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What is art worth in an age of indifference?

October 14, 2002|Merle Rubin | Special to The Times

An old, terminally sick man, lying in bed, rifles through a chaotic accumulation of paper -- notes, clippings, books, surveys, deeds, insurance, contracts -- in the hope of constructing a coherent case for the value of art in a world that seems hostile or indifferent to it. This is the premise of William Gaddis' last novel, "Agape Agape."

The first "agape" (three syllables: a-gah-pay) alludes to the Christian concept of immeasurable love, divine and human: the love of creator and creation and, by extension, the gift of art. The second "agape" (two syllables: a-gape) summons up a void: a gap, a gaping hole, a vacancy or, as Gaddis' raving but never irrational protagonist at one point describes it: "The ultimate collective, the herd numbed and silenced agape at blood sex and guns blowing each other to pieces only participation you get's maybe kids who see it come to school next morning and mow down their classmates.... "

Gaddis, who died in December 1998 at age 76, wrote four previous novels over the course of a career that spanned five decades. His first, "The Recognitions" (1955), was an intricate, allusive, immensely ambitious work about a painter whose gift for re-creating the styles of the great masters involves him in a world of forgery and fraud. Too complex a work to win quick success, it slowly gained a kind of cult status, though Gaddis had to turn his pen to corporate and technical writing to make his living.

Published 20 years later, his second novel, "JR" (which won the National Book Award), brilliantly satirized the shortsighted, profit-crazed world of big business via the character of an 11-year-old boy whose very lack of an "adult" sense of responsibility enables him to build a financial empire. A decade later, in "Carpenter's Gothic," Gaddis trained his satiric talents on the media and religious fundamentalism. And with "A Frolic of His Own" (1994), which won him his second National Book Award, Gaddis anatomized the labyrinths of the culture of litigation.

Technology was another of Gaddis' recurrent concerns, and it was a subject to which he had devoted a great deal of study and thought. Although he was too sophisticated and realistic to take up the stance of a latter-day Luddite wishing it all away, Gaddis was disturbed by the ramifications of mechanization, standardization, cybernetics. Like the critic Walter Benjamin, he saw technology as a force tending to undermine the value of artistic endeavor.

For Gaddis, the issue was crystallized in the history of the player piano. It is the subject that consumes the Gaddis-like hero of "Agape Agape." And Gaddis' own research notes and essays on the rise and fall of this early form of automated music can be found--among other essays, speeches and occasional writings--in "The Rush for Second Place."

This essay collection, as its editor, Joseph Tabbi, warns us, is scrappy and uneven: Gaddis, perfectionist that he was, would probably not have wished to publish some of the patchier pieces. But in two of the essays, Gaddis sets out some of his key ideas on the relationship of the state, religion and the artist: "We who struggle to create fictions ... must regard the state with awe, for the state itself must be the grandest fiction to be concocted by man, barring only one." The fiction even grander than the state, in Gaddis' opinion, is the "realm of ... divine revelations," religion.

Both fiction and religion, he contends, depend upon a willing suspension of disbelief: "In other words, we are all in the same line of business: that of concocting, arranging, and peddling fictions to get us safely through the night." While Gaddis the essayist tends to take things in stride, coolly analyzing a situation, distancing himself through irony, Gaddis' novelistic alter ego in "Agape Agape" is much more agitated: " ... that's what my work is about, the collapse of everything, of meaning, of language, of values, of art, disorder and dislocation wherever you look, entropy drowning everything in sight, entertainment and technology and every four year old with a computer, everybody his own artist...."

In an age of mass marketing, art degenerates into trivial entertainment, and the public is more interested in the artist-as-celebrity than in the art he or she creates. The speaker detects a connection between the increasing complexity of machines and the increasing inanity and coarseness of public taste. (His outcry reminds one of Jeanette Winterson's lament: "We value sensitive machines. We don't value sensitive human beings.")

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