Winning in the Fragonard Years

I’ve been thinking a lot about my previous post on “selling out”—specifically, why I wanted to discuss an inevitability that has been with us for decades. This was common knowledge way back when This Is Spinal Tap was released. Rob Reiner’s mockumentary suggested that even a band that’s vacant at the core could be incredibly proficient musically, hitting all the stadium highs. No one can accuse you of being a sellout if you have nothing artistically or spiritually to trade.

More than three decades later, the rock mockumentary had evolved into something that’s done for laughs but morphs into unexpected pathos. In the two-part “Gentle & Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee,” part of IFC’s Documentary Now! series, Fred Armisen and Bill Hader play the principals of an Eagles-type soft-rock band in a way that questions whether there is any value at all in the notion of authenticity.

I suppose my concern stems from the fact that the fusion of artistic and commercial success has become almost completely institutionalized in this country. It’s like we’re in the waning days of the public comment period: speak now or let it die out with your generation.

“The idea of a rich avant-garde has never sat well with members of my generation,” Janet Malcolm wrote in a 1994 discussion of art stars of the 1980s. “Serious artists, as we know them or like to think of them, are people who get by but do not have a lot of money.” Her understanding was that “the avant-garde is supposed to be the conscience of the culture, not its id.”

The obvious retort to Malcolm back then was that those young artists who came out of the 1980s filthy rich did not go into the decade with that intention. This was an aspect of market speculation that happened to them—but it nevertheless changed the culture. Since then, market fundamentalism has increasingly made everything in our lives an economic activity.

Stephen Marche has a good essay in the Atlantic on the metastasizing of America’s gambling addiction that says a lot about the current moment: “Transactions once considered the purview of the Mafia have been mainstreamed—credit lines with 23 percent APR, extreme pornography, and legalized gambling all available from a device in your pocket. Remember that the greatest drug pusher of our era is not some Mexican cartel; it’s the family with their name on the wings of museums—the Sacklers.”

I’m sure that Malcolm, who died in June, knew quite well that her conception of the avant-garde was no longer true in 1994. But she needed to drive the flagged stakes into the new playing field to show where the old boundaries lie. Similarly, I’ve been thinking a lot about what people my age seem to be missing so much from premillennial life. It’s hard to even know what constitutes the old boundaries, but I keep hearing the lyrics of an acoustic song by Amy Rigby—“Knapsack”—from her 1996 album Diary of a Mod Housewife.

Rigby wrote the songs on this album when she was doing temp work in New York, and everything on “Knapsack” is terminally dated—going in a bookstore in corporate land on your lunch break, having to check your knapsack because books are still valuable enough to be stolen, looking at magazines but mostly having a terrible crush on the guy at the bag check whose straddling of two different worlds is evoked by a tie bearing a geographical map.

The song conjures an underemployment bohemia of attitude, that painful time in your life when you’re just getting on from being young, when relationships and vocational identity sting with unfulfilled promise: “All these men in suits, they look too perfect / And I wanna tell him I’m not just some soulless jerk—hey, I got a band, I understand what life is for.”

You hear so much about people wanting to be seen online by unknown multitudes, and yet here in 3D is a woman who desperately wants to convey to a single individual that she sacrifices for her art and thus has a soul. She wants to be seen, too, and yet the elusiveness of love suggests the parallel elusiveness of artistic validation: “He took my knapsack and his fingers brushed my wrist / gave me a number that wasn’t even his.”

A common criticism of the anti-sellout generation is that they romanticize failure and being broke, but here Rigby is rationalizing imagination: “I’d seen something about him that made me feel seventeen—stop, so I’m not, isn’t that what minds are for?” That willingness to be vulnerable and to fail when you’re well past 30—it’s turned into a social scourge assuaged by things like cosplay and AI headsets.

Since at least the 1980s, the objective of capitalism was not to make artists and entertainers value money more than creative expression but to make all creative expression an economic activity. The thing that young people most desire—attention—has been thoroughly monetized by Silicon Valley. There is nothing wrong with Taylor and Kanye and Adele making billions on their talent, but there is a problem when the potential to make billions becomes the consensual metric for artistic excellence. When commercial potential is cooked into creation itself, there is no diversity—diversity in ideas or genres or formats, not just individual identity.

Taylor Swift’s efforts to own the means of production to her work is a matter of righteousness for her millions of fans. In the #MeToo era, a woman who decides which of her creative content to license to brands has an ethical purity that no man can achieve. Swift’s getting all the corporate money has an emotional valuation that translates into her getting even more money. Monetization is a virtue. As Marche writes in the Atlantic, “Everything—every little thing—can be converted into a marketplace with winners and losers, and the house always wins. The only vice left is being broke.” §