December 15, 2006
Henri Rousseau Revisited
This is a review of "Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris," which appeared at the National Gallery of Art in Washington this fall.
You know the type. He's the guy at your high school reunion who just quit his job (dull to start with) and cut loose from his family (wife deceased, kids farmed out to relatives), in order to devote himself entirely to his art. And when you see that gleam in his eye, you don't need to ask what kind of art. This type never wants to be a conceptual artist, exhibiting piles of toenail clippings or streaking through the financial district on a skateboard. Nor an installation artist, re-creating his own grungy bathroom in an even grungier downtown gallery. And definitely not a transgressive artist, running dead rats up flagpoles or nailing plastic Nazis to a cross. The Great Artist wannabe is typically just that - a Sunday painter with no real training, who earnestly believes that hard work and exalted thoughts will turn him into Titian ... or at least, William Bouguereau.
Did Henri Rousseau fit this bill? In a way, yes. It was definitely a clueless amateur who painted the dreary small landscapes of suburban Paris now filling one room of the Rousseau exhibition at the National Gallery. If you favor the postmodernist erasure of the line between high and low art, then you'll enjoy seeing daubs such as The Environs of Paris (1909), Banks of the Oise (1905), and Ivry Quay (1907) given the same royal treatment as the Venetian masters on display in the West Building. If you'd prefer not to see that line erased, then your reaction will be closer to that of the Paris Salon-goers who, accustomed to the lofty subject matter and polished technique of the Academy of Fine Arts, scoffed at Rousseau's doltishness.
At the same time, the early modernists - many of whom had been trained in the academic style, even as they spurned it - praised Rousseau's art as "naive," "primitive" even "folk," meaning basically that it was ignorant of anatomy and perspective. Picasso, who had mastered classical draftsmanship under the tutelage of his father almost before he could walk, paid five francs for Rousseau's gawky Portrait of a Woman, and called it "one of the most truthful French psychological portraits." (It is probably worth remembering that five francs was chicken feed - and that Picasso was a Spaniard.) In 1908, two years before Rousseau's death, Picasso and the poet Guillaume Apollinaire threw a banquet in his honor, attended by a who's who of the Parisian avant-garde. Accounts of that legendary event differ, but the overall tone seems to have been part mockery, part affection for the guest of honor, who, twenty years older than anyone else present, had never aspired to be part of the avant-garde.
This exhibition does a nice job of highlighting the mismatch between the modernists' embrace of Rousseau and his own somewhat deluded self-image. Modernism back then was not the insulting joke that postmodernism is today. On the contrary, Rousseau's fan club included some of the most significant artists of the twentieth century. But Rousseau had little use for their work. His hero was Bouguereau, the ultimate academic painter, and he bragged of having received advice from two others, Jean Gérôme and Félix-Auguste Clément. But no advice, however kindly or condescendingly given, could substitute for the rigorous course of study enforced at the Academy. (For example, students were forbidden to touch a paintbrush until they had completed several years of figure drawing and accumulated an acceptable portfolio.)
Rousseau's self-delusion is perhaps best revealed in John House's contribution to the catalogue, which recalls him "submitting designs to the competitions for the decoration of several of the town halls in the Paris region - those of Bagnolet, Vincennes and Asnières." As House adds, "town-hall decorations were perhaps the single most significant form of public-art patronage in France during those years." We can only imagine how quickly Rousseau's designs got shot down - and ironically, how many tourists would now be trooping to any provincial town whose officials had been clairvoyant enough to commission a mural by Henri Rousseau!
Does this mean there's hope for our Sunday painter, even though his attempts at perspective give the viewer a migraine, and his renderings of the human body are, to quote Cole Porter, "less than Greek"? Perhaps - if he is immensely gifted, incredibly tenacious, and capable of following Rousseau's example, which was to find a way around his weaknesses, build on his strengths, and manage to live in the right place at the right time.
Take anatomy. Rousseau himself seems to have been nicely put together (by all reports, the ladies of his acquaintance thought so). But the same cannot be said of the human figures he painted. It is hard to attach any real artistic merit to his stabs at the formal black-suited portrait, a genre for which the standard was set back in 1524, by Titian's Man With a Glove. At best, Rousseau spoofs the genre, introducing such bizarre elements as the striped cat, red fez, and itty-bitty smokestacks in Portrait of Monsieur X (Pierre Loti) (1910). But at worst, his portraits bear more than a passing resemblance to the stiff, labored ancestor pictures that stare grimly from the walls of every preserved colonial homestead in America.
But Rousseau got around this problem by the ingenious device of dressing his human figures in fancy costumes and reducing them to decorative motifs, preferably in landscapes where his other weakness, a lack of perspective, had already been solved. In The Banquet Years, Roger Shattuck's superb study of fin-de-siècle Parisian culture, he compiles a list of Rousseau's finest works, including four jungle pictures (about which more below) and the stunning Carnival Evening (1886). (Full disclosure: Carnival Evening is not only my favorite Rousseau, it is also one of my favorite paintings, period.)
It's fascinating to see how this early canvas prefigures Rousseau's later triumphs. Rather than struggle to make his pair of carnival-goers lifelike, he transforms them into exquisite little dolls, dressed in pale garments that glow as luminously against the bare, black trees as the full moon and delicate clouds glow against the twilit sky. And strikingly, there is no perspective to speak of, because the line of the horizon has been brought as low as possible - suggesting a ridge, or the crest of a hill. Much has been made of the tiny grimacing face attached to the gazebo on the left, but that is not what makes this picture so haunting. Rather it is the dropped horizon, which creates an eerie emptiness behind the figures and the dark woods that loom at their back.
Ever since the artists of the fourteenth century read the Latin translation of Ibn al-Haytham's tenth-century treatise, Optics, Western painting has valued pictorial depth, or the illusion of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface. The calculations required to create this illusion have evolved from Giotto's rudimentary algebra to the elaborate ratios worked out by Erwin Panofsky. But through it all, any malfunction of approved perspective has been called crude and backward. Obviously there's nothing crude or backward about great works created by civilizations that did not study perspective: medieval manuscripts, Chinese paintings, and Persian miniatures, to name a few. But these have, at times, been called decorative - or as the phrase goes when the intention is to disparage, merely decorative. In Rousseau's day, Cezanne's dismantling of perspective was being eagerly taken up by the cubists and other modernists. But that didn't stop them from condescending to Rousseau. After all, playing with or even subverting classical perspective was one thing; being totally incapable of using it was another.
