume that what is said in Corman's opening paragraph is important because he repeats a great deal of it two and a half pages from the end of the book (234-235). 'I've seen profits,' Corman tells us, and we know he means his films have set out to win popular favour and have succeeded by bringing in audiences. 'Despite their low budgets' - that is, despite a presumed inferiority, signalled also in the epithets which call him everything - the filmmaker's work has appeared at 'prestigious festivals' and in hallowed halls. He says the same thing in a slightly different way in the later passage: 'But even as I felt that I might have overdone it, made too many films in too short a time, I found myself getting increasing recognition from the critics' (234). Perhaps Roger Corman has managed to create a body of films which are popular and are art.
Corman himself is not convinced of this. He says, surely with some satisfaction but with some pathos too, 'I have the sense that serious critics have never really been able to pin me down' (234) because of his position outside of most definitions of propriety, and thus of art. And he has other evidence as well, evidence that he finds both traumatic and irrefutable. For, like the rest of us, he knows what art is; but, unlike most of us, Roger Corman has actually made some too.
My first seventeen pictures in a row were profitable until I lost money on an art film about racial segregation called The Intruder. I learned my lesson and almost never lost money on a film again. (ix)
Seventeen anonymous films are opposed by one, clearly and appropriately identified. Seventeen instances of popularity are opposed by one of unpopularity. Seventeen indices of trash are opposed by one of art. Seventeen dumb, unspeaking integers are opposed by a title that teaches the most important lesson ('my lesson'), the lesson that sticks. 1
If the book opened with an implication, however vaguely couched, that popularity and art might be found there happily inherent in the same things, this passage directly states the contrary. These words tell us, in no uncertain terms, that art loses money, that it is unpopular.
And we understand the story these words tell, just as we understood Corman's previous account, intuitively and without saying. This is a story of the One against the Many (Me versus Them), of art in its singularity, its uniqueness, art as intruder. The other story, the one about retrospectives and critics, is a story of community and recognition in which the Many see the One for what it truly is and make Me part of Them. There are no intruders in the first story; instead there are festivals.
Two commonsense understandings of art, then. One which allies art and individuality: personal expression, personal experience, something special and apart. And one which conceives of art as institutional: a matter of nomination, essentially social and historical. Surely it is in no way peculiar that both understandings would appear virtually side-by-side in any writing on the subject, for each is as culturally embedded as the other and anyone trying to tell the truth about art, as Corman is, however peripherally, should try to say both things of it, preferably at the same time.
My purpose here is to tell you two or three things that Roger knows about art, and to do that I shall have to unwrap what he tries to say all at once. First I want to show you how Corman knows that art is determined by institutions, not by personal taste.
The reviews were absolutely stunning. The Herald Tribune in New York said, 'This film is a major credit to the entire motion picture industry.'
We took The Intruder to the Venice Film Festival and won a prize. The film was also to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival that spring and it got invited to the Los Alamos International Peace Film Festival...(102)
The Intruder, then, was endorsed as a work of art by institutional subjects whose business it was to recognise, nominate, classify art. 'Reviews' were positive, the Herald Tribune spoke well of it, Venice bestowed an award upon it, Cannes was to present it, Los Alamos wanted to play host to it (and eventually gave it another prize).
The 'failure' of the film was, apparently, equally institutional, for 'the real jury - movie audiences - handed down a far more depressing verdict with the film's theatrical release' (103). But Corman cannot bear to tell us directly what this verdict was. Instead, he takes time to castigate a series of institutions for their part in the outcome of the real jury's deliberations.
At the inception of the project, Corman had shopped around for backing and a distribution deal, but the most significant outlets for independent production were not interested in a film about racial conflict: 'United Artists backed out: AIP [American International Pictures] wouldn't touch it. Allied Artists thought the topic was simply too controversial' (98). Institutional support, then, was lacking from the inception.
After the film was finished, the Production Code Administration for a time refused to give it a seal of approval because of racial epithets in the dialogue. In the early sixties the Production Code was presumed to wield considerable box office clout, and the absence of the Code's seal for an independently produced film distributed through a small organisation probably would have cut severely into rentals. Corman suggests darkly that the very institutional independence on which he prides himself elsewhere in the book was a key factor in The Intruder's failing to win Code approval, for 'the word [nigger] had been used in studio films for years' (103).
The film's small-time distributor, Path, gave up distributing movies before it got to The Intruder, and Corman's production company had to release the film itself - a task for which, of course, it was not properly prepared. An invisible, possibly governmental, certainly institutional, hand further queered the deal: 'When racial rioting broke out over James Meredith's registration at the University of Mississippi, the picture was withdrawn from Cannes' (103).
On the face of it, all this institutional hoodoo doesn't have much to do with whether Corman, or any other person, thought that The Intruder was art, but the way the book chooses to relate the incident, it clearly does - for these are the events recounted immediately after 'the real jury's' verdict is mentioned in the text. If people stayed away in droves, which is surely what is implied by the 'far more depressing verdict', its absence would seem to have been influenced, if not entirely produced, by the actions of the institutions indicted: United Artists, American International Pictures, Allied Artists, the Production Code Administration (acting for the major studios), Path, and (maybe) the United States government itself.
