Fun Friday: Fathead Edition

The world hasn't ended with the winter solstice, although the rational foundations of American society crumbled a bit more this past week. Taking an oblique, that is to say aesthetic, view, this week's edition of Fun Friday looks some examples of the play between passion and order.

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  1. First up is the latest issue of MAS Context, PRODUCTION. This edition looks at the condition of production today and in the recent past. Production as a concept is in decline, at least in the West, which is far more concerned with exchange. The articles in MAS Context find places in which production continues to thrive as a meaningful activity, not simply as an input into exchange.
  2. Never mind U2--the Clash was the exemplary political rock band. (Bruce Springsteen wins the solo act category.) This NPR profile on the 10th anniversary of Joe Strummer's death looks at how his political consciousness was formed.
  3. For many the rise of Internet opinions threatens professional criticism, leading to numerous discussions about the role of the critic in digital age culture. As this exchange between the great art critic Clive Bell (above) and the playwright George Bernard Shaw illustrates, critics have always been trying to figure out how they should look at art. 
    Bell was a member of the last generation of critics who took seriously the idea of absolute beauty. In 1921 the idea was still potent enough for Bell to have to proclaim he doesn't believe in it. He substitutes something he calls "pure aesthetic sense," a sort of shock of the beautiful. Although Bell's terms are antiquated, his grappling with the problem of critical objectivity is still relevant.
  4. The fact is, most of our enthusiasms and antipathies are the bastard offspring of a pure aesthetic sense and a permanent disposition or transitory mood. The best of us start with a temperament and a point of view, the worst with a cut-and-dried theory of life; and for the artist who can flatter and intensify these we have a singular kindness, while to him who appears indifferent or hostile it is hard to be even just. What is more, those who are most sensitive to art are apt to be most sensitive to these wretched, irrelevant implications. They pry so deeply into a work that they cannot help sometimes spying on the author behind it. And remember, though rightly we set high and apart that supreme rapture in which we are carried to a world of impersonal and disinterested admiration, our aesthetic experience would be small indeed were it confined to this.
  5. In another essay Bell called Shaw "didactic," probably a fair criticism. Nevertheless, Shaw was stung by the charge, so he responded in a 1922 New Republic essay with the terrific title, "Clive Bell Is a Fathead." Shaw's counter-attack is a bit scattershot; he works in a dig at Bell's pipe smoking. Mostly Shaw takes aim at Bell's assertion that people with a cultivated aesthetic sense have more fun than hard-headed rationalists.
  6. he is contemptuously certain that he has enjoyed himself far more than a handful of old gentlemen in a society of chemists, mathematicians, biologists or what not, discussing the latest thing in quantums of energy, or electrons, or hormones. It is the interest of the tobacconist, the restaurateur, the theatrical manager, the wine merchant and distiller, to suggest that delusion to him. And what a silly delusion it is!
  7. Read the whole exchange on TNR to find out how critics debated when they were confident they had some role in cultural production, even as they squabbled about the nature of that role. 
    Maybe one way out of the widespread despair about the state of contemporary criticism is to reintroduce terms like "aesthetic sense" and "fathead" into the critical vocabulary.
  8. Happy holidays, everyone.
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