One of the occupational hazards that teachers and editors face is a special kind of vertiginous nausea. It is caused by certain forms of verbal muddle. The predominant sensations are exasperation and a feeling of helplessness: exasperation at having to wade through writing that approximates gibberish, helplessness at the prospect of untangling the nonsense. There is a third feeling—difficult to define—which experts describe as a sort of oscillation between wonder (at the stupidity on display) and irritation (ditto).
We had occasion to reflect on this phenomenon recently when an item from the Los Angeles Times Book Review for August 3 crossed our desk. It was written by the poetess and professional feminist Adrienne Rich. As an editor’s note prefacing the piece explains, the Book Review asked Rich to write about why she refused the National Medal for the Arts, which had been offered to her by the White House in July.
It is a remarkable document—or two documents, really, since her explanation is followed by a copy of her letter to the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Jane Alexander (“cc: President Clinton”). Both are seamless in their expression of pious outrage, undeviating in their assumption of superior virtue, single-minded in their devotion to political clichés and vapid artiness. They are also a hopeless muddle.
There are certain phrases that seem to have been permanently programmed into the word processors of the left-wing cultural establishment. Rich begins her piece by invoking a few of these dependable totems: “several years’ erosion of arts funding,” “hostile propaganda from the religious right,” the “Republican Congress,” “the House vote to end the National Endowment for the Arts”—and that is just in her first paragraph.
Like most of her comrades in arms, Rich thinks that curtailing funding of the National Endowment for the Arts confronts the United States with a moral, political, and artistic crisis of enormous proportions. It does no good to point out that the Endowment, like so many other bad ideas, came into being in the mid-1960s, that American culture—which included poets such as Adrienne Rich—somehow got along before that time without this method of dipping into the taxpayer’s pocket, and that it will get along without doing so in the future. The Endowment has become a symbol to rally around, a cause to espouse, a victim to moralize over. Whether the Endowment actually advances or retards the arts is of strictly secondary importance. It has become a political, not a cultural, question.
On a scale of one to ten, Rich generally weighs in at about eight and a half—edging upwards toward nine on occasion—when it comes to queasy-making art-speak rhetoric. “My ‘no,’” she tells her readers, “came directly out of my work as a poet and essayist and citizen drawn to the interfold of personal and public experience.” As nonsense goes, “interfold of personal and public experience” is quite good. But Rich has a vast warehouse of such effects. No sooner did we recover from the “interfold” than she hits us with “the growing fragmentation of the social compact” (contract?) and “I had for years been feeling both personal and public grief, fear, hunger and the need to render this, my time, in the language of my art.”
So many clichés, so little time! Readers pondering the phrase “social compact” should steel themselves; for by the end of her need and hunger to render this, her time, in the language of her art, Rich makes a meal of the idea of the social contract, trimming it with the watercress of environmentalism. “In the long run, art needs to grow organically out of a social compost nourishing to everyone, a literate citizenry, a free, universal, public education complex with art as an integral element, a society without throwaway people, honoring both human individuality and the search for a decent, sustainable common life.” What! No more throwing people away on the social compost heap?
We had given some thought to the possibility that Rich was actually an expert parodist and that this was her masterly send-up of the arty, eco-feminist P.C. productions that are now such a conspicuous feature of NEA-sponsored cultural projects. Alas, no: Rich’s grim earnestness makes the attractive possibility of parody implausible. In the real world, Marxism has been exploded as the most destructive and enslaving fantasy of the twentieth century. But in the moist purlieus of academic fatuousness it continues to function as an unlimited repository of moral indignation. So it is that Rich assures us that “the questions Marx raised are still alive and pulsing” even as she wistfully looks forward to performing “an autopsy on capitalism itself.”
It has often been observed that many artists, when they take it upon themselves to make public pronouncements about politics and social policy, tend to make fools of themselves. This is true. But it has been too little observed, we think, how frequently certain artists make even bigger fools of themselves when they venture to make public pronouncements about art. For here an invincible narcissism combines with smarmy sentimentality about art to produce statements of supreme silliness. Rich furnishes a case in point. “And what about art?” she asks. The first two sentences are worth quoting in their entirety:
Mistrusted, adored, pietized, condemned, dismissed as entertainment, auctioned at Sotheby’s, purchased by investment-seeking celebrities, it dies into the “art object” of a thousand museum basements. It’s also reborn hourly in prisons, women’s shelters, small-town garages, community college workshops, halfway houses—wherever someone picks up a pencil, a wood-burning tool, a copy of “The Tempest,” a tag-sale camera, a whittling knife, a stick of charcoal, a pawnshop horn, a video of “Citizen Kane,” whatever lets you know again that this deeply instinctual yet self-conscious expressive language, this regenerative process, could help you save your life.
Students of rhetorical awfulness will have to labor long and hard to decide which is the most egregious element in this litany. Our candidate is the “wood-burning tool”—we will think of it fondly in the years ahead —but we acknowledge that the prisons, women’s shelters, and halfway houses have a lot to be said for them, too.
There is much that is comic about Adrienne Rich’s latest expostulation. Indeed, we have left out several choice bits—about the United States committing “genocide,” for example, or its being “tyrannized by the accumulation of wealth as Eastern Europe was tyrannized by its own false gods.” But in the end, there is something terribly sad about this exhibition of politicized sentimentality. Considered as a private performance, it is merely pathetic, but considered as a sign of the times—as an expression of an entrenched sensibility—it is something worse. Adrienne Rich speaks not for herself alone but for a prominent segment of what used to be called our cultural elite. It does not bode well for the social compost.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 16 Number 1, on page 1
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