But the verdict of a festival jury makes art of a mere movie or, at least, plays an important role in that process. We cannot escape the implication that 'movie audiences', acting as a jury, did more than merely ensure The Intruder's financial failure, in the terms the book sets out. The judicial metaphor calls our attention to the aesthetic significance of the actions of audiences and begins to undermine the text's convictions about art and the clear distinction it has drawn between art and commerce. If only commercial and governmental institutions had not interfered, the judgement of cultural institutions might have been upheld. In some sense, art is being understood negatively as well as positively as the result of institutional operations.
Corman's story, if that is what it is, of the malign influence of institutions upon the artwork he had produced is not an uncommon one. It sometimes seems that every Australian film has failed to inspire its due recognition because of the inadequacies of local distributing and exhibiting institutions. At one time the high reputation of some popular Australian music was put down to an institutionalised (legal) requirement that radio stations feature a certain proportion of "Australian content". More recently that success has been attributed to the rather high prices that Australian consumers pay for recordings, another institutional effect. Even the musicians involved (and especially those who claim political correctness), have rallied to support the commercial and governmental institutions involved in these regulations, and by so doing, would seem to be ranking "talent" behind such institutional factors as forces for the creation and maintenance of art. This attitude is founded on the acceptance of a kind of aesthetic Darwinism in which the principles of rationalist economics are applied to cultural ends. The theory is that if institutional conditions are so manipulated as to produce "a level playing field", no matter what is sown there at least a hundred flowers will bloom, one or two of which will be worth picking and pressing.
In most stories of this sort, however, art maintains its integrity in the face of institutional assault. Corman's tale is different because of the massive crisis of confidence that The Intruder's 'failure' seems to have induced in him. The more usual narrative explains an artwork's inability to gain popularity as an instance of institutional dereliction. Its status as a genuine work of art is, if anything, enhanced by such a failure. Taste fails to recognise the merits of Van Gogh and he dies impoverished, yet all the while the paintings burn with a hard, gem-like flame. In Corman's book the institutional malfunctioning around The Intruder is not seized upon as an occasion to reinforce that film's claims to art. Instead, the filmmaker's indirect indictment of institutions prefaces a somewhat longer passage of self-searching, to determine 'what had gone wrong' (103-104).
In a sense, an important sense, this too is testimony to an institutional understanding of art. Corman searches within himself - but not for the specific, peculiar wellsprings of inspiration which may be his and his alone. Rather, he looks for causes, for triggers. He is trying to find out the lessons these events have to teach him. Not their meaning, thus, but the principles behind them. He wants to find out what the rules are and how he may have, however inadvertently, contravened them. And he does so through the institutional mechanism of Freudian psychoanalysis.
If one set of ideas connecting art and institutions does so by describing the roles institutions play in the definition of art (its recognition, nomination and classification), on another level art is institutionalised whenever it is presumed that there are rules pertinent to art which can be discovered and/or applied. Thus it is significant that Corman undertakes analysis not in order to get in touch with himself but in order to understand what the world is trying to teach him, that is, on the assumption that there are general rules governing human existence and that, presumably, at least some of those rules are related to the making (and/or marketing) of art.
'What had gone wrong' bears quite directly on the impossibility of popular art, on the conflicts, contradictions and paradoxes of that phrase. 'My mind had probably been channelled, if that's the right word, in a certain direction by the fact that my father had been an engineer,' Corman tells us (103). The 'certain direction' is not spelled out in this passage or anywhere else in the book, but we can assume that it has something to do with the institutional efficacy of Corman's film making, the profits he has seen, popularity in the sense of 'commercial'. But 'there were deeper issues in my life as well. I had been raised early as a Catholic and fallen away ... I had a spiritual void to deal with' (104). Catholicism, it almost goes without saying in this Freudian context, was his mother's religion (4). One could not wish for a more clear cut division between popularity and art as analogised in distinctions between hard-headed practicality and fuzzy-minded idealism, fathers and mothers, science and faith.
Corman had 'raced to enter [the] world' of movies and movie making, a world that he says 'was foreign to me' because of his background in engineering, but one for which his (patrimonial) degree in Industrial Engineering from Stanford, with its emphasis on 'efficiency and management' (9) proved him particularly well-prepared. Indeed, most of his book reads as though the efficiency and management we commonly associate with the institution of engineering are really the only things one needs in order never to lose a dime in the movie business. If movie making was 'foreign', then, it was not that side of things which made it so. Surely what was 'foreign' in this world was its connection with the imagination and with art - and surely it is not too far a jump from this to the other side of his psychic inheritance, his mother's side, with its lost (institutional) faith, a 'deeper issue', 'a spiritual void' not otherwise discussed in the book.
Corman Oedipally approaches art armed with engineering. He succeeds in engineering beyond his wildest dreams, but when he essays art, he fails, cannot answer the riddle. As Daddy's little man, he is the hero we all want to be, but as Mommy's boy he has been tested and found wanting. The conclusions of his institutionally-inspired inventory are unsparing, and they undercut almost entirely the assured assessment he had made earlier of The Intruder's claims to art. 'I could [have been] making better movies and working on a higher, more sophisticated artistic level,' he admits directly, and then muses about the motivations behind the maverick independent position he values so highly in most of the rest of the book.
