The Ends of American Art

Every age dictates its needs to us. I feel this particular era, in America, is demanding we emerge from our self-imposed subcultures and talk to one another, or we’re going to dissolve back into something pre-USA, perhaps a loose confederacy again, if not autonomous city-states, or even tribes. I’m not saying this would necessarily be a bad thing, but I do nevertheless feel compelled, as an “American,” to initiate dialogue on the subject, lest we unwittingly have the rug pulled out from under us mid-stride.

We’ve reached a point where dialogue seems nearly impossible because we no longer know each other’s language. This haze of forgetfulness, or ignorance, if you will, isn’t unique to political language, by the way. It has drifted between nearly all identification groups, often the solipsistic, self-affirming lifestyles into which we have retreated (under the banner of consumer capitalist media). It seems to me that the noblest goal of American art now is to bring the factions together and give them a language they can share, not necessarily to reconcile differences, and certainly not to glorify patriotic myths of consensus, but to facilitate understanding.

I often catch myself comparing our current situation to that faced by the English in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries, after the English Civil War, when the extremes of the Tories and the Whigs, which had previously torn English society apart, were consciously negotiated by writers who sought a middle way between them, and who, incidentally, ended up creating arguably the most revolutionary and useful forms in modern English letters, such as the novel and the dictionary. To call these writers merely peacemakers (as crucial as that role is), or to claim that their culture was revitalized primarily by an influx of colonial wealth, would be to miss the long-range significance of what they achieved for the English language, the world’s English language. I strive, in my own small way, to do so in my own work, to bridge different cultures, and bring the ends of my far-flung self together.

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