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  • Boring from Within:James Agee and Walker Evans at Time Inc.
  • Jeff Allred (bio)

What I am interested in is infinitely less myself than what by chance I saw. . . . And yet that requires—how much?—my presence and my feeling of amusement, joy and shyness. Espionage. Like watching lovemaking through a window, was nearly everything we did.

—James Agee (undated journal entry)

I am beginning to understand what kind of era we are living in. . . . [I am ready to work] in such bastard trades as advertising and publicity.

—Walker Evans1

It is a commonplace in contemporary work in modernist studies to assume that interwar writing should no longer be conceptualized along the lines of a "great divide" separating autonomous, experimental art from the standardized products of mass culture, but rather as moving across a permeable membrane, with avant-garde artists experimenting with the language, images, and styles of mass culture, and mass culture appropriating the techniques of "advanced" artists.2 Work that links modernism and mass culture, however, has tended to privilege the aesthetic dimension of this linkage over its institutional underpinnings: there is now a wide range of excellent work that emphasizes the various ways in which modernist artworks draw from mass cultural energies and forms but relatively few studies of the nexus linking modernist artists with the nascent "culture industries" of the interwar era.3

It is one thing, in other words, to valorize the autonomous works of artists like Nathanael West or John Dos Passos that extend received genres by way of the inclusion of mass cultural materials and modes; it is quite another to explore attempts on the part of experimental artists to embed [End Page 41] themselves within the institutions that create these materials and modes and thus command the attention of the broad democratic audiences that have rarely gained access to experimental art. I have come to think of this act of self-embedding as a kind of "boring from within": on the one hand, artists hoped to import into mass cultural institutions some of the critical negativity of modernist aesthetics; on the other hand, this hope was haunted by the fear of becoming boring, of serving as cogs in the machines that make generic cultural texts. The ambiguity of this position resists reduction to Marxist narratives of alienation or capitalist narratives of selling out: it is more accurate to describe the practice of "boring from within" as issuing from an unstable mixture of hope and cynicism among artists regarding the possibility of pushing the culture industries in a progressive direction and especially of rendering their products more self-reflexive.

My argument thus relates, in both convergent and divergent ways, to two recent examinations of the relationships between artists, cultural institutions, and mass audiences in the interwar United States. Joan Saab argues that this period saw a "desacralization of culture," in which art was increasingly seen as something useful that is integrated into everyday life rather than segregated from it. The New Deal's Federal Art Project (FAP), administered by Harry Hopkins, exemplifies this process: the FAP fashioned itself as a "laboratory" that pursued a "pedagogy of cultural production" within which individual artists served as, in the words of artist George Biddle, "producers," like "the farmer or bricklayer."4 Michael Szalay also focuses his attention on the New Deal cultural projects as the source of a new model for cultural production. He argues that a distinctive "New Deal modernism" arose in the 1930s that was organized around the figure of the "performing writer" who works for wages to produce cultural artifacts for the public rather than producing commodities for a cultural market.5 I share with Szalay and Saab the sense that culture became desacralized at this moment, rendering artists as "cultural workers" quite self-consciously and bringing art into closer contact with the everyday lives of an increasingly extensive and numerous mass audience. Neither book, however, deeply engages the position of the artist-as-worker within the emergent culture industries, a position, I will argue, in which the figure of the "performing artist" or "producer" is much more agonized than in the state-sponsored projects. No less than in the FAP or...


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