Sunday, June 6, 2010

"The Holy Greil" is not the title of this post

The first few pages of Greil Marcus' Invisible Republic made me acutely uncomfortable. When I was home-schoolinmg myself to become a critic, Marcus' Mystery Train was a revered text. But here he seemed to be endorsing a view of art as a product of impersonal or collective social forces that I find repellant. (There are entire "cultural studies" essays about movies in which the names of their writers and directors are never mentioned.) An artist like Bob Dylan is great because is more sensitive to these forces than most and allows them to speak through him, a notion that seems to tip-toe toward the foolish "artist as shaman."

In fact, happily, the opposite is true: Marcus is setting this viewpoint up for a fall. He sees it at the heart of a false idea of authenticity (of works of folk art as expressions of a communities and cultures rather than individuals) that animated the highly politicised folk revival movement Dylan over-turned -- provoking responses so rabid from peace-loving folkies that he feared for his life.

When art is confused with life, it's not merely art that is lost. When art equals life there is no art, but when life equals art there are no people. "The tobacco sheds of North Carolina are in it and all of the blistered and hurt and hardened hands cheated and left empty, hurt and left crying," Woody Guthrie himself wrote of Sunny Terry's harmonica playing. He didn't say if Sonny Terry was in it. (p. 29)
C.I.: Tulk


Tulkinghorn said...

A small, but telling detail: The book was retitled in its paperback release and you can purchase it here ( under the title, "The Old Weird America"....

Generic said...

I'd already ordered a used pb with the original title. I would be surprised to learn that the new title was GM's idea.

Discussions of the music as such in later sections chew more than was bitten off. (It's not to GM's advantage that I can fire up the laptop and instantly listen to pretty much every song he mentions.)