Maybe I steered clear of the mainstream because of a fear of getting lost as an artist ... perhaps I equated the risk of entering the mainstream with losing my artistic or financial autonomy. Worse, it may have exposed me to failure, critical or commercial. (104)
It is commonly claimed that Freudian analysis, while providing explanations for all things according to universal rules of human behaviour, lacks "its own" standards of moral judgement and is thus likely to reproduce dominant ideology unless deliberately skewed in another direction. As I read the implicit results of Corman's self-examination, he judged himself according to the (institutional) standards of "the mainstream" and, unsurprisingly, found himself wanting. As I have reread these passages for you, I have recast them in a slightly different ideological frame, casting doubts on their too-easy acceptance of institutional norms and definitions and their near-elision of the art and faith they associate, so tenuously yet so clearly, with the filmmaker's mother. This is not a step that the text itself ever takes. Instead, the chapter ends with the following unequivocal assertion of institutional understanding, in which, let it be noted, the filmmaker's ratio of success to failure has nearly doubled, from 17:1 to 30:1:
I had a long unbeaten streak until The Intruder; even then, my won-lost record stood at something like thirty and one. There weren't too many other players in the game with numbers like that. (104)
The paragraph before this ends: 'I was obviously not particularly eager to take risks and set myself up for another beating', and indeed, the rest of the book only occasionally hints at risks that might have been. Roger Corman is quite well-known for a series of films based upon stories by Edgar Allan Poe, for example. He had begun that series the year before the production of The Intruder, and from the beginning of the series the literariness of Poe was overlain with psychoanalytic subtexts, parody, suspense-film formulas for surefire audience response and, in one instance at least, an even more arcane device for avoiding aesthetic commitment (77-94):
One reason I had waited [until 1963] to do Masque [of the Red Death] was Bergman's The Seventh Seal , in which Death, in a black-hooded robe, stalks the medieval Swedish countryside as a plague destroys the land. That setup resembled Masque. I figured Bergman must have read Masque as well and been somehow influenced by it. And The Seventh Seal remains one of the great pictures of all time. I was concerned that someone might say I copied Bergman, so I stayed away from the story for a few years. Masque was a surreal, philosophical tale set in medieval Italy ... (87)
Somewhat later, around 1965, Corman was under contract to Columbia, definitely a part of "the mainstream", and he proposed first A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and then In the Penal Colony to the studio. Of course, neither project was acceptable and, of course, he did not now attempt to make them independently (124-125). Such actions are cartooned examples of not setting one's self up for a beating, but they differ from what he did with The Intruder not only because no fiscal or psychic risks were taken, but because the inspirations of the projects were aesthetically risk-free as well. Each was taken from some instance of institutionally-defined art: Poe, Bergman, Joyce, Kafka. The wound opened by The Intruder's flop at the box office ultimately seems to have been a wound to Corman's sense of personal self-worth, anxiety amounting to a pathology of taste; and the treatment he prescribed for himself was, apparently, to avoid the purely personal thereafter, at least in the cinema, and to substitute for it the judgement of institutions.
If this is what he did, his reaction was certainly warranted, by thought as well as by custom. For, as Richard Shusterman argues in an extremely productive discussion of theories of art (Pragmatist Aesthetics 34-61), the most accepted philosophical idea of art today is 'as a historically defined socio-cultural practice' (43) - that is, in the loose sense in which I have been using the word, "institutional". This understanding assumes an artworld, an institution however informally constituted, which recognises, nominates and eventually evaluates artworks amid the plethora of things around us. A work is art, then, not so much because it burns with a hard, gem-like flame as because of an institutional declaration that it does.
As Shusterman points out, and as Corman's case seems to indicate, this is a powerful and persuasive understanding. It accounts very well for the circumstance that these days everyone knows what art is but none know what they really like. It is also the understanding of art adopted by consensus in the academic discipline of cultural studies, where I think it is accurate to say that "art" usually refers to an elite subcategory of "culture", itself a historically defined social practice. Acknowledging the utility of this understanding and its success as theory, Shusterman nonetheless points out a number of problems it engenders: it is merely descriptive, it is silent on the question of who or what determines the value of artworks, it accepts art's self-defined and increasingly narrow and esoteric focus, as well as its essential difference from real life and its understanding of itself as autonomous production or poesis (44-54).
My concerns with this formulation are both more arbitrary and more fundamental than Shusterman's. It seems to me that the accepted understanding of art and of culture exclusively as historically defined practice makes them subtensions of society, and consigns the study of art and culture to a branch of the study of society (sociology, anthropology). Yet surely it is reasonable to place one's objects of study at the conceptual centre of one's activities rather than presuming they are epiphenomena of another, hegemonic, way of thinking. Inasmuch as such an impulse is first of all intuitive, it is doubtless an arbitrary one, but inasmuch as it proposes a new centre for the study of culture (that is, culture itself), it is intended to have fundamental repercussions.
