Thursday, June 03, 2004

Critiquing the Critics

Terry Teachout’s “About Last Night” is one of the reasons why I became a blogger. I figured that if a theater reviewer could figure out a way to be a cultural critic using a blog and still exercise enough discretion to keep his job, I would probably be able to as a director as well. Also, I find his writing funny, illuminating, intelligent and challenging. Terry’s also a good deal more conservative than I am, at least in taste (Balanchine instead of Trisha Brown or Cunningham, Satchmo instead of ‘Trane, etc.) Recently, Teachout used the burning down of the Saatchi warehouse in Britain as an opportunity to reflect on what he wrote about the Saatchi show “Sensation” at the Brooklyn Museum. There are a few troubling assertions made in the article that I would like to challenge as vocally as possible.

“Sensation”, you may recall, was the show at the Brooklyn Museum that New York Mayor Rudolf Giuliani took great umbrage toward. Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary”, a take off on medieval icon painting using elephant dung instead of gold leaf had him so upset that he threatened to cut the Brooklyn Museum's public funding if they didn't close the show. The other artist to get enormous press off the show was Damien Hirst, who famously created sculptures using dismembered animals preserved in tanks of formaldehyde.

Teachout hated the show. Of course he did, the show was bad. Most of the art in it was ridiculously smug and pompous and served little purpose other than to be…well… sensational. I liked more of it than he did, but that’s really beside the point.

What’s not beside the point is the following quote: “To be sure, most contemporary British art is boring, and has been for as long as I can remember. . . British novels and plays are still about class war, British composers are still trying to figure out minimalism, British choreographers are still into angst—and British artists . . . are still trying, poor dears, to be outrageous.” There are three ways to take this quote, and all three of them are troubling. The first is that he’s trying to be funny. I see no evidence to support that in the text, but perhaps he was. The second is that he’s trying to be provocative, in which case he is guilty of the same vice for which he faults the show. The third possibility is that he’s being serious, and that’s the most troubling of all.

The number of prominent English plays and novels that are not “still about class war” is astounding. (Were they ever about class warfare? I mean, they were about class, but rarely about class warfare) Novels: Graham Swift’s “Waterland” and “Last Orders”, Julian Barnes “History of the World in 10.5 Chapters”, the work of Jeanette Winterson (and she’s an avowed Marxist!), Kate Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Will Self, the list goes on and on. In fact, the only prominent English writer I can think of who writes almost exclusively about class is Martin Amis, and no one seems to take him seriously anymore.

Playwrights have even more distance from the topic: post “Mad Forest” Caryl Churchill isn’t about class, neither is the work of Tom Stoppard, Ben Elton, Harold Pinter, late period Martin Crimp or anything by the late Sarah Kane. Not to mention Peter Schaeffer or Alan Bennett. Is class inevitably in there somewhere? Sure, the Brits are conscious of their class system, and we’re (willfully) ignorant of ours. But none of these works or authors (all of them famous, at least in England) are about class warfare.

Moving on to music: I don’t really know much about British composers, but “classical” music is the wrong referent for “Sensation” anyway. “Sensation” was the art world moment of the “Cool Brittania” movement in the early to mid nineties. “Cool Brittania”’s representative music isn’t Benjamin Britten, it’s Blur, Oasis, Pulp and Massive Attack. “Sensation”’s artists are rock and roll artists (Hirst, for example, directed the video for Blur’s song “Country House”) just like Pop Artists in the states was better represented by The Velvet Underground and David Bowie than they were by their contemporaneous composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich.

I could go on, but this is a blog post, not a manifesto. The point is this: Teachout is a cultural critic who displays (in this article) a disturbingly simple-minded view of culture. I’m pretty sure it’s a much narrower view than he actually possesses, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that a cultural critic acts like an entire culture can be summed up and dismissed in a few short sentences. If this were about African or Arabian culture, everyone would get their panties in a bunch about racism.

Teachout also spends a great amount of time in the article defending Giuliani’s right to threaten to cut funding for the Brooklyn Museum because of their choice of art to show. A few salient quotes:
“you'd damned well better voice unequivocal agreement that the show must go on, Rudy or (preferably) no Rudy, if you want to keep getting asked to the right cocktail parties.

Me, I don't go to cocktail parties, and I also don't much care for the odious smugness displayed by the likes of Glenn Scott Wright, the London representative for Ofili, painter of "The Holy Virgin Mary," who claims that Giuliani's determination to shut the show down "is both totalitarian and fascist, a reprisal of the Nazi regime's censorship of the contemporary art of its time which it labeled 'degenerate art.' " I suppose it's possible that Ofili has been arrested by the New York branch of the Gestapo and shipped off to a prison camp on Staten Island, but if so, nobody told me about it…
(large edit)

The only people to emerge from this fracas unmutilated will be the lawyers, though the museum has more at stake and may be likelier to lose, the First Amendment not yet having been rewritten so as to stipulate that Congress shall make no law abridging the absolute right of taxpayer-subsidized museums to spend public monies in whatever way they see fit.”

Teachout is doing two things here. He’s chastising the Brooklyn Museum for staging a publicity stunt and calling it an art show. This is an important point to make if you think that’s what they’re doing. Charlatans and hucksters need to be exposed. The second thing he is doing is arguing that since it is legally permissible for the government to coerce a museum into changing what art it displays (or “censor” the art displayed) and since this particular show is displaying “bad art”, Giuliani’s efforts to crack down on questionable art should be greeted with a shrug, or maybe even encouragement.

In the NEA-4 case, the Supreme Court decided that Teachout is right about this. I happen to disagree with all of them, but leaving aside letter of the law for a second, let’s talk about spirit. Freedom of expression exists as a legal and social concept in order to protect expression we don’t like, not to protect expression we like. It is a concept borne out of restraining government’s ability to interfere with the ways we see and interact with the world, for this is art's most vital and important (and difficult job).

Giuliani specifically stated that he wanted to censor the Brooklyn Museum’s show because it offended his Catholic sensibilities. Teachout gives our mayor a pass because he doesn’t like the art that would be censored. I didn’t particularly like “Sensation” either; it was a record of a cultural moment that had already passed gussied up as something new and hip. I still support the right of the museum to display what they want, and that the government should not have the right to cut funding because they are disturbed by the art displayed. Otherwise, we are on the fabled slippery slope, sliding towards “official” art, forever perpetuating the status quo, never challenging ourselves, churning out boring semi-realist print after boring semi-realist print, unable to see the world in new and interesting ways.

As an artist, that’s a frightening thing for a critic to shrug his shoulders at.

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