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Heinlein as pop artist/flaming genius god 
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Heinlein Biographer

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Post Heinlein as pop artist/flaming genius god
I'm reading through Maps and Legends, Michael Chabon's just-published book of essays and tucked away in a piece on graphic novelist Howard Chaykin I find one of the best encomiums to pulp not written about pulp I've ever come across, and some of the most provocative writing about Heinlein that is not about Heinlein.

He begins [97] by saying, "In a popular medium that needs to label everyone a journeyman hack or a flaming genius god . . . Howard Chaykin is something else: a craftsman, an artisan of pop:
* * *
" . . . one of the best things about popular media is that, within their capital-and calendar-driven confines, sometimes a hack, half by accident [98] can turn out someting haunting, dreamy, or beautiful. What I'm talking about is a kind -- the toughest kind -- of balancing act. Taking pains, working hard, not flaunting his or her chops so much as relying on them, the pop artisan teeters on a fine fulcrum between the stern, sell-the-product morality of the workhorse and the artist's urge to discover a pattern in, or derive a meaning from, the random facts of the world . . . .

"The pop artisan operates within the received formulas -- gangster movie, radio-ready A-side, space opera -- and then incorporates into the style, manner, and mood of the work bits and pieces derived from all the aesthetic movements he or she has ever fallen in love with in other movies or songs or novels, whether hackwork or genius (without regard for and sometimes without consciousness of any difference between the two) . . . When it works, what you get is not a collection of references, quotes, allusions, and cribs but a whole, seamless thing, both familiar and new: a record of the consciousness that was busy falling in love with those moments in the first place. It's that filtering conscioiusness, coupled with the physical ability (or whatever it is) to flat-out play or sing or write or draw, that transforms the fragments and jetsam and familiar pieces into something fresh and unheard of. If that sounds a lot like [99] what flaming genius gods are supposed to be up to, then here's a distinction: the pop artisan is always hoping that, in the end, the thing is going to fucking kill. He is hanted bya vision of pop perfection: heartbreaking beauty that moves units . . . . "

Man, I've never heard it sais so right. Righteous right, tzadik right.


Thu Dec 02, 2010 7:49 pm
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Heinlein Nexus

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Post Re: Heinlein as pop artist/flaming genius god
I was thinking the same thing, Bill. All of Chabon's stuff is well worth reading. My only complaint about the book is that it was packaged more as a manifesto, and what it is, is simply a set of disconnected essays. I would have preferred him to put down a more organized response to the issues he's raising.


Tue Dec 07, 2010 6:33 am
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Post Re: Heinlein as pop artist/flaming genius god
I've heard Chabon talk twice, both times at the San Diego Comicon. The first time was after Kavalier and Clay was published. The second time he and Will Eisner were just going back and forth over whatever tickled them. Definitely a writer who is aware of what has come before and enjoys genre.

Rob


Tue Dec 07, 2010 7:31 pm
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Heinlein Biographer

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Post Re: Heinlein as pop artist/flaming genius god
RobertJames wrote:
I was thinking the same thing, Bill. All of Chabon's stuff is well worth reading. My only complaint about the book is that it was packaged more as a manifesto, and what it is, is simply a set of disconnected essays. I would have preferred him to put down a more organized response to the issues he's raising.

I suspect we'll be seing more along these lines. In the two years since the book was published, it's gotten nothing but positive responses -- I think the Dead Old Guard is napping.

The one criticism I would make is that there's far too much "graphic novel criticism" for a book this size. Chabon falls to the meta-critical failing of forest-trees. Anyone who specializes this way stands in danger of mistaking the boundaries of his microcosm for the edges of the universe. A simple acknowledgment that the graphic novel is a narrowly circumscribed and highly conventionalize format wouldn't have hurt. He shows familiarity with a fair amount of experimental post-modernist writing, but not much in the way of that insight makes it into his comic book/graphic-novel criticism.

On the other hand, this kind of thing worked for Susan Sontag . . . for some values of "worked."


Wed Dec 08, 2010 7:04 am
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Post Re: Heinlein as pop artist/flaming genius god
Most of the great artists wanted to be accessible. Elitist art that revels in being unpopular is the historical anomaly.