I am not aware of many models for thinking about culture culturally. The one which has the most attraction for me has been proposed and argued by Hans-Georg Gadamer in Truth and Method. Gadamer contrasts scientific and humanistic methods by identifying the former as involved with the discovery and articulation of generalities, rules or laws intended to explain why things happen as they do, and the latter as based upon specifics: specific works, specific events, specific experiences. Of historical research, for example, he says, 'however much general experience is involved, the aim is not to confirm and expand these general experiences in order to attain knowledge of a law, e.g., how men, peoples and states evolve, but to understand how this man, this people or this state is what it has become - more generally, how has it happened that this is so?' (6). The object of what Gadamer calls 'the human sciences' I would call "culture". Perhaps it would be prudent to point out here that, just as science infers generalities from specifics, the study of culture culturally must make use of generalities in its understanding of specifics. No one would claim that science is all generality and culture all specificity, and I hope to be able to demonstrate the importance of this banal caveat later in this article. 2
Clearly, in the terms I have just set up, the ideas about art associated with historically defined practice and the ones that so influenced Roger Corman are "scientific" - and insufficient. They do not seem so much wrong as not very productive. What they ignore, or explain inadequately, is something that appears important because of its specificity - for example, my specific reaction to "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?": what we call commonly, "the experience" of it. In the argument of Pragmatist Aesthetics, Shusterman is concerned to validate some of John Dewey's claims that art can be productively understood as experience as a supplement or in contrast to art as historically defined practice; and on some level, specificity, even individuality, is unavoidably implicated in Shusterman's argument as a part of what is missing in the idea of art as historically defined practice. Of course, the notion that art is something specific, usually understood as "personal" or "subjective", is just as common as the idea that art is institutionally defined, and I have been deploying it to contrast with an institutional understanding from the beginning of this piece.
Indeed, ideas of specificity, particularly in the sense of specific, personal experience, do play key roles in Corman's story about The Intruder as well.
Corman chooses to begin his chapter on the film by emphasising his personal commitment: 'The Intruder was the first film I directed from a deep political and social conviction' (97). This "art film", then, was from the outset a personal project. As we have seen, when the usual production institutions failed to provide financial support, Corman determined to produce the film himself, with help from his brother, and when Path wound up its distribution business the Cormans' company undertook to distribute The Intruder. He writes about all of this in terms of personal danger:
It was, by far, the biggest artistic and commercial risk of my career - a mostly self-financed, $80,000 black-and-white film about small-town racial prejudice that was shot on location in Missouri. (97)
There is a lot of information lurking in this simple, straightforward statement. First, the adjective 'artistic' is injected into the sentence in advance of its major concerns and seemingly abandoned there to fend for itself in a world of commerce. What was the big artistic 'risk' here? Apparently, as it turns out later, it was Corman's sense of personal self-worth. Yet here, as the details of financial risk are spelled-out, what seems significant is risk itself, a nameless danger that posits the film maker as One against the Rest: art as a specific, fraught enterprise. The sentence then moves swiftly to its thesis: the commercial risk (of art?). This film about contemporary racism was 'mostly self-financed'. With great economy and dispatch, entrepreneurial capitalism and leftish politics have been stitched together: each reinforcing the other's image of an individual against the broad conservatism of the world. But there is more. In the details of the enterprise, the nature of the specific industrial challenge Corman poses is spelled out. Not only is a more efficient professional practice implied by the $80,000 budget, but ('black-and-white... shot on location') also a kind of documentary realism, associated with Italian postwar cinema and still a sign of aesthetic and political commitment and of specific difference in the American cinema during the early sixties. Finally, specifying the location ('Missouri') adds an additional increment of personal risk: the film was made behind the lines, in hostile territory.
The text shores up this oppositional structure of specificity and generality in divers ways. For example, The Intruder functions as an integer in a significant autobiographical series illustrating the film maker's escalating commitment to art. Having completed The Fall of the House of Usher, the first of a number of films associated with the work of Edgar Allen Poe, Corman turns his attention to The Masque of the Red Death, inspired not only by Poe but also by Bergman, yet turns aside from that aesthetically ambitious task to make The Intruder, a more personal project (82). Later, with the release of The Wild Angels (1966), the autobiographical series based on aesthetic commitment is invoked once more as the dual demands of critical acclaim and box office success are both finally satisfied in a film about social matters involving some degree of personal risk (131-141). And the trauma of The Intruder figures as one of the motivations behind an even later decision to distribute bona fide "art films", including Cries and Whispers, Dersu Uzala and Breaker Morant, through Corman's company, New World Pictures (188-192).
The book's overall syntactical organisation is similarly influenced by the opposition of The Intruder to the rest of Corman's life. Chapter 8 (97-104) is entirely devoted to The Intruder. It is one of only two chapters devoted exclusively to single films. The other is Chapter 13, which discusses the making of Von Richthofen and Brown (169-177), the last movie Corman directed before the book was written, during the course of which he was married for the first, and only, time - personal milestones, indeed. The specific opposition seems significant on this level, for it is not an opposition of the author/narrator/film maker/protagonist against "the mainstream" or one of the other guises in which the rest of the world appears in this text, but rather an opposition of one of the author's works, The Intruder, against the others. This opposition extends even to Von Richthofen and Brown, which is hardly discussed as a film at all, and instead figures as the occasion of the ending of one phase and the beginning of another, in fact the ending of the period in which Corman cannot commit himself to anyone else and the beginning of the rest of his life (in some ways, the end of history for Roger Corman). The Intruder, then, stands out alone, as we sense that a work of art should, warranting our specific attention to its specific self.
I have already used some space in discussing the institutional alibis and remedies the film maker used to counter the personal cost of the film's financial failure, but it is well to remember that that cost was levied, first of all, in terms of personal experience.
At first I felt anger, then shock and deep discouragement. This was - and remains to this day - the greatest disappointment in my career. (103)
I have also described something of how Corman overtly sought explanations for the failure, mostly through institutionalised self-understanding. One of those explanations, however, is an imagination of others' experience. Corman imagines that the film's spectators may have experienced personal affront in the accuracy of The Intruder's reflection of themselves ('"This is a slam at us"', 103), confirming his film's specific ability to communicate powerfully to individuals as well as his own anti-establishment individualism.
