Monday, April 27, 2009

Caillebotte and distinction

I went to the Caillebotte exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum and this engendered some thoughts which had already been percolating in my teaching of Bourdieu's 'Distinction" to my students at Lang. Owner of the points that arose in our discussion was Bourdieu's dissection or Sartre's self-presentation as an intellectual--that his portrayal--performance, as Judith Butler mgiht say--if himself as rejecting conventional bourgeois standards, of not fitting in, of the poignancy of his non-assimilation into the normative, was itself a struggle for a sort of comparative advantage, a seizure of a niche of distinction that would make him look special. No one is more the target of the theoretical generation of French intellectuals than Sartre, but even after taking out Bourdieu's local agenda the point is worth taking: the avant-garde was so successful precisely because it made its non-normativity normative, made conventional the embrace of the unconventional. Despite waves of postmodern irony, one still saw this in the presentation of Caillebotte. His association with the Impressionists was played up, he was made to seem an artistic rebel, even as the exhibition made clear that he was not only that. Caillebotte was not only one of France's leading painters, but its leading marine architect--in other words, builder of boats--and its leading yachtsman. It is as if Ted Turner, in the early 80s, had also been Robert Ryman and (whoever the leading American marine architect of that era was, which even I am not going to bother to find out). This is a consummate example of the late nineteenth-century yen for the artist as doer, the Jack London ideal, which is a little-noted complement to the aestheticism and experimental sexualities of that era: its coexistence wit hypermasculine, hyperengaged artists who also were figures of not only public notoriety but public action and responsibility. That, on the floor below the Caillebotte exhibition, Hernán Bas's work, consciously referring to late nineteenth-century aestheticism and decadence, and playing up its queer valences, while clearly enjoying financial and popular reward in a twenty-first--century Miami context, illustrates not just the inextricability of art and commerce but how the 'art' element is actually potentially overexaggerable for motives that if not immediately commercial are certainly strategic or positional and not 'intrinsic

So far so good for the Bourdieu model. it works well with modernist or existential aesthetics that try to assert that they have on prudential or expedient motives in mind; Bourdieu delights in goring their ox. But both the Caillebotte and Bas exhibitions also raised points that might vex Bourdieu's paradigm. If one were to choose Caillebotte over, say, Bonnard at the Met (and oddly the actual feel of the paintings, the sense of their harboring a beneficent, open, minutely observed and felt world was similar) one might do so out of a kind of deliberate cheesiness: wanting to see the more hybrid, commercial artist, wanting to see the artist whose less ascetic choice of lifestyle promised a relief from aesthetic rigor. As I said to my Lang students on Wednesday, this is the same motive that leads people to croon over pop songs from the 70s and 80s that they know are not great artistically: there is the sense of them having bene undervalued by snobs, as Caillebotte would have been by a "Greenbergian' aesthetic, and so there is a guilty pleasure in unearthing them. This coolness of the cheesy is something Bourdieu does not discuss in detail, though at times he gestures at it, as in his example of the guy who drives Rolls-Royce but takes the Metro. This up-front cheesiness seems necessarily connected to the unleashing of free-market capitalism in the West after 1980, which Bourdieu, writing from a society that was more statist and hierarchical anyway, and in a time--the 1960s and 1970s--when a mixed economy seemed a permanent given in Europe and America, seems oddly innocent of in his discourse. Our reality in the past thirty years has given another twist of the screw to Bourdieu--and this was something my students were very much aware of even as they appreciated his excavation of the latest motives of situational taste in the assertions of artistic value.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The G20

I have been thinking about the G20--not the summit itself, but the very idea of the G20 as an organization.

This organization, it is no exaggeration, somehow grew in prominence by stealth, but now after just under six years of existence it is perhaps the most effective international group imaginable, as it includes the mot powerful nations of the world, all of them, in one way or another. I am, though, here only interested in its composition, and the principles of that composition: who is left in, who left out, who qualifies.

First of all, there are only 19 member nations; the European union is also a member, And here if the G20 was actually a rule-making body, if it had any regulatory or fiduciary responsibility, there would and should be objections; after all, EU member states Germany, France, Italy, and Britain are all members, so EU membership is like both the USSR and Ukraine being members of the 1945-1991 UN, or both California and the US being members of the G20 now. (I am sure California is bigger economically than several G20 member states). Again, if the G20 were functionally rather than pragmatically important, other regional/federative groups would rightly claimed disenfranchisement. One could say EU membership in the G20 is to represent the smaller EU members, the recently admitted states, but this then implies that these states need the EU, are dependent on it, but the Big Four do not.

This is reminiscent of the debate inspired by the separate memberships of the English-speaking Dominions in the :league of Nations after World War I: but one of those nations is here absent: New Zealand. Canada, Australia, and (a now happily multiracial_ South Africa are all members, all judged to be among the 20 biggest economies, but new Zealand is not. White and English-speaking, yet it is among the shut-out. Although Canada was routinely criticized for not really being up to membership in the G7/G8, it is felt that being among the G20 is its proper rank, and there was only a slight sense of pushiness about Stephen Harper’s inevitable swanning-around on those second-rank US cable networks that would have him at the summit. But Canada is among the circle of the privileged; the trek across the border from British Columbia to Bellingham, WA is requires no upward step in terms of conglomerate economic power. Not so the Tasman Sea: and no wonder the continual exodus of New Zealanders to Australia, which is not a political or cultural exodus, but an economic one.

To be a Muslim nation in the G20, one has ot either have oil (Indonesia, Saudi Arabia) or not be Arab and be partially European (Turkey). Saudi Arabia's presence is almost ludicrous; as an economic power, it is like the Cleveland Cavaliers if no one but LeBron James were on the team. South Korea's inclusion is justified, and also helps provide a bridge between China and Japan, but also conjures a host of other possible claimants. Taiwan might well be in the next ten; but it will never be the G30 because China would protest that. Who would have thought thirty years ago that China would be not only politically but economically more powerful than Japan?

If Iran were in dialogue with the Western world, it would be, and deserve to be, a member. And one would think Nigeria is certainly knocking on the door as well, or will be after a few more years of relative stability and economic growth.

As for the Latin American states, if you are not Mexico or one of the ABC countries (Argentina, Brazil, and Chile_--in other words, if you are an Andean or Central American country, you are out of luck. One sees why a lot of the countries thus excluded are electing more radical governments, and why such organizations as UNASUR may be appealing as vehicles ot pack more collective weight--although one doubts that any other federative group will be members alongside the EU--unless that is you count the US.