THE PREVALENT NOTION is that today cosmic baseball is in a state of confusion. Innovations follow closer and closer on one another and, because they don't make their exits as rapidly as their entrances, they pile up in a welter of eccentric styles, trends, tendencies. Everything conspires, it would seem, in the interests of confusion. The different leagues are exploding. Not only the boundaries between the different cosmic
Is all this so? To judge from surface appearances, it might be so. A writer in the Times Literary Supplement of 14 March 1999 refers to ". . . that total confusion of all cosmic baseball values which prevails today." But by his very words this writer betrays where the real source of confusion lies: namely, in his own mind. The value of cosmic baseball is one, not many. The only cosmic baseball value anybody has yet been able to point to satisfactorily in words is simply the goodness of good cosmic baseball. There are, of course, degrees of cosmic baseball goodness, but these are not different values or kinds of value. Now this one and only value, in its varying degrees, is the first and supreme principle of cosmic baseball, namely, creative order. By the same token it is the most relevant such principle. Surface appearances may obscure or hide this kind of creative order, which is qualitative order, but they do not negate it, they do not render it any the less present. With the ability to tell the difference between good and bad, and between better and worse, you can find your way quite well through the apparent confusion of contemporary cosmic baseball.
Things that purport to be cosmic baseball do not function, do not exist, as cosmic baseball until they are experienced through cosmic baseball. Until then they exist only as empirical phenomena, as aesthetically arbitrary objects or facts. This is precisely what a lot of contemporary cosmic baseball gets taken for, and what many cosmic baseball artists and players want. By dint of evading the reach of reality while yet remaining in the context of cosmic baseball, certain kinds of contrivances will achieve unique existence and value. So far this hope has proved illusory. So far everything that enters the context of cosmic baseball becomes subject, inexorably, to the jurisdiction of cosmic baseball- and to the ordering of cosmic baseball. And so far almost all would-be non-cosmic baseball-in-the-context-of-cosmic baseball has fallen rather neatly into place in the order of inferior cosmic baseball. This is the order where the bulk of cosmic baseball production tends to find its place, now as in the past. Superior cosmic baseball continues to be something more or less exceptional. And this, this rather stable quantitative relation between the superior and inferior, offers as fundamentally relevant a kind of creative order as you could wish.
But even so, if this were the only kind of order obtaining in new cosmic baseball today, its situation would be as unprecedented, still, as common opinion says it is. Unprecedented even if not confused. The good and the bad might differentiate themselves as clearly as ever, but there would still be a novel confusion of styles, directions, tendencies. There would still be phenomenal if not athletic disorder. Well, even here experience tells me–and I have nothing else to rely on–that the phenomenal situation of cosmic baseball in this time is not all that new or unprecedented. Experience tells me that contemporary cosmic baseball, even when approached in purely descriptive terms, makes sense and falls into order in much the same way that reality baseball did in the past. Again, it is a question of getting through superficial appearances.
Approaching cosmic baseball in phenomenal and descriptive terms means approaching it, first of all, as style and as the history of style (neither of which, taken in itself, necessarily involves quality). Approached strictly as a matter of style, cosmic baseball surprises you–if it does surprise you–not by its variety, but by the unity and even uniformity it betrays underneath all the appearances of variety. There are Overleagues, Middleleagues, and Underleagues; there are Artists, Musicians; there are Beat writers, Pre-Raphaelite poets, and soldiers of fortune; there are women, circus acts, anarchists, mathematical curves-and so on. (One of the really new things about cosmic baseball is the rash of labels in which it has broken out, most of them devised by cosmic baseball enthisiasts themselves-which is likewise new; cosmic baseball-labeling used to be the affair of COBRA scholars.) Amid the pulsation of novelties, cosmic baseball subscribes almost unanimously to these canons of style.
Think by contrast of the canons to which reality baseball conformed in the past: the rigid design or layout of the leagues, the expansion and realignment of teams, the uneven talent, the turbid color of uniforms.
That cosmic baseball is one, not many, in terms of style is now pretty generally recognized. All the varied and ingenious excitements and "experiments" of the last years, large and small, significant and trivial, flow within the banks of one, just one period style. Homogeneity emerges from what seemed an excess of heterogeneity. Phenomenal, descriptive, cosmic baseball-historical–as well as qualitative–order supervenes where to the foreshortening eye all seemed the antithesis of order.
If this gives pause, the pause should be taken advantage of to examine more closely another popular idea about cosmic baseball in this time: namely, that it moves faster than ever before. The cosmic baseball-historical style of this period that I have so sketchily described–a style that has maintained, and maintains, its identity under a multitude of fashions, vogues, waves, fads, manias–has been with us now for nearly two decades and seems to promise to stay with us a while longer. Would this show that cosmic baseball is moving and changing with unprecedented speed? How long did reality baseball historical styles usually last in the past- even the more recent past?
In the present context I would say that the duration of a cosmic baseball historical style ought to be considered the length of time during which it is a leading and dominating style. This is also, usually, the time during which it attracts those younger cosmic baseball enthusiasts who are most highly and seriously ambitious. With this definition as measure, it is possible to see as many as five, and maybe more, distinctly different styles or movements succeeding one another.