But here, too, Rousseau proved resourceful. Rather than wrestle blindly with sight lines and vanishing points, his best paintings simply abandon the whole enchilada and find other ways to evoke a sense of distance. For instance, in most of the jungle paintings, depth is suggested either by color, with the greens in the background darker and more saturated than those in the foreground; or by scale, with fruits and flowers getting smaller the farther they recede.
And sometime he uses neither. In Fight Between a Tiger and a Buffalo (1908), the colors are uniform, and despite a faint hint of horizon, the space is extremely shallow. Indeed, the oranges in the grass in front of the struggling beasts are the same size as those in the trees behind them. The bananas get bigger, but they do so from left to right, not from front to back - no doubt because Rousseau wanted to balance out what is essentially a flat composition. Are the best of the jungle pictures - Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised) (1891), The Hungry Lion Throws itself onto the Antelope (1905), The Merry Jesters (1906), and The Snake Charmer (1907) - decorative? You bet. Does that make them inferior to umpteen thousand academic paintings in which fully sculpted nudes writhe in deep illusionistic space? No way.
As this exhibition makes abundantly clear, Rousseau's images of tropical flora, fauna, and humanity came from popular magazines, travel books, the Paris botanical garden and zoo, and the 1889 World's Fair, which featured 44 different ethnic and historical pavilions surrounding the base of the brand-new Eiffel Tower. Even at the time, it was obvious that Rousseau was taking a free hand, placing a Mongolian deer in the jungle (The Waterfall, 1910) and conjuring encounters not found in nature (Tropical Landscape - An American Indian Struggling with a Gorilla, 1910). But as Christopher Green writes in the catalogue, Rousseau's real accomplishment was to create a dream jungle: "a theater of fears and desires" for his fellow bourgeois Parisians.
It's nice to know that, after all those years of rejection and poverty, Rousseau finally made it big. His last jungle painting, The Dream (1910) is right up there with Leonardo's Mona Lisa and Van Gogh's Sunflowers as one of art's All-Time Greatest Hits. Certainly the National Gallery show is organized around this happy ending, with The Dream hung at the very end, where it attracts countless oohs, ahs, and contented sighs. ("See the elephant, Josh?" "Look, Melissa, is that a tiger's tail or a snake?" "Yes, we can go for ice cream now.")
Too bad The Dream is not the culmination it is chalked up to be. It is weirdly academic, in the sense that it is crammed with everything you could possibly want, all the goodies in Rousseau's bag of tricks, plus a nude. But it is not thrilling and (dare I say it?) not beautiful. If you want to see Rousseau's most beautiful jungle painting, go back to the first, Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised), painted nineteen years earlier. (It is no accident that the curators put that one on the cover of the catalogue.) Compare that fabulous canvas, full of gorgeous color, movement, and pattern, with the formulaic jungle paintings in the room just before The Dream, and you'll see a definite decline. The painful truth is that Rousseau's career peaked early, with a handful of astonishing canvases, in which he overcame his technical limitations and expressed something urgent and ineffable that had clearly been bottled up in his soul. By the time he painted The Dream, success had turned to formula, and he was, as they say, churning them out.
Question for a Sunday painter: How do you keep a dream alive after it has come true?
(This review appeared first in the Weekly Standard.)
Posted by mbayles at 10:38 AM
October 13, 2006
Paul Klee's Art
Paul Klee was not childish, despite frequent comparisons between his art and that of children...
... At the Phillips Collection, where 80 works by the Swiss-born modernist were exhibited this fall (they are now at the Menil Collection in Houston, through January 14, 2007), the link with children's art was made explicit by an adjoining room filled with the sort of masterpieces proud parents affix to refrigerator doors. A few of these are delightful - my personal favorite is A Visit to The DIA [Detroit Institute of Arts], by 11-year-old Gregory Stafford, which shows dinosaurs strolling through an art museum, gazing at paintings and sculptures of dinosaurs much like themselves. Rarely have I seen such eloquent tribute to art as mimesis - in the words of the German scholar Wilhelm Worringer, "The criterion of judgment to which we cling as something axiomatic, is, as I have said, approximation to reality."
Most child artists fail to achieve anything like an approximation to reality, but we forgive them, because we assume their failure is not deliberate. For example, the jump ropers in seven-year-old Mikako Sugai's Skipping have limbs curved like rubber hoses, with no discernible joints. We smile, because we expect that one day soon, young Mikako will learn how to draw elbows and knees. But what about Klee's The Angler (1921), in which a sketchy little man teeters on the edge of an even sketchier pier, holding what appears to be a lead-weighted fishing line? His limbs are also curved like rubber hoses. Plus his face is distorted by an X on the forehead, a double mouth, and a reversed ear. And both this fishing line and the leg of the pier trail off in a bluish haze that deepens to indigo on all sides.
Is The Angler a thwarted stab at realism? Jawohl! decreed Adolf Ziegler, president of the Reich Chamber of Visual Arts, when commissioned by Joseph Goebbels "to select and secure for an exhibition works of German degenerate art." In the summer of 1937, 16,000 modernist works were seized from German museums and collections, and The Angler was one of 650 chosen for the Entartete Kunst ("Degenerate Art") exhibition that toured Germany and Austria for the next four years. In that notorious show, which attracted 3 million viewers, the works were displayed alongside scrawled inflammatory slogans, and in some cases, photographs of deformed or visibly deranged individuals. Seventeen Klees were included as examples of "idiotic art" spewed out by a "primitive" mind mired in "disorder" and "confusion."
Eerily, Klee's angler looks as though he could see this coming. Alone on his shaky pier, in a faint glow surrounded by darkness, he grimaces as he drops his line into the void. By 1921, when Klee made this picture, he was already quite successful. His work had been shown at two cutting-edge galleries in Munich and at the new Société Anonyme in New York; two scholars had written monographs about him; and American collectors such as Arthur Jerome Eddy and Katherine Dreier were starting to buy. (The support he received from Americans, and from Germans living in the States, notably Emmy "Galka" Scheyer, is the focus of the Phillips exhibition.) Nineteen-twenty-one was also when Klee began teaching at a new, experimental arts and crafts school in Weimar called the Bauhaus. Founded in 1919 by the architect Walter Gropius, it bobbed like a white-and-beige cork on wave after wave of political chaos and economic catastrophe, relocating to Dessau in 1925 and then to Berlin in 1932, where in July 1933 it was finally sunk by Hitler.
