Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Culture Wars, or, Steve Martin's 92nd Street Y Nightmare, Courtesy of Deborah Solomon

I made a comment about this on the Huffington Post website. I have no idea if it will be posted or not. But I feel strongly enough on the issue to go off-topic in this blog to address it. Following this post is my take on the Culture Wars: from someone stationed in the trenches behind "enemy" lines. First, here is a longer version of the post I made:

I think there is a lot to be gained by looking at the context of the situation. If you check out the webpage of the 92nd St. Y, you will see that they have a tremendous amount of arts and humanities programming, including classes in gay and lesbian literature, studio classes for a variety of art media, museum tours, and of course the arts and humanities lectures and conversations series of which Steve Martin was a part. The people of the 92nd St. Y are not culturally illiterate brutes, but people who love and support art and culture, especially in the education of the young. Which makes what happened with Martin that much more perplexing. I think the A.V Club's speculation that the blame lay with Soloman is probably on-target. An Object Of Beauty came out only a few days prior to the interview, which means the majority of the audience had no experience with it and could not reasonbly be expected to follow an intricate discussion of the book without getting lost. Also, as An Object of Beauty ably demonstratrates, the New York arts world is an elite, exclusive and rarefied place with which Martin--an art collector and connoisseur, and Solomon-- a journalist who has written a significant amount of art criticism, are very familiar. Their audience that night was not. Despite an avid interest in and support of arts and culture, the members of the 92 street Y lack the funds, network, and the access to really understand the art world. Even if An Object of Beauty could help them better understand that world, it came out too close to the interview for them to read it and be able to follow the conversation. In short, the event was derailed by a significant communication breakdown caused when two art world insiders decided to have a conversation that art world outsiders could not possibly follow. When seen in this light it makes sense that the members of the 92 street Y were upset and wanted their money back. They subsidized a frankly self-indulgent conversation that they were not really privy to understanding, and they felt cheated. Even if the conversation had focused on the work but managed to stay more accessible while weaving into the proceedings some of Steve Martin's past experiences as an entertainer, author and thinker- experiences that that night's audience knew about and could appreciate- the interview would have been much more positively recieved. As the interviewer, Solomon was the audience's stand-in who was tasked with engaging Mr. Martin on their behalf. Instead, she chose to pursue her own interests, as informed by her own priviliges experience with the art world, and disregarded the audience entirely. The controversy thus far has been painted as another skirmish in the culture war between the culturally illiterate, as the members of the 92 St. Y have been portrayed, and the art heroes, who are represented by Steve Martin. In actuality, it was a communication breakdown that a little foresight, respect for audience, and genuine interest in opening up an understanding of the art world to people who cannot access it could have totally prevented. This was Solomon's responsibility. She shirked it.

The whole point of this blog is that I try to stick to literary narratives and storytelling. As any postmodernist-educated humanities professor will tell you, societies generate their own narratives about social and cultural conditions within that society. One narrative I have always found compelling is that of the GREAT CULTURE WARS!!! In short, there are a lot of conservative, provincial, backward citizens in America hellbent on destroying arts and culture here, and they will use every ounce of their political, moral, and paramilitary militia might to do so. It is believed that these people occupy every single inch of America outside of San Francisco, LA, or New York and that they lovingly embrace Blue-Collar Comedy, Monster Trucks, and McDonald's. It is further believed that they viciously reject art, literature, and culture (and science, and logic, and reason) with such intense passion that only the passion of their Lord Jesus Christ is comparable is strength and scope. It is also widely believed they fornicate with their immediate family members and hunker down in city-sized militia compounds to do so. According to what I heard somebody might have read in the New York Times, they are all white, mostly inbred, Nazi sympathizers who collect guns and bibles with the same level of alacrity and connoisseurship as displayed by Peggy Guggenheim when she collected the great works that founded the Guggenheim Museum. These are your enemies, O ye right, good and true culture warriors of the 3 civilized cities of America--and your compatriot partisans living in the mostly civilized frontier towns of Chicago, Boston, Seattle and Washington, D.C. You must defeat them if American culture is to survive.

