When I talk about art, I think it’s important to understand first that I think art is a fundamentally proletarian thing to do. By this, I mean that art is something that all people have the capacity to do, that all people can intrinsically participate in. There is no barrier to entry to be an artist, there are no qualifications required.
Qualification and scholarship
Like any activity that can be undertaken, art has associated skills that can be trained. Art schools, writer’s workshops and such are important for developing those skills, but we should always remain alert to Gramsci‘s warning that the formalization of intellectual life into schools and narrow disciplines serves only hegemony. As artists are schooled and formalized they become intellectuals who, “are the dominant group’s ‘deputies’ exercising the subaltern functions of social hegemony and political government.”
Of particular interest to Gramsci is the way in which formal education into hegemonic systems allows for the arising of a false sort of, “spontaneous consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group.”
Or, as Assata Shakur said much more plainly, “No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them.”
As such, while formal schooling in art can lead to the improvement of technical skill and intellectual study which can, in turn, allow an artist to create better art, this is neither a guaranteed path nor one without its dangers. After all, channeling artistic impulses down specific canals cuts off other possible avenues of exploration.
Gramsci and Shakur both believed it was necessary, in a revolutionary context, for the oppressed classes to bring about, within themselves, a specifically proletarian intellectualism that spoke with the voice of the oppressed. This would arise through auto-didacticism, study groups and other forms of mutual and shared communities of study and critique. Within art, this speaks to the necessity of oppressed people to speak in their voice about their struggles. Authors like Barker are critical within queer spaces because their art arises from the dark places of oppression that are the shared understanding of the non-straight to what we now call cisheteronormatvity – the hegemony of desire within the anglosphere that predominated in the late-20th century, when he began writing.
The arising of such queer voices is a necessary and critical thing. And it has been instrumental for weakening the hegemonic power of dominant institutions. However it does not follow that an artist must only speak with their own voice to create good art. Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is a good work of art. It is thoughtful, thorough and has interesting things to say. Its characters are voiced in a sincere manner that treats them first as realized people rather than tropes. It achieves the principal artistic objective of communicating something novel about the world.
But its credited creators are a pair of white men, despite the subjects of the story being people of colour and mostly girls. There’s no talk of license here. There’s no talk of qualification. It’s not that Barker and his ilk have an exclusive qualification to speak to the queer experience, it’s that those voices that come from within oppressed groups are necessary and deserving of critical and audience attention.
The failure to put own-voice authors forward does not come from artists creating art outside of their lane. It comes from editors, publishers, and critics failing to give them the attention they are due, and it must be viewed as a systemic problem rather than one of an individual, personal, failure. As such, it’s very frustrating to see advice given to artists that they should see themselves as unqualified to create this work or that on the basis of an intrinsic lack. This misses the point of organic scholarship, it, in fact, inverts the relationship and seeks to exclude people from creating art rather than seeking to break down the hegemonic systems that create that exclusion.
The exclusion is, in fact, the problem. Just as factory workers and their experience was excluded from the intellectual games of the bourgeois, so too are the experiences of queer people, women, people of colour, disabled people and people who suffer under systemic oppression excluded from the hegemonic understanding of art on the basis of the superstructure of art. As such, a library administrator who caves to public pressure and cancels drag queen story events and an algorithm trained on a dataset that assumes queer media is intrinsically more adult than heterosexual media are far more pressing problems than a straight artist writing about the gays.
The liberal response is to try and make a bigger tent – to identify those ways in which the existing superstructure can be modified in order to allow the inclusion of previously excluded subjects. This is toward the good as far as it goes. However, these modular adjustments to the superstructure ultimately fail to address the presence of a base condition which will reproduce hegemonic exclusion in new and novel forms. Or which will only allow the inclusion of oppressed voices by taming them and slotting them into a worldview that will not disrupt hegemony.
