These same tendencies—unclever disdain for the Internet, economic compulsion presented as cultural preference—seep through elsewhere. “The operative concept today is the network, along with the verb that goes with it, networking,” he says. “Coleridge, for Wordsworth, was not a contact; he was a partner, a comrade, a second self.”
Network and networking, I agree, are at least as interrelated as ambling and ambulance. And the latter point I can only cede: I too lament that so few modern-day relationships equal one of the supreme friendships of English literary history.
But these are digressions. Deresiewicz’s real assessment comes in his critique of the creative entrepreneur: the personage whom he believes is supplanting the artist in our nation’s ivory garrets and attic towers. These new “creatives” are dilettantes, and what they lack in depth that make up for with a breadth of skills. These creatives sell atomized pieces of entertainment, not individual works of art. They are, in fact, artisans, and to them an artisanal poem is little different than an artisanal pickle. Both, after all, required creativity.
His reading suffers a tremendous flaw: Deresiewicz cannot discriminate the substantial from the faddish. What’s more, his historical work is incomplete—he mistakes a very new idea for a very old one. Deresiewicz’s artistic philosophy aspires to timelessness, but it’s younger than most of his Millennial subjects.
His hypothesis requires us to accept some broad and far-reaching stories about the progress of art in Western history. In sweeping paragraphs, he acquaints us with the early-modern artistic craftsman, the Romantic ideal of the lone genius, and the recent turn toward professionalization. In the late 20th century, he concludes, artists—and novelists, and composers—hid out in the academy, where grants and staff meetings rendered them “just another set of knowledge workers.” (O, what a sad life they led.)
Now those grants and tenure slots are gone, impossibly competitive, or held on to by Boomers. So artists have sought a new lot, driven by economic realities—probably. Deresiewicz can’t decide if what actually happened is that younger artists just got tired of the old system.
In a section about networking, he writes: “A Gen-X graphic-artist friend has told me that the young designers she meets are no longer interested in putting in their 10,000 hours. One reason may be that they recognize that 10,000 hours is less important now than 10,000 contacts.” Do these younger designers break with discipline because the pecuniary realities of day-to-day life give them no choice, or because they’re lazy? Deresiewicz isn’t sure.
Here is the real nut of his essay, though:
No longer interested in putting in their 10,000 hours: under all three of the old models, an artist was someone who did one thing—who trained intensively in one discipline, one tradition, one set of tools, and who worked to develop one artistic identity. You were a writer, or a painter, or a choreographer. It is hard to think of very many figures who achieved distinction in more than one genre—fiction and poetry, say—let alone in more than one art. Few even attempted the latter (Gertrude Stein admonished Picasso for trying to write poems), and almost never with any success.
It is hard to think of anyone who achieved distinction in more than one art. Deresiewicz mentions Picasso, who was perhaps a poor poet. So let us also put out of mind that one dude who was a poet and a playwright and a songwriter but who, in his lifetime, seems to have considered himself mostly an actor. (Shakespeare.) And let’s forget that would-be writer and poet and actress and dancer and singer. (Maya Angelou.) And certainly let’s think not of that composer-painter-writer-philosopher who helped shape modern choreography. (John Cage.) And who can bear to bring to mind that Spaniard who was a painter and a sculptor and had a contact in dance, so he did set design too? (Picasso—the contact was Diaghliev.)