The problem for art in the twentieth century was the opening of a wide and deep gulf between high and low culture, to the detriment of culture as such. "High culture" is represented by the stuff put on display in museums, played in symphony orchestras, and preserved as fossils in literature classes; "low culture," by the stuff peddled in bookstores and music stores, shown on television and in movie theaters -- the stuff people actually read or watch or listen to.
The essential difference is that low culture addresses an audience as large as possible, while high culture addresses an audience as small as possible. Accordingly, they conform to the tastes of democratic mass-man, on the one hand, or of effete poseurs, on the other. Low culture is unintelligent; high culture is unintelligible.
Of course, the two levels are not hermetically sealed from each other; being still part of the same common culture, they do reciprocally influence each other, albeit indirectly, and often in surprising ways. And occasionally works of art escape these categories completely -- throwbacks to an earlier and healthier age.
This lamentable division began to open in the Victorian age, with its priggish but sincere idealism, which left us with the belief that "art" is a Good Thing, edifying and boring. Queen Victoria was scarcely in her grave before this notion was countered by the "Modernists," who declared that art is not supposed to be edifying and boring, but shocking and subversive. This latter notion has largely prevailed, yet the notion that "art" is something high and fine -- even if it is actually nasty and repulsive -- has persisted.
Either way, art is abstracted from the sensual and imaginative pleasure it always offered in less self-conscious eras, which is its primary reason for being. Something had to fill the void, to satisfy the desires that art once did, even if only in a stunted and warped fashion: the result is "entertainment," i.e. cheap, vulgar, slipshod hackwork produced solely to meet the market's demands.
Creativity and quality are still possible in both high and low culture, and are occasionally to be found in both; but the conditions discourage them, for different but related reasons. In high culture, the pretensions of the "artist" have been elevated above art: modern "art" is mainly a way for the "artist" to assert his own monstrous ego, mainly by flouting conventional standards of taste, morals, barbering and clothing. In low culture, art is subordinated to non-artistic purposes and standards, i.e. commercialism. Either way, the discipline of craftsmanship is a long-lost ideal, much too demanding for flabby modern souls. In both high and low culture, the artistic source-tradition has been attenuated, if not dissipated entirely.
During the Middle Ages, art was entirely naive and unsophisticated: men simply made what seemed to them beautiful, without analyzing or understanding what they were doing. Medieval art, in all its forms, was a spontaneous expression of their unphilosophical world-view. Self-conscious reflection on art had begun with the ancient Greeks, was forgotten during the Dark Ages, and was revived (along with so much else) during the Renaissance.
Up until the end of the eighteenth century, esthetic theory and criticism were virtually coterminous with the doctrine of Classicism, which was based on Greek philosophy and Greco-Roman examplars in the arts. Classicism may be summarized by three fundamental ideas: (1) art is an imitation of nature (hence, for example, painting and sculpture were to be as realistic as possible); (2) art should also be an idealization of nature (hence one made statues of heroes and gods, not cripples and freaks); and (3) the standards of esthetic judgment are objectively true because they are derived from nature.
The Classicists had a fatal tendency to idolize the "classics," and thus to constrain art to imitate, not simply nature, but previous (Greek and Roman) imitations of nature. It was against this idolization that the Romantics rebelled. Their ideal was neither nature nor antiquity, but the freedom and creativity of the individual artist. Although the Romantics in their turn created great art, they too fell into idolatry.
Before Beethoven, the archetypal Romantic genius, there were really no "artists" -- only craftsmen. Bach, Mozart, Haydn, etc. were court musicians, expected to crank out compositions to order; so was Handel, until he became a private musical entrepreneur; Shakespeare and his company were the Hollywood of their time; Michelangelo was only one or two social degrees above a common stonemason. They did not consider themselves, and were not considered by others, a special breed of men; but they took pride in their work, and took care to do it well, according to generally recognized standards.
The Romantics changed all that, inventing our modern conception of the "artist" as something half god, half sideshow freak. Beethoven was indeed as eccentric as he was creative; after him, creativity was confused with eccentricity, until it was completely supplanted: eccentricity was easier to emulate. The notion of the creative genius, guided by mystical, intuitive "inspiration," thus led to "Bohemianism" and, ultimately, the twentieth century's Beatniks, hippies and grungies: long-haired, drug-addled, bourgeois-despising creatures on the fringes of society. Even the millionaire rock-musician, the supreme exemplar and beneficiary of plutodemocratic society, affects to be an alienated outcast.