What an epic story. But like all deeply-held narratives, there are extenuating realities that call the truth of this epic tale into question. The first concerns the provincialist mindset of everywhere outside of the cities mentioned above. The most defining characteristics of provincialism are the lack of sophistication, perceived superiority of one's own region, limited perspective, and narrow-minded disinterest in the concerns or perspectives of people outside of one's region. In their (dis)regard of other American people and places, the cities mentioned above exhibit every aspect of provincialism save one: lack of sophistication. To be sophisticated is to be worldly and complex. Yet, how worldly can one be if she or he disregards and dismisses the experiences of those living in the world who differ from her-or-himself economically and socially? Not very. To do so is to be provincial. Thus, New York, L.A., San Francisco--and to a lesser extent Chicago, Boston, Seattle, Washington, D.C., etc.-- are in fact quite provincial. But because the nation's media, wealth, and political power are disproportionately large in these places, their viewpoint is disseminated as sophisticated, democratic, and generally superior in every way to those of the rest of America. Frankly, it's provincialism gone berserk and validated by power.

The second idea underpinning the narrative is the presumption that either there is no appreciation of arts and culture anywhere outside the places listed above, or that what is present in those places is so paltry and "provincial" as to be worthless. The fact is that there is a tremendous spectrum of art in "provincial" America. Many talented and committed artists, musicians, writers, actors, and dancers live and work here. Many went to one of the aforementioned cities, did not achieve any level of professional success. One way to look at this is to say they defeatedly returned home. Another is to say that rather than stay trapped in an insanely expensive city where they work two jobs to afford a matchbox-sized room in a bedbug-infested Manhattan hellhole with no money left over to buy materials, and no space or time to practice their art, they left. The returned home to a lower cost of living, reasonable rent on a decent-sized space, and one day-job that leaves them time and funds to pursue what is important to them: their art. Are they art professionals? No. But then again, there isn't really any such thing as "professional art;" art is art regardless of who makes it. Professionals are just those who are well-paid for the privilege of producing art.
What's more, those of us living in these places can attest to the fact that to be an artist, writer, musician, actor, or dancer is to also be an activist, simply through the fact of creating art. Our regions’ reputation for hostility to arts and the devaluation of culture is in many ways deserved. Still, we write, we create. With little funding and less understanding, we carefully mitigate the hostilities to art held by people in our communities and we slowly build audiences and understanding. We volunteer to teach the arts in our schools; risk opening art gallery spaces; repurpose warehouses as theaters, and bars and clubs as venues for literature and poetry readings. We develop tight-knit communities to support each other. The fact that we dare to be writers, artists, musicians, dancers, and actors in places that could never hope to sustain an art industry of any size, and with little hope for financial gain and none whatsoever for recognition in the “art world,” makes us primarily arts advocates who practice what we preach. We are the ones on the front lines of the “culture” wars, because we are working to cultivate understanding and appreciation of the arts in communities that are not very open to it. More often than not, all we’ve got for support is each other. And yet, because we are, for lack of a better term, “geographically disadvantaged,” our efforts are dismissed and our work is derided. It’s easier to be an artist of any sort in New York (or any of the other places aforementioned) because there exists a bigger potential audience that has far more money to spend on art, and there are dozens of shops from which to buy supplies, myriad locales that can be converted into effective performance spaces, and greater access to innovative and inexpensive media and advertising. It is one of the cruelest ironies imaginable that people living and working in the arts and culture industry in New York acquire the lion’s share of nonprofit and federal funding for the arts, because it is the one place in America that can sustain the profitability of an arts business (Martin’s An Object of Beauty demonstrates this fact). Worse yet, funding agencies justify the inequality in funding because they perceive New York as having the best of culture and the finest of art- a situation made possible because the City is so well-funded. Everywhere else has to fight over what’s left. So we do as much as possible with less than nothing and try to engage our communities interest in art and culture.
