Constituency Esthetics

Written by Lionel Tiger on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

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

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).

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.

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