One consequence of this transformation was to change the role of criticism from judgment (which is the root sense of "critic" -- from the Greek krites, "judge") to interpretation, a quasi-religious exegesis of art. One's focus is no longer on nature or standards derived from nature, but on the subjective and mysterious phenomenon of "creativity." If art is really subjective, critics cannot judge it at all; their role is only to accept whatever self-styled "artists" produce, and try to discern its meaning. This turned out to be a practical advantage for the critics, since the works of these "artists," being subjective and mysterious, are indeterminate. The game of interpretation can go on forever, filling the staffs of literature departments, the pages of academic journals, and the shelves of academic libraries ... unless someone gives the game away.
But the suspension of judgment creates an enormous problem: How are we to judge what is "art" and what isn't? That is to say, what works are worth taking the trouble to interpret? The academic critics never answered this question.
The idea that nature provides the source and standards of art had long since been abandoned, as we have seen. The idea of tradition, and specifically nationality, had proved very fruitful for the Romantics (not coincidentally, it countered and restrained their anarchic individualism); but in the end, most artists would look to no source of inspiration outside their own free and subjective "creativity." However, the wellsprings of creativity soon dried up.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the creative force of Romanticism was depleted. Artists had already begun forming a bewildering variety of coteries, which sometimes seemed to produce more programs and manifestoes than actual art; the art they did produce became more ugly and senseless even as it became more self-conscious and programmatic. The disintegration proceeded at different paces in different arts. Indeed, part of the crisis was the loss of a general sensibility imbuing all the arts, and giving them unity. Both Classicism and Romanticism had applied to, and inspired, all arts. After Romanticism, there were hardly even attempts to restore the lost unity.
The void was never filled. Instead, the arts were taken over by charlatans, the Modernists, whose avowed goals were to shock and bewilder, to defy convention, to violate taste and decency. They produced such monstrosities as free verse, atonal music, abstract painting, the "antinovel" -- all condoned by critics who defined "art" as "whatever an artist does." Igor Stravinsky, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, and Frank Lloyd Wright are among the most infamous of these charlatans: they were followed by innumerable others, most of whom fell into well-deserved obscurity.
"Modernism" began early in the twentieth century and reached its peak after World War One, as a cultural counterpoint to the political revolution of Bolshevism. It has remained in a stagnant half-life ever since, poisoning high culture for the rest of the century.
The Modernists never succeeded in creating great art, or even mediocre art, but only in foisting on the world the assumption that "art" is serious, mysterious, and unpleasant. So we are enjoined to make the effort to understand and appreciate compositions that sound like an orchestra tuning up, canvases spattered with random blobs of paint, and sculptures that look like heaps of junk (because they are heaps of junk). The result was to make further creation nearly impossible, leaving the art-world a haunt of snobs, phonies, epicenes, and antiquarians.
The Modernist swindle was put over by playing on two vices: snobbery and cowardice. Its practitioners prided themselves on the fact that ordinary people could not understand or appreciate them; and no one dared to call their bluff, and shout that the Emperor had no clothes. "Art" became the automatic excuse for any kind of monstrosity, and now no one even thinks to ask whether a work of art is good or not.
The essence of Modernism is the idolatry of innovation and "experiment," rejecting all tradition and all standards. Of course, to reject Modernism is not to reject innovation and experiment as such -- only their idolization. Artistic experiment should be done, not for its own sake, nor for the sake of looking down one's long, snotty nose at the Philistines, but for the sake of art itself: the working-out of new means of expression. Every original work of art is an experiment -- which means that there must be standards to test it by, so that one can determine whether it is a success or a failure.
Alongside charlatans like Stravinsky, Joyce, and Picasso, there were still a few true creators: Carl Orff, Franz Kafka, and Salvador Dali, for example. Whereas Picasso managed to pass off his merely incompetent daubings as "experiments," Dali executed his bizarre, grotesque, dreamlike visions with a thoroughly classical perfection of technique. James Joyce wrote gibberish, and got away with it; Kafka may have been neurotic and obscure, but at least he used good German. And the music of Orff, of course, needs no defense.
Meanwhile, as the West's preexisting artistic heritage was being frittered away, a new, separate range of art-forms was being produced for the masses, with their advancing literacy, leisure, and purchasing-power. It was mostly cheap and vulgar stuff, market-driven, deliberately aimed at the lowest common denominator. American industry became its most successful purveyor: Broadway, Hollywood, pulp fiction, television. These products are rarely if ever considered "art"; instead they are considered "entertainment." Why art should not be entertaining, i.e. pleasant, no one asks.
