Sarah McLachlan in 1998. Her 2010 Lilith Fair tour has had to cancel dates. Lady Gaga, whose influence is pervasive among many female pop singers. (Photo: Steve Granitz/WireImage—Getty Images; Andy Paradise/Associated Press)

Sincerity. I knew it was beleaguered but who knew it was on life support? The Sunday Times‘ Arts & Leisure above-the-fold article is about the sea change in women’s pop music: Pure Gaga: Sincerity Becomes a Tough Sell, as Spectacle Rules in Women’s Pop.

OK, sure, there’s more involved here than just the sincerity quotient. But while I take an “I’m curious about everything” stance with music and find both Sarah McLachlan and Lady Gaga of interest, the stark reality is that what has shifted in women’s pop music is just one more facet of a shift in creative culture in general. As Jon Caramanica states it in his article, McLachlan’s Lilith Fair “trafficked in a very specific brand of feminism: organic, direct, unadorned, intimate…But in the recent pop mainstream these female artists are far outweighed by the eccentrics, the freaks, the adventuresome. For them performance and exteriority are central to their self-presentation, far more so than any lyrical message.”

It’s getting more difficult to get both/and in a cultural mood that seems to swing from one end of the extreme to the other.

Parallels could be drawn from other creative métiers as well. I just finished reading Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, a novel that consists of two quite separate accounts that hint at a common protagonist but keeps it intentionally ambiguous. The first story takes place in Venice during a Biennale, the protagonist a disaffected journalist on assignment to report on this legendary international art event. Dyer savagely skewers an absurdist and hypocritical art world without ever having to take on a tone of bitter vitriol—the detached narration simply reports what journalist Jeff sees.

For example:

There was all this art and yet there was very little to see, or very little worth looking at anyway. Some of it was a waste of one’s eyes. Good. Because even though there was nothing to see, there was a lot of it to get round and Jeff had to at least poke his nose in everything. Quite a bit of the work on display could have been designated conceptual, in so far as the people looking at it were conceived has having the mentality of pupils at junior school. fair enough, except most of it looked like it was made by someone in primary school, albeit a primary school pupil with the ambition of a seventeen-year-old Russian whose widowed mother had saved every ruble to get him into a tennis academy in Florida. The work may have been puerile, but the hunger to succeed of which it was the product and symbol was ravenous. In different historical circumstances any number of these artists could have seized control of the Reichstag or ruled Cambodia with unprecedented ruthlessness.

Been there, done that. Dyer’s analogy is spot on IMHO.

The second half of the book takes place in Varanasi, India’s most holy city, and it has a very different texture and pace. The protagonist, once again a journalist on assignment, does not possess the parasitic hanger on, self-indulgent, freeloading proclivities of Jeff in Venice. The second half of the novel is a slow unwinding of story, character and tautness as the journalist renounces layer after layer of his life and his sense of himself. It is done in a manner that feels prescribed and ritualistic in its protracted measuredness.

Here’s a sampling:

Some people stop believing that happiness is going to come their way. On the brink of becoming one of them, I began to accept that it was my destiny to be unhappy. In the normal course of things I wold have made some accommodation with this, would have set up camp as a permanently unhappy person. But what had happened in Varanasi was that something was taken out of the equation so that there was nothing for unhappiness to fasten itself upon. That something was me. I had cheated destiny. Actually, the passive construction is more accurate: destiny had been cheated.

Dyer’s book maps a nonmoralistic devolution from the thrill of fame, drugs, sex and celebritism to that state where a postmodern, detached world has nothing to “fasten itself upon.” The contrast between the two narratives in this book—both taking place in water-centric cities (with names that both start with a V) that are self-contained, mythic laden and each overflowing with a singular mystique around death and loss—works as a metaphor for a range of either/ors that populate our contemporary consciousness.

While my particular version of an art world counter vision has more muscle than the slow fade of Dyer’s Varanasi, I’m firmly planted in a landscape that is increasingly becoming an artistic outsider counter vision. While my art making locale isn’t the crunchy granola of “organic, direct, unadorned, intimate” that is the Lilith Fair, it does feature art that has “residential” power (work you want to live with and look at every day) rather than the terminally clever, a quiet groundedness rather than showy theatricity, highly personal rather than detached. It’s a place where there is something to fasten upon, repeatedly, and where Roberta Smith’s memorable line (which I first wrote about here) is in full swing: An “art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand.”

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