|PR 4/ 2002 VOLUME LXIX NUMBER 4|
Brustein: My talk is titled "The Four Horsemen of the Anti-Culture."
Recently, we were told that an ice shelf the size of Delaware broke off
from mainland Antarctica and floated off to sea. That seems like a metaphor
for the fate of serious culture in this country. We are witnessing the not-so-gradual
disappearance of what used to pass for American high art, whether we are
talking about performing arts or serious literature or classical music or
the visual arts. Typical is the fate of National Public Radio, which recently
announced a total restructuring of its cultural vision, aimed at increased
coverage of popular culture. The New York Times reports that NPR
is following public radio stations everywhere that are rethinking their
cultural programming in response to audience surveys showing classical music
drives away listeners, who prefer talk shows and news. The fact that NPR,
along with PBS, which long ago succumbed to middlebrow taste and Masterpiece
Theatre, should even conduct audience surveys in order to determine
cultural policy shows how completely public broadcasting has been swallowed
up by commercial values. It is not the only example. With the spread of
corporate capitalism and the gobbling up of smaller arts firms by huge conglomerates,
money motives, once at least competitive with questions of polity, have
begun to dominate all the markets driving our culture. Just as Wal-Mart
is now monopolizing the book business, and Time-Warner the publishing industry,
so the Disney block, having bought up most of Forty-second Street, has begun
to dictate the direction of New York theatre production. Not that Disney
is the only corporate giant in the mix. A conglomerate named Clear Channel,
though Im not sure how many of you have heard of it, not only controls
1,200 radio stations and 19 television outlets and 730,000 outdoor displays
at present, but, having acquired another entertainment giant called SFX,
now owns and leases 135 theatrical venues in 31 cities, virtually monopolizing
concerts, Broadway shows, and sports events in all these areas. Selwyn Theatre
was renamed the American Airlines Theatre. The Shuberts just sold the name
of the Winter Garden to Cadillac. It will not be long before you will have
the opportunity to purchase round-trip air tickets along with your orchestra
seats, or check out interiors of limos and sedans during intermission in
the theatre lobby. There is a computer game called Pac Man that has always
struck me as the perfect image of this process. It shows a large mouth moving
around the screen, voraciously ingesting everything in its path.
When ruled entirely by profit, the quality of art is bound to the client and so is any openness to risk or to adventure. The days are over, I think, when publishers took chances on good writers who were unknown or difficult in order to bring distinction to a list dominated by bestsellers. Or when theatre producers searched out the exciting new playwright to balance out a season of tired favorites like Our Town. But in addition to the eternal financial issues, there are certain ideological pressures affecting the quality and influencing the direction of the arts. In the old days, these familiar evils could safely be assigned to capitalism, and the problem could be defined as Marxian, the fact that those who create the arts are alienated from the means of production and distribution. But today the problem cannot be attributed to or solved by a single political equation or system. They are colored by the conservative, radical, and liberal hues of the political spectrum alike. To change my metaphor, the arts are under siege from three horsemen of what may be eventually seen as a cultural apocalypse, vigilante night riders who guard the right, left, and middle walls of the American castle looking for a deviant artist. From the right gallops the horse of moral correctness, determined to purify the arts according to preconceived standards of decency. From the left canters the horseman of political correctness, committed to laundering the arts of any perceived threat to racial, sexual, or ethnic sensitivities. And from the middle trots the horseman of aesthetic correctness, demanding that the arts conform to traditional, often conventional, rules of creative procedure. Besieged by every ideological camp, increasingly deprived of the funds with which to underwrite professional pursuits, it is a wonder that the serious artist has continued to survive at all in such a hostile climate.
