Constituency Esthetics

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The New York Times Book Review assigned the book to Juliet Mitchell, who was and may be still a kind of cranky feminist enemy of conventional family life. We had discussed her work in the book very critically, and of course she shouldn't have been asked to review the book by the Times (and when asked, she should have begged off). Nonetheless she wrote the predictably savage and incompetent review. Immediately I sent a cable?they still had them in those days?to the editor protesting this lapse. He agreed it had been their mistake and said he'd print a letter from me, which he'd have to send to Mitchell for her reply. I refused to give her another last word, and the editor agreed that I could write a back page article?a format of the time?called "The Last Word."

I wrote an essay complaining about the increasing politicization of book reviews, especially in the sex area. Books by women were largely reviewed by other women, reviews of books about women were assigned to women, skin color became a similar diagnostic, and while there remained a core of serious attention to the quality and impact of various books, nevertheless it seemed at the time the cultural community was on a dangerous course: decisions about cultural products were being made with the nature of an individual's actual physiological cells in mind?and not their brain cells, either. The postmodern disease had begun its viral spread, so that a person's sex, skin color, genital habits, ethnicity, etc., became salient even if these characteristics had little or nothing to do with their work. The Unholy Trinity of race/class/sex as prime causal movers was establishing its moral hegemony. An utterly strange concept was emerging, which was that the most obvious determinant of how and why a person thought and acted as they did was because of primordial factors, whose use in transactions involving the law was plainly illegal. So you couldn't refuse to hire someone because of their skin tone or genitalia. But when it came to assigning books for review, or doling out cultural prizes or fellowships, or setting up juries to deal with these matters, there was a widespread acceptance of the fact that in some mysterious manner these primordial characteristics were converted into desirable action. And if nothing else, at least the procedure seemed to be fair. Everyone's sitting organs were covered. On it went.

One of the most satisfying results of that essay was a warm phone call Monday morning from Toni Morrison, then an editor at Random House, whom I knew. She agreed with the diagnosis?as surely, we agreed, anyone would who had a broad concern for universal literature in fiction or getting the facts right in nonfiction. But that was then, and what is now is a seemingly irresistible impulse to base esthetic judgments on the constituency that is supposed to be served by the work.

So when artworks are added to publicly funded buildings, as demanded by law, the final decisions about which work to choose are made by committees comprised of some artists, but mainly animated by representatives of the local community. And no matter what its quality, the entry in a competition by someone who may have lived in a community when its ethnic composition was radically different is doomed. The fact that in volatile cities such as New York neighborhoods change as a matter of course is rarely sufficient reason to choose an exquisite artwork that suits a particular site or building in preference to less-appropriate work that represents the currently predominant version of the human salad. How can a community group not be expected to act that way?

Not only that, but the governing power of artistic subsidy is inexorably moving from decisions made by the pertinent artists or writers or architects or whoever to decisions made by politically appointed or elected citizens. Canada for many years had an effective cultural agency called the Canada Council, which distributed funds according to relatively serious meritocratic norms, which was in part responsible for Canada's overall cultural effectiveness. But it is being revamped in favor of provincial and local bodies, who will now determine artistic subsidy through a local lens and in response to local needs.

On one level it's difficult to argue with such an initiative, a genuine and necessary effort to combat what has often been a form of elitist mutual-reward society?I'll put you in the running for Poet Laureate if you give me a year at the American Academy in Rome. Good riddance to that, which was unfair and didn't necessarily generate good or passionate work. As a librettist friend said about many contemporary composers, they live to e-mail each other their music, not to have it played, even if anyone wanted to hear it. But they can be sure to rack up their Guggenheims and Pulitzers and MacArthurs and visiting lectureships, because their internal dominance and status system has a lock on the goodies. This is not invariably or even largely without splendid results. But it's clear that official high culture had much to answer for. In reply it mumbled unconvincing answers uncomfortably often. The demography and economy of the broad community have changed significantly. Automatic status is no longer conferred by association with traditionally prestigious groups.

This makes the Great Books and the Great Everythings no less great. The spectacular array of restaurants from Asia in New York does not mean that traditional French and Italian ones have lost their brisk capacity to astonish and to please. Heterogeneity in cultural matters can clearly be an extension of human skill, not its curtailment. And a greater diversity of styles and voices and emphasis is an almost automatic benefit (and often a lot of fun).

However, in a peculiar paradox, the limiting factor of parochial control of the arts appears to grow just as the mass media become ever more salient and pervasive. Believe it or not, in this year's American history examination in California students were asked whether Jerry Seinfeld lived in Manhattan or the Bronx, and if Mick Jagger was a member of either the Rolling Stones or Kiss. In the old days there were questions about the U.S. Constitution, the history of annexed territories and the like. So there is a very uneasy relationship between what gets defined as the broad culture of which everyone should be aware, and the specific lives people live in their local spots.

One of the most ghastly miscontributions of sociology to social life is the concept of "role model"?a dimwitted scoutmaster's notion of the link between perceived accomplishment and motivating the young. Given how pervasive is this silly notion it is understandable but to be regretted that burghers in a community predominantly populated by X flavor of people will feel impelled to select a painting offered by an X-flavor fellow, the better to encourage younger Xs to think they too can don the old beret. There is a missing link here, which is that the younger X has to want to become a painter, just as the older X presumably did, which come to think of it he or she may have done without benefit of a role model.

Anyway, the best role models for painters are paintings. The work in whatever pursuit should create its own constituency, not the other way around.

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