Was the vulgarity of mass-culture inevitable? In the Romantic age, artists lost their traditional support, monarchical and aristocratic patronage, but gained a much wider bourgeois audience, without lowering their standards. The inherited culture was still alive, and could be extended without being dissipated. At the same time, the lower classes, moving from the countryside to the cities, were cut off from the traditional art of the peasantry (particularly the folk-tale and folk-music, which the Romantics cherished). The artistic marketplace might, perhaps, have been extended yet further; but, as we have seen, the decadence of Romanticism created an artistic void. Instead of expanding their audience, the new artists deliberately alienated the audience they already had -- as is most strikingly evinced by the bourgeois Parisians who rioted at the premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The bourgeoisie joined the masses, as far as art was concerned.
Although it cannot be denied that most products of the mass-media are trash, the most lively art of our century has risen out of them. Almost all the music worth listening to, in the twentieth century, has been produced in popular styles: ragtime, jazz, rock. Cinema -- the twentieth century's own, unique art form -- has been the medium of an immensely rich and various body of work (of uneven quality, to be sure), almost untouched by "arty" influences, and all the healthier for it. And science fiction, as a separate and recognized literary tradition, was born from the marriage of individual genius and crass marketing pressures.
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The fragmentation of art into genres is a product of commercialism: the mass-market is divided into safely predictable sectors of taste for the purposes of merchandising. The consumer knows what to expect, the middleman knows what to buy and sell, the entertainer knows what to produce: endless minor variations on what has already been done.
Science fiction, unlike other genres, is defined by its subjects. It is possible to write about love without writing a "romance," about the American West without writing a "western," about murder without writing a "whodunit," etc. The difference lies in how shallow and formulaic the treatment of the theme is. But it is not possible to write about space travel, life on other planets, artificial and alien intelligences, the past and future of human evolution, etc., without writing "science fiction." Accordingly, all SF is lumped together, the good with the bad, in the same category.
This category was born in 1926, the brainchild of Hugo Gernsback. Gernsback was a colorful and very American figure: an immigrant from Luxembourg, who made his fortune in the New World as an engineer, an inventor, and a publisher with a vision. In 1926 he founded Amazing Stories, the first magazine devoted specifically to what he called "scientifiction," short for "scientific fiction." The thing itself had existed for some time; indeed, the first few years of Amazing Stories relied heavily on reprints, with Jules Verne and H. G. Wells providing the lion's share. Gernsback gave it a market niche and a name -- though his own awkward coinage was soon replaced by "science fiction."
When Gernsback was (through complex machinations) pushed out of control of Amazing, he bounced right back and founded Science Wonder Stories in 1929. This was followed by Astounding Stories in 1930, put out by the Clayton publishing firm as just one more title in their line of pulp fiction (so-called from the low-grade "pulp" paper on which these magazines were printed), i.e. cheap and ephemeral popular entertainment, alongside Westerns, romances, detective stories, and so on.
However, the contrast between SF and the rest was, from the beginning, much more important than the similarities. SF attracted a readership that, though initially small, was very loyal, and kept these strange new magazines profitable (albeit at narrow margins) through the depths of the Depression. This readership was also uniquely active and self-conscious. Science-fictionists had an intense, sometimes bellicose, sense of being part of something completely new and different. This attitude, which has been described as a "ghetto mentality," preserved the internal cohesion and continuity of the new tradition, but (for good or ill) has dwindled away over the past generation or two. Most importantly, perhaps, the "ghetto mentality" gave them the courage to defy the scorn so often directed against those cheap and vulgar little magazines.
Organized science-fiction fandom emerged from this milieu. The first SF fan-club, the Science Fiction League, was deliberately founded and promoted by Gernsback as a publicity scheme. The first World Science Fiction Convention was held in New York City in 1939. In 1953, the 11th Worldcon began the tradition of voting awards, with trophies in the shape of little rockets on pedestals, for outstanding contributions to SF: these came to be called the Hugo Awards, in honor of Hugo Gernsback. Gernsback himself was honored with a Special Award in 1960 as "The Father of Magazine Science Fiction."
Up to the '60s, the editorial policies of the magazines were the most powerful influence on the shape of SF. In the late '20s and early '30s, Gernsback championed didactic-prophetic "gadget stories"; his competitors, especially Astounding (later renamed Analog), emphasised adventure and pure entertainment. When John W. Campbell, Jr. took over Astounding in 1938, he re-emphasised good, solid science, but with a greater concern for literary polish and for the human consequences of science and technology. Campbell, together with the younger writers he fostered and influenced, dominated the scene for two decades.