Tocqueville, who has been much quoted this session, predicted this, as he predicted so much else about American culture. "I do not believe that it is a necessary effect of democratic institutions to diminish the number of those who cultivate the fine arts," he wrote in a famous passage from Democracy in America, "but these causes exert a powerful influence on the manner in which these arts are cultivated. In aristocracies, a few great pictures are produced, in democratic countries, a vast number of insignificant ones." To his mind, in short, future artistic standards would be determined not by the intrinsic quality of the art, but by the extrinsic size of the audience. The fact that mass culture would absorb high art would henceforth worry many social commentators. But these fears intensified during the cultural wars of the 1950s, when such crusading highbrows as Dwight Macdonald typically began protesting the power of what he called masscult and midcult to debase and overshadow Highcult. And youll notice that even the terms Macdonald uses to indict popular culture seem to be influenced by the language of the mass periodical that he sometimes worked for, Time magazine. Raging in such periodicals as Partisan Review and Commentary, these culture wars not only planted wedges between high, middle, and popular culture, they also resulted in a serious backlash against serious art and the critical intelligence, a backlash reinforced by democratic leveling, sociological theorizing, and multicultural dogmatizing. This eventually spread to include the whole construct of European civilization and its dead white male artists and intellectuals. Some day a cultural historian will measure the damage created by a single word, "elitism," on the whole scaffolding of American culture. It is a word that effectively treated the idea of excellence and leadership as a foreign, class- and race-conscious concept. The charge of elitism was hurled not only against the wealthy consumers of art, but also against their often penniless creators. You were elitist if you created works of art, and you were elitist if you bought them, thus confusing patronage with talent, economic status with artistic vision. These charges, possibly because they implied callousness towards the underprivileged and indifference to black and ethnic cultural experience, caused a major retreat, the surrender of many of the standards and values that make a serious culture possible.
The attack on the arts from the morally correct right proved just as paralyzing as that from the left-wing myrmidons of political correctness. It began in earnest with the emasculation of the National Endowment for the Arts after controversial grants to such shock artists as Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano aroused the wrath of conservative bullies like Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Senator Alfonse DAmato of New York. Mapplethorpes X Portfolio and Serranos Piss Christ, works for which I have extremely qualified respect, obviously were designed to épater la bourgeoisie in traditional avant-garde fashion. And if so, they accomplished their ends in a manner that must have surprised even these bohemian shock troopers. On the basis of a handful of such controversial grants, conservative politicians, along with such watchdog agencies as the American Family Association, managed to emasculate the National Endowment and to persuade Congress to impose content restrictions on all grantees in the form of a new obscenity clause that every applicant was obliged to sign. I agree with much of what Ed Rothstein said yesterday, but this is where I disagree. I do think this is a free speech issue, because if you take away the possibility of institutional support for artists, you are really taking away the possibility for them to express themselves freely. Im not talking about individual support for the artist, but institutional support.
A Supreme Court decision endorsing these content restrictions at the NEA represented an even more serious blow to free expression. This majority position by conservative judges was later reinforced by thenNew York mayor Rudolph Giulianis decision to deny public funds to the Brooklyn Museum on the basis of those two exhibits of elephant and horse dung that he found to be indecent. They may have been in bad tastetaste is always debatablebut to punish the institution was to inhibit the possibility of further and later free expression.
Not all the omens were bad. In February 2001, a Supreme Court decision set some limits on the governments ability to attach strings to public money, arousing hopes that the subsidized arts might one day be free again from government interference, even government censorship. But for some reason, Attorney General Reno chose to appeal that decision, and there is no question that, as a religious fundamentalist, Attorney General Ashcroft will be even more vigilant about any deviations from approved moral and religious norms.
Political correctness, though just as watchful as moral correctness, also seems to be loosening its repressive stranglehold on the high arts a little, if not on the institutions where it is held in the tightest grip, mainly the university and the nonprofit theatre. Tireless free speech agencies, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Harvey Silverglates and Alan Korss FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) have been monitoring the tendencies of universities to punish any violations of strict sexual, moral, and racial codes. Novels such as Phillip Roths The Human Stain and Francine Proses Blue Angel, not to mention J. M. Coetzees Disgrace, which describes the same conditions in South Africa, have satirized the excesses promoted by sexual harassment and date rape rules in the academy. In the theatre, Jonathan Reynoldss Stonewall Jacksons House and Rebecca Gilmans Spinning into Butter have exposed the way white theatre directors and academics buckle under real or imagined accusations by racial pressure groups. And a number of feminist, black, latino, and gay writers have been permitting an element of surprise and unpredictability to enter into work that has hitherto been rather rigid and ideological, and that is a big plus.
