Newsletter 504

Published August 14, 2023
Barbenheimer - Atomic Holocaust painted pink

In a recent essay for Tablet Magazine, William Deresiewicz made a few mordant observations on our contemporary cultural condition. “Art is boring now… because we are boring. Art is woke because we are woke… ‘Diversity’ becomes a cloak for uniformity. The same thing – the same kitsch pop songs, middlebrow fiction, wish-fulfillment streaming fare, agitprop gallery art – produced by a member of a ‘marginalised’ ‘community,’ convinces us we have gotten somewhere new.”

Deresiewicz’s point of comparison is with the earnest cultural aspirations of the 1950s, when an expanding middle-class made strenuous efforts to educate itself with the aid of popular classical music programs, libraries of ‘Great Books’, and a growing appreciation of Modern art. We can look back and smile at those suburban attempts to acquire a cultural education, but where are we today?

Wokeness is surely the greatest excuse for intellectual and creative laziness ever invented. In the 50s, middle class people felt they didn’t know enough about art, literature, music and philosophy, and set out to repaiir the omission. Today, their economic equivalents adopt a few cosy political stances, and feel assured there is no need to spend all that time learning about the works of so-called ‘great men’. Dead white male writers, artists, composers and thinkers can be cheerfully ignored. They are virtually all disqualified by dint of their sexist or racist attitudes, or simply because they lived in a less enlightened age to our own.

How convenient for today’s ‘progressive’ intellectuals. A universal education may commence in the present, with a set of self-help manuals telling one how to be anti-racist, or exhibitions of artworks that seek ‘decolonise’ the museum through endless restatements of political platitudes. It hardly requires a huge intellectual or moral commitment to agree that racism is bad, sexism is bad, and basic human rights need to be respected.

Such things are the moral bedrock of liberal democracy, but they are not sacrosanct and eternal. Nowadays they are under attack from right-wing ideologues that hardly bother to disguise their authoritarian tendencies. The response should be a firm defence of human freedoms that have taken many generations to achieve.

Instead, we find self-professed lefties who are just as authoritarian in their attitudes, eager to shut down debate and cancel other points of view, rather than engage with antagonists. This is disgusting, and intellectually regressive. It’s also incredibly lazy. If these saintly defenders of what is right won’t engage in debate, it’s possibly because they have neither the knowledge nor skills to take on articulate opponents. It’s so much easier to de-colonise universities or museums, drive out the heretics, and enforce a dogmatic uniformity of thought. Indeed, the decolonisers are really re-colonisers, intent on getting revenge for past sins by staunchly omitting artists and exhibitions that do not fit their preferred minoritarian templates.

When dull uniformity is the rule, criticism is anathema. As it is now impossible to imagine that any artist who is Indigenous or Queer, or some other sacred category, could be anything but a genius, any suggestion that such artists may have produced boring, shallow, mediocre work, is completely unacceptable – if not simply racist or phobic in some manner.

This is what I’ve been finding over the past year with art columns that have been actively censored and sometimes left out altogether, when I’ve been mildly critical of some untouchable category of artist. It’s done without my knowledge or consent, even though my name appears on the article.

The replacement for criticism and analysis is Liking Things. It seems that suddenly we must take every artist, curator or PR person at their word when they tell us something is great and important. If public museums have hardly any shows, that’s OK. If they prefer to host dance parties rather than exhibitions, that’s cool. If a movie is a crass, vulgar, blatantly commercially piece of trash, why not just say it’s fun? Some people really liked it, and their feelings are important too.

Andy Warhol famously said that “Pop is liking things”, and Pop culture is rapidly becoming the number one priority for supposedly reputable media organisations. I‘m tempted to say that “pop culture” is a contradiction in terms, being hardly culture at all, if we think of “culture” as something that has deep roots in the past, supported by a canon of taste and a body of knowledge.

The pop mentality subsumes everything into its own, utterly superficial view of the world. I was amazed this year to see the on-line version of my review of the Frida & Diego show at the AGSA, given the tagline “pop culture”. This would have been news to Frida Kahlo, who spent her life painting pictures based on her own physical and mental pain, or Diego Rivera, a dedicated communist. Whoever wrote this tag knew Frida only as a pop cultural commodity.

We see the same appalling mentality at work in the ‘Barbenheimer’ phenomenon. The unlikely combo of Barbie and Oppenheimer is a marketing stunt from Universal Studios, which distributes both films. To see them as in any way comparable is an obscenity – recognised as such by the Japanese, who have refused to participate. For some reason they don’t think it’s cool to put the story of the Atomic Bomb on a par with a plastic toy for pre-pubescent girls.

I enjoyed the Barbie film and would make a case for it, but it has zero relevance for Oppenheimer. The huge commercial success of mashing the films together is a depressing testament to the triumph of the ‘Pop’ sensibility. The problem for an emerging curmudgeon is that one is swimming against a tide of stupidity. I’ll never be happy with simply Liking Things, because I want to know why one should like an exhibition or a film, no less than why one should dislike something. To like something because it conforms to one’s PC sensibilities or dislike it because it offends them, is not sufficient.

This week’s art column is devoted to I Am the People at the White Rabbit Gallery. As the Herald decided to hold the previous column on the Hadley’s Art Prize until this weekend (minus one paragraph), this puts me out of synch with the newspaper. If the order of things is to be re-established they’ll need to run two columns one week, or I’ll have to miss one out. I’m reluctant to leave a gaping hole on my page, having found last year that when I held a column I might be holding it forever. Instead, I’m running the piece and leaving it to the newspaper to catch up.

As usual with White Rabbit, I Am the People is a first-rate show that allows for a periodic assessment of China and Chinese art at a very tricky hstorical juncture.

Another tricky proposition is ths week’s movie – Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City. It’s a film that will be loved and hated, as is the case with all Anderson’s movies. To his credit, he is making no attempt to tone down the eccentricities for popular consumption. I only wish I could enjoy it more, as I’m finding the director’s style increasingly irritating. This puts me in the time-honoured position of defending Wes Anderson’s right to make an irritating but original movie, when so many new films are either trash or painfully ‘worthy’. I’ll suffer for art, but not for wokeness. As they chant at the end of Asteroid City: “You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep”.