Monday, September 21, 2009

It's a Bourgeois Town

The other day IOZ linked to a column by George Will fulminating against Obama's politicization of the National Endowment for the Arts. IOZ called it "truly incoherent"; I'm not sure I agree. It's highly dishonest on several fronts, but its agenda is clear enough (viz., to attack Obama). Will ignores the political wars fought against the NEA by Republicans from Reagan to Jesse Helms, Pat Buchanan and others, to force the NEA to support only the blandest work. ("Inoffensive" is not quite the word, since it all comes down to who gets to be offended.) This was not consistent, of course -- the closet Republican Bill Clinton cut funding for the NEA, while George W. Bush raised it throughout his administration, much to the indignation of his Christian-right base.

Even stranger, Will claimed (maybe tongue in cheek?):
Time was, artists were proudly adversarial regarding authority, the established order, etc. "Epater le bourgeois!" and all that. Now they are just another servile interest group seeking morsels from the federal banquet. Are they real artists? Sure, because in this egalitarian era, government reasons circularly: Art is whatever an artist says it is, and an artist is whoever produces art. So, being an artist is a self-validating vocation.
I wonder when that time was? As IOZ pointed out, "For most of recorded human history artists and performers and musicians were at best craftsmen, more often servants, and almost always worked in the service of some state or church or local nobleman." Will is also conveniently forgetting just how hostile conservatives have been to artists who produce shocking or offensive work; surely he isn't calling for government funding for these people and their work? No, of course not -- they should be left to their garrets and absinthe. Would Will support federal funding of the arts if Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, Cindy Sherman and their ilk could be excluded? Certainly not. And both he and this rightblogger forget earlier times when American artists sought morsels from the government banquet: the 1930s, the New Deal, the WPA -- and even better, World War II, when patriotic artists and entertainers went to work for Uncle Sam. I guess Will would prefer that they'd stayed proudly adversarial regarding authority, and sat out the Good War?

Will's "epater le bourgeois" distracted IOZ and his commenters, which brings me to the real point of this post. The matter arose of Socialist Realism in art -- the officially sanctioned style in the old Soviet Union, which influenced art elsewhere, including the United States during the 1930s. It's easy to make fun of this stuff, though it seems to me that the real issue isn't its style or its aesthetic, it's the content. A nice picture of King Edward or the Pope or Ronald Reagan instead of Stalin with schoolchildren would please most anti-Communists, depending on their particular ideology. Norman Rockwell's paintings are not so different in their style from Socialist Realism, or even in the kind of people and situations they depict; they've often been used as Americanist propaganda. The difference between what might be called "bourgeois realism" and Socialist Realism is not the manner, or even always the matter, it's the address of the artist. Consider this painting (via) of a schoolroom back in the USSR:

If you didn't know it was by Norman Rockwell, wouldn't it pass for Soviet art?

Anyway, the discussion reminded me of this passage from William H. Gass's essay on Sartre and theater (published in Gass's The World within the Word, Knopf 1978, page 200ff):
Sartre explains that Beckett’s plays are admired by the bourgeois because the bourgeois enjoy being told that man is a depraved lost vicious lonely bored but frightened meaningless creature. Such a view will justify the severe social order: the cage man is to be safely kept in. Yet the bourgeois do not like Beckett. The vast mass of the middle class like The Sound of Music. Those few self-selected members of the class who respond to Waiting for Godot are hardly characteristic of the whole. They are, furthermore, the same intelligentsia who provide Sartre with his audience and readers. It was a collection of clercs who nearly made existentialism commercial. ...

Sartre insists that “you always have a right to speak evil of the bourgeois as man, but not as bourgeois,” but I should have thought that no one spoke well of the bourgeois … not under that rubric. Of course everyone has his own bourgeois (Sartre his, I mine, you yours), but to prefer content to form – what could be more bourgeois? to be an intellectual good Samaritan – what could be more bourgeois? to dislike plays that are too gloomy and pessimistic – what could be more bourgeois? to believe that the artists holds some sort of mirror up to nature, or like Taine that a successful work must be in harmony with its era – what could be more bourgeois? and then to feel that plays ought to do you good, that the aim of theater should be “telling the truth” – what could be more bourgeois? to hector, to teach, to drag morality into everything like the worst Victorian Pa – what could be more bourgeois? above all, to put on plays which will be eaten like ice creams at intermission (and for new times there will be new plays, new plans, new truths, and new demands) – what could be more bourgeois, or more in keeping with our consumer society, where long novels burn like cigarettes, poems don’t outlast their speaking, paintings fade into the walls they hang on as though the sun were their only patron, and sculpture is made to look as if it had been thrown away? to use up the whole the present and dispose of it in history like trash thrown in a can – what could be more bourgeois, more vulgarly commercial, more nightschool, more USA?
It's hard to believe that it's been thirty years since I first read The World Within the Word. This section has stayed with me, though I'm not as impressed by Gass as I was in the Seventies. Especially I don't agree with his idea of what art should be, but I do like his smackdown of a certain kind of dismissal of this kind of art or that kind of politics. I've also read more on the history of the rise of the bourgeoisie, most notably George L. Mosse's Nationalism and sexuality: respectability and abnormal sexuality in modern Europe (Howard Fertig, 1985), and have some idea of what "bourgeois" means when it actually means something, rather than simply functioning as a term of abuse, as both Sartre and Gass use it here.