From Bauhaus to Our House, Tom Wolfe's hilarious send-up of modernism's impact on American architecture, aims many a barb at the "white gods" who emigrated to the United States in the 1930s. To Wolfe, it was a disaster when figures like Marcel Breuer (inventor of tubular steel furniture), Josef Albers (painter of squares), Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (progenitor of nine-tenths of the Ikea catalogue), and Mies van der Rohe (father of Glass Box Row, otherwise known as Sixth Avenue) became idols to the "savages" in "colonial" America. All the more striking, then, to read Wolfe's admiring take on Gropius's arrival: "Gropius had the healthy self-esteem of any ambitious man, but he was a gentleman above all else, a gentleman of the old school, a man who was always concerned about a sense of proportion, in life as well as design. As a refugee from a blighted land, he would have been content with a friendly welcome, a place to lay his head, two or three meals a day until he could get on his own feet, a smile every once in a while, and a chance to work, if anybody needed him."
Of course, as Wolfe notes, Gropius stepped into a good gig as head of Harvard's Graduate School of Design. Yet unlike certain of his peers, Gropius was not an egomaniac out to clone himself. Rather he was a prudent man whose leadership style resembled that of Duke Ellington: recruit the top talent and give them their heads, up to a point (the trick being to find the point). By his own testimony, Gropius sought "men who would work, not automatically as an orchestra obeys its conductor's baton, but independently although in close cooperation." This laid-back style may help to explain why Klee stuck around for seven years, despite never really buying into the program stated in the Bauhaus Manifesto: "Let us create a new guild of craftsmen, without the class distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist. Together let us conceive and create the new building of the future, which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity and which will rise one day toward heaven in the hands of a million workers, like the crystal symbol of a new faith."
Ignoring these grandiose aims, Klee devoted himself to the demanding, apprentice-style craft workshops that were the Bauhaus's chief distinction. As a fine artist, his job was to lecture on such hands-off, "formal" topics as geometry, volume, colour, and design. But he never scorned the hands-on, "practical" side. In the bookbinding workshop he plumbed the mysteries of paper, ink, and glue; in the weaving workshop at Dessau, he learned about dyes and textiles from masters like Gunta Stölzl. The results can be seen in such lovely works as Arabian Song (1932), painted with thinned oils on rough jute and evoking not only the beauty of a veiled women (whose eyes look directly at you) but also the actual fabric of her chador.
Two other works on jute, Gaze of Silence (1932) and Angst (1934), also look at you, if less directly. Gaze of Silence offers a stylized eye painted in green, brown, and gold, which conjures thoughts of an owl, a masked man, or some other being with a cool, steady, disconcerting gaze. Angst, painted in pale gouache on jute coated with chalk, is more dynamic: the eye shrinks to the left while glancing back (with a red vertical slit of a pupil) at amoeba-like tentacles clutching at it from the right. Some of the tentacles contain arrows, a favorite hieroglyph of Klee's, which indicate both motion and threat. Mostly the eye appears trapped, bound to the clutching tentacles by a sort of ligament. The image is that of a mind trapped by its own fears.
When Klee made these evocative pictures, he was no longer at the Bauhaus. Gropius departed for England in 1928, and his successor, the Swiss architect Hannes Meyer, was a Marxist who steered the Bauhaus toward strictly functional design, mass production, and the scientifically proven need of the proletariat to live in sterile, featureless housing projects. Three years later, Meyer took a group of students to Moscow to help Stalin build the modernist future, but the Leader of Humanity preferred the Socialist-Classicist ("wedding cake") style, and Meyer was deported in 1936. The buildings he bequeathed to Dessau and East Berlin are so ugly, even the Bauhaus-Archiv Museum of Design describes them as "void [sic] of any creative component," "angular," "poor in detail," and having "quite a parsimonious appearance."
Both Stalin and Hitler hated abstraction and loved representational realism. Because of this, the former got a good rap after the war, the latter a bad one. In the 1940s, when New York was the art capital of the world and abstract expressionism the triumphant style, art lovers were exhorted not to look for recognizable images but to focus on formal elements like color, scale, paint quality, and (Clement Greenberg's obsession) "the illusion of three-dimensional space on a flat surface." Artists who cared about subject matter were considered less "advanced," and many fine representational painters and sculptors were shut out of the booming art market. Today, of course, the art market has boomed itself into senile dementia, with the world's number one artist (according to ArtReview Magazine) being Damien Hirst, the aging YBA (Young British Artist) best known for his 1990s installations featuring animal carcasses and maggots.
Before I say something verboten about degenerate art, let us return to the Third Reich. It's worth noting that only 23 of the surviving pieces from the Entartete Kunst exhibition are totally non-representational (16 of them by Klee's friend Wassily Kandinsky). Toward such art, the official charge was "sheer insanity." More severe were the attacks on works with recognizable but unacceptable subject matter: prostitutes, non-Aryans, the horrors of war, corrupt officials. (These subjects would have been taboo even if rendered in the approved stilted academic style.) Severest of all were the attacks on "barbarism of representation," meaning "conscious disregard for the basics of technique," "garish spattering of color," and "deliberate distortion of drawing." These sins were not redeemable by inoffensive subject matter - indeed, some of the worst venom was hurled at landscapes, still lifes, and religious pictures done in the style of expressionism, fauvism, cubism, or some other "ism" that got up the Führer's nose.
Why did the Nazis make such a fuss about art that was neither fully abstract nor fully representational? Could it be that they understood, albeit perversely, that ordinary people often enjoy such art? What do untutored museum-goers say when confronted with a totally abstract piece by Kandinsky or Pollock? Usually something like "Look, there's a face," "That is definitely a horse," or "I heard he was diagramming his own brain waves." Told not to play these guessing games, museum-goers get frustrated. Why can't the damn artist offer a hint, a clue, something for us to grab onto? Give us that, and most of us will accept, even relish, large amounts of what the Nazis dubbed "distortion." Especially if it looks beautiful.
Klee understood this, which is why his titles are user-friendly. Every museum-goer knows what it's like to read arrogantly obscurantist titles like Hegemonic Aurora, Convolution XIV, Up Yours, and the ubiquitous Untitled. Visit a Klee exhibition, and you'll feel welcomed by helpful, often witty titles like Little Regatta, The Twittering Machine, Sketch in the Manner of a Carpet, Conjuring Trick, Arches of the Bridge Stepping Out of Line, Lonely Flower, and The Sick Heart. What these titles represent is a burning desire to communicate what lies hidden beneath outward appearances - a motive very far from obscurantism. And it is this desire to make visible what is invisible, not some imagined freedom from the rigors of art-making, that forges the true link between Klee's art and that of children.
