Portrait of the Artist as a Young Criminal

As long as we're on the subject of Merton, how about Strain Theory?

Sociologically, Strain Theory divvies-up the population along two primary axes. Merton theorized that most everyone has the same goals and desires, but unequal means to achieve them — and that these disparities lead to different strategies in lifestyle. The two axes are both related to individuality. One axis is the individual's acceptance of society's general suite of goals, the other axis is that person's access to the standard socially-prescribed means to achieve those goals. Division by these axes leads to five possible groupings:

 Goals
AcceptDeny
M
e
a
n
s
HaveConformistsRitualists
LackInnovatorsRetreaters/
Rebels

By far the largest group are the conformists, those who accept the general goals of the society and also the prescribed means to achieve them (get a job, solid "B+" average). At the opposite quadrant are those who lack the means and do not share the goals — the retreatists (think Amish, hippie commune-dwellers, or loners of various sorts) and the rebels (who instead of giving up, are busy attacking both the goals and means with replacements of their own devising). Ritualists give up on goals but just carry on, while innovators go after the generally-shared goals through non-standard means.

Criminologists have latched-onto Merton's little graph not because they care about Rebels, but because they worry about innovators as a threat to the general well-being. In the criminologist world, innovators include those who are willing to follow "non-standard" means to the accepted goals — robbing, killing, extorting, etc. are all non-standard "innovative" approaches.

So in this sort of view, innovation is the very wellspring of social deviance. Bad, bad, innovation.

Deuce of it is, innovation is also where the best art comes from. To retreat is to give up, to rebel is to make art that has no audience and is incomprehensible; to ritualize is to reduce art to mechanism, to craft bent to serve the goals of someone else, say a studio or newspaper; and to conform is of course the Lingering Death — the cliché kittens, fluffy clouds, mountains, macro flowers and butterflies, naked chicks stretched across driftwood, starkly-graphic details of the industrial world, sand dunes against a crystal-blue sky, leaping dolphins, etc etc ad nauseum. All art that was once innovative (say, in 1924) and is now safely within the school of "I know this is good art because it looks like other art I've seen that was good."

According to my deviant reading of Artistic Strain Theory, then, only in innovation can one hope to truly acheive the general goal (at the risk of getting skewered by the decon crew, we'll call it "beauty") without being lost in the conformist swamp. Yet to do so is to create an affornt to the conformists, to be, in their words, deviant even as you use your deviance to beat them at their own game.

At least, that's the theory.

Comments on "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Criminal"

Jon Fernquest
July 5, 2003 09:18 PM

In a community of comformists there's often the rebel or innovator who's accepted as such by the community.

I'll remember this one and I'm sure I'll have fun trying to apply it, but who sets the goals? and do they really stay statically fixed for very long?

 

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