Aesthetic correctness brings us to ourselves, a number of us anyway, including me, and it presents a somewhat knottier question, because the condition it reflects has a much longer history. Over centuries, the critic and the artist, in the guise of academic and professional or theorist and practitioner, have confronted each other with suspicion and anger over how the arts should be conducted. Posterity, which is all we have to appeal to as artists, may ultimately vindicate the presumed deviations of the artist in his or her own time, but it is the critics judgment that most influences contemporary taste. And just as the critic tells people what to think about a work of art, so the theorist tells the artists how to create, often by imposing rules on creative expression. In the past, such orthodox agencies as the Académie Française, demanding strict conformity to the unities, forced Corneille in Le Cid to squeeze the events of forty years into a single day. Today, those with the same custodial mentality, still guarding the gates like Switzers before the Vatican, often rebuke high art for drawing on the often vibrant if sometimes vulgar energies of popular culture, thus driving the wedge between them even deeper. Moral correctness, political correctness, and aesthetic correctness all derive from the same censorial Puritan spirit. Like a replay of parent and child, the corrector demands the right to punish the artists incorrigible impulse to misbehave.
It is in the theatre, where the press wields the greatest power, that one finds the greatest distance between artist and critic. Reviewers and theatre people have about as much affinity for each other as the mongoose and the snake, and there is little doubt who has the biggest lump in his throat. Indeed, if the American theatre is in trouble today, it is not because it lacks fine, creative people in every area of activity. Actually, to my mind, the number of gifted artists in the theatre today and the level of seriousness are relatively high compared with past ages. The theatre is in trouble, partly, because it lacks an informed, committed, and sympathetic criticism. I am not talking about boosterism or cheerleading; I am speaking of the kind of intelligent support that F. R. Leavis once gave to D. H. Lawrence, Edmund Wilson gave to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and George Jean Nathan gave to Eugene ONeill, the intelligent mentoring that helped these writers to learn and to grow. What we have instead today is something I have come to call Himalaya criticism, after Danny Kayes famous rejoinder, when he was asked how he liked the Himalayas: "Loved him, hated her." In other words, thumbs up, thumbs down. Judgments based on ignorance, arrogance, and relentless opinionating.
There is a fourth horseman laying siege to the arts these days, perhaps the most ominous of all, and its name is fiscal correctness. We live in a time when our children are no longer being exposed to genuine art or encouraged to practice it themselves. There was a period, right after the Russians beat us into space with Sputnik, when the federal government made an unprecedented effort both to improve our educational system and to advance our artistic institutions. Virtually every cultural center in this country dates from that period, along with most of the resident theatres, symphony orchestras, opera companies, and dance companies. Since then, however, cuts in funding for the arts and arts education have been draconian, symbolized by the virtual disembowelment of the NEA and the elimination of almost all arts programs in public schools. It is an enduring educational principle that when the funds are low, you fire the music teacher. Under such conditions, no wonder NPR is ceasing to feature classical music. When American children think of music, they think of rock. When they think of poetry, they think of hip-hop. When they think of art, they think of graffiti. We are no longer developing audiences for the serious arts. That is our governments contribution to the culture.
Fifty years ago, the majority of participants in the first Partisan Review symposium on the subject of "Our Country and Our Culture" seemed to call for an embrace of American values and an end to alienation. The result was the absorption of many artists and intellectuals into the mainstream of American life. We did not sufficiently realize then, I think, any more than now, that, to paraphrase Flaubert, it was possible to be regular in our family life and love of country, while being ferocious, demanding, and nonconformist in our love of art. The September 11 attacks are certain to reinforce this fifty-year-old endorsement and reemphasize the need for consensus. Although we should beware lest we allow our patriotism to limit our civil liberties, most of us feel the need for national unity in the face of serious external threats to our existence. We should recognize, however, the cultural price that we have paid, are paying, and will continue to pay for this embrace of our country and our culture. It is the same price being exacted by Americas well-intentioned commitment to diversity, namely, the prospect of a pluralistic culture without high art, a generous and democratic society in which everything is given equal opportunity, except the greatest achievements of the Western world.