The non-institutional specificity of art tends, in Corman's book as elsewhere, to slide into the specificity of all that is personal. This is what happens, for example, when personal commitment of an aesthetic and social nature results in box office failure and winds up in psychoanalysis, the results of which are diagnosis of a much wider problem of the self. Thus Corman's marriage is paired with directing his 'last' film as a response or symbiotic completion of his sense of personal lack following The Intruder.
But this book also contains another elision, one clearly pertinent in a discussion of popular art, and perhaps the underlying enigma of the knotted attitude towards art that the text evinces. A lacuna opens as personal conviction and aesthetic risk slide to their culmination (or come-uppance) in box office failure. How have art and the personal so easily allowed themselves to be judged by popular acceptance? Earlier, dealing with this intriguing line from an institutional point of view, I stressed a sense of opposition between art and box office, but there is equally here a sense of an alliance or identity between art and its public, in which public recognition absorbs, but does not entirely replace, private, personal judgement. In this understanding what is most significant is the way in which Corman's discernment is overwhelmed by that of the public and what goes wrong turns out to be something which we might think that a studio mogul or a record company executive might empathise with more easily than a film director. Corman misjudged the public's taste and in so doing misjudged the artistic value of what he had done. As he realised this, he unhesitatingly adopted the popular verdict as the correct one, moving into the place of the people by mimesis. He completed himself in the people. From that specific misjudgement and its result, we may tentatively formulate the general rule that the specificity of popular art is to be found in the nexus of the people and the person, in the popular exercise of individual taste, more certainly than in any individual and, I would say, more certainly than in the public acting by itself.
The result for Corman was, as we have seen, a retreat amounting almost to a rout on the part of that side of his aesthetic sensibility having to do with his own work. But it will not do to presume that, even on this level, his specific taste was utterly destroyed. Even as he substituted institutional judgements for his own by, for example, proposing to film Joyce or Kafka, the specific choice of material suggested a specific taste - a taste eventually far more certainly illustrated in the aesthetically and popularly successful film, The Wild Angels as it happens, than in The Intruder.
Popular taste or public judgement would seem logically to fall under the rubric of an institutional understanding of art, of historically defined practice. Yet I hope I have begun to muddy up the distinction between institution and individual, public and private, even as the writing to this point has been conventionally organised to consider them separately. Corman's case, particularly in the "enigma" of the way in which his taste is transformed into that of the public, seems exemplary to me partly because what he, like most of us (me, too), clearly thinks of as dichotomies keep melting into one another - simultaneously demonstrating thereby the analytic productiveness of bipolar thinking and its experiential insuff-iciency.
The point is important in a discussion of art because of the persuasive power of individual or experiential understandings of art based upon something that seems entirely personal: that moment of recognition when, in a famous phrase, something 'happens to us over and above our wanting and doing' (Gadamer xvi). Because this moment of aesthetic recognition happens so definitely within one's self, and because its judgements can be so inexplicably idiosyncratic, if for no other reason, there is a tendency to make aesthetic judgement something like the last bastion of the purely personal. Even Shusterman, whose agenda is avowedly a political one, discusses experience and historically defined practice separately rather than nutting out the ways in which they always already exist in combination.
Yet it seems to me undeniable that there is, there can be, no purely personal experience of art. By this I do not mean that there can be no purely personal experience at all, no (quasi) pre-communal understanding; only that art, like language, requires community as its precondition. By this I mean that there is a third term in any aesthetic relation. It is not simply a question of me and some object, let us say, as would be the case for raw perception or for desire, among other imaginable relations. No, for me to recognise something as art - that is, for something to have that kind of impact on me, for me to have an aesthetic experience - there is a detour through another place, an intepretant, that suffuses the experience.
What I am trying to describe is rudimentary culture at best, formed by that imagined community which springs into existence practically as we do ourselves. The experience of art does not demand a pre-existing community. It comes with the territory of being, which defines itself in relation to imagined others quite apart from any actual community or actual others. Without others I could not exist physically, but this is also so psychically or mentally. Consciousness, whatever else it may be, first presumes a complex of separation and identity if it is to make any sense at all. I have to distinguish myself from the rest of the world and recognise my affinity with it at the same time, if I am to exist. In so doing I am inevitably drawn into making community out of those vague sensations of otherness and sameness which are fundamental to existence. Art, in the absence of actual others, is an essential, perhaps the essential, recognition in this process. For to experience art is to experience community in the perfection of its absence. In that sense, art is the condition of humanity, it is what makes us human. 3
The experience of art is an understanding of community that originates in the cave of one's specific existence rather than on the sunlit plain of generalisation outside. It comes from the interior, not from the periphery. Most of the time in thinking about individuals and communities there is a tendency to imagine the self a lone explorer encountering an undiscovered tribe: consciously and unconsciously it observes, apprehends, interiorises what is out there and initially separate from it. This is acting as a scientist does in Gadamer's paradigm or as most people seem to imagine language is learned by children - finding out the rules through trial and error, learning to assimilate and accommodate larger patterns of behaviour. But the experience of art, as I understand it, suggests that these models are not sufficient. It suggests that culture and language are always as much inside as outside, that we can only understand the undiscovered tribe, only learn language, because on some level we already knew those things, knew them at least partly through aesthetic experience, perhaps the way Socrates tells us we must already know 'large' and 'small'.