Klee was interested in children's art because he occupied the middle ground between representation and abstraction. Children occupy that same ground, for two reasons: perceptual freshness and technical incapacity. But unlike countless postwar art educators, Klee did not think that the way to preserve the freshness was by prolonging the incapacity. No art without craft, was his credo. As he explained in a 1924 lecture, "Our pounding heart drives us down, deep down to the source of all. What springs from this source - whatever it may be called, dream, idea, or fantasy - must be taken seriously only if it unites with the proper creative means to form a work of art." (Emphasis added) By "proper creative means," he did not mean fingerpaint.
Even though Gropius's successor Hannes Meyer had no use for what he contemptuously called "the individual emotional activity of an artist," Klee stayed at the Bauhaus until 1930, at which point he took what he hoped would be a secure job at the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts. But in 1935 he was fired and forced to flee with his wife Lily to his home town of Bern, Switzerland, where he lived until 1940, suffering from schleroderma but producing an amazing body of work. When he died at age 60, the world was plunged in war, and it hardly seemed as though one individual's painstakingly wrought little pictures (most of them less than two feet on a side) would end up towering over the grandiose cultural projects of Hitler and Stalin. But mercifully (and with a little help from Klee's American friends), they did.
Paul Klee in America is at the Menil Collection in Houston, October 6, 2006-January 14, 2007
This review first appeared in the Weekly Standard.
Posted by mbayles at 4:50 PM
May 4, 2006
Our Art Belongs to Dada
Rent my "Dadioguide" tour of the Dada show (before it moves to MoMA) ...
Greetings, this is your Dadioguide, speaking to you through the spongy thingamajigs on your headset. My job is to blow kudos and raspberries in the right amounts as you walk from room to room, mouth slightly agape, pressing Play, Pause, Stop, Fast Forward, and Rewind. You will note that Dada begins with text and photographs telling you that World War I was no fun. Look at that looming tank, about to purée you into the mud of your trench. Look at all those amputees. Even the horses wore gas masks. The short film shows even more terrible images. But you are spared the most terrible: machine-gunned cavalry, for instance, or soldiers with their faces blown off. The official Audioguide doesn’t want you to turn around and head for the Cézanne exhibition, and neither does your Dadioguide.
Dada is organized by city, not chronology. But the touchstone is always World War I. In the first section, Zürich, you will learn that Dada was an international movement of poets, painters, performers, and provocateurs who, seeing no honor or purpose in the carnage, decided that honor and purpose were kaput. Neutral Switzerland was a refuge for deserters and draft evaders from all over Europe, these artists among them. Actually, the prime mover of Zürich Dada, the German writer Hugo Ball, tried to enlist but was rejected on medical grounds. So eager was Ball to see action, he traveled to the Belgian front on his own, only to witness the harrowing effects of long-range artillery and poison gas. “It is the total mass of machinery and the devil himself that have broken loose now,” he wrote. “Ideals are only labels that have been stuck on. Everything has been shaken to its very foundations.”
Now you are probably wondering: If Dada was a reaction to the horror of war, then why are these Zürich rooms filled with delicate cubist collages, goofy masks, abstract needlepoints (great upholstery concepts!), colorful wooden reliefs, and whimsical marionettes? Ball summed up this side of Zürich Dada when he described the city as “a birdcage surrounded by roaring lions.” The artists featured here – Sophie Taueber, Hans Arp, Christian Schad – were quiet birds playing with media and with the boundary between fine and applied arts.
The noisier birds flocked to Cabaret Voltaire, a hole-in-the-wall venue that today would go by the dreary name, “alternative performance space.” Started by Ball and his lover Emmy Hennings, the cabaret soon attracted three bumptious newcomers: two Romanians known by the pseudonyms Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco, and one German, Richard Huelsenbeck, whose “poèmes nègres” consisted of really bad drumming and really loud gibberish. The National Gallery makes no attempt to recreate these legendary evenings, which is probably just as well, because if it did, the result would bear a discomfiting resemblance to a U Street poetry slam.
Like Dada in general, the show at Cabaret Voltaire was cobbled together from older avant-garde sources, such as Ubu Roi, the in-your-face play written by Alfred Jarry in 1896; and the serate or “performance evenings” created by Italian futurist Filippo Marinetti in 1909. Spectators at a serate could expect what one art historian calls “a systematic, thorough, and direct attack on their bourgeois mediocrity, passéist ideas and stupidity.”
Of course, there’s a big difference between Futurism and Dada. Master of agitprop, Marinetti wanted to “free this land [Italy] from the smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, ciceroni and antiquarians” and to “destroy the museums, libraries, academies.” He also (here’s the rub) wanted to “glorify war – the world’s only hygiene.” More than any other artist, Marinetti jump-started the twentieth century. But because he was also a fascist who helped to jump-start Mussolini (until Il Duce rolled over him), he gets short shrift from art historians. Apart from a brief mention in the massive catalogue, Marinetti is absent from this exhibition. Yet his ghost hovers everywhere.
Climbing the stairs to the Berlin section, you will leave the birdcage for the lions’ den. Although several dadaists fought in the war, Berlin Dada was the first art movement in Europe to defy the jingoism of a host country. In 1916, when Germany was gripped by anti-British hatred, Helmut Herzfeld deliberately anglicized his name to “John Heartfield.” Similarly, “George Grosz” was an anglicized – and slavicized – version of Georg Gross (note the spelling). And while still in Zürich, Huelsenbeck, Tzara, and Janco composed a “simultaneous poem” mixing German, English, and French in a babel Ball credited with expressing “the conflict of the vox humana with a world that threatens, ensnares, and destroys.”
The core sensibility of Berlin Dada was rage and ridicule toward the war. Some works, such as Heartfield’s and Rudolf Schlichter’s Prussian Archangel (basically a stuffed infantry uniform with a pig’s head) are jokes. But others pack an emotional wallop. For example, the paintings by Otto Dix, a combat veteran who won the Iron Cross, show the misery of Kriegskrüppel (War Cripples) burdened by grotesque prostheses and the indifference of civilians. Most of Grosz’s Gott mit uns (God With Us) portfolio was confiscated and destroyed, but a number of prints survived, including one of an army doctor pronouncing a rotting corpse “Fit for Active Service” and another of plutocrats feasting while soldiers die: “Blood is the Best Sauce.”