The third concept underpinning the Great Culture War narrative is that the “enemies” of Art and Culture actually hate art and culture. As I’ve learned from personal experience, this is not really true. I’ve worked in theater and music, but my experience as a museum docent is what really taught me what the problem is. As a docent, it was my job to overcome the hostility or ridicule that corporate seminar attendees, school children, elderly folks from the local day center might dish out when visiting the museum. This was a frequent occurrence. At first I dealt with it by adopting a defensive attitude about the art in question and coldly settling the matter by explaining the greatness of the artist in question and suggesting that while they might have a point that art is in the eye of the beholder, some people clearly have much better vision than others. This approach left the museum visitors and myself really uneasy. Such a stance left no room for dialogue or learning. The approach I eventually developed involved engaging the visitor’s perceptions and feelings- their ‘affect’. I’d tell the visitors about the artist and what ideas she or he had about art and the artistic process, and then I asked them if they though those ideas were presented in the work we were looking at. If not, what seemed to be there? How did it make them feel? Did it remind them of anything? Then I’d talk with them about the artist’s technique and medium. Had they ever seen it before? Why the thick, heavy brush strokes? Why did Jacob Lawrence work in egg tempera when it is such a persnickety and time-sensitive medium? The thoughtfulness of their responses surprised me, and I had many interesting conversations with sixth-graders, retirees, construction workers and pharmaceutical reps about what we were looking at.
I finally figured out that what they had been hostile to wasn’t Art, but how they were treated because of their inexperience in viewing and thinking about art. It is easy to recognize Renoir’s work as art, because his representational style and lush imagery are accessible and recognizable. It is a bit less easy to understand Clyde Broadway’s “Southern Trinity” as art, because the irony and irreverence of the piece prompts the question: “why is it good enough to be in a museum?” However when it comes to works such as Kendall Shaw’s “Sunship,” Vincenzia Blount’s “Tauerna,” or Ida Kholmeyer’s “Fenestrated #6” the question of what is and is not art becomes really complex. And very intimidating. People generally had no visual or experiential points of reference to help the make meaning of those pieces. Once I recognized that, and began a dialogue with visitors to create points of reference which they could use to interpret the pieces, their hostility diminished considerably. Most of the people living in the territory identified as hostile to culture don’t have the points of reference to help make meaning of the more challenging art pieces. Which is only one problem. The biggest problem is that their inexperience is interpreted by the civilized and highly cultured denizens of the coastal metropoles as stupidity and crudity. Nobody likes being made to feel stupid. They like even less being treated like they are stupid, because such treatment is disrespectful and hateful. Many of the people who seem to be anti-art and culture are actually anti- being portrayed as narrow-minded PROVINCIAL idiots because they aren’t sure what to make of certain pieces and genres of art. This is the attitude those of us who live in these areas are really fighting against. The sooner we all realize that the attitude problems surrounding the valuation of art and culture is a two-way street, the better off we will all be.
The Great Culture War won’t end with Westwater Gallery triumphing over macramé, or with Monster trucks bulldozing the Alvin Ailey dance school. Arguing over what is and is not art, what is or is not GOOD art, or even what makes art better than entertainment, won’t get anyone anywhere. The only real way to end the culture war is to acknowledge two things: First, that all art serves as a jumping off point for discussion and discovery, and that the more challenging a piece of art is, the greater the need to search for points of reference to make it meaningful; and second, what people in some areas find meaningful and important can, should and will differ significantly from region to region, and it isn’t fair to privilege the artistic expressions of one economically and socially (and geographically) advantaged group of people over those of another. All points of view are valid; inexperience doesn’t equal stupidity, and that worldliness doesn’t equal art. Perhaps if Deborah Salomon had considered all this, her interview might not have turned out so dreadfully.