Accessibilty or Crass Commercialism?
I’m still thinking about Ashbery and jazz. Now I'm thinking about the whole accessibility issue.
I was reading the other day about Thelonious Monk’s last (I think?) album for Columbia, Monk’s Blues. I really hate it, as does most everyone who likes Monk, I believe. It was the songs of Thelonious Monk arranged for studio big band, with Monk playing along. It was called crass commercialism, by many. The thought behind it (some say) was that the big band would make Monk more accessible to general audiences.
Accessible. How I hate and loathe that word, when applied to art. The most presumptuous and condescending thing one can write about art, or, closer to my heart, a book of poetry, is that it is “accessible.” Imagine saying such a thing about any other art, or, indeed, any other facet of your life:
1.Easily approached or entered.
3.Easy to talk to or get along with.
4.Easily influenced or swayed.
“Accessible” is something we should all hope for with public buildings, true, but when talking about art, people should be run out of town for saying it, and people should be embarrassed to have someone say it about their work. One works hard (hopefully) at one’s art. And any reader should be furious at the condescending nature of someone writing of a book that it is “accessible.” “Don’t worry,” it’s saying, “even YOU can get it!” One person’s “accessible” is another’s “crass commercialism.”
Doesn’t it make you even a little uncomfortable that the word “accessible” has become a positive value judgment? And then, that “inaccessible” has become such a denunciation? “Inaccessible” means something is not easily approached or entered. What should that be the death-blow to art?
When one is hiking, one often wants a pleasurable little accessible walk. A stroll. But at other times, one might well want something inaccessible: scale a cliff perhaps. Perhaps bike down a gorge.
When we talk about “accessibility” what are we really meaning? As long as we’re not talking about building access, “accessibility” is metaphorical and fairly abstract, as one can only know if something is “accessible” by attempting to access it. And what doesn’t mean to be accessed?
I’ve never met a poet yet, no matter how “difficult” his or her work, who doesn’t want people to read it. We all intend to connect to readers. I certainly do. I can’t imagine a poet who would be eager to deliver a public reading who doesn’t want a public to be there.
What people are really saying when they talk about work as accessible, is that it won’t be making many (if any) demands upon the reader. And by “demands,” I believe it is understood that the poems will not do something the reader hasn’t encountered many times before. I can see that such a thing might be nice for some people, especially if a book is also tagged by a subject (accessible poems about the dissolution of a marriage, say, or about the death or illness of a loved one), even though it wouldn’t be nice for me.
I can feel myself starting to talk in circles. Suffice it to say I understand the desire on the side of the “accessibles,” but I deny them this term. It’s a terrible way to talk about art. It’s meaningless at the very same time that it’s aggressive to everything it’s not. If “accessible” is valued positively, then there must be those things that are “inaccessible” that are valued negatively. “Accessible” becomes a version of “normal” and therefore “good,” while other poems therefore become “deviant” or “abnormal” and, of course, “bad.” This is why poets that would be termed in this economy “inaccessible” point to “accessible” poets as retrograde, or socially conservative, no matter what the subject matter of their “accessible” poems. All of these hot potatoes would be avoided if we were able to talk about these things differently. One way to attempt to do so, is to replace the word “accessible” with the word “clear.” It wins the Nice Try award, as it has to misuse the definition of “clear” to mean something more like “culturally transparent,” and that, no matter how you put it in a sentence, isn’t going to get someone to buy a book. Or a jazz album.
Words like “accessible” don’t work for poets (and other artists) that I like. I think of Ashbery. I want nothing from an Ashbery poem but the experience of the poem unfolding. And that experience is more than just a tone, the experience of the play of meaning (play in the sense of the play of light across a landscape). Is it accessible? I don’t know. Is grass accessible? Are the trees? How about walking through a crowd?
Poets like Ashbery force us to take our metaphors seriously. Or, to say it another way: To say things like "This work is accessible," pre-supposes we all read poetry in the same way.