In this (small) way I am making aesthetic experience something (a little) different from what it is usually made by those who understand art as Gadamer and Shusterman do. The payoff for those positions often seems to be an argument that art, real art, acts in some sense counter to the world we know about. The value of the worlds (real) art creates, in this understanding, is that they can be stacked up beside that one. Both Gadamer and Shusterman seem at bottom to be arguing the position that the actual importance of art lies in its powers of ostranie, of making the familiar strange, in order to recognise it properly. Shusterman's more overtly political writing makes of art a critique of what is actually happening in life (49-55; and in his fine discussion of rap, 201-235). Gadamer claims that 'everyone recognises that that is how things are' (102) in the transformed world a work of art shows us, for art shows things as they really are, rather than as they appear (101-103). For Gadamer and for Shusterman, art individuates, allows one to pull back from the community and to observe from a more distanced (and truer) perspective.
In the framework provided by their ideas, the claim of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" to be considered art would rest at least partly on the way in which it evokes a disturbing sense of longing coupled with euphoria, expressed by the pairing of Frankie Lymon's throat-tightening soprano with the infectious rhythmic impulse of the song, its arrangement and the record production. The world the record shows me is not the world I know, but perhaps there are elements of my experience of it I would wish were more common in the everyday. And through this experience of art, then, I may come to see the world more truly, and perhaps one day may act to make that truth actual.
Explanations of this sort have a great deal of credit in the highly-politicised field of discourse in which culture is usually discussed these days. This is so, not just because the idea of art as resistance fits so neatly with a whole panoply of interrelated arguments and relations, but surely because the idea does correspond with aesthetic experience or, at least, with an aspect of aesthetic experience of such importance that it can reasonably be understood as, or mistaken for, the essence of that experience. Yet, at the same time, there are aspects of one's experience of art that do not seem so thoroughly founded in opposition as all that. "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" opens the arms of the world to me as certainly as it provides me with a place from which to observe the world. It shows that outside there is something which corresponds to my inside. Indeed, there are persuasive arguments for understanding art as a co-optive force, an Ideological State Apparatus intended to cathect perceptions potentially dangerous to the powers-that-be. I sing and bop along with Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers instead of doing something more effective to concretise the fleeting world they make for me.
Another troubling feature of the assumption that the particular function of art is to illuminate my perception of the world is the tacit idea that the real world of everyday experience, cannot, or does not, provide such a critique of itself. Of course it does - and a perfectly adequate one, to boot. Daily existence is rife with contradiction and the unexplained. We do not need art to recognise the conflicts that enmesh us, the injustice, the repression to which we are all subject. The upshot of understanding art as fundamentally or finally a critique of everyday actuality is to make art dependent on that actuality, a subcategory of it. It suggests that in some crucial way the experience of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" is the same as the experience of falling in love like a fool, which in fact that artwork only calls upon but does not simulate. Art becomes, as it so often does, superfluous - mere illustration for a deeper, wider text. This is not such a bad thing if the only choice is to make the experience of art a part of the everyday or to link that experience with some form of privilege, but that is not the only choice. Art may be part of the everyday without being determined by it.
Moreover, the idea that art proposes a critique of actuality can, in a kind of traduction of its purpose, be used to explain why artworks fail to garner the audiences artists presumably hope for. Roger Corman invokes such criteria briefly when he imagines American movie viewers seeing themselves in the racists of The Intruder and rejecting the film because of that. The implication is that the film failed because it was, after all, a true work of art: holding a mirror up to nature and blinding all who gazed within. 4 There is something slightly loopy about an understanding of art which so readily accounts for failure and rejection, even elevating those reactions to the positions of defining criteria. I knew people in the sixties and seventies who were convinced that once the conditioning of bourgeois capitalism was removed everyone would be enthralled by the films of Godard/Gorin and Straub/Huillet just as the rest of us were, and that what most people could not stand right then was the truth those films were telling, because that truth was being expressed formally as well as uttered directly. These people, and many not nearly so extreme, seem to me to be mistaking a key element of the experience of art for a scientific rule and to be using it as the basis of a classificatory scheme. Thereby they traduce art by treating it as though it were science and, I think, reduce its potential political interest to the level of factional disputes about ideological correctness.
I think that there is a more accurate way of articulating what art provides that other experience does not, one which preserves what surely should be preserved of the immensely productive understanding of art's critique of the real, but may not lend itself so quickly to misappropriation and abuse. I think that there are two conflicting impulses at work in my experience of art. One is the compulsion to acknowledge a truth "beyond wanting and doing", a truth related to the truth articulated in metaphor. I shall call this "conviction". Another impulse, just as strong, is the recognition that what I am experiencing is, in the terms I understand from my everyday life, not actually happening. Gregory Bateson has given us a memorable summary of this part of aesthetic experience in his "Theory of Play and Fantasy": 'these actions ... do not denote what those actions for which they stand would denote' (152). Once when I was attempting to explicate these lines to some graduate students one of them said, 'Do you mean that art is a lie?', which was, of course, not at all what I thought I meant then, but certainly what I should have meant. In grateful homage to that extremely prescient person, I have since thought of that aspect of aesthetic experience as "the lie" of art. The resulting formulation, then, is a simple one, obeying this text's obsession with cheap paradox and internal contradiction: art is a convincing lie.