When aimed at such targets, dadaist rage and ridicule come off as heroic. But Dada’s ambition went beyond opposing the war, just as Futurism’s went beyond supporting it. Both movements wanted to create a cultural tabula rasa by breaking radically with the past. According to Janco, “We had lost confidence in our culture. Everything had to be demolished. We would begin again ... by shocking the bourgeois, demolishing his idea of art, attacking common sense, public opinion, education, institutions, museums, good taste, in short, the whole prevailing order.”
To this end, Berlin Dada pioneered a new medium, photo montage – a fancy word for cutting and pasting. For Grosz, this meant affixing illustrations of machinery to drawn and painted human figures, usually with malicious intent – as in the R-rated Daum marries her pedantic automaton “George” in May 1920, John Heartfield is very glad of it. (Titles too clever by half are de rigeur in Dada.) Photo montage was the perfect medium to express revulsion at the mechanization not just of war but also of life in general. It’s hard, in our gadget-worshiping culture, to understand this revulsion. But ponder Raoul Hausman’s A Bourgeois Precision Brain Incites a World Movement, or Hannah Höch’s Bourgeois Bridal Couple, and you’ll get the point: cyborgs were not invented in 1960 (when the word was coined).
But fear not, fellow mechanized borzois. The next section, Hannover, is kinder to the way we live now. It is dominated by a single figure, the remarkable Kurt Schwitters. The next time you clean the receipts, invoices, bus transfers, ticket stubs, take-out menus, and flyers out of your glove compartment, ponder Merz, derived from Kommerz (“commerce”) and used by Schwitters to characterize a rich array of works, none dull and many beautiful, that are closer to cubist collage and constructivism than to Dada. Schwitters also wrote nonsense poetry – that’s him declaiming the Ursonate (Primal Sonata) in the passageway overbuilt at crazy angles to recall the Merzbauen he constructed in his various houses. The catalogue helpfully explains that the Ursonate “opens a psychic space in which the Dionysian and Apollonian intertwine.” Another way of putting it would be to say that old Kurt would have been one hell of a scat singer.
The Cologne section is also dominated by a single artist, the deeply peculiar Max Ernst. If you like surrealism, you’ll love Ernst. Your Dadioguide’s own view (not that you asked) is that a little Ernst goes a long way. According to the catalogue, Ernst’s work “requires the viewer to create an ambiguous narrative around interconnected pictorial and linguistic signs, couching social critique in metaphorical terms.” If this is the type of thing you enjoy in an art museum, then perhaps you would like to rent an additional CD in which I describe some of my weirder dreams.
In Cologne, the slogan “Dada Siegt!” (Dada Triumphs!) was meant ironically. But in 1922, when Ernst abandoned his wife and child to join the surrealists in Paris, the idea of radical artists winning political power did not seem outlandish. To be sure, the alliance between the Russian avant-garde and the Bolsheviks was not going well (the Party was beginning to suspect that the proles did not dig Malevich’s Black Square). In Western Europe, though, many cutting-edge artists still believed that the communists were their friends. And in Rome, the Futurists were happily running their Experimental Theater in a ruin beneath Mussolini’s mansion.
To their credit, the hardcore dadaists did not swap irony for ideology. By now you have noticed that Dada was predominantly German. Americans tend to forget this, because our favorite dadaist is Marcel Duchamp, the long-nosed, serio-comic Frenchman who placed a urinal in a New York art exhibition in 1917, and two years later drew a moustache and goatee on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa. The first of these immortal works can be found in the New York section, the second in the (final) Paris section.
Tocqueville pointed out many years ago that Americans dislike high-toned aristocratic culture but also have an affinity for bombast. Both traits are on display here, as Duchamp’s “irreverence” is presented to the great unwashed with the utmost reverence. Here is how the catalogue describes his most creative period:
“The ready-made – and the intellectual ideas behind them – seem to have been too advanced, too cerebral, and perhaps even too shocking for American modernists to respond to. As the ready-made proliferated around 1916-17, their presence in Duchamp’s atelier created a disorienting environment of their own ... The Porte-chapeaux (Hat Rack) and a snow shovel (In Advance of the Broken Arm) were hung from the ceiling; Trébuchet (Trap) – a coat rack – was nailed to the floor ... while the porcelain urinal, christened Fountain by Duchamp, was suspended from the lintel of an interior doorway. Friends of the artist who visited the studio were treated to a discombobulating installation, where the boundaries between the ready-made and the surrounding furniture and studio detritus were nonexistent, thus simultaneously challenging their physical surroundings as well as their preconceived notions about art.”
Never mind the hat rack, what’s astounding are the cliches. It’s been 90 years since Duchamp pulled off his cute little prank of pointing to a rusty comb and saying, “This is art because I say so.” Must we be lectured for the kerjillionth time that this was not an idea but an “intellectual idea”? That our own “notions about art” are “preconceived”? That the great Duchamp did not live in a third-floor walk-up full of junk, but in an “atelier” graced by a “discombobulating installation” of “advanced,” “cerebral,” “perhaps even shocking” objets d’art? (That “perhaps even” is priceless, don’t you think?)
Take a deep breath. You are now in the presence of Fountain. While contemplating this masterpiece, please be informed that it is an “authorized replica,” since Duchamp did not think to hold onto the “original” back in 1917. In 1951 he realized his mistake and “commissioned” a replica, which now hangs (stands?) in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In 1964 he realized the same mistake again, and “personally authenticated” (i.e. signed) another eight replicas. You will note that the meaning of “realize” changes slightly over the course of this paragraph. It is not known what the first replica fetched, but the Scottish art critic Julian Spaulding reports that in 1999 one of the later batch sold at auction for £993,789, and a couple of years later another was sold to the Tate Gallery for about £1 million.
If this information makes you feel less reverent, then good. You are ready to appreciate the legacy of Duchamp as embodied in a certain performance artist named Pierre Pinoncelli, who has been stalking Fountain rather the way the master stalked the Mona Lisa. To be sure, Duchamp never urinated on da Vinci’s painting, while Pinoncelli did urinate on another replica of Fountain in 1993. (Yes, I know, it was a urinal to begin with.) Pinoncelli also hit that Fountain with a hammer, une acte gratuite that he ... er, replicated this past January, when Dada was on display at the Pompidou Center in Paris. According to the New York Times, “the porcelain urinal was slightly chipped in the attack and was withdrawn to be restored.”