The Marxist suggestion is to, instead, create a rival superstructure. Gramsci was a university drop-out. He was also deeply and fundamentally committed to working class people making contributions to explicitly working class bodies of knowledge. Gramsci believed we could create an epistemological rupture by operating within these processes of organic scholarship which required, as part of their basis, systems of dissemination, communication, critique and response that had to operate explicitly within the interests of the class of people it served.
To return it to the art world, it was essential not just that there be queer authors but also queer agents, editors, publishers, distributors, booksellers, and in fact queer understandings of the nature of literature and its communication.
Art and quality
Of course although we champion difference within art we cannot reject quality. For this, I want to turn to Kierkegaard. And, especially as this essay is principally situating itself within discussion of queer representation, I do want to start by mentioning that I use Kierkegaard for value here particularly because he represents one of the key antecedents to what we understand as queer theory.
There’s a small body of historicism suggesting that Kierkegaard was, himself, not straight. But he’d caution us away from making any declarative statements about his identity. And this is part of the thing. Kierkegaard saw identity as a matter of deep personal anxiety. Authenticity was a goal but even a person living an authentic life could not be certain they were, in fact, being authentic. Nor could they communicate a state of authenticity to any outside party. Instead, a person had to live with the anxiety and doubt intrinsic to being and to leap over the leveling scythe of (dialectical) reason toward authenticity.
Kierkegaard was worried that dialectics destroyed value. So let’s back up once again to describe what dialectics, and particularly the Hegelian dialectics that informs the Marxists I discussed above, is. The common-repeated mantra of thesis-antithesis-synthesis does not derive from Hegel. Instead it was the work of a contemporary German idealist, Fichte. This error, attributing Fichte’s dialectic to Hegel and via him to Marx and the Marxists has given rise to the hilariously misinformed “problem-reaction-solution” interpretation of dialectics put forward mostly by David Icke. I bring up these mistakes in dialectics because in understanding why Kierkegaard criticized dialectics specifically on the quality of value it is first necessary to understand what the predominant Hegelian dialectic was.
The simplest way to describe the Hegelian dialectic is to imagine a magnet. It has a left pole and a right pole. But it is one magnet. If you cut the magnet in half you get two magnets each with a left and a right pole and not two magnetic monopoles. Hegelian dialectics was in fact a manner of observing how phenomena contain their own negation or opposite such that everything can sort of fold-upward to oneness: a singular universal phenomenon which contains everything and thus is everything.
But if everything is just one then nothing has value. Art, to be valuable within a dialectical model, must also be worthless. This worried Kierkegaard greatly. And it should worry artists too because once we reject that formal artistic training is the source of value in art, as we must if we are to adopt a position that favours organic scholarship, we have to reject that the value of art comes from the labour of formal education. We could decide to assign art a value based on market forces. But I have detailed elsewhere how dependence on a market to define artistic value is corrosive. The challenge before us is to devise an artistic value that allows for difference and that allows for the many.
In the introduction to Difference and Repetition, Deleuze proposes a solution in Kierkegaard that might suffice us here:
Furthermore, if repetition concerns the most interior element of the will, this is because everything changes around the will, in accordance with the law of nature. According to the law of nature, repetition is impossible. For this reason, Kierkegaard condemns as aesthetic repetition every attempt to obtain repetition from the laws of nature by identifying with the legislative principle, whether in the Epicurean or the Stoic manner.
Deleuze has a great deal more to say on the topics of difference, and I’ve already alluded to that somewhat through my references to Bataille and Deleuze in previous essays. However for the purpose of establishing a sense that art can have value discrete from market value it is enough to propose a rough draft for a method of assessing good art:
- Does it overcome its antinomies sufficiently to communicate a message?
- Is the communicated message aesthetically pleasing?
- Is the communication novel?
- Is the communication authentic?
