Year of the Scavenger, Season of the Bitch
Recently, Brother Saul argued in these pages that many artists today are “stuck in the shock for the sake of being shocking mode“. And, certainly, many examples can be found. Yet, on the contrary, art critic Jerry Saltz thinks the art world has become too conservative and given to offense. Who is right and who will prevail?
Okay… this is a bit unfair. I see two distinctions here: first off, Saul is talking about artists and Saltz is talking about the art audience for the most part. Secondly, there is art that offends “conservative” sensibilities, usually irreligious in some way, and art that upsets “progressive” sensibilities, usually to do with society’s treatment of marginalized groups. In the culture wars, the arts community usually sided with the former and now, perhaps, sides against the latter. So, it’s possible that, at the moment, artists are just upsetting the bejeezus out of both conservatives and progressives.
And it does seem to be a boom time for manufacturers of smelling salts, doesn’t it? I’ve sort of lost touch with who is upset with who for being too sexist, too feminist, too homophobic, too gay, too militantly atheist, too militantly religious, Islamophobic, Islamophilic, animal-hating, Lena Dunham, or ‘cis-gendered’. My social networking feed has become a painful reminder of how insensitive I am about nearly everything. I feel like Dorothy Parker: inseparable my nose and thumb!
Maybe the Season of the Bitch is upon us once again. These things seem to come in waves. The early 90s seemed to be particularly bad for “political correctness” back when the term meant something. Without sounding too much like a Hollywood version of a Vietnam vet (You don’t know, man! You weren’t there!) I remember watching heated fights about everything from movies to cultural terminology to toothpaste brands, particularly among my left-leaning friends. I suppose this might have been a product of the times- Bush Sr. was in office after a decade of Republican dominance and the left felt pretty alienated. They might have been aiming to change minds through the culture in hopes of having a later political impact. And, let’s be honest, it might have worked.
Actually, the culture wars of the early 90s seem like a repeat of the political fights of the early 70s, back when “politically correct” was first coined as an epithet for Communist Party members who couldn’t think outside of the party line. One of the things I notice is that these fights are most often intense internecine struggles on the left. Maybe it’s just easier to make an impact on, say Tom’s of Maine than Regnery Publishing, and so doing so feels more like an accomplishment. The art world is strongly left-leaning, so it would make sense that the same sort of fights would prevail there.
We’re a little off for a twenty-year cycle, but not much. It is an odd time for a renaissance of political bristling if Saltz is right. After all, the left has been more successful politically than they have been in decades. The culture is embracing many of their beliefs and the right seems to be in disarray about its goals and mandates. Yet, cultural shifts have tended at different points in history to reach these moments where they’re not happening as quickly as those pushing for them would like and frustration sets in. That’s when things get interesting. And maybe micro-offenses are a sort of proxy war, although hopefully not, as Philip Rieff believed, before the shooting begins.
What do you think, Leaguers?
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