In a famous passage toward the beginning of Robert Musil’s great novel The Man Without Qualities, there is a moment of what we might call negative awakening. The novel’s protagonist—a bright, unanchored young man named Ulrich—began life determined to distinguish himself in some conspicuous way. That all changed the day he happened to see a racehorse described as “a racehorse of genius.” If a racehorse can be a “genius,” what notice could Ulrich hope to achieve for his own efforts? The triumph of trivialization, he decided, had rendered his ambitions ridiculous.

We have often had occasion to reflect on Ulrich and that racehorse. Doubtless he was wrong to abandon culture because culture abandoned him. On strong characters, such depredations act as a spur, not a sedative. But if we must regret Ulrich’s lack of resolution we may still sympathize with the feelings that lay behind it. What if Ulrich were with us today, when we boast not only racehorses but also pop stars and performance artists of “genius”? The trek toward trivialization that Musil descried in the late 1920s has become an all-out race toward an ever-receding bottom.

What prompted this gloomy thought was the news that John Rockwell, head of The New York Times’s Sunday Arts & Leisure section, would be stepping down. Most long-time readers of the Times will remember Mr. Rockwell chiefly as a former rock critic. He has written about classical music and other cultural matters, too, where his tastes lean heavily toward the avant-garde. But it is as a champion of pop music that he really made his name. And it was as a champion of the pop sensibility writ large that he presided over the coverage of culture and the arts at our paper of record. Mr. Rockwell will step into the newly created post of “senior cultural correspondent.” The word is that Howell Raines, the Times’s new executive editor, was happy to replace Mr. Rockwell. But why? Could it be that Mr. Raines is bringing a new air of seriousness to the Times? After all, to say that the paper’s cultural coverage has gone down-market in recent years is like saying that Enron has an image problem.

Coverage of ideas and the arts in The New York Times has been dumbed down, thinned out, tarted up, and generally transformed into a species of advertising copy. Readers given to metaphysical speculation have often embarrassed themselves with predictions that the nadir had been reached when, lo! next week’s paper appeared and was even worse than the week before. Even as we write, an international team of philosophers is said to be deliberating about whether to name a new paradox after the Times: just as Zeno gave the world thorny paradoxes about motion, so The New York Times has given us the spectacle of constant declivity without destination.

This remarkable performance has been the work of many hands, of course, but John Rockwell must be given a significant share of the credit—if “credit” is the word we want. He indubitably has the common touch. So it would be entirely understandable if a new management, determined to deepen the paper’s cultural coverage, should look beyond Mr. Rockwell.

We were amazed, then, to learn that, for Howell Raines, the problem with John Rockwell was not that he was too demotic, too pop- and celebrity-oriented but, on the contrary, that he was not pop- and celebrity-oriented enough. The irony of the situation was not lost on Mr. Rockwell. “Howell thought that [Arts & Leisure] was esoteric, boring and that nobody read it,” he said in a recent interview;

it wasn’t germane or relevant to people’s interests. There is a certain irony in this, since I am the former rock critic and since we ran 277 stories about movies last year… . We did a lot of stories about popular music and about popular culture; we put pop singers and stuff on the cover.

And how! But were there enough pop singers on the cover? The criticism of high culture in the Times was poor, it was threadbare, it was spotty: but was it poor, threadbare, and spotty enough? An article about Mr. Rockwell’s reassignment in the February 18 issue of The New York Observer quoted an unnamed Times reporter who said “with Arts & Leisure, we need less Peking Opera and more Britney Spears.” Robert Musil’s Ulrich would know just where he was with a statement like that. Yesterday it was the race horse of genius; today it’s the pubescent pop star. Tomorrow? Second-guessing what the Times will do is a mug’s game. Who know what unexplored avenues of trivialization are left to champion? All we can be sure of is that, misstep by misstep, the Times is gradually preparing its own irrelevance.

 

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 Number 8, on page 2
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