Art outside the art world

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In A Native Hill (1968) the American poet Wendell Berry writes about his decision to root his art where he grew up. He recalls a conversation with a senior colleague at New York University who sought to dissuade him from resigning his post and returning home to Henry County, Kentucky:

It was clear that he wished to speak to me as a representative of the literary world—the world he assumed that I aspired to above all others. His argument was based on the belief that once one had attained the metropolis, the literary capital, the worth of one’s origins was canceled out; there simply could be nothing worth going back to. What lay behind one had ceased to be a part of life, and had become ‘subject matter.’ […] there was the assumption that the life of the metropolis is the experience, the modem experience, and that the life of the rural towns, the farms, the wilderness places is not only irrelevant to our time, but archaic as well because unknown or unconsidered by the people who really matter – that is, the urban intellectuals.

Berry was not persuaded. In 1965, he settled with his young family on a farm near Port Royal, Kentucky, where his parents were born. Since then, he has worked, and written, the land. Would he have achieved more recognition had he stayed in New York? Impossible to say, but it is certain that his writing would not have been the same had he not taken the eccentric path.

Eccentricity – being out of the centre – is not an easy trail, especially in the arts which, despite appearances, do not much like discordant voices. Stretching the boundaries of established practice, concepts and values is tolerated, and even rewarded if the results become widely admired. Denying the legitimacy of those boundaries – which is most easily done by ignoring them altogether – is more threatening and less tolerable.

The art world defends itself by arguing that anyone who does not accept the authority of its value judgements must, by definition, lack knowledge, taste or sensitivity. This circular defensiveness is characteristic of closed intellectual systems. In the USSR, questioning the smallest aspect of Communist Party doctrine was taken to reveal a person’s ‘bourgeois individualist tendencies’ and exposed them to correction or death. Similar thinking can exist in religious and other ideologies, including art.

The art world’s power to make those who question it feel shame for their own stupidity has led many to admire what they could not actually see. Still, honesty requires those who practice art independently of the art world to ask themselves whether their solitary path is not actually the result of an inability to meet its standards. There is always the danger of making a virtue of mere necessity, of deceiving oneself about one’s true motives.

Wendell Berry is a sufficiently great writer to have no need to wonder whether it was only his own mediocrity that drew him from the ocean of New York to the small pond of Henry County, Kentucky. Others who trace an independent path live with the uncertainty that they may be mistaken, but it may help keep us honest.