The State as a Work of Art

I live in Los Angeles. After ten years, the landscape, weather, and light feel strange to me, but I can see that I have a good life here.

I try to remember Marcus Aurelius’s advice: »Let no one, not even yourself, hear you speaking ill of court life.« A problem for emperors, and also for professors, who do not choose where they live, and are given to complaining about living in some of the world’s great cities.

In the spirit of Marcus Aurelius, I want to ask an old-fashioned question. I study the English Renaissance, and I am inclined to frame the question in terms of my object of study. Can you decide to have a renaissance? If we who live in Los Angeles wished to have a renaissance, how would we go about it?

Think of Portland, in the northwestern United States. Why is Portland not having a renaissance? Or, if that is too high a standard, why are they not producing better art in any medium (poetry, music, painting, theater, anything)? Why do they have good food and comfortable lives, but not great art?

Whereas Topeka, in the Midwest, has produced a generation of poets. Ben Lerner, Anne Boyer, Cyrus Console, Kevin Young, Ed Skoog, Nick Twemlow, and others. The comparison is not exact, because the poets were born in Topeka, grew up there, and moved to other cities. But the comparison does tell you something. If you were asked to design a city to generate poets, you might try to make your design as unlike Topeka as possible. You might try to make your city more like Portland. A mistake! Topeka generates poets; Portland does not.

Why does it seem as though Topeka could have a renaissance, and Portland could not? Are there possibilities for cultural exchange in Topeka that are lacking in Portland? A greater variety of languages, races, and therefore interests? But if Portland truly lacked all variety, wouldn’t that be a problem for the food? Or do the food and comforts get in the way of adventurous art?

I know some of the ingredients that went into the English Renaissance. Humanist education. A female monarch. The dominance of the southern dialect. This mixture is now inert. A closed system for having a renaissance.

Or think of the Heian court in Japan. Their literature derived its authority from older Chinese models, which somehow did not stultify their poetry. Their two great geniuses, Murasaki and Shonagon, were educated informally, not products of elite systems of education. But, most astonishing, Murasaki and Shonagon, courtiers at the same court, were not part of the same poetic movement! They were not even enemies. They just didn’t especially like each other, and each paid little attention to what the other was writing. Their work was fed by conversations with less interesting writers.

It’s obvious that there are healthy and unhealthy conditions for art. And it’s obvious that the healthy conditions for art and living are not the same. And, in the case of art, we have no idea what they are.