What is that cackling sound? Could it be the ghost of Marinetti, deriding the smelly gangrene of a 100-year-old PR stunt? Duchamp’s anti-art tricks were already tired in the early 1960s, when one Marinetti’s countrymen, Piero Manzoni, filled 90 cans with his own feces and personally authenticated each can with a label saying Artist’s Shit. According to Spaulding, “the Tate recently acquired no. 68 of this canned edition, for the sum of £22,300.” One of the few sensible critics out there, Spaulding adds, “None of those who collected Manzoni’s tins has, as far as I know, tested the veracity of their contents, but then, who would want to?”
As you walk through these last two sections, keep an eye out for Francis Picabia, a true dadaist but also a true artist. His intricate forays into mechanical drawing and parodies of commercial illustration are practically the only things worth looking at in these rooms. But that is the point: Picabia, not Duchamp, is typical of Dada. This exhibition is that rare phenomenon, a blockbuster that lays bare the intellectual and aesthetic bankruptcy of the contemporary art scene. The lesson is subtle but unmistakable: the majority of dadaists were engaged in the old-fashioned business of creating objects, and most of the objects they created can, with some stretching, be called beautiful. Not only that, but when they got up to mischief, they did so with panache. If they were alive today, they would not be endlessly recycling the same old Dada doodoo. They’d be doing for the art world what your Dadioguide is now doing for you: pointing to the exit.
Posted by mbayles at 9:11 AM
January 24, 2006
Couch Potato's Guide to Terrorism
How are movies and TV pushing this hot button topic? See my piece in the Weekly Standard.
Posted by mbayles at 6:53 PM
August 18, 2005
Some opinions shared across the Atlantic can be found at Clive Davis's blog.
June 17, 2005
The Big Picture (almost)There's a lot to be learned from Edward Jay Epstein's new book about Hollywood, but don't expect to learn the most important stuff. See my review-essay in the Weekly Standard.
March 31, 2005
The Perverse in the PopularAt its best, American popular culture possesses a vitality that belies the facile criticisms of both Right and Left. At its worst – as in Jerry Springer’s daytime talk show... in which private misery and family dysfunction become public spectacle, a cockfight with psyches instead of roosters – popular culture seems to pose incalculable risks to what used to be called public morality.
In discussing both the vitality and the danger, we keep returning to the same dispiriting cliches. There’s more sex and violence than ever, yet sex and violence sell. Young people are being exposed to material that would have shocked their grandparents, yet there seems no way to protect them from it. We call for positive programs, yet our mass obsessions – murder trials, political scandals – focus almost entirely on the negative. Not surprisingly, we throw up our hands.
At this juncture it is natural to turn to the scholars in the social sciences and the humanities who study popular culture and the electronic media. Popular culture includes novels, magazines, and other printed matter, it in most discussions the term chiefly refers to the realm of electronic media: radio, records, films, television, video games, and now the ubiquitous Internet. Many of our received ideas about popular culture so defined come from three sources of academic expertise. Communications theory focuses on the psychological impacts of media. Cultural studies is concerned with the role of popular culture in reinforcing and expanding the existing social order. Traditional philosophy emphasizes the perennial difficulty of sustaining excellence, or even decency, in a culture seemingly devoted to the lowest common denominator.
Each of these intellectual perspectives contains more than a grain of truth. But none addresses the most serious problem facing popular culture: the democratization, now on a global scale, of what I call “perverse modernism.” To the familiar vices of the popular audience – notably, vulgarity and kitsch – perverse modernism has added a new twist: a radically adversarial stance toward society, morality, and art itself. That stance has gone from being the property of a tiny avant-garde a century ago to being an accepted part of the cultural mainstream today.
Perverse modernism is not the whole of modernism, by any means. But it is the easy part. Millions of people who cannot grasp the formal innovations of cubism have no trouble grasping the publicity stunts of dada. To the extent that today’s popular culture uses shock and scandal as a way of attracting attention and boosting sales, it is the child of perverse modernism. The “cutting edge” keeps shifting, of course. To perform in a bra was considered shocking when Madonna did it in the early 1980s; by the late 1990s it was part of the Mexican-American singer Selena’s “mainstream” image. Even many creators of popular culture who are not on the cutting edge assume that “pushing out the envelope” of sex and violence is the very definition of “creativity.”
Communications theory begins with what the media scholar W. Russell Neuman calls “the perception of a helpless mass public." Many of our received ideas about media, both inside and outside the academy, come from Marshall McLuhan’s bold hypothesis that “the medium is the message” – that the electronic media in this instance, like the print media before them, have the power to retool the human sensorium and, by extension, transform human consciousness.
McLuhan was by turns optimistic and pessimistic about this transformation, so it should come as no surprise that communications theory today has its optimists and its pessimists. In this era of the Internet, the optimists dominate. They predict a bright future in which every human being on the planet will be “empowered” by instant access to every other human being and to the species’ shared information cornucopia. The pessimists, whose heyday coincided with the rise of television, foresee a gloomier future, in which the endless distractions of the screen will bring the death of literacy, reason, and civilization as we know it.
Both optimistic and pessimistic communications theorists embrace McLuhan’s somewhat paradoxical assertion that the human mind is weaker than the media it creates for itself. How well grounded is this assertion? Neuman ventured an answer in The Future of the Mass Audience (1992), the product of a five-year study conducted for several major media companies. Noting that McLuhan raised important questions, but that it was “not his style” to research the answers, Neuman surveyed the available evidence and found what advertisers and educators already knew – that most human beings are “obdurate, impenetrable, resourcefully resistant” toward any message, regardless of medium, that does not fit “the cognitive makeup of the minds receiving it.”
Anticipating the vast potential of the Internet, Neuman suggested that the same pattern of obduracy would be repeated. To judge by the evidence (including a decade of dot-com overreaching), the Internet has not caused a radical change in the way people relate to media. Despite the ubiquitous image of the perpetually cybersurfing teenager, the vast majority of us mortals do not seek complex interactivity or deep information retrieval. Writes Neuman: "The lesson from the mass psychology of media behavior is that learning is partial, for the learner is selective and semi-attentive. The mass citizenry, for most issues, simply will not take the time to learn more or understand more deeply, no matter how inexpensive or convenient such further learning may be." People want from the Internet what they have always wanted from media: easy access to material of general interest and, especially, entertainment. The pattern may change with the next generation. But then again, it may not.
Is that regrettable? Only if you were hoping that the new media would transform human nature for the better. If you were expecting the opposite, it should be reassuring to think that it is likewise beyond them.
