The Politics of Art

I’ve been thinking lately about rejection.

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of blog posts about rejection of aesthetic. For a while, there was a lot of New Sincerity controversy surrounding its perceived (implied?) rejection of a post-avant aesthetic or the “aesthetic of irony.” Emily’s recent link to a discussion of Mary Oliver poem and its ensuing commentary (itself primarily a rejection of Oliver’s aesthetic and the aesthetic of those perceived to be of her ilk) really crystallized a lot of my thoughts about the necessity—and villainy—of aesthetic rejection.

I think this idea has a lot of levels. As artists, we spend our entire careers pursuing and cultivating aesthetics—sometimes one, sometimes many. We have the aesthetic inherent in the art we create and perhaps a set of aesthetics inherent in the art we support and appreciate. There are certainly aesthetics we ignore or are unaware of or that for some reason don’t flash on our radar at all. And lastly, we have aesthetics that we—for whatever reason—reject.

Aesthetic rejection has multiple levels of practice. We can reject an aesthetic by choosing not to participate in it or we can choose not to engage the work of a particular aesthetic. But I’m particularly interested in a third kind of rejection—the actual vocal, informed rejection of aesthetic.

The informed rejection of aesthetic requires than an artist have some kind of real, made connection with a kind of tradition. For example, in the Mary Oliver post, those who engaged in this kind of rejection were familiar with Oliver’s work, with the work of people in a similar aesthetic, and they were familiar with the general traits and conventions of that works’ aesthetic (perceived here, I think, as a single set of aesthetic values; whether it is or isn’t a single set is debatable).

For the informed rejection, you have to know what you’re rejecting. You have to have been inside it somehow.

All forms of rejection are important for artists because without rejection, there would be no innovation. Read: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And yet the evolution of art requires artists to be constant mechanics of aesthetic. We were born to tinker and to alter. Isn’t what we do a way of altering the world to match our perception of it?

But rejection at some levels also concerns me. There are definitely aesthetic practices in poetry that I passionately reject. The traditions I reject have no value for me as an artist or they disenfranchise me somehow, barring me access from participating in them.

As a person, I may choose to reject a different set of aesthetics, or I may embrace things I reject as an artist. For example, I don’t employ an aesthetic practiced by Ogden Nash, but I recognize his work has value to me as a person. There are several other writers in this category for me. America’s Next Top Model may also fit into this category for me: not art I would make, but it is art (to a degree?) that I consume.

And it’s important for us to recognize that what we may reject as artists may have value to us as a culture. Mattie J. Stepanek’s poetry has cultural value. Maya Angelou has cultural value. Billy Collins’s poetry doesn’t appeal to everyone, but I think everyone would have to admit that our culture supports it, and that makes it valuable.

Robert Frost, I think, is an example of a poet whose work is often supported by aritsts, people, and the culture at large. A rare feat these days, what with all the fracturing of contemporary aesthetic.

I also recognize that while I do reject some aesthetics, I recognize that they have a right to be practiced. I get concerned that too often we let our own artistic rejection of aesthetic devalue a kind of art for other people and for the culture at large. That sometimes, rejection can be so virulent that it attempts to bar artists from continuing to practice a kind of writing, or a certain convention, etc.

I hope that as artists we recognize the uneasy relationship we should have to rejection, that it’s important to not only evaluate art but to interrogate our relationship to it. Why do I reject this? What effect will that have? And, in the process, who or what else am I rejecting?

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