Woody Guthrie’s Music

A past news article headline declaring something like “Upcoming Woody Guthrie Museum will focus on the artistic and not the political” seems to have attached itself permanently to my brain. It concerned the projected museum addition in Tulsa Oklahoma. The headline is in perfect accord with Ranciere’s distribution of sense. At the same time it leaves one flabbergasted that what originally was an organic unity has been conveniently dissected. One is left scratching one’s head thinking would this be the same Woody Guthrie if he had written product jingo’s for radio ads, Broadway musicals, or academic music in some conservatory?

Serendipity finds the recent Critical Inquiry (Winter 2012) featuring Aesthetics and Politics: an Interview with Jacques Ranciere by Gavin Arnall, Laura Gandolfi, and Enea Zaramella (from 2009). In this article the conversation ranges not only over the distribution of sense and the aesthetic regime but also the nature and place of the museum. Regime orientation is defined by artistic practice (“Surrealist practices clearly belong to that tradition that is part of the actual tradition of modernism,” pg. 290). A museum concerns itself with these practices. No such establishment recuses itself from the contemporary and its ways. As Ranciere points out, the contemporary can and does include not only the aesthetic regime, but aspects of the mimetic as well as the ethical. It would come as no surprise to find elements of these within a museum’s practice, but a predominance of the aesthetic regime would probably prevail. “On the other hand, the aesthetic regime is based on a specific form of equality that is much more inclusive (everything can enter the realm of art), but has no specific connection with political equality.” (pg. 296). That, in a nutshell, explains the justification of the Guthrie Museum headline.

It is very unsatisfying, this equality of the museum where the presentation of difference comes across like an LL Bean catalog; everything fitting together (with a smile) and appearing to be there “naturally”. The discomfort doesn’t become apparent until one considers something like inequality itself- economic, educational, or social (of a racial, ethnic or religious bent). One immediately recognizes that given the inclusiveness and equalizing character of the aesthetic regime, and the “no specific connection with political equality”, it becomes difficult to understand how, if at all, inequality could be considered within a museum, let alone presented. It appears to be a subject which by definition, is not possible.  As Ranciere sums it up: “There is an egalitarian presupposition at the basis of the aesthetic regime. On the one hand, that presupposition supports the capacity to see aesthetically in general, the possibility to perceive and appreciate objects and performances as artistic. On the other hand there is an aesthetic utopia that has thrived on that presupposition, the program of a community of equals, where equality would be achieved in sensible life, in everyday life. In that case, the presupposition has been transformed into a telos. The enactment of equality always entails the risk of that transformation. (pg. 296)

Imagine an observation/presentation of how news articles inadvertently highlight the various aesthetic make up of subject matter. A man shoveling snow as opposed to a man using a snow blower highlight certain distinctions or inequalities (if you don’t believe me re: the inequality, the backs of the two gentlemen will convince you). Nowhere is this aesthetic more apparent than in news features of crimes, crime reporting. The composition or make up of the crime scene, the victim’s home or neighborhood brings the severe aesthetic disparity into sharp focus. Like the snow moving difference, in crime scene reporting one will find meticulous homogeneity of design/function components in some well to do crime scenes (think Tiger Woods being rescued from his crashed luxury SUV through the use of one of his top of the line golf clubs), a hodge podge of genuine and imitation components (ala Saddam Hussein’s Las Vegas-esque palaces), and deteriorating “make do” with sheets or towels for window covering and ad hoc purely functional 2×4 or plumbing pipe hand rails, concrete block steps, etc. In short, the aesthetic make up of the “crime scene” speaks inequality much more than any contextual reference. Yet, shown within a visual art gallery setting, the inequality becomes watered down, possibly becoming elided, eventually disappearing altogether when the spectator leaves the room. Those engaged in the current discourse regarding inequality and inequity would do well in considering the shortcomings of the visual arts in voicing such matters. Visual art cannot escape its heritage of wealthy patron portraiture, fine residencies in idyllic landscapes, and sumptuous settings of food.  Within the current regime of art, inequality, like the life of Woody Guthrie, requires dissection for inclusion in the distribution of sense.

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