Like many people, we have pretty much given up reading The New Yorker. Under the editorship of Tina Brown, that venerable bastion of limousine liberalism has been jerked sharply to the left and infused with the same sort of preening frivolity and radical chic that Miss Brown brought to the pages of Vanity Fair. Imagine our surprise, then, when a friend called our attention to Arlene Croce’s extraordinary and wide-ranging article “Discussing the Undiscussable” in the issue of December 26–January 2. It is certainly one of the most important pieces of cultural criticism that The New Yorker has published in recent memory.
Although she has not been writing as much these past few years as she once did, Miss Croce is well known as one of the most vigorous and authoritative dance critics of her generation. In this instance, however, Miss Croce’s subject was not dance but the cataclysm that has overtaken our cultural life. The occasion for her meditation was Still/Here, a multimedia performance piece about AIDS by the much celebrated black, gay choreographer Bill T. Jones. (It is reviewed in this issue by Laura Jacobs.) This was hardly Mr. Jones’s first appearance in the pages of The New Yorker: in November, for example, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., doyen of Afro-American studies at Harvard, published an appreciation of Jones in the magazine. Featuring videotapes of terminally ill people talking about their illnesses—Mr. Jones has made the fact that he is HIV-positive part of his act—Still/Here was recently presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to the predictable hosannahs from all politically correct quarters.
Equally predictable was the response to Miss Croce’s piece: enthusiastic support from critics of political correctness, abuse from such dependable sources of liberal orthodoxy as The Village Voice (which published two attacks on the piece in the same issue) and the op-ed page of The New York Times. The fact that the piece appeared under the novel rubric “A Critic at Bay” suggests that the editors of The New Yorker were themselves uneasy about the piece.
Miss Croce did not review Still/Here—indeed, she dropped the first bombshell of “Discussing the Undiscussable” by explaining that she had not seen the performance and had no intention of seeing it. Instead, she adduced Still/Here as a vivid example of her real subject: the proliferation in our culture of “victim art” and its attendant attitude of politically correct self-righteousness. “By working dying people into his act,” Miss Croce writes, “Jones is putting himself beyond the reach of criticism. I think of him as literally undiscussable—the most extreme case among the distressingly many now representing themselves to the public not as artists but as victims and martyrs.” Miss Croce continues:
The thing that “Still/Here” makes immediately apparent, whether you see it or not, is that victimhood is a kind of mass delusion that has taken hold of previously responsible sectors of our culture. The preferred medium of victimhood . . . is videotape, . . . but the cultivation of victimhood by institutions devoted to the care of art is a menace to all art forms, particularly performing-art forms.
In fact, this disaster infects virtually every department of cultural life. In the visual arts, for example, what Miss Croce refers to variously as “Warholism” and the “Humpty-Dumpty view” of art—If I say it is art, then it is art—has “pretty well demolished the need for serious criticism.” Avant-gardists such as Marcel Duchamp and John Cage were instrumental in nurturing this anti-artistic approach to cultural life—as, later, was Andy Warhol and the whole phenomenon of Pop Art. In the end, these exercises in artistic futility depend upon that version of aestheticism which seeks to erase the boundary between life and art. The announced goal is usually to immunize art from the incursions of philistinism, but the result is that both art and life are denatured. As Miss Croce notes, although this move was originally meant to confound cultural philistines, today “the philistines are likely to be the artists themselves.” It is perhaps ironic that what originated as part of an anti-establishment avant-garde should now work to consolidate a new establishment. But Miss Croce’s point remains: “The kind of ‘innovation’ that seeks to relieve critics of their primary task of evaluation is always suspect.”
In this sense, Miss Croce’s remarkable essay is “a plea for the critic.” “I can’t review someone I feel sorry for or hopeless about,” she notes. Nor can she review someone who has short-circuited criticism by foisting off social grievances as art, a capacious category that includes performers who present themselves as “dissed blacks, abused women, or disenfranchised homosexuals—as performers, in short, who make out of victimhood victim art. I can live with the flabby, the feeble, the scoliotic,” Miss Croce writes. “But with the righteous I cannot function at all.” What we are dealing with here is not really art but “a politicized version of the blackmail that certain performers resort to . . . Instead of compassion, these performers induce, and even invite, a cozy kind of complicity. When a victim artist finds his or her public, a perfect, mutually manipulative union is formed which no critic may put asunder.”
