Friday, February 4, 2011

Art and Materialism

In section [23] of Whitman's poem “Song of Myself,” he discusses his own poetry for a moment. He says, “Endless unfolding of words of ages! / And mine a word of the modern... a word en masse” (Whitman 20). Immediately, were Marcuse reading Whitman's words, he would be angry with Whitman. Marcuse believes that the essence of modern and mass-produced art disqualifies it as valid art. He says “Here are the progressive elements of mass culture. The perversion is indicative of the fact that advanced industrial society is confronted with the possibility of a materialization of ideals... Higher culture becomes part of the material culture” (Marcuse 58). Clearly we are presented with two opposing viewpoints. Whitman exalts himself for speaking his words to a large and expansive audience. However, Marcuse views Whitman's words, because they have been printed into books and produced en-masse, as purely material and therefore invalid.

Marcuse continues to say that

“past culture expressed the rhythm and content of a universe in which valleys and forests... were part of the experienced reality. In the verse and prose of this pre-technological culture is the rhythm of those who wander or ride in carriages, who have the time and the pleasure to think, contemplate, feel, and narrate. It is an outdated and surpassed culture, and only dreams and childlike regressions can recapture it.”

(Marcuse 59). While this is a very negative outlook on the present, it may not be all that far-fetched. At the very least, Marcuse would have a large number of people in today's society that would defend his argument. It is important to note, however, that there is a defined phenomenon, nostalgia, in which the past is romanticized and the negative aspects of the past are ignored. Marcuse seems blatantly to be at least in some degree falling prey to that phenomenon; I find myself on occasion forgetting that Marcuse is human. His highly difficult tone and almost self-righteous discussion gets in my way sometimes. It is important to realize that the fact that I am reading Marcuse and absorbing the information he lays out does not indicate that he is some know-all computer. He could easily be wrong, and Whitman seems to prove this.

Walt Whitman died in 1892, which is six years before Marcuse was even born. Whitman was writing “Song of Myself” approximately 90 years previous to Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man. Because of the time difference, it is really impossible to logistically use Whitman's writing to claim against Marcuse's point; Whitman is a part of the “past culture” to Marcuse. However, I believe that Whitman would argue with Marcuse even if the two were alive and writing at the same time. Whitman gives blatant evidence that he believes his words are timeless when he says “A word of the faith that never balks, / One time as good as another time … here or henceforward it is all the same to me.” Therefore, if we set aside the time difference, Whitman's counterargument to Marcuse would deal with the fact that he is not presenting his words to a large audience for capital gain. Whitman says, “I am less the reminder of property or qualities, and more the reminder of life” (Whitman 20). He is directly stating that he is not materialistic or focused on mass-produced and watered-down money-making ventures. Whether Marcuse believes that all humans and artists are incapable of not being materialistic and capitalistic, or that there are simply not enough capable artists, it is clear that he does not believe that someone like Whitman, interested in writing about his experience and joy and sharing just that joy with others, could exist.

Song of Myself” is an almost exhaustive act of self-expression for Whitman. The book that it was originally a part of, Leaves of Grass, was not received well. Whitman was actually fired from the job he held at the time of its first publishing. Like many pieces of art through history, it took a very long time to even be accepted by the public. If Marcuse's points about art and materialism were true, it is not likely that Whitman would have published the book. There would have been clear signs that it would have been seen as offensive long before it was published, and if Whitman wanted money and public acceptance, he would have changed the poem. But the fact is that he did not. He left his self-expression and exaltation about the world in the poem, and I'm glad he did. He unknowingly proved Marcuse's idea of art wrong.


  1. I just did a little rearranging of the paragraphs, somehow they got mixed up in my posting this essay. If you read it before, I'm sorry. My bad.

  2. Marcuse's views of mass production are complicated, and you may be oversimplifying them. I'm also not completely sure that he would have taken Whitman, operating over a century earlier, to be a true representative of "advanced industrial culture." Maybe surprisingly, I still liked your opening - because you do a good job of setting up a problem and/or area of inquiry from the very start.

    Accusing Marcuse of nostalgia is a very smart line of attack. There is a great danger of oversimplication when doing so: we need to remember that he does, in fact, believe that our society has enormous advantages over past societites, which need to be preserved and extended. But it is quite possible that he is nostalgic for some aspects of the past, even as he tries to defend against nostalgia. Related problems in Marcuse's thought are central to this book, which might be the best book on Marcuse's thought around.

    Re: the third paragraph. The core of your argument seems to be that Whitman would argue that he is not materialistic. You're right! However, just because *he* doesn't understand himself that way doesn't mean that *we* or *Marcuse* are obligated to agree. This is a class in *critical* reading. You might end up agreeing with Whitman's self-assessment - but you should be able to say why.

    Overall: I like a lot of the material here, but I don't like the organization (even after you changed it). It's not clear to me why we should just assume that Marcuse would find Whitman to be a member of "advanced industrial culture." It's also not clear to me why we should take Whitman's self-evaluation at face value. I think accusations of nostalgia are an excellent weapon against Marcuse's critique, but to use them well would require a much more reading of Marcuse's text.

    In short, you have some great ideas, but the execution isn't there yet; all of these ideas need a deeper, more critical exploration to work, despite their merit strictly as ideas.