While communications theory zeroes in on individual psychology, cultural studies focuses on the political and social impacts of media, and it too has its pessimists and its optimists. The pessimists take their cue from the Frankfurt School – that band of influential German-Jewish emigre intellectuals, spooked by the Nazis' skillful use of radio and film, who argued during the 1930s and 1940s that American “mass culture” was itself a new totalitarianism, all the more powerful for being so subtle. In the minds of Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and other Frankfurt School thinkers, American popular culture could not possibly produce true works of art, because all of its products were by definition commodities manufactured by the advanced capitalist "consciousness industry."
The optimistic branch of cultural studies emerged in the 1960s, when the leading lights of the German New Left, Jurgen Habermas and Hans Magnus Enzensberger, seized upon the ideas of another Frankfurt School theorist, Walter Benjamin. In a famous 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin had argued that the electronic media, especially film, could in the right hands (not Hollywood’s) be used to mobilize the masses in favor of socialist revolution. During the 1960s, Benjamin’s idea inspired British and American cultural theorists who had grown up with television and movies, not to mention rock 'n' roll, to begin a passionate debate about whether particular works of popular culture were liberating or repressive, marginal or hegemonic, oppositional or dominant, and so on ad dialecticum.
Although its sex appeal has since faded somewhat, this branch of cultural studies now rules within the humanistic disciplines. Its academic practitioners place all “cultural products” – including objets d’art as traditionally defined, along with the artifacts of popular culture – on the same level, as specimens to be analyzed, not evaluated. Indeed, the concept of evaluation is itself regarded (theoretically, at least) as another datum to be analyzed.
This approach is not altogether bad. We live in an incredibly complex and dynamic cultural economy that delivers all kinds of objects, images, texts, and performances to all kinds of people, who respond to them in all kinds of ways. The intricate workings of this economy are fascinating, and as far as I can tell, cultural studies is the only field that makes a serious effort to map them.
But as anyone knows who has read an academic paean to the “transgressive” antics of Madonna, cultural theorists do not refrain from making judgments of value. What they do refrain from is basing those judgments on the standards of excellence worked out by artists (and critics) within a certain tradition. Instead, they apply their own standards, which begin with the assumption that all cultural products are ultimately about power and possess value only to the degree that they attack the established social order. The result, when translated into public discourse about the arts, is the now familiar culture war between moralists who insist that kitschy television shows like Touched by an Angel are genuine art because they preach family values, and academic apologists who celebrate decadent horror films like Hannibal because their graphic depictions of gross criminality promise to epater le bourgeois.
It would be nice to think that traditional philosophy provides the key to understanding what’s wrong with popular culture. But here again, there is a pronounced academic tendency to miss the point. Because most traditionalists in the humanities dismiss popular culture as the unappetizing fruit of democracy and commerce, they sidestep the urgent question of what makes it good or bad.
What would constitute a democratic model of excellence? I can sketch only a faint outline here. But one aspect would be the lack of a single center, of a geographic and aesthetically authoritative capital. In all high civilizations, the existence of a center has been a deeply rooted expectation. Even the rebellious romanticists and modernists who dissented from the Academie Francaise quickly re-created it in their own image. It was a short step for the impressionists from the Salon des Refuses to the walls of the Louvre. The alternative, it has always seemed, is relativism and a long messy slide into decadence and chaos.
Such worries apply with special force to popular culture, which is generally understood to have no center, no tradition, and certainly no understanding of excellence apart from profitability. But is that understanding accurate?
It has long been evident that, for good or ill, American elite culture lacks a capital. No matter how hard the practitioners of cultural studies try (and some of them try pretty hard), they have not proved convincingly that standards of artistic excellence in the United States emanate from a single (and by definition repressive) social-economic-political center. There is, of course, the National Endowment for the Arts. There is, of course, New York City. But there are also Chicago, San Francisco, Milwaukee, and a hundred other regional centers where good work is being done, and any one of them may well generate the next big trend.
It’s not just the geography of cultural production that is decentralized and in flux. What else could one expect in a society committed to the moral and political equality of its citizens and to a marketplace model of culture? The question is whether such a society necessarily drives out excellence. The novelist Ralph Ellison noted that “in this country, things are always all shook up, so that people are constantly moving around and rubbing off on one another culturally." He admitted that this can be confusing, even disquieting. “There are no easily recognizable points of rest, no facile certainties as to who, what, or where (culturally or historically) we are,” he wrote, adding that “the American condition is a state of unease.”
Yet as Ellison went on to argue, American diversity and unease are more often than not the parents of American excellence. Jacques Barzun, no admirer of popular culture, lends weight to the case when he reminds us that “the arts” are at best fragmentary and plural – not monolithic, as implied by that grand but misleading abstraction, “Art.”
It is not relativism but realism to make the same observations about popular culture. The entertainment industries are full of cultivated, intelligent people who think about their work in a much more traditional way than academics do. Recording artists ponder melody and rhythm; film and television scriptwriters wrestle with plot and dialogue; production designers worry about color, texture, and line; actors and directors compare themselves with admired predecessors in film and theater. The language these people speak is a craft language, directly descended from that of the older performing arts. In other words, each craft has its own center of excellence.
These people understand the depredations of commerce. But they also strive for that rare prize, the chart or ratings or box office success that is also a work of art. Such miracles don't happen every day, or even every year. But they do happen. And what's more, they last. In this time of dispute over the elite cultural canon, there is surprising agreement about what belongs in the canon of popular culture. The songs of Cole Porter, the compositions of Duke Ellington, the films of John Ford, the comic strips of Walt Kelly, the novels of Dashiell Hammett, and the 39 episodes of The Honeymooners that ran on CBS between 1955 and 1956 are just some of the works now described, without irony, as classic.
Given this sanguine picture of popular culture, why not stop worrying and learn to love it? What, after all, is the problem? The problem is perverse modernism. Not postmodernism (as some call it), because every item on the cultural agenda that currently bedevils us – rejecting tradition, attacking standards, provoking the audience, blurring the line between high and low and between art and life, and (last but not least) commandeering the mass media for subversive purposes – has been present since the dawn of modernism. This is the revolte impulse in modernism, rooted in the belief that if an artist makes the right anarchic gesture in the right place at the right time, he or she will help to spark social and political revolution. In this spirit, the German expressionist playwright Frank Wedekind staged scatological one-man shows in Munich’s Café Simplississimus at the end of the 19th century, the Italian futurists called for the razing of Venice in the years before World War I, and the dadaists between the wars turned cabaret into the precursor of what we call performance art.
