Iconicity, Half-Art, and the Philadelphia Renaissance


The Biblical commonplace of the term "false idol," and its significations, is pertinent as a tangent to the Philly Free School, the Philadelphia Renaissance, and what we were attempting to achieve in Aughts Philly. If I call the entire twentieth century an era of false idols, or false icons, it is because the drastically reduced profile of major high art consonance in said century created a cultural vacuum largely filled by popular culture entertainment business professionals, whose version of art I call "half-art," and whose manufactured iconicity filled an expanse of the Western cultural public sphere much better filled, as it may be in this new century, by the likes of us. The stock-in-trade of the twentieth century's false idols- what I call "half-art"- has, as a constituent structural feature, an imperative to fulfill of finding a way to appeal to the lowest public common denominator, while remaining representatively somehow "artistic" enough to satisfy at least part of the educated populace as well. Rock music, as a popular art form, and at its highest levels, seemed to work from this premise, and the manufacturing of rock music icons initiated the profile of the consummate "half-artist"- a figure thoughtful enough, in their life and work, to appear wise and/or venerable; but whose cultural expression remained crass enough, and uninformed by the history of serious art enough, to be easily comprehensible to broad masses of people, thus insuring (on the surface) both wide, continued interest and substantial profit margins. There is a utility value to half-art, and half-artists; engaging their work does not require an educated cultural background, and half-art grants the unrefined a handle on having at least some culture. But the abasement of the late twentieth century consisted of the fact that Western culture had lost all impetus to anything but half-art, and half-artists- they were granted an inordinate amount of cultural power and prestige.

Part of the issue was what was happening in the higher arts themselves- the insipid vacuity of the movement called "post-modernity" created a congeries of circumstances which suggested that even would-be high artists were toiling to make high art obsolescent. They not only made a fetish of half-artists; they indicated with the chips they put down, on what could be permanent and durable, that half-art would triumph over serious, passionately engaged high art. Popular culture was made to appear formidable and substantial, in a false light; that it could be a hinge to the forms of advanced cognition which inhere in serious high art, and serious pursuit of the humanities in general. All of the major figures of the Philadelphia Renaissance- the first generation of Neo-Romantics- were raised on half-art, and its pantheon of false idols- many of us were even fervent believers, in our youth, of these all-purpose mind-toys. Yet, what the arrival of PFS as a cultural influence in America creates is a novel, unexpected, and very potent power-block- a generation of educated, accomplished, manifestly historically aware and major high art consonant artists, who are (surprisingly) attractive and entertaining enough (in the romanticism of their lives/adventures) to satisfy half-art/ pop culture imperatives too; and who are more worthy of iconic status than anything the second half of the twentieth century had to offer, from Elvis Presley and Bruce Springsteen to Warhol and Ashbery.

On another level, and strictly speaking, very few human beings deserve to be made icons- it is often forgotten that the etymology of the word "icon" is religious, and used in conjunction with figures who have manifested miracles, and who devoted their lives to aiding mankind on the most profound spiritual levels. By granting, say, Madonna iconic status, the twentieth century confessed many things- grounding in a pagan, primitivized form of secularism, which inverted frivolity and gross exhibitionism into religious virtue; a maintained state of absolute spiritual emptiness; a sense that it was permissible to let the public sphere be run without any undue responsibility to the general public; and a patina of prolonged semantic insensitivity, which reduced discourses to buzz-words and catch-phrases. Consequently, America in general is unused to anything but half-art; and we are aesthetic whole-hogs. What I want to propose, in 2014, is that an American populace, weathered and chastened by the recession, may be ready to move culturally beyond false idols and half-art- ready for the genuine ("whole") article, and from within the United States. The half-art level of PFS is supplied by our personalities and biographies- the narrative of our lives, which in Aughts Philly was outrageous enough to make more than decent pop culture fodder. After a certain point, the body of work we have created is strong and varied enough that some press corps will be compelled to pick us up, American or not; and a twenty-first century narrative initiated, against the juvish twentieth century master narrative, in all its bought-out aridity, which will make clear just how fulsome we were.