Instead of compassion, these performers induce, and even invite, a cozy kind of complicity.
Miss Croce is quite right that ideology has had a lot to do with the development of victim art, and she is right again that the ideology in question has its roots in the cultural radicalism that began in the 1930s and came to full flower in the 1960s. “The ideological boosters of utilitarian art,” she writes, “hark back to the political crusades of the sixties—against Vietnam, for civil rights. The sixties, in turn, harked back to the proletarian thirties, when big-government bureaucracy began.” In the case of Bill T. Jones, when he declared himself HIV-positive and made his medical condition the focus of his performance, “the permissive thinking of the sixties was back, and in the most pernicious form”—a form that combines radical politics and narcissistic grandstanding to produce the moralizing spectacle of victim art.
As Miss Croce points out, it is not only criticism but also art itself that is threatened by this cult of victimhood. She speaks here of the “utilitarian” view of art that has triumphed in our culture: the view, fostered by our arts bureaucracies and reinforced by the academy, the media, and even by many artists, that art is valuable primarily as an instrument of social enlightenment and moral consciousness-raising. What this approach undermines is the independence of cultural life, replacing it with a pious moralism that poaches on the prestige of art in its effort to enforce political conformity. The curious result is that art is simultaneously overvalued and undercut: overvalued in the way a fetish is overvalued—valued, that is, in a perverted, uncritical fashion—and undercut in that its true function, as a medium for aesthetic exploration, is systematically thwarted. Criticism degenerates into a species of propaganda and the ideal of disinterestedness becomes, in Miss Croce’s term, “anathema.” This is the nidus in which victim art festers, defying criticism “not only because we feel sorry for the victim but because we are cowed by art.”
In this context, Miss Croce astutely introduces the case of Robert Mapplethorpe, another AIDS victim whose life and work has “effectively disarmed criticism.” When the jury in Cincinnati acquitted a museum director of charges of obscenity for mounting Mapplethorpe’s sado-masochistic photographs, they did so primarily because “expert testimony” had convinced them that the pictures were art—and hence beyond the reach of criticism. “The possibility that Mapplethorpe was a bad artist or that good art could be obscene,” Miss Croce writes, “seems not to have occurred to anyone.” The point is that if art is an important value, it is nonetheless not the only value; it takes its place in a constellation of values that make up the texture of human life; by placing art and the artist beyond criticism, the champions of victim art succeed in trivializing both.
Miss Croce’s essay is a virtuoso performance. Yet what is most significant is that it was published in The New Yorker by a distinguished writer not hitherto noted for her resistance to the ideology of victim art. Many of her chief points have already been made by others—including others writing in the pages of The New Criterion. But they have never been made so categorically in the mainstream liberal press by a critic with unimpeachable liberal credentials. Which is why the politically correct reaction against Miss Croce has been so vituperative. Writing in The Village Voice, Deborah Jowitt dismissed “Discussing the Undiscussable” as a “screed,” while Richard Goldstein, the Voice’s executive editor, mounted a tooth-and-claw attack that imputed “a Helmsian, not to say Stalinist, stench” to the essay and purported to discover “racist and homophobic aperçus” in Miss Croce’s prose.
Mr. Goldstein’s animadversion includes a number of silly things—including a description of T. S. Eliot and Fyodor Dostoevsky as “deans of victim art”—but perhaps his silliest blunder is describing Arlene Croce as a “neoconservative.” As we have reason to know, “neoconservative” has emerged as an all-purpose term of abuse. And while we welcome the appellation and everything it stands for, we dutifully acknowledge that despite Miss Croce’s many virtues she is anything but a neoconservative. But to a mind smitten with the pieties of victimhood, anyone who exposes the sinister fatuousness of political correctness is guilty of “neoconservative” tendencies. Thus Mr. Goldstein’s rant about the “cruelty” of Miss Croce’s “neoconservative rhetoric.” And thus the ever-flatulent Frank Rich, who in The New York Times also derided Miss Croce as a “neoconservative” and then—amazingly—concluded that her attack on victim art meant that she believed “death and dying can be off limits as subjects for art.” Miss Croce never said or implied any such thing; but for the likes of Miss Jowitt and Messrs. Goldstein and Rich she said something far worse: that the sentimentalization of death and dying is not itself a replacement for art. Miss Croce’s essay brilliantly anatomizes the seduction of art by narcissistic political barbarism. It is that which her critics find unforgivable.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 Number 6, on page 1
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