In cultural life, as elsewhere in human affairs, there are events that command our attention not because of their intrinsic value but because they are symptoms of borader artistic or intellectual developments. This is so even at moments—as now—when the dominant cultural voices are those of the enemies of culture, and when, consequently, the symptoms in question tend to herald confusion, trivialization, and decay rather than revival or revitalization. Readers of The New York Times were treated to a depressing case in point on Sunday, July 22, when the Arts and Leisure section of that paper carried a long, front-page article by Michael Brenson titled "Is 'Quality' an Idea Whose Time Has Gone?"
Those familiar with what now passes for criticism in the so-called culture pages of our newspaper of record would perhaps have had quick and impolite reply to this question, at least in so far as it applies to the Times. And those familiar with Mr. Brenson's sporadic expostulations in the pages of that paper would certainly have expected nothing other than what they got: a low-wattage jumble of fashionable opinions laced here and there with pretentious "intellectual" irrelevancies. "Aesthetic emotion," Mr. Brenson intones, "has often resulted when the form of a painting or sculpture was particularly magisterial or inventive." Is this the level at which The New York Times wishes to address its readers?
Yet the appearance of Mr. Brenson's article is worthy of notice because it serves as a grim indicator of just how much the enemies of culture have won. The question he attempts to discuss is whether quality is the appropriate touchstone for criticism. Mr. Brenson informs us, correctly, that there "may be no more divisive word [than quality] in the art world just now." The chief rival of quality, as Mr. Brenson also perceives, is politics. Thus he tells us that in the 1960s "some black artists began to consider [quality] a racist word" and that now, for many involved in the world of culture—museum curators and critics as well as artists—"there is hardly an ounce of sympathy for the word."
That lack of sympathy for the idea of quality and its new status as a symbol of "cultural repression" might be cause for alarm does not seem to occur to Mr. Brenson. But for anyone concerned with the fate of our culture, the attack on the notion of quality is a disaster. The issue, after all, is whether our intellectual and artistic life is to be determined by the imperatives of quality. Or should it be determined instead by the imperatives of politics—the imperatives, that is to say, of racialism, feminism, multiculturalism, and "alternative" life styles?
Mr. Brenson does not forthrightly denounce the idea of quality. In the best Times fashion, he denounces it circuitously. ("Should the word quality be used? Probably not. . . .Should judgments be made . . . even if the word is not used? Of course.") Indeed, his latest effort may be said to succeed splendidly in at least one respect: it is a consummate example of the Times's policy of criticism by equivocation. It adopts the pose of spurious evenhandedness perfected in the news-reporting sections of the paper and applies them to cultural issues. The basic trick has three steps: first, you describe a centrist position as an extreme right-wing position; then you assure readers that both sides have something to say for themselves; finally, you occupy a place midway between the newly defined center and something considerably to the left. In this, Mr. Brenson has shown himself to be something of a virtuoso: "There are abuses on both sides," he tells us; the Right supports quality, the Left criticizes it, both have a point. . . As if the decision to dispense with the idea of quality, and to subordinate cultural life to direct political demands, can be properly made by splitting the difference!
Just because some artists do not value the word quality," Mr. Brenson assures us, "does not mean they have no standards or interest in aesthetics." Quite right. But without a commitment to the idea of quality, their standards will be political standards, their interest in aesthetics will be in its use as a tool to achieve political goals. Without the criterion of quality, however difficult it may be to define or apply, we face the insinuation of political tests into every sphere of cultural life, from our galleries and museums to our classrooms and publishing houses. It is a sign of the times—of how far this process has already gone—that Mr. Brenson's shallow musings are such bad news.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 9 Number 1, on page 2
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