… Our culture is one that seems to operate by a rule of reflex that is at once its chagrin and its hope: nothing so sacred that it may not be made profane — but also nothing so profane that it may not be made sacred.
… In the study of modern art and popular culture, it’s often been taken for granted that the ultimate goal is to search past the diversity of individual creations for the realities that lie behind the appearances of things — the categories that are supposedly the real stuff of history. In those searches for governing patterns or underlying essences, the particulars of local events, or the complex nature of a given work and a given creator, are typically pushed aside as anecdotal peculiarities, significant only because they may reveal something about the real nature of the “modernist project” or of “mass society.”
[line break added] For all the impassioned and even violent political differences that separate rival schools of interpretation, almost all are united by some kind of faith that modernity has what Mayr called an eidos, andd that this eidos is the real and most profound subject of debate.
But such intellectual exercises, undertaken with the announced purpose of restoring art to history, betray the unruly details which make history matter. By emphasizing small stories about people and objects instead of big abstractions about terms and categories, we set out to replace mute complacent generalities with the eloquence of peculiar facts.
[line break added] And what we have seen in these pages is not an encounter between an immutable ideal of “high” or serious art and an equally unvarying “low” culture. Instead we have seen that high art in our century, far from having a unified “project” or direction, has always included the most disparate attitudes, intentions, gestures, and critiques, and that the forms and intentions of advertising, graffiti, or comics have been diverse and subject to varying rhythms of change.
[line break added] Between these two general zones there has been, instead of a rigidly fixed line, a constant series of transgressions and redirections, in which the act of an individual imagination has been able to alter in a moment the structure of the high-to-low relationship. Schwitters picks up a tram ticket and sees in it a component of his art; as a result our ideas about tram tickets, and our ideas about art, change.
… No less than the growth of consumer culture or the advent of entertainment industries, the development of modern art has been entwined with the messy avidity of modern bourgeois society, which has constantly put a premium on novelty and the assimilation of change. The greatest as well as the most demeaned productions on the wheel of interchange [between high and low art] have been the marks of this friction and grinding.
[line break added] Every attempt to quarantine what we like from what we don’t seems doomed to betray the often reckless and seamy vitality of the history of art in this era. Our culture is one that seems to operate by a rule of reflex that is at once its chagrin and its hope: nothing so sacred that it may not be made profane — but also nothing so profane that it may not be made sacred.
My most recent previous post from this book is here.