In the '50s, Campbell's lead faltered, challenged by a sudden upsurge of new competitors, magazine and otherwise. Dozens of SF magazines were issued in the '50s, some of them new, others holdovers from the past that did not survive the decade. The strongest newcomers, financially and literarily, were Fantasy and Science Fiction (founded 1949) and Galaxy (1950).
For twenty years, SF was confined to the pages of pulp magazines; the SF magazines survived the demise of that peculiar publishing category, simply changing their formats; now, curiously, they are almost the only market entirely dedicated to short fiction (except for one or two mystery-story magazines). In the immediate post-war period, furthermore, SF finally began reappearing in book form, had its first boom in the movies (though it was typically in the form of B-grade monster movies), and even on the newborn medium of TV.
Starting in the 1960s, a number of interrelated developments drastically and irreversibly changed the world of SF: a rapid and general increase in popularity; the sudden and rapid expansion of the related but distinct genre of fantasy, becoming at least as popular as SF itself; the vast expansion of SF book publication, gradually overshadowing the magazines; ever-increasing (and, more slowly, improving) exploitation by the mass media, bringing SF to the vast movie-going and TV-watching audience; academic critics' discovery that SF was a great untapped reserve of opportunities to pad their curricula vitarum; and the emergence of a clique of younger writers oriented at least much towards the mainstream as towards SF itself.
In the past generation or two, SF has come to be generally accepted by the public, especially the moviegoing public: many of the most profitable films of all time have been SF (e.g. Star Wars, E.T., Jurassic Park). And after we split the atom and put men on the Moon, the people who used to sneer at "that science-fiction stuff" look merely foolish. We live in a science-fiction world: yesterday's SF is today's fact.
* * *
One of the benefits of being segregated as a commercial genre was that SF was largely preserved from the noxious influences of mainstream literature and criticism. Unfortunately, this preservation was bound to break down eventually, and it did so at the worst possible time: during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, when esthetic Modernism finally merged with political radicalism.
SF's indigenous version of the New Left and "counter-culture" is known as the "New Wave" -- an indiscriminate rebellion against the whole of SF as then constituted. It began when a number of SF writers determined that the genre had to become more "literary." What they meant by "literary" was never clearly defined, but in practice it meant that SF should go whoring after the false god of Modernism. These same writers tended to be young, and trendily Leftish in their political sympathies. None of them were very good writers.
In 1964, Michael Moorcock became editor of the British magazine New Worlds, until then fairly conventional, and soon ran it into the ground. His policy of relentless, pointless "experimentation" and calculated offensiveness drove away so many readers that the magazine was only saved by a government subsidy (the strongest argument against government patronage of the arts that I can think of). This disastrous experiment heralded the introduction to SF of precisely the ideas and techniques that had already ruined mainstream literature.
The "New Wavers" declared that their intention was to rejuvenate SF by enlarging its scope and improving its techniques, which sounds harmless enough. In practice, however, they failed in their own terms, i.e. as artists, as well as failing SF. They didn't just write crap: they wrote pretentious crap, which is worse.
The New Wave ultimately choked to death on its own nihilism. SF emerged from this esthetic gas-attack, gasping and enfeebled but alive. The main and most debilitating effect of the New Wave was to perpetuate and reaffirm the false dichotomy between commercial writing and "arty" writing (with simply good writing the forgotten tertium quid). To this day, most SF falls into one or the other category -- increasingly the latter, as more young writers emerge from "creative writing" classes and "writers' workshops."
* * *
Meanwhile, what has been going on in the mainstream and academic worlds? As the '60s generation climbed up the academic ladder, they cultivated such critical doctrines as "deconstructionism," which all begin by declaring that literature is meaningless. Oddly, the critical "theorists" do not pursue this thought to its logical end, and demand that literature be removed from the curriculum, and that they be removed from the faculty. Instead they propose to create new meanings, and project them onto the texts.
These new meanings always turn out to be Left-wing bromides about "privilege" and "oppression": the old literature is the "privileged" ideological superstructure of an "oppressive" old society. The purpose of criticism is to expose and subvert the "hegemonic culture" by whining about inequalities of class, race, "gender" and "sexual orientation," and spouting gobbledygook about "theorizing" and "discourse." Just the thing for the mannish man-haters and snivelling eunuchs of the academic Left.
