Art and drugs

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Read an Adam Gopnik New Yorker article the other day about an American sociologist, Howard Becker, living in Paris. Unlike French intellectuals, he believes in agency, which is to say the ability of people to be actors and accomplish things. (The French post-structuralists would have us believe that everything is determined, including agency, and so we are not responsible actors either in the world of flesh or of ideas.)

A rival of his, a Frenchman named Bourdieu, has suggested that

all social relations [are] power relations, even in a seemingly open world of “free expression” like the visual arts. For Bourdieu, whose book “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste” (1979) remains a classic text on the sociology of culture, a dominant class reproduces itself by enforcing firm rules about what is and is not acceptable, and creates a closed, exclusive language to describe it: those who have power decide what counts as art, and to enter that field at all is possible for outsiders only if they learn to repeat the words that construct its values.

You can see how this kind of critique would fit into determinist views like Marxism. A Marxist would explain the corruption of art as owing to its place in bourgeois society and values. The rich philanthropists and collectors who make museums and high art possible determine what is art and what is not, what fits in and what does not. The artist must be able to pronounce the magic words, in so many ways, the shibboleths that let him into art’s temple and make the entrance lucrative.

But Becker sees the art world in empirical terms, like the Chicago jazz and drug worlds in which he grew up. In fact, he makes a startling and revealing link between art and drugs. Art is not something produced by a lone Romantic figure, Becker argues, but a collaborative enterprise. Just as the jazz musician smokes reefers because every other musician does so, so too does the artist produce art in a wide social context. Art is in fact

… a social enterprise in which a huge range of people played equally essential roles in order to produce an artifact that a social group decided to dignify as art. Art, like weed, exists only within a world.

Mack Truck
My artist friend Diane Stinebaugh’s Mack Truck. What was Diane smoking?

Of course, it’s far easier to see music, performed music, as collaborative art than solitary enterprises like writing or painting. But even if we go up garret and write our poems and some day publish them, we do so through the help of a lot of other people: the editors who accepted our poems, the readers who read them, and in fact all the people in our daily lives who contributed to the poem however directly or indirectly. (Or, in the case of nature poets, flora and fauna in general.)

Even as smoking dope is (or was) seen as a deviant activity, so too art. Not everybody does it. Not everybody who wants to get and go along. To say they see things the way most other people do. But when an artist gets his or her buzz going, hey, who cares about the squares?

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