Severed from any viable expectation of revolution, the bold, outrageous gesture remains the true and only form of “creativity” for many people who have the wherewithal to know better (critics and pundits), and many more who do not (teenagers). In its present form as the guiding impulse of cutting-edge popular culture, perverse modernism goes beyond the usual run of sex and violence into a deliberate, intellectualized attempt to make sex and violence as offensive as possible. That means treating such primal experiences (the stuff of all great art, after all) in ways that are unfeeling, indifferent, detached from the consequences of actions, and contemptuous of moral concerns.
Perverse modernism would be a nonstarter today without obscenity. Gone are the days when audiences could be provoked by free verse, loose brush strokes, pounding rhythms, or vivid descriptions of lovemaking. In America, most people accept the right of the artist to do whatever he or she wants, because they know all too well that even if some fussbudget tries to drag an artist into court, the law contains a loophole big enough to drive a Hummer through. If 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty As They Wanna Be, Robert Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio, and other controversial landmarks of the past 20 years can all be said to have “serious artistic value” in the eyes of the law, then blood-soaked video games and pornographic Web sites are home free.
That Americans are still (mildly) shocked by obscenity does not mean that the culture is still puritanical. Obscenity violates our sense of shame, and in puritanical cultures the slightest reference to the body causes undue shame. Shedding puritanism does require that we extirpate all shame, or that we abandon the concept of obscenity.
By obscenity I do not mean hard-core pornography but something broader, a concept that encompasses violence as well as sex, and that does not exempt material judged to be of "serious artistic value." I take this definition from the political theorist Harry M. Clor, who makes it the basis of a principled argument for greater censorship. But that is not my purpose. My purpose is to expose perverse modernism for the cheap gimmick it has become.
In Clor's view, obscenity does not reside in any particular bodily functions or conditions, but in the angle of vision taken toward them: Obscenity “consists in a degradation of the human dimensions of life to a sub-human or merely physical level... Thus, there can be an obscene view of sex; there can also be obscene views of death, of birth, of illness, and of acts such as...eating or defecating. Obscenity makes a public exhibition of these phenomena and does so in a way such that their larger human context is lost or depreciated.”
D.H. Lawrence made the point very lucidly when he said that repression and obscenity are two sides of the same coin. Repression, he argued, led to "sex in the head," or the inability to move beyond fantasy. Hence the infantile preoccupation with pornography that is, in Lawrence's famous judgment, "an attempt to insult sex, to do dirt on it."
When challenged for trading in obscenity, today’s perverse modernists wrap themselves in the mantle of the great modernists – Flaubert, Stravinsky, Monet – who suffered opprobrium and even censorship because of their formal innovations or sexual candor. But that is nonsense. The great modernists were original without being obscene; today’s charlatans are obscene without being original.
Our situation is unprecedented because never before in the history of culture has so perverse a view of art been so widely popular. One could argue that this is good news, because as perverse modernism flows into the mainstream, it faces something it has never had to face before: a plebiscite. Although I would not place undue faith in the artistic judgment of the millions of consumers who will cast the deciding votes, my Ellisonian side says better they than the “arts community,” with its mindless reverence for offense. In the past, at least, the philistine public has weighed the claims of art against those of civility, decency and morality.
Yet a plebiscite may also be bad news, because as the grim history of the last century shows, the worst kind of culture war is between artists who hate morality and moralists who hate art. Push the envelope hard enough, and you invite popular revulsion, which can lead all too swiftly to backlash, censorship, and worse. Despite the silliness of those in the arts community who equate any moral criticism with totalitarian repression, playing with fire is still playing with fire. To judge by the atmosphere at many college campuses in recent years, the human urge to censor is alive and kicking.
Equally distressing is the widespread failure of cultural stewardship among prominent citizens who seem to find it more advantageous to fan the flames than to dampen them. Two years ago, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani touched off a media firestorm by attacking the Sensation exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, with its now infamous painting of an African Madonna replete with elephant dung. But if Giuliani was really concerned about the religious sensibilities of New York, Catholics, why didn’t he act 10 months earlier, when his administration signed off on the proposal to mount the exhibit?
I’m not suggesting that Giuliani conspired with the sponsors and organizers of Sensation. But surely these sophisticated individuals understood that they were investing in a publicity windfall. The pattern is all too familiar: Third-rate art is shot into orbit by a first-class media blitz. In exhibitions such as this, you can forget the mediocre objects on display. The point of the exercise, the real masterpiece, is the PR.
To repeat, it was one thing when the outrageous public gesture shocked a small number of haute bourgeoisie café and gallery goers. It is quite another when the same mentality dominates the makers of popular culture. Last May, Robert Wright, the president of NBC, wrote a letter to his industry colleagues complaining about the unfair advantage HBO’s hugely successful hit series, The Sopranos, enjoys in the race for audiences and awards. What did Wright point to as the reason for the series’ success? Not to its extraordinarily high level of writing and acting but to the regulatory environment that allows cable shows to show more (you guessed it) sex and violence.
Is The Sopranos a huge hit because it offers bigger doses of sex, violence, and profanity than network shows? Think about it for a minute. If the formula were really so simple, then wouldn’t every trashy program be a hit? This is the intellectual fallout from perverse modernism: a preoccupation with “pushing out the envelope” that excludes from consideration any other definition of what makes a program good and successful in the marketplace. Yet last year, when The Sopranos triumphed in the ratings and swept the Emmys, the producers of the show had consciously reduced its quotient of sex and violence.
The real danger is this: As the game of artist vs. moralist intensifies, it will drive everyone else off the stage. Jesse Helms against Robert Mapplethorpe, the Reverend Donald Wildmon against Marilyn Manson, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation against Eminem. Who benefits? The answer is obvious: the players. Politicians and preachers get to posture on C-Span; fat-cat art dealers and auction houses get fatter; Hollywood titans get to quote from the ACLU edition of the First Amendment; Johnny-come-lately dadaists, neglected outer-borough museums, and obscure record labels hit the big time; and a legion of lawyers get to sling the kind of dung that does not come from elephants.
And who suffers? Again, the answer is obvious: in the elite arts, the many poets, painters, and performers who strive to move audiences, not disgust them; in popular culture, the countless hardworking craftspeople (and handful of genuine artists) who go to work every day hoping to create not just another product but something of lasting value. And, of course, the rest of us suffer too – the vast, unwashed, imponderable democratic audience, whose good judgment may or may not lead us out of this predicament.
(First published in the Wilson Quarterly, summer 2001)