It is tempting to dismiss "critical theory" as a kind of revolution by voodoo. Certainly, the "theorists" themselves seem to think of it that way: they declare outright that words can shape reality, like a magic spell. Unfortunately, they are half-correct: words, or rather the ideas they represent, can influence reality, by affecting the minds of men, and thereby their actions. And if those ideas are as false and pernicious as deconstructionism is, we are in serious trouble indeed.
Deconstructionism is one part of a larger trend called "postmodernism," whose intellectual amorphousness is entirely deliberate. It is "postmodern" in that the "modern" age of scientific rationalism and liberal individualism is now, supposedly, as dead as the "premodern" age it supplanted. (It is an ironic judgment on the "modern" and "progressive" way of thinking -- the equation of "new" with "good" and "old" with "bad" -- that it has brought about its own negation; in a way, this is the revenge of the "premoderns" who were so glibly tossed onto the rubbish-heap of history.) Now the old humanistic culture is to be replaced with -- what? Nothing much: destruction is always easier than creation.
Postmodernism is less about art itself (already destroyed by Modernism) than about politics and society as a whole: it is the application of esthetic subjectivism to the real world (or as postmodernists would put it, the "real" world). Postmodernists declare that "truth" is relative; that reason, meaning, standards, and ideas are "oppressive"; and that reality itself is "socially constructed." Postmodernism is, in effect, the final declaration of the bankruptcy of post-Romantic culture; its very name is a confession of exhaustion and decadence. Those addled by this way of thinking came onto the scene when Western thought and art had indeed lost their meaning -- and they themselves are creatures of the void.
What comes after "postmodernism"? This is up to us. There are three possibilities: (1) to continue our "progress" into the abyss of nihilism, "deconstructing" our traditions and denying the very possibility of creation, cultural or artistic; (2) to preserve our traditions intact -- but only as museum pieces; (3) to resume creation where we left off.
* * *
SF provides an alternative to the cultural Bolshevism that has perverted the West's main artistic traditions; and the more legitimate alternative. SF is the true "modernism" -- it is the distinctive literary expression of modernity, i.e. of the Enlightenment and of the world as it has been, and continues to be, transformed by the Enlightenment. It proves that the modern age is capable of creative impulses matching those of the old order -- the world of Church, monarchy, and aristocracy, in which the West's rich and beautiful old culture was created.
The scientific-technical and social-political changes of the past five centuries have made us aware that the universe is vastly larger and older and stranger than we ever thought it was, and that the future will be different, very different, from the present. SF, and only SF, takes these changes into consideration, and tries to anticipate the consequences of these changes, and what further changes we might face. Thereby it has enormously enlarged the range of literature, commensurate with our expanded horizons of space and time.
SF has been at least as radically innovative and experimental as the Modernists ever were -- but its innovations and experiments are substantive and conceptual. The form in which these radical new ideas are cast is (in most cases) thoroughly traditional, preserving fundamental literary virtues -- such as strong plots and plain English -- that were jettisoned in mainstream literature. SF thus offers a way out of the false dichotomy between high and low culture, between "art" and "entertainment," sterility and vulgarity.
In addition to its value as literature, SF has proved fruitful in the ancillary arts of painting and drawing. The illustrators of SF have tacitly evolved a new tradition in their art, shaped by common goals, standards and disciplines. Because they are illustrators, they subordinate themselves to the texts they illustrate, and because they are commercial artists, they are subjected to the discipline of the marketplace. The self-indulgent excesses of "art for art's sake" have no place here.
Unintentionally and incidentally, the SF illustrators have also escaped the technical dead-end that has made modern painting sterile, because it is pointless. Realistic painting is outdone by photography; abstract painting, or rather design, is (at best) only a decorative art. The essence of SF illustration is to represent wholly imaginary things and scenes as if they were real: striving at once for the utmost vividness and exoticism of imagination, and the utmost clarity and realism of depiction.
Even in its earliest, crudest forms, American SF had a vitality that starkly contrasted with the degeneration of mainstream literature. Since then SF has gained steadily in literary polish and sophistication, while the mainstream has only become more poisoned and poisonous. It has its faults, but they are minor, accidental and, as often as not, caused by misguided efforts to emulate mainstream artists and curry favor with academic critics. It has been the healthiest tradition in twentieth-century art, a worthy heir of the Western heritage, and (perhaps) one line of connection to a rejuvenated posterity.
© 2000 by Karl Jahn
What Is Science Fiction?
A Guided Tour through the Imaginative Universe