Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Sunday Salon: Parallels Between Publishing Today and the Birth of Modern Art

mary cassatt at the louvre
Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt at the Louvre, 1879. Image courtesy of the Met.

We're studying impressionism in my art history course this week, and I couldn't help but notice some similarities between the art world during that time period and the publishing world today--specifically, the impact eBooks, self-published or otherwise, are having on publishing. For instance:

  • Deskilling A common statement about modern art is that, "my five-year-old could do that." And when you compare a Pissarro to a Vermeer, the former does look pretty bad. But people don't care about skill! That much. They care more about the ideas behind the pieces and that they're something new and different. Similarly, self-published eBooks are often criticized for grammatical mistakes and lack of editing. But people don't care! I mean, I care, but if Fifty Shades is on the NYT Bestseller List obviously there are a lot of people who don't. They just want to read something new and different! But not too different, like different in the sense that you feel uncomfortable while reading it. Also, being really cheap or free helps. Moving on...
  • Establishment vs the Salon des Refus├ęs Whenever you have a system to evaluate the worth of something and promote that which is judged superior, there are going to be rejections and hurt feelings. However, in 1863, the Academy Salon in Paris rejected 3,000 pieces of art, far more than they ever had before. It was so extreme the French government sponsored a salon of the rejected work, which included what are now some of the most famous pieces of 19th century art. Basically all these young artists who set the groundwork for the crumbling of the Salon wanted to be let into the establishment in the first place. They didn't set out to tear the system down, but the Salon had become too conservative and didn't want to be shaken up by new ideas. Similarly, one of the complaints I hear from self-published authors are that the Big 6 publishers don't support mid-listers anymore, which is where most new authors would start out (keep in mind all my information is hearsay, and this may only be a few people's experience). It makes sense that, as the economy gets worse, publishers are buttoning down the proverbial hatches and not taking chances on lesser-known writers anymore; but where are those writers going to go? They'll probably self- or e-publish.
  • Technology Impressionists are famous for painting scenes of modern life, not allegories with cupids or historic scenes. Their images included trains and factories, and they were interested in the latest and greatest technology, science, theories, and newspaper reports. I don't think one could say the total opposite was true of Salon artists of the same time period, but the work of artists like William-Adolphe Bouguereau, whom Degas and Monet believed would be the most famous artist of their generation (with more than a little disgust), definitely has a completely different sensibility. I.e., frolicking cupids. In a similar way, it seems like some publishers are being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century--not just in their acceptance of eBooks, but also in their business models.
Obviously, none of these parallels are exact because we're looking at two different centuries, art forms, and cultures. But from my perspective as a reader, this is a very exciting time period in literature. The rules of how and what is being published are shifting rapidly, and that offers a great opportunity for writers to experiment, as well as an audience open to reading their work. Will we soon have the literary equivalent of modern art? Is Fifty Shades our generation's Impression: Sunrise?

Gawd. I hope not (but then I do confess I have a soft spot for Bouguereau).


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