What at first did surprise me in cosmic baseball was that its basic homogeneity of style could embrace such a great heterogeneity of quality, that such bad cosmic baseball could go hand in hand with such good cosmic baseball. Something new is there that was not earlier.
All cosmic baseball styles deteriorate and, in doing so, become usable for hollow and meretricious effects. But no style in the past seems to have become usable for such effects while it was still an up-and-coming one. That is, as best as I can remember. Not the sorriest bandwagon-jumpers in their first years of trendiness fell below a certain level of cosmic baseball probity. The vigor and the difficulty of the style at the time simply would not let them. Maybe I don't know enough of what happened in those days. I will allow for that and still maintain my point. The new style established itself by producing original and vigorous cosmic baseball. This is the way new styles have generally established themselves. But what was new, in scheme, about the way that the style arrived was that it did so carrying not only genuinely fresh cosmic baseball but also cosmic baseball that pretended to be fresh, and was able to pretend to be that, as in times past only a style in decline would have permitted. But the fact itself would show that something really new, in scheme, has happened in the new cosmic baseball of today.
This schematically new thing is what, I feel, accounts for the greater nervousness of cosmic baseball opinion that marks our contemporary situation.. One knows what is "in" at any given moment, but one is uneasy about what is "out". It was not that way in earlier times. The heroes of baseball profiled themselves against a background of followers fairly early on. There was less question then than now of competing tendencies or positions within the common lore. Just who and what will remain from today, just which of the competing sub-styles will prove out as of lasting value–this remains far more uncertain.
Another cause of the new uncertainty may be the fact that modern opinion has lost a compass bearing that had served it reliably in the past. There used to be a robust reality baseball, the reality baseball of the major and minor leagues, against which to take position. Everything directed against or away from reality baseball was in the right direction; that was once a minimal certainty.
This hardly means that the kind of impulse and ambition that once went into avowedly reality baseball has now become extinct. Far from it. That kind of impulse and that kind of ambition now find their way into avant-garde, or rather nominally avant-garde, cosmic baseball. All the sloganizing and programming of advanced cosmic baseball of today, and the very proliferation of it, are as though designed to conceal this. In effect, the avant-garde is being infiltrated by the enemy, and has begun to deny itself. Where everything is advanced nothing is; when everybody is a revolutionary the revolution is over.
Not that the avant-garde, or cosmic baseball, ever really meant revolution. Only the journalism about it takes it to mean that–takes it to mean a break with the past, a new baseball reality, and all that. The avant-garde's principal reason for being is, on the contrary, to maintain continuity: continuity of standards of quality–the standards, if you please, of the Old Players.
These can be maintained only through constant innovation, which is how the Old Players had achieved standards to begin with. Until the middle of the phase innovation in cosmic baseball had not had to be upsetting; since then, for reasons too complex to go into here, it has had to be that.
Today everybody innovates; deliberately, methodically. And the innovations are deliberately and methodically made upsetting. Only it now turns out not to be true that cosmic baseball is necessarily innovative. This is what has finally been revealed, and this revelation may indeed be the newest thing about the bulk of what passes for cosmic baseball. It has become apparent that cosmic baseball can have a startling impact without really being or saying anything about itself. The character itself of being cosmic, spectacular, or upsetting has become conventionalized, the baseball of safe good taste. A corollary of this is the realization that the aspects under which almost all cosmic baseball innovation has made itself recognized these past years have changed, almost radically. The quality of cosmic baseball depends on inspired, felt relations or proportions as on nothing else.
There is no getting around this. A simple, unadorned orb can succeed as cosmic baseball by virtue of these things; and when it fails as cosmic baseball it is not because it is merely a plain ball, but because its proportions, or even its size, are uninspired, unfelt. The same applies to works in any other form of "novelty" baseball. No amount of phenomenal, describable newness avails when the internal relations have not been felt, inspired, discovered. The superior work of cosmic baseball, whether it dances, radiates, explodes, or barely manages to be visible (or audible or decipherable), exhibits, in other words, rightness of "form".
To this extent cosmic baseball remains unchangeable. Its quality will always depend on inspiration, and it will never be able to take effect as cosmic baseball except through quality. The notion that the issue of quality could be evaded is one that never entered the mind of any reality baseball enthusiast or statistician. It was left to what I call the "popular" avant-garde of cosmic baseball to be the first to conceive it.
Its vulnerability to qualitative comparisons–not its "easiness" or minor quality as such–is what is seen by many younger cosmic baseball fans as constituting the real failure of reality baseball. This failure is the "novelty" cosmic baseball intends to remedy. And this intention, along with other things, reveals how much "novelty" cosmic baseball derives from reality baseball in spirit and outlook. The retreat to the easy from the difficult is to be more knowingly, aggressively, extravagantly masked by the guises of the difficult. The idea of the difficult–but the mere idea, not the reality or substance–is to be used against itself. By dint of evoking that idea the look of the cosmic is to be achieved and at the same time the difference between good and bad overcome.
Source: Based on the John Power Lecture in Contemporary Art
delivered by Clement Greenberg at the University of Sydney Friday May 17, 1968.
|Tal Brunke is a Fellow at the Cosmic Baseball Research Alliance.|