Grounding art in difference requires us to concede that all art contains within it antinomies that must be reconciled in some way. In Cabal, Lori is the subject who desires. As the book centers around the idea of being monstrous, this situates Lori in the fundamentally queer position of desiring monstrosity, of (if we do away with the metaphor) wanting to be queer. However, in the film adaptation, the scene where Lori tours Midian, which in the book is central for showing us her desire for monstrosity, sits more external and Lori is presented as an intruding outsider, a metaphor for the gentrifying gaze of the hets in love with this strange community, wanting to save it, and damning it in the process. The intertextual relationship between the film and the book are such that this becomes like a magic-eye picture. Once seen her intrusion is there in the book too. Once seen her desire to be a monster is there in the film too.
These different reads of Lori must coexist within the text. And they are at odds with each other but they are not each other’s negation. In both cases, Lori’s desire is central. The difference arises in whether her desire represents a homecoming or an intrusion. And these two are not opposites that negate into unity. If we affirm difference is we must accept that any text will contain such dialectically incomplete contradictions. As such, the irreconcilable and irreducible differences of a text will act as a form of semiotic interference. If the interference is so great that nothing is communicated by the art, it is not good art.
Aesthetic pleasure is a more challenging question as it is bound so closely to subjectivity. I previously touched on the difficulty of assigning beauty in my moral case for spoilers, and I think that using a position of moral judgment may be useful for ascertaining what an aesthetically pleasing communication might resemble. If we deny that there is a clear and delineated boundary between the good and the beautiful we eventually concede that at least some moral arguments are sufficiently aesthetic for them to hold some weight in assigning value to art. However morality, like aesthetics, remains a subjective concern. I might find it morally repugnant to euthanize stray cats. Someone else might find it morally repugnant to keep them alive when they predate local bird populations. We might situate De Beauvoir’s demand that we serve a movement toward an open future as an ethical absolute, especially since it also serves our rejection of the One in favour of difference well; but beyond these highly abstract ethical requirements the ambiguity of the situation interferes and leaves this an area up to the interpretation of the critic to respond and call this or that work good through their ability to articulate their aesthetic response to it.
Squaring the circle of novelty and repetition remains one of my central aesthetic concerns. The truth is that the repetitive and parodic character of art is inescapable. Bataille went so far as to say, “the world is purely parodic, in other words, that each thing seen is the parody of another,” and if the whole world is a sequence of parodies then art can hardly escape. So where do we find novelty but in those things that transform within the process of iteration. This is why it is so essential to grasp the loving destruction of the artistic mode of engaging with art. Each artwork is a parody of other art it is, as Bataille said, “the same thing in a deceptive form.” Each artwork however introduces differences, and in the pattern of these differences arises novelty. An artwork must be a transformation and not just a repetition back of precisely the same thing it was before. There is no artistry in disassembling a chair, laying all the pieces out and then reassembling again the precise same chair. Nothing was transformed, it merely underwent a change and then was restored. And so we begin to see a definition of good art accrete out of these definitions: good art creates an aesthetically pleasing pattern of difference from that which came before, and this pattern encodes a message powerful enough to overcome the contradictions that are intrinsic to any system that rejects the One.
But then there is the final question of authenticity – and as you may recall from when I touched on this before – Kierkegaard believes authenticity to be incommunicable and ultimately a vector of self-doubt that can only be overcome through irrational faith. A personal example: as one reading these essays can likely tell I care a great deal about queer representation in art. I am myself openly bisexual and find great significance in exploring those aspects of who I am. However I was closeted for a long time, and being closeted is easy. I married a woman. This isn’t at all uncommon for bisexual men. Many of us are monogamous or at least indifferent enough to the question of monogamy and polyamory to find comfort in a monogamous relationship. And based on simple demography the likelihood that a monogamously-inclined bisexual is to end up in a long-term relationship with a heterosexual partner or with a partner with whom the relationship maintains the veneer of het-passing (IE: with partners who are trans or non-binary but present enough like cis members of the opposite sex to pass and bisexual partners of the opposite sex) is approximately eight times greater than for such a person to end up in a non-het-passing long term relationship assuming the subject has no preferences regarding partner sex or gender whatsoever. Frankly, there’s simply a lot more heterosexuals than there are us queers. While closeted there were occasions when I wanted to submit art to queer calls for work and did not because I didn’t feel my bisexuality was authentic-enough. The truth is that I could have been a member of a sense8 cluster and still probably have reason to doubt if I was queer enough to be in queer spaces because bisexuality is a liminal condition that thrives and sustains itself on the same ambiguity that leaves space for doubt to undermine authenticity.
