On tour with Roughhousing and reading Stephen Barber, Antonin Artaud—Blows and Bombs (1993). Unlike any culture that exists today, that of the French middle class of the early 20th century considered artists fundamentally different from ordinary people, with a psyche that operated abnormally; they were not to be judged by common standards. Those who weren’t backed by wealthy patrons and promoted by media were still thought to possess something that, for its own good, society should not hamper. They would not be judged negatively if they lacked entrepreneurial skills or their art failed to attract buyers or an audience. Indeed “neglected” artists and “cursed” poets might be all the more respected for working outside the box of “useful” citizens. Even those completely hidden from public view embodied artistic autonomy, perhaps a carryover from the medieval respect for monastic beggars and others who were religiously obsessed and sacrificed their normality for otherwise inexplicable reasons.

As a teenager Artaud was incarcerated in various sanitoriums, a common practice for bourgeois “problem” children. His behavior and activity there convinced people that he should be categorized as an artist, and when he moved to Paris he was put in the care of Dr. Toulouse, who specialized in treating “artistic geniuses.” Compared to today’s respected artists, almost all his projects failed to be realized in his lifetime.

Given the tradition of educated Americans’ high respect for European art, some part of this aura surrounding artists, composers, and poets survived at least through the fifties. Poets were ridiculed as beats in New Yorker cartoons, but many of the middle class suspected these nonconformist “n’er-do-wells” of having insight to what they were missing. Some of the same respect surrounded abstract expressionist painters, jazz and blues musicians, and helped them subjectively to survive marketplace failure. Like the French cursed poets, they too sacrificed a socially-functional existence for their obsession, turned their backs on society, and relied for support and criticism on a few fellow artists.

For artists who are today similarly obsessed, this protection and quiet encouragement has since been erased from our culture. It prides itself on its creativity yet honors only past artists for embodying artistic non-conformity. It dismisses aberrant contemporary artists as artistic failures, based on their lack of media visibility and institutional sanction. Artists are thought to lack cultural value unless they have climbed the success ladder, the very ones the cognoscenti minority previously held up to scorn. To think “outside the box” is prized and well paid, but only if it aids the survival of status quo neoliberal, technocratic, consumerist society. The elimination of art and artists whose abnormality disturbs is the primary reason that art funded by government, academia, and the media can get away with backing such boring crap as it does. Independent cognoscenti might exist and be disgusted by the spectacle, but they have no voice that can be heard. Credentialed contemporary art, music, and literature occasionally titillates, and recently echoes liberal political values, but like all consumption it must please an audience in quantified terms and/or serve the needs of institutions. It is systematically incapable of upsetting the thinking and psyche of functionally-oriented society.

Artistic creativity worthy of historical memory impacts people the most when it provokes an ambivalent response, and not a vote of “likes” or official endorsement. I was reminded of this recently when an audience member at a basement show  gave his opinion of the concert: “I don’t like it, but I dig it.” That is a mind in motion, unsettled by what he heard, and a joy to the ears of aberrant musicians like ourselves.

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