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Wed Dec 08, 2010 11:34 am
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Post Re: Heinlein as pop artist/flaming genius god
georule wrote:
Most of the great artists wanted to be accessible. Elitist art that revels in being unpopular is the historical anomaly.

Hmm.

Hmm.

I concur 100%. Whatever "art" is about, it is fundamentally communication. Deliberately obscuring your message is counterproductive and ultimately self-defeating.

This is not about art that is unpopular; nearly every innovation in art has been deeply unpopular for some period of time. It's about art that is deliberately and snobbishly aimed at an in-group at the expense of wider communication.

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Wed Dec 08, 2010 11:38 am
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Post Re: Heinlein as pop artist/flaming genius god
Of course I meant "unpopular" not in the sense of "Yeah, I get it --and I hate it" but in the sense of "wtf?" or the blank stare or even "yawn!".

And obviously some great artists are less accessible than others, not from a desire to tickle only the in-group, but because the crazy spot in their brain that forms their art is what it is.

Or as Stephen King once responded to a lady who asked him why he wrote horror stories --"What makes you think I have a choice?"

Or to say it another way, usually audiences are more often deliberately elitist rather than the artist him/herself. . .

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Wed Dec 08, 2010 12:11 pm
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Heinlein Nexus

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Post Re: Heinlein as pop artist/flaming genius god
Actually, art as elitism is the norm, not the exception.

Historically, art was the province of the rich. Patronage was necessary; while the Renaissance did have its public displays, much of it was private (the Sistine Chapel was not open to the public, iirc, until much later -- it is the Pope's private chapel).

The nineteenth century saw the rise of mass, popular art, and there was considerable scorn towards much of it, then as now. High art and low art are terms created by critics out to define such things; the artists themselves usually wanted the rewards that came from popularity, because it granted them financial and artistic independence. But the conflict between art and commerce is one of the factors in creating modernism, which openly and defiantly defied popular acceptance as a goal (even as many did harbor secret desires for popularity).

Anybody who thinks Pound's "Cantos" or Eliot's "The Wasteland" is aimed at popularity is a fool.

The modernists believed the world was destroying itself; their works were intended as their own private utterances, and if you wanted to be a part of them, you had to learn their language, their symbology. You had to work at it.

James Joyce was once asked about Finnegan's Wake what he expected from his readers: "I spent twenty years writing it. I expect them to spend twenty years reading it."

College professors choose works that require their presence to understand; works that are accessible don't produce tenure.

Accessibility does not equal literature, as a result, in most college courses.

Hemingway barely hangs on; Steinbeck is gone, except in history classes.

Depressing, but true.

Robert


Wed Dec 08, 2010 2:01 pm
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Post Re: Heinlein as pop artist/flaming genius god
RobertJames wrote:
James Joyce was once asked about Finnegan's Wake what he expected from his readers: "I spent twenty years writing it. I expect them to spend twenty years reading it."


Fair enough, as long as those twenty years are enjoyable and not some literary death march.


Wed Dec 08, 2010 6:40 pm
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Heinlein Biographer

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Post Re: Heinlein as pop artist/flaming genius god
RobertJames wrote:
Actually, art as elitism is the norm, not the exception.
<snip lots of good stuff>

I will say, though, that this is really not what Geo and Jim seem to me to be talking about.

"Accessibility" in the sense of "is it even intelligible without special training" wasn't even a question until the middle third of the 20th century, and there is something fundamentally pathological, I think, about attempting to rest the entire valuation of a work on narrow technical issues, such as the sketches of composition theory that, for example, are the entirety of Hans Hoffman's paintings from the 1960's (I haven't followed him since).

Certainly there is nothing about art that is "natural," and the experiencer can legitimately be relied on to have to learn the idiom of a particular field (ghu knows baroque contrapuntal music is a very definitely acquired taste, but the acquisition of the idiom is itself part of the experience -- it means you have to experience enough to be able to form an actual view of it -- and the rewards are great). But I'm not entirely sure the "idiom" of for example the abstract expressionism that nearly killed painting in the last century is comparable to the "idiom" of "the learned style."

It seems to me a line has been transgressed somewhere.


Wed Dec 08, 2010 6:44 pm
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