Martin Heidegger once said that the fundamental metaphysical question is “Why is there something rather than nothing?” While waiting for an answer to that query, we would like to offer for the consideration of our readers a less fundamental, but perhaps no less pressing, metaphysical question: “How is it that cultural coverage in The New York Times, which yesterday seemed as awful as it was possible to be, is today even worse?” This ever-fresh question deserves serious thought. How do they do it: each week a little more tawdry and demotic, more politically correct, less intellectually nimble and journalistically serious.
Some of you may immediately object, pointing out that this prodigy of deterioration is by no means confined to the Times’s coverage of culture. We concede the point. After all, we are talking about a newspaper that actually employs Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich, and Bob Herbert, not as comic relief but as some of its star pundits. These are moveon.org folks, infatuated by a combination of narcissism, ideology, and moral hysteria. And let’s not forget that cynosure of fatuousness, Arthur “Pinch” Sulzberger, the perpetually adolescent publisher of the Times, who sets the tone. In matters big and small, young (we speak characterologically) Sulzberger can be counted on to do the wrong thing. Remember the Howell Raines/Jayson Blair affair? Pinch blustered his support for the plagiarist and his boss until it looked as if it might actually cost him something, and then he cut them loose and went into full therapy mode, with hand-wringing memos about How Things Must Be Done at the Times. Remember the recent flap over demands that the Pulitzer Prize for Walter “Friend of Joe Stalin” Duranty be rescinded? The Times couldn’t give it back, Pinch said, because it didn’t actually have the award. Yes, and here’s where you quote Dorothy Parker about Marie of Roumania.
The truth is, deterioration at the Times is a rich subject, full of cautionary tales about how a great liberal institution can go rancid by making a caricature of its principles and adulterating its work. When a great newspaper’s front page is indistinguishable from its editorial page, and its editorial page is indistinguishable from a transcript of a Democratic Party rally, journalistic decay is a certainty. But if what’s happened to the Times’s news reporting and opinion pages is an outrage—think only of the repulsive way in which the paper attempted to generate anti-Bush capital from the Katrina disaster—its coverage of culture is somehow more depressing than infuriating. Here, too, one finds the triumph of ideology over principle and an unseemly race to the lowest common denominator. Yet in matters of culture and the arts, the Times adds another dimension of depredation—we mean the element, half preposterous, half nauseating—of unthinking modishness.
An entire dissertation might be written about what has happened to The New York Times Book Review. In many respects, it is Exhibit “A” in the metaphysical sweepstakes under discussion. It was already as bad as it could get when a new editor came along and—treating readers to, inter alia, full-length reviews of tell-all books by famous porn stars, a garish redesign, and a steady diet of politically correct sermons about the world of ideas—somehow made it worse. Our favorite recent example was the preposterous essay by Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, which attempted to rehabilitate Allan Bloom and The Closing of the American Mind for the Left. The basic argument was that Bloom’s book was not the simple-minded prescriptive book it has often been taken to be (taken to be by the Left, that is, though Mr. Sleeper left out that bit). Ergo (note the logic), it cannot be something that would give aid and comfort to conservatives who, as everyone knows, are simple-minded, prescriptive ideologues. It would have been funny if it hadn’t been in earnest. But of course it was in earnest. Everything about the Times is oh-so-earnest—which is not at all the same thing as serious. (Indeed, the divagations of the Times form a revealing object lesson in the extent to which the earnest, fueled by the emotion of virtue, is often the enemy of the genuinely serious.)
Much more could be said about the Times Book Review. But what caught our attention most recently was the lead article, by Ginia Bellafante, in the Sunday arts pages for September 18. Entitled “Bill T. Jones Is About to Make People Angry. Again.,” this 2,200-word valentine to the fifty-three-year-old black, HIV-positive choreographer-activist (get the picture?) was partly an exercise in hagiography, partly an ideological position paper. The occasion for the article was “Blind Date,” a new dance by Mr. Jones which was due to premier in New York at the end of September.
Ms. Bellafante begins with a little praeludium about her subject’s “fabled musculature,” on view for her amidst the “soaring windows” in his studio above Times Square and for readers of the Times courtesy of an artsy color photograph. Now, the truth is that Bill T. Jones is one of those artists better known for his political positions than his art. He is a sort of anti- or inverse George Balanchine—that is, he is more interested in movements than in movement. But he is exactly the sort of figure to appeal to the Times. He is the right race, loudly advertizes the right sexual inclinations, and suffers from the world’s most politically correct malady. He also, of course, espouses the right sort of politics—not just on soap boxes and in manifestoes but also, or so we are told, in the very guts of his choreography.
