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Art is Bullshit Part I Posted on January 16th

What's at the center?  Substance or just another layer of style?

I’ve always thought it would be interesting to do a before-and-after review. The “before” would be what the reviewer anticipates a book/film/exhibition etc. will be, and the “after” would be what it really is. As I’ve expressed in earlier posts, I have a love of speculation and half-knowledge that makes this idea particularly attractive. The closed book is often the best book.

Today’s Before Review will be of On Bullshit. To make my “before” review completely accurate, let me say that I have not read On Bullshit, nor have I opened the book. All I know about it is the author (because his name is on the cover), that the author is a philosopher (because it was in the philosophy section) and the book’s physical appearance. On Bullshit is very slim, very small (maybe three by five inches) and clothbound with no dust jacket. The title and the author are the only information on the outside of the book–no images, insignias, publisher’s brand, nothing else. I have held the book in my hand, but put it down before the temptation to open it got the best of me.

Obviously the book’s title attracted me, but so did the fact that it was a rare small book in the philosophy section. The lack of glossy, blurby dust jacket also was a plus–the book’s minimalist cloth cover made it seem like a tome for the ages. I also chose this book for my first before-and-after review because I believe the concept of “bullshit” is applicable to the arts, and what artists do.

There’s much about the idea of bullshit that’s fascinating when you really think of it. First of all, people immediately know what is meant when someone says they “bullshitted” something or “that’s bullshit.” But what is meant? In the first case, “bullshitted” often means creating an approximation through mimicking the style of something. So, if a boss came up to a worker and asked how a project was going, and the worker hadn’t started the project, the worker might say something like “I’m in the assessment phase at this time.” This statement is calibrated to parrot the sound of productive corporate-speak, with the hope that the sound of it alone will suffice. It is an attempt to make style stand for substance.

Bullshitting camouflages holes in knowledge; bullshitting buys time. If a student hasn’t done the reading in a class, and he or she is called on, they might say use a string of phrases that mimics the structure and key words of what they imagine an informed response would be. This act of bullshitting–of trying to get by with only style–may seem deeply cynical. Surely there’s something cynical about trying to dupe someone else by copying only the most superficial parts of something, surely there’s something inherently disrespectful about seeing the world in terms of “passing” not “being.” Because that’s what the bullshitter does–he tries to pass off half-truth as truth.

But the funny thing about bullshiting it is ultimately both an idealistic and artistic act. First of all, to believe in bullshit at all is to tacitly believe in truth. If there was no real substance in the world, no “truth,” than bullshitting would be impossible, because the superficial would be the only substance. The bullshitter, who mimics the language and attitude of things, is acting on the belief that the language of attitude of things can in fact be extracted from the things themselves. And this, of course, is posited on the belief that there is a “thing itself”–reality, truth, authenticity, insight, or whatever else the bullshitter is trying to imitate. The bullshitter, in his very act of lifting the style from the substance, gets a peak at what the substance of something truly is.

An artist or a writer is not unlike the bullshitter. The artist tries to get at the essence of things through stripping away their affectations; the bullshit artist tries to strip away the affectations of something to use them as a ruse—both are parsing out substance from style. The only difference is what the bullshitter and the artist hope to see. They are both peeling layers and layers of style off of substance, but the artist hopes to find something more pure/enduring/true/etc at the center. The bullshitter is relieved when he finds there’s nothing there. He is glad to see there is no substance, because it means there is nothing he can’t fake.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of bullshit to me personally is its mastery of elaboration. A bullshitter can make a tiny amount of knowledge into a learned tome, a day’s work into a life’s work, an idle thought into a full-fledged philosophical position. Again, this is not unlike the art-making process. The bullshitter, when he runs out of knowledge, keeps explaining, detailing, clarifying, rethinking, revising, and riffing as if he becomes more inspired the less he knows. The artist could learn from the bullshitter, who gets a rush from speaking confidently about that which he does not know. Rarely does an artist or writer exhibit the freewheeling, spellbinding confidence of the bullshitter, even about things of which he is certain.

Well, that was less of a pre-review of On Bullshit than my own thoughts about bullshit. Still, it will be interesting to see what the book is actually about. The idea that a philosopher wrote a book called On Bullshit is a supreme and delightful act of bullshit in itself. Stay tuned for part two–when I review the real book.

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Some Responses to “Art is Bullshit Part I” :

  1. I am waiting …

    Commented John on January 17th, 2009.
  2. One thinks inevitably of Oscar Wilde: “I never read a book I must review; it prejudices you so.”

    Commented Steve Durbin on March 7th, 2009.
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