Thursday, September 23, 2004

Cultural Commissars

Roy at the superb alicublog makes several salient points on Brent "Youppi" Bozell and his clones in specific terms, and on Conservative art criticism, in general.

Brent Bozell clone Tim Graham announces that "giving Emmy awards to 'Angels in America' is transparently political and anti-religious." Boy, I don't know why the nets don't turn their Emmy beat over to the guys from Fox and Friends -- soapbox cranks on awards shows are a barrel of laffs!

Even laffier, not to mention taffier, are the linked ravings of the original Bozell on Angels in America: "Artistically," he bravely begins, "it's a sprawling mess... a parade of blasphemy and profanity, a concerto of conservative-bashing... It’s exactly what playwrights and actors love – self-consciously writerly, intellectually preening, over-emoting..." Oh, and "Theologically, it’s even worse." Just in case you thought theatre criticism was Bozell's only stock in trade.

Part of the problem with these guys on art, any art, is that they confuse John Simon's old Tonight Show appearances with Hazlitt and Dr. Johnson. They think dyspepsia and outrage are criticism. And they think ideology is an artistic standard.

Of course I think all this is pretty much spot-on, with a small caveat we discuss in the entry's comments (Roy agrees that Simon's critiques do not draw from quite the same toxic mudpuddle as Bozell & Co.'s), and upon which I'd like to elaborate.

Bozell and his kind are this country's equivalent to the old Soviet apparatchiks: they don't know a fucking thing about art and only write criticism to enforce the party line. I'll steal from Hitchens to make my point; Hitch's target here is the much-dread Norman Podhoretz, who is virtually identical to Bozell in motive, method, and "taste". First Hitch quotes The Pod's book Ex-Friends:

When on a visit of my own to Prague in 1988 I was taken to meet Vaclav Havel,...the first thing that hit my eye upon entering his apartment was a huge poster of John Lennon hanging on the wall. Disconcerted, I tried to persuade Havel that the counterculture in the West was no friend of anti-communists like himself, but I made even less of a "dent" on him than [Allen] Ginsberg had made on me thirty years earlier.

Now to explain...

The above anecdote occurs in the chapter on Allen Ginsberg, the most recently dead of Podhoretz's exes...Podhoretz thinks that Ginsberg was a serious and gifted poet, that his views on family and society were destructive, and that (great wailing walls of glossy video in every heterosexual pornography shop notwithstanding) anal sex is something that facinates only homosexuals. The last point is an obsessive one in the neo-conservative school, incidentally...


The Russian exile writer Vassily Aksyonov...once wrote that Podhoretz reminded him of all the things he had left the Soviet Union to escape. He had, said Aksyonov, the mentality of a cultural commissar. As the Ginsberg essay demonstrates, he has the soul of one as well. And the literary sensitivity and imagination: most of the chapters here are regurgitated in great chunks from previous jeremaids such as Making It and Breaking Ranks

Hitch then goes on to quote The Pod slagging Norman Mailer, in two different books, which are identical save for a single careful revision that "shows", well..

This is not just boring and tenth-rate. It is sinister. Like Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin's literary enforcer, Podhoretz doesn't content himself with saying that a certain novelist is no longer in favour or no longer any good. That would be banal. No, it must be shown that he never was any good, that he always harboured the germs of anti-party feeling, that he was a rank rodent from the get-go. Then comes the airbrush, the rewritten entry in the encyclopaedia, the memory hole. But even Zhdanov's hacks would have made the effort to employ some new phrases and new disclosures.

This works just as well on Bozell, Medved, Derbyshire, Adesnik, et al. But it doesn't, as Roy ultimately agrees, apply in the same way to John Simon.

Consider this recent review of Simon's in New York magazine:

The culture project, which gave us the valuable prison documentary The Exonerated, now offers Guantánamo: “Honor Bound to Defend Freedom,” about British citizens detained at Guantánamo and the injustice and brutality prevailing there.


...Guantánamo is both too short to cover all aspects of the problem and too long for audiences impatient with so much talk and minimal action: Chairs and cots can constrain dramatic development. Ultimately, too, excess worthiness can be as anesthetizing as excessive wordiness.

Still, it is needful to be reminded that the United States and Britain can be just as unjust, as inhuman, as our most despised and detested enemies. And under the joint direction of Nicolas Kent (at whose London Tricycle Theatre the show originated) and Sacha Wares, physically of necessity static but emotionally moving, a deserving dozen actors perform with unexaggerated intensity and whatever humor can be squeezed out of horrid circumstances.

I submit that one is unable to find such fairmindedness in anything written by the commissars mentioned above. In fact, were they to review this docu-drama, I'd wager that all of them, to a man, would manage to work into their "criticism" some sort of doubt that the matters dramatised actually happened, and/or that the matters dramatised are exaggerated. The directors and producers would be suspected of hating America. The word "propaganda" would be forcefully employed. The object of the exercise (the Party Line) thus served, the aesthetic value of the flick would then be addressed, if at all, by a few tacked-on banalities.

It's true that Simon's a homophobe; it's also true that he's a cultural reactionary. But he writes excellent English, has a legitimate aesthetic, and without fail displays knowledge of his subjects. All of this makes him unlike the commissars, as does his adherence, this wounding, flagrant piece notwithstanding, to the rule of art criticism: as much as possible, critique the art not the artist; but if you must critique the artist, be honest about it. Moreover, in art criticism the value of the art is not wholly determined by the ideology of its creator, nor indeed by the ideology of the work itself.

I admit that our side too has problems with this -- for instance, in the movement to ban Mark Twain from schools because he used the word "nigger" -- but misguided PC can't hold a candle to the Right's commissars. Hell, I can admit that Anthem is a fine little novella by all measures, as a for instance. But most commissars are still trying to find new ways to slag the The Grapes Of Wrath (don't get them started on Ten Days That Shook The World) while at the same time trying to deal with all the smutty pinko homo atheistic messages they percieve in contemporary art.

In a sense it is a culture war. Bozell and clones desire an art world that is ideologically pure. Art of course would then go out the window, but that's no concern to those who are intrinsically artless anyway.

Update: Matthew Yglesias observes the same phenomenon.

Update 2/5/05: Wolcott evicerates Harry Stein's fawning review of Commisar Medved's self-pitying memoir, and correctly notes that The Pod's persecution complex is the original template upon which so many Far-Right Kulturkampfers have based their style.