The spectacle of the Times writing about such a figure is awe-inspiring. Kid gloves are insufficiently obsequious for the task. But Ms. Bellafante proves herself mistress of the required rhetoric. “Blind Date,” she informs us, had its origin in a speech that Mr. Jones heard in Germany last year in which the speaker warned that words like “honor” and “valor” had been “cheapened, emptied and recast as purely anachronistic.” Well, yes, as Thucydides pointed out, periods of cultural upheaval are also periods of linguistic disintegration. But that is not quite what Ms. Bellafante meant. “The last presidential election,” she writes, brought Mr. Jones’s “relatively vague ideas about civil malaise into sharp focus.” Ah, yes: “the last presidential election.” That would be the one in which George W. Bush beat John Kerry, right? Now, what do you suppose our Paper of Record will make of this? Whose side do you suppose they will take? Take your time. And while you ponder, consider how Ms. Bellafante weaves her garland. Mr. Jones, she writes,
responded not with a screed calling for the dismantling of the Bush White House or the secession of the Northeast. Instead, invoking Bach, he set about to create a work of choreography endorsing the values of the Enlightenment, a piece that would cast a critical eye on what he described as a national atmosphere of “toxic certainty.” And he has done so with a series of segments that question the expediency of war, reflect on limited opportunities for the urban poor and remark on the centrality of sexual moralism to the Republican agenda.
“Blind Date” does not try to obfuscate its point of view. It makes no pretenses to pure abstraction. This will, no doubt, agitate some observers, just as Mr. Jones’s work has done before. But what is truly striking about the piece is that the politics Mr. Jones has in the past fought so fiercely to express sit squarely in the mainstream of American liberalism. “Blind Date” is in many ways the sort of composition that might have sprung from the forces of the Democratic National Committee were they inclined to think in pas de deux and counterpoint. Had Mr. Jones wanted a more literal title, he might have considered “Dancing for Howard Dean.”
“Dancing for Howard Dean”? Yes, that is about right. But does that place Bill T. Jones “squarely in the mainstream of American liberalism”? It may well place him squarely in the mainstream of the Michael Moore, Howard Dean, Democracy Now crowd. That, thank heavens, is a far cry from the “the mainstream of American liberalism.” Surely there are editors left at the Times who know this?
The remarkable thing about Ms. Bellafante’s effort is not its politics—they are the usual off-the-rack left-wing pieties to which readers of the Times have long been inured—but rather its insinuations. Enlisting the devout J. S. Bach into the brigades of the Enlightenment is an amusing divertimento, a testament to audacity, possibly, or—could it be?—to simple ignorance. But what we really admired was the way Ms. Bellafante purveys the clichéd animosities of the Michael-Moore-Left as if they were startling new insights into the national soul. Mr. Jones offers us dances that “question the expediency of war, reflect on limited opportunities for the urban poor and remark on the centrality of sexual moralism to the Republican agenda.” Hello? Is this a dance we are talking about? Or is it some species of political sermonizing? Can Mr. Jones tell the difference? Apparently not: “Mr. Jones refuses to classify some of his pieces as more political than others,” Ms. Bellafante tells us, obviously as impressed by this as by her subject’s musculature. “In his poststructuralist worldview, all art is political.” Who would doubt it? And who would deny the label “poststructuralist” to his reasoning: “‘Swan Lake,’ he enjoys pointing out, was conceived to delight the aristocracy.” Oh, we see: The aristocracy, i.e., the bad guys. Whatever was conceived to please them is ipso facto political. Another Marie of Roumania moment.
Ms. Bellafante or her editors want us to believe that “Blind Date” will make people angry. We very much doubt it. It is much more likely to make them yawn. The audience for his brand of politics-in-leotards already agrees with him about George W. Bush, the urban poor, sexual license, the war in Iraq, not to mention the environment, “women’s rights,” racism, and a thousand other such topics. Mr. Jones’s performance will simply pander to their prejudices—always an agreeable thing, of course—but without the redeeming feature of anything aesthetically memorable. It’s a mug’s game, laughable in one sense but also a sad, weary-making, and depressing portent.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 2, on page 1
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