By this understanding, art is not to be confused with "reality" (which, in fact, it almost never is), but it is troubling to many because of its ability to tell the truth while remaining patently unreal. The idea that art creates other worlds that convince us of their "reality" for a time must surely provide the foundation for most notions of art as a critique of reality. However, the point is not the reality of such worlds but their truth: it is not that we mistake what art shows us for the real, but that we are convinced by it. (And this is what would distinguish an artwork from other replications as well.) Popular art, in particular, often appears to raise the question of the lie for many of those who write about it. They say they are concerned that popular culture lies (about violence or drugs or the State, and so on), but I think their real concern is often that popular art is telling the truth. That is, popular art's critics understand that art lies convincingly, but they are afraid that most people do not share their understanding.
Surely it is the impossibility of what art shows with such conviction that is most significant: art is a lie and it is the truth at the same time. A critique of reality provided by reality itself, as well as by realist or scientific readings of artworks, is founded on possibility and is, or must be, ultimately scientific in so far as it suggests general rules and principles different from those in current use. But the impossibility of what art shows suggests something at once utterly destructive and radically constructive. The worlds made by art are 'nowhere', to borrow a term productively deployed by Paul Ricoeur in his discussion of the dialectic of ideology and utopia (16-18, 299-314). Because the worlds made by art are unashamedly no place, they will always defy the place where we are by declaring their absolute alterity. Believing in the truth of art is always a defiance of what absolutely actually is, a sign of madness. Such a belief is not, in the main, constructive or worthwhile. When it is upheld as a principle of action, it is mainly an occasion of social, communal dissension and conflict, and it is so precisely because it insists upon the importance of virtues and vices and other impossible things which those who believe in them contend must take priority over what absolutely actually is.
If we take art's impossibility as axiomatic, then works usually said to "reaffirm existing values" may be placed alongside those presumably proposing a critique. Hegemonic works too propose impossible, convincing worlds - not any more impossible nor any more convincing than those deliberately constructed in opposition - in spite of their putative resemblance to aspects of the world we think we inhabit. Just as for the world of the radical critique, it is the conviction, the truth, of the created world that marks it as art, not its conformity, or lack of it, with the world we know. The distinction is finally, merely, a logical one, I guess. Clearly one way to be convinced of the truth of something is by its conformity to reality, but this is not the only way, or even the most effective way, to speak truth. I think it is important to acknowledge that "ideologically unsound" works also speak the truth (a truth, if you prefer), if only, or especially, because in matters of ideology the distinction between truth and reality does not seem to have been much discussed.
My experience of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" is a tension, an in-between. Convinced by its urgency, its lyricism, and the beat, acknowledging the lie of the utopia of its longing, its purity and the dancing that never stops, I cannot admit its power except by conceding its futility. It makes me think that lies and truth are more important than what is accurate and real, and that its hedonistic, unworking community is a proper model for what we do here on earth. It makes me know that my true life will never match what it shows me lying hard by. The political program of such an experience is based upon the impossibility of that experience and tends to be expressed in varying degrees of rebellion and resignation. Art cannot show me justice; it can only demonstrate, again and again, that the way I live is not as just as other ways I can imagine. Art will be in constant dispute with the real, and will be constantly defeated by its patent unreality at the very moment that reality is defeated by its mundane quiddity in the face of the dreams of art. If there is an imperative for conduct to be derived from such experience I suppose it must be the injunction to mount more convincing lies and to seek out more lying truths, but before that oppositional rule is understood too quickly, it would be wise to recall that it originates in a primal recognition of community and presumes that humanity is constituted by a common adherence to the impossible.
These are tremendous forces to be invoking in the name of such an insignificant thing as a popular music record. Perhaps popular art cannot support the weight of its substantive: art may be too much to expect. One of the commonest arguments against taking popular works seriously is that they are, partly or entirely, trivial; necessarily, or merely usually, superficial - thus, clearly, not art at all. Unlike, say, Messaien's Saint Fran½ois d'Assise, "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" says nothing I immediately recognise as profound or elevating about the human condition. If there is a critique of reality to be deciphered therein, it seems bound to be a facile one.
Shusterman devotes some time to rehearsing and answering the customary arguments adducing popular art's superficiality as a reason for its inferiority (185-188). Shusterman thinks that popular art - real popular art - is not (necessarily) superficial. And indeed, something which provides a trenchant critique of reality, as Shusterman says popular artworks can do, should hardly be called 'superficial'.
And yet I don't know. It seems to me that I have heard the arguments Shusterman is refuting before. When some Aesthetes, building on Aristotle, used to say that they were making "art for art's sake", other Keepers of the Flame chided the works produced for their triviality, adherence to form over content, wilful disregard of humanity's most meaningful questions. At the heart of this reaction and, I would argue, grounding the similar reaction against popular art, seems to be again the convincing impossibility of what art shows or, in less extreme fashion, the otherness of the worlds it makes. Those patently impossible worlds are shadows of statues that deflect their audiences' attention from what is patently possible; they trivialise the human potential. The root cause of the superficiality of the experience they provoke is, thus, their lack of correspondence with actuality, no matter how like real life any specific art-produced world may appear to be. And surely superficiality in aesthetic experience is also motivated by the cultural dopiness of art's audiences, whether Aesthetes or the People, that is, from the aesthete audience's preference for appearance over reality, for impossible easiness over real-life difficulty.
