- William Gaddis’s Aesthetic Economy
Early in William Gaddis’s sprawling comic novel, J R (1975), writer Jack Gibbs discusses the origins of art with Major Hyde, who is skeptical of the need for artists. “But without them,” Gibbs asks, “where do you get art?” “Get it?” Major Hyde retorts, “Art? You get it where you get anything you buy it . . . don’t try to tell me in this day and age there isn’t enough around for everybody.”1 Seeing art as an inexhaustible supply, Hyde continues, “who’s heard all the great music there is, you? You read all the great books there are? seen all these great pictures? Records of any symphony you want reproductions you can get them that are almost perfect, the greatest books ever written you can get them at the drugstore” (48). Hyde’s complaint may at first seem to suggest that art “has become integrated into commodity production generally,” which Fredric Jameson identifies as the central condition of postmodernism, but it also seeks to eliminate aesthetic production entirely.2 According to Hyde’s logic, artistic production is irrelevant in comparison to its commoditized consumption. Yet to think of art as defined by its consumption instead of its production called the entire notion of aesthetic value into question under postmodernism. As art critic Harold Rosenberg proclaimed in 1972, “the nature of art has become uncertain. At least, it is ambiguous. No one can say with assurance what a work of art is—or, more important, what is not a work of art.”3 Detached from any intrinsic value, Rosenberg concludes, art in the postmodern age “does not know whether it is a masterpiece or junk.”4
This problem of aesthetic distinction has been the legacy of postmodernism’s uncomfortable relationship with the market. Calling postmodernism “the cultural logic of late capitalism,” Jameson claims that it is merely “the consumption of sheer commodification as a process.”5 Similarly, David Harvey asserts that postmodernism “signals nothing [End Page 219] more than a logical extension of the power of the market over the whole range of cultural production.”6 These accounts, however influential, have nevertheless tended to imagine the discourse of postmodernism as nothing more than a symptom of neoliberalism’s expansion of markets. Under neoliberalism—what Harvey has called “the financialization of everything”—anything and everything could be alchemized into capital, evidenced by the fact that J R’s eponymous 11-year-old arch capitalist amasses and loses a vast financial fortune built from a single share of common stock and a pile of junk mail.7 Turned over to the market, art and culture lose any semblance of their once privileged status. With nothing valued for its own sake, everything becomes a potential work of art within the market, and—as Rosenberg laments—“everyone becomes an artist.”8 But this perceived lack of resistance to the market has resulted in a kind of ambivalence about the aesthetic value of postmodernism and its study. In other words, postmodernism ostensibly signaled the defeat of all other forms of valuation except for the economic.
As a result, the tendency in recent years has been for authors and artists to distance themselves from the kind of formal experimentation that has now proven so unpalatable to critics, practitioners, and consumers of the craft. Perhaps most emblematic of this trend is novelist Jonathan Franzen’s 2002 New Yorker editorial on Gaddis—appropriately entitled “Mr. Difficult”—in which Franzen admits that he found little pleasure in reading J R. While hardly unwarranted, given the novel’s infamously tangled dialogic structure, Franzen accuses Gaddis of being a “Status” writer, committed to the belief that “the value of any novel, even a mediocre one, exists independent of how many people are able to appreciate it.”9 Along with many of his postmodern peers, in embracing encyclopedic difficulty as a hallmark of his work, Gaddis has not exactly earned the reputation of a reader-friendly writer. Grown too alienated from “its original owner, the bourgeois reader,” the postmodern novel, Franzen argues, had instead become a grimacing parody of itself in its celebration of difficulty.10 While Franzen contends that the...