The Grid of One


George W. S. Trow (1943-2006) (Photo: Lynn Davis/Pantheon Books)

George Trow‘s essay, Within the Context of No Context, occupied the entire issue of The New Yorker in November of 1980. It is a timeless piece of writing, as is the introduction he wrote for the book version several years later, Collapsing Dominant.

I reread both essays following the election in November, and my copy is now full of margin comments about how prescient and visionary Trow was in describing the circumstances we are now in. It’s a dark view—some have claimed that Trow’s own life became unhinged after he wrote this—but its insights are stunning and apropos to so many aspects of our current cultural landscape. While Trow focuses primarily on the repercussions of television and its “context of no context,” there’s plenty of spillover to other aspects of our lives as well.

A few highlights from the beginning of Trow’s essay:

Groups of more than one were now united not by a common history but by common characteristics. History became the history of demographics, the history of no-history.
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History had been the record of growth, conflict, and destruction.
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The New History was the record of the expression of demographically significant preferences: the lunge of demography “here” as opposed to “there”.
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In the New History, nothing was judged—only counted. The power of judging was then subtracted from what it was necessary for a man to learn to do. In the New History, the preferences of a child carried as much weight as the preferences of an adult, so the refining of preferences was subtracted from what it was necessary for a man to learn to do. In the New History, the ideal became “agreement” rather than well-judged action, so men learned to be competent only in those modes which embraced the possibility of agreement. The world of power changed. What was powerful grew more powerful in ways that could be easily measured, grew less powerful in every way that could not be measured…
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Television is the force of no-history, and it holds the archives of the history of no-history…Television does not vary. The trivial is raised up to power. The powerful is lowered toward the trivial.
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The power behind it resembles the power of no-action, the powerful passive.
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It is bewitching.
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It interferes with growth, conflict, and destruction, and these forces are different in its presence.
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“Entertainment” is an unsatisfactory word for what it encloses or projects or makes possible.
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No good has come of it.

So many have written thoughtfully about this essay, and I encourage a read—or reread—to anyone who has watched the events of the last few months and is still trying to squeeze out a sensible explanation for how we got here and how we get ourselves out. Not that Trow is offering a solution. But he does lay it out, without holding back.

When the trivial has been “raised up to power,” choice regarding important matters becomes increasingly difficult. Meanwhile decisions about trivial matters take on “an importance that no one could have thought to predict.” The intimacy of that sovereign domain that is just you—a “grid of one” in Trow’s nomenclature—gets harder and harder to define and defend.

This skewing is evident everywhere—in the plethora of trivializing technology, targeted advertising, the 24/7 “news” cycle, prescribed products such as prepackaged vacations and housing, Cambridge Analytica’s psychographics, and yes, even the promotion and availability of contemporary art. The seduction of the trivial is not trivial after all. It is a stealth vortex that is ever present.

What artist doesn’t want to stay in the flow of what’s important, to be connected to the primacy of her/his work, to have a steady connection with that unmarked territory that is the imaginal? And yet how easily that essential linkage gets bulldozed by the less important. It is something we allow, almost without thinking or being aware it is happening.

I was recently gifted with the small Paper Monument booklet, I like your work: art and etiquette which gathers advice from over 30 art world types about how to behave (and also includes the full text of How Artists Must Dress, by Roger White, which has been printed in its entirety on a canvas bag.)

Certainly there is time in my day to laugh at some of the entries:

Question: What customs or mannerisms are particular to the art world?
Dan Nadel: The custom of standing in a crowded room where you can’t see anyone or anything, for no other purpose than to be there.
Rachel Uffner: In my experience, a lot of emphasis is placed on mystique. People who are effortlessly in the know. That probably doesn’t make any sense.
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Question: What are the rules of etiquette for the art world?
Anonymous: Wait until you are at least six blocks away from a show before expressing a negative opinion about the show—this is known as the “six block rule.”
Ryan Steadman: If you are a skinny artist, be clean and neat. If you’re a fat artist, be crazy looking and disheveled. Not sure why, but this seems to work best.
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Roger White, from “How Artists Must Dress”: The relationship between an artist’s work and attire should not take the form of a direct visual analogy. A stripe painter may not wear stripes.

Yes, this is some insider humor and comic relief. But it is also a reminder about how hard it is to stay in the real territory where the issues at stake cannot be translated into a pamphlet, rendered epigrammatic and witty, or even put into language at all. It is that domain, that grid of one, that is worth defending. In the words Trow uses at the end of Collapsing Dominant:

Perhaps you will need a motto. I suggest this one: “Wounded by the Million; Healed—One by One.”

1 Comment

  1. 3beeches says:

    My friend, Alice O. Howell, always used to say that all change is worked 1x1x1, and only 1x1x1.

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