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Bad Markets, Good Art? A Bracing Debate at the NYPL

Filed under: On the Spot   Tagged: , , , , , ,

Jonathan Taylor writes:

On Tuesday I caught a panel discussion called "The Death of Boom Culture?" at the New York Public Library, that I think is worth watching or listening to online once it becomes available. It was a conversation that, precisely in the way the guests were talking past each other, was a fascinating gloss on its topic, or its occasion: this essay by Walter Benn Michaels in the January/February Bookforum. Benn suggests that over the last three decades of rising inequality, literary fiction and other arts have predominantly flattered the prevailing world-view of the economically ascendant, embroidering on safe historical topics (Toni Morrison stood in for this phenomenon) while obscuring the structures of contemporary injustice.

The animated exchanges with David Simon (of "The Wire"), Dale Peck and, especially, Susan Straight, demonstrated how everything Benn Michaels said could be totally right, as far as it went, yet be achingly incomplete. Between his dead-on assessment of the phantom "boom," and the viewpoint of artists who affirm its devastating realities, there was an interesting obstacle to communication. When Simon or Straight referred to the specific experience they draw on in making art that does do for American society what Michaels wants it to do, he was quick to roll his eyes (he said at one point, "I'm rolling my eyes") at what he saw as appeals to personal identity. Simon's gestures to genre narrative, and an audience questioner's reference to hip-hop culture, pointed to a less narrow view of actually consumed culture that could fit in with Benn Michaels's polemic—if only he considered it.

That there was no ready set of common terms for talking unflinchingly about an unjust system that all the participants are a part of, is something of a fulfillment of Benn's critique. But I left more interested in cracking a book of Straight's to read about "the actual structure of American society."

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