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Newsletter 406

Published September 13, 2021
Danger! Contains words

It only takes a quick online search to find numerous examples of texts being banned from the syllabus of American schools and colleges. What’s especially bizarre is that books that have been historically important in changing racial attitudes in the United States, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and To Kill a Mockingbird, have been banned because they include… pause, gasp, tremble… “the N word”. Apparently there’s zero tolerance for the idea that this word might be important if an author wants to portray racist attitudes with any degree of accuracy. There have even been editions of Twain’s Mississippi novels that expunge the offensive word. I’m looking forward to the new version of Joseph Conrad’s celebrated novella, The African-American of the Narcissus.

In campuses all over the US we find that students have become so sensitive and delicate they might be traumatised at the very sight of an offensive word. And then there are those frail, febrile types who could not possibly read Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary because these books contain “violence against women”. And so on, until it’s hard to know what books might be actually be acceptable. The Odyssey was recently dumped from courses in Lawrence Massachusetts for “violence and sexism”. Alas it’s too late to cancel Homer’s tenure and send him to a counselling session.

One of the leading cancellers complained that “many of the classics were written more than 70 years ago” thereby rendering them irrelevant to the “values” of this progressive age of ours. It suggests a very limited understanding of a “classic” if books written before the 1950s need to be eliminated. A classic is, by definition, a work that is rediscovered and reinterpreted by one generation after another. The recommended replacements for Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Twain and the rest, are books by living authors on whom I’m not qualified to pass judgement, as I’ve neither read them nor even heard of them, titles such as Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, or Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, or Frankly in Love by David Yoon. They might be contemporary masterpieces but unlike the much-maligned classics they have yet to stand the test of time.

I was thinking of this assault on the literary canon when looking for a film or a TV series to write about this week. The most promising option was The Chair, which features Sandra Oh as the first “woman of colour” chosen to head an English department in a long-established American university. This seemed like a great opportunity for filmmakers to look satirically at the pernicious spread of PC and cancel culture in American education, but although these issues got a little traction the overall handling was half-hearted and cautious. The Chair is a lost opportunity – a predictable, sentimental comedy, when the subject called for something incisive and daring.

This theme of this week’s art column is Flattery & Kitsch. The immediate inspiration was Max Klinger’s Beethoven Monument, which I saw more than 20 years ago and rediscovered in Alessandra Comini’s book, The Changing Image of Beethhoven. It’s one of those love-it-or-loathe-it pieces. Personally, I’m a fan, as I am with most of Klinger’s work, but the sculpture’s detractors have plenty to say and it’s worth hearing. If genius and madness are supposedly only a hair’s-breadth apart, the same might be said about artistic greatness and kitsch.

It’s sobering to look at the earnest analyses of what constitutes kitsch in the writings of the guru critics of an earlier generation, notably Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. Today we’ve seen an emptying-out of the concept as it has become legitimised through endless appropriations and adaptations by the likes of Jeff Koons. The big question is: “Has contemporary art made kitsch respectable, or has kitsch swallowed contemporary art?”