Nobody but the artist can know whether an artistic expression is authentic and even the artist will have cause to doubt. “Perhaps I only painted it that way because I was watching a video about Matisse, that day. Maybe it’s not really what I meant to make.” And yet, authenticity is necessary for good art.
A critic, called upon to judge a work may very well instead attempt to apply an heuristic. One is to substitute this last question for a reiteration of the second: but did this communication please me? Did I, the audience, have an authentic reaction to it? This is probably the correct approach. The second is to deny that an artist might possibly be authentic. This dismissive attitude says, well it’s just a parody of something better after all. Or it says, this artist couldn’t possibly have made this art. This sort of a priori assumption about authenticity should be avoided by a good critic as the critical moment only arises after exposure to the text.
Risk and the hostile critic
So far this might seem like a defense of problematic art. And it is insofar as my personal aesthetic sentiment is such that art which problematizes nothing is generally boring. Remember to problematize something is to force additional questions, to dig deeper to get to the roots, the mycelia and rhizomatic stems, that undergird the phenomena of the world. However this must not be taken as a defense of bad art nor of systems that allow for the creation of bad art. Frankly most colloquial uses of, “problematic,” could easily be replaced with, “bad,” and would be better arguments for their clarity.
Rather it is a matter of addressing the apportionment of blame. A bad artist is not to blame for failing to realize his art communicates ugly ideas, or communicates in such a muddled way that it communicates nothing, or is just an inferior copy of a better work. A bad artist is even not to be blamed for failing to realize that his work is hollow because, well, we all might be hollow. But presentation of art includes an implicit contract: the artist must be willing to expose their work to the critic and, more horrifying still, to other artists. An artist, who has put out a work of art, has nobody to blame but themselves if critics engage with the art and say cruel things about it. They have nobody to blame but themselves if other artists make cruel transformations. Critics owe art their attention. They owe artists nothing. Art is built upon the violence of transformation and the art community is rarely nice. Although these cruelties and schisms are often decried as being a wrong thing, they are in fact part of what art is. In Desert Islands and Other Texts, Deleuze said, “Good destruction requires love,” and that’s true. Love is as indivisible from art as cruelty, but there is cruelty in these destructive acts, and it, too is indivisible from art.
And now we should return to the idea of a rival superstructure because what we are doing here is effectively an artistic project. The creation of a queer artistic superstructure includes within it the loving destruction of the straight one. And that loving destruction will look like appropriating their queer coded villains, it will look like excluding straights from anthologies and it will look like the sort of critical action that led to Laura Mixon’s wrong-headed and mean-spirited Hugo award winning complaint. It will look like a disregard for copyright law and it will look like a refusal on the part of oppressed artists, critics and fans to accept the demand we behave in accordance with the decorum necessary to be allowed to remain in the big tent.
This, therefore is the artistic gamble:
To move art toward the open future we must deny no artist the right to create art. There is no qualification to be set. There is no barrier to entry. But when hegemony silences oppressed artists, it is right for them to create structures hostile to the hegemonic. As a critic we have a duty to grapple with art before we review and not to pre-judge it. But we likewise have a duty to be cruel when we must. As artists we must love art. And we must destroy it. There is no artistic unity. All that there is, is difference. But herein lies the path to us creating a value for art aside from the market or the demands of formality. By recognizing that some differences please us and others do not, we affirm that art has significance, has meaning, has value that goes beyond numbers in a ledger.