To the extent that such criticisms are based upon the impossibility of art, perhaps Shusterman is too hasty to deny them. He keeps on admitting that a lot of popular work is, indeed, superficial, worthless, and bad. As with many apologists for popular art, he doesn't want to be accused of lacking discrimination, so he says, for example, 'the products of popular art are often aesthetically wretched and lamentably unappealing...their social effects can be very noxious' (176) and 'too many mass-media products are boringly superficial and one-dimensional' (187). One cannot fault him for this, but I think it is regrettable that he understands these pervasive instances of badness as requiring apology and that he distances himself from them. It is exactly right that a lot of...most of...all of...popular art is trivial, superficial, meaningless, and bad. Its triviality is contingent upon its impossibility, and is, thus, of profound significance. Triviality, dumbness, emptiness, badness, stand as alternatives to the chilling gravity of what happens all around us everyday. They alert us to the burden of significance and seriousness, to the tyranny of being right and virtuous. Human visions of paradise have always constructed utopic nowheres in which the elect are perpetually engaged in occupations of mind-numbing triviality. This does not make paradise any less grand or any the less worth having.
If I am enraptured by such things as a techno-dance track called "This Is My House" or a Japanese comic, Battle Angel Alita, it is partly because of the triviality and the badness of what I hear and see in them. They stop me, call out to me, and they are...nothing - and less than nothing. Both are sexist as I understand today's standards (they represent women as occasions for male sexual desire). Alita, in addition, depicts violence over and over again in particularly grisly ways. I can find no lesson in them, nothing redeeming, nothing that means.
And that is, of course, their lesson and their redemption. For in them I learn what art is and how art redeems evil. Art makes what is trivial important, while never relinquishing its triviality. Art creates Meaning where there is nothing of substance. It makes evil trivial, just as it makes good trivial, and at the same time it raises the triviality it has made to the height of urgency. Art is profoundly, awfully, insignificant - beneath price, beneath value, or good or evil. Trash. But art will not let you go. Not trash, then, but junk.
Addictive, superficial, trivial, meaningless. Each word signifies something specific, certainly - but all are testament to my general diversion. Trivial works literally divert me, because they divert attention, time, effort from life, from the proper business of living, that is, from Betterment (mine, theirs, ours). Indeed, they are bad. Not, then, diversion from the everyday - for diversion is of the everyday, it happens every day - but diversion from an acknowledged profundity and significance which is, or ought to be, forever all around me, from seriousness, from a moral imperative (perhaps the imperative to morality itself). Diversion is, by definition, exception, a sojourn by the way. Our proper business, on the other hand, life's profundity and significance, is what is always already there: the flow, the path, the norm. This is a case of rules again, laws - that which is for everyone, constant and unchanging.
Art is a diversion from this eternity, an addictive tune intended to lure me from channels marked for a safe journey. Superficiality, triviality, meaninglessness are merely the clearest, most unequivocal, qualities of that bad tune. And they are the strongest political statements that popular art makes as well: for the politics of popular art opposes channels and constancy: it takes me off course, it leads me to the rocks and I'm having such a good time that I don't care. It diverts, yes: it tells me how much nicer things are over there, where I can really never be but where I ought to be, where we ought to be, where we are headed now, want to go - there, where we can do what we want all the time and no one will stop us, where they will do what they want to us all the time and no one can stop them, where we eat and are eaten, where we dream and are dreamed, where we rule and are ruled, where good and evil dwell, where we live from death and die of life itself - where things are bad.
This piece owes more to students, past and present, than other things I have written - especially to the student mentioned above, whose name I have, unforgivably, forgotten; to Toby Reed, who introduced me to Richard Shusterman's book; to Peter Kemp and Anna Dzenis, who read Gadamer with me for a while; and to Sue Turnbull, who also thinks that popular art is important. I must also thank Brian Shoesmith and Rick Thompson for telling me, so long ago, to write about popular art.
1. Actually, if you do the math, Corman's ratio of hits to flops, by his own accounting, is more like 15:1 than 17:1.
2. The whole of Truth and Method is concerned with staking out a particular kind of knowledge for the human sciences, but pp. 5-10, 58-63, 310-341 and 431-447 contain elements pertinent to the summary in the foregoing. Readers familiar with Gadamer's book will recognise the debt my work owes to it.
3. The reader will recognise here a hopeless jumble of Levinas, Bataille, Blanchot, Nancy, and even Bloch, grossly simplified and watered-down. I do not wish to hold these honoured names in any way responsible for the tarradiddle you have just read, but by the same token it would be misleading of me to keep silent about what has been misappropriated in the process.
4. I should like to acknowledge one source of this image, Lois Weber's sublime film, Hypocrites, which is about art and truth and other important, impossible matters.
Bateson, Gregory. "A Theory of Play and Fantasy". Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evo~lution and Epistemology. Frogmore, Herts: Pala~din, 1973. 150-166.
Corman, Roger and Jerome, Jim. How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. New York: Delta Books, 1991.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. New York: Crossroads, 1986.
Ricoeur, Paul. Lectures on Ideology and Utopia. Ed. George S. Taylor. New York: Columbia U P, 1986.
Shusterman, Richard. Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.
Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Rev. Ed. London: Flamingo, 1983.
New: 30 November, 1995 | Now: 23 March, 2015