Tag Archives: cultural criticism

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Notes on Viewing Art from Another Era

                   Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch

I see the question of how we treat the moral and ethical shortcomings of earlier art as partly understandable in terms of the intentions of the original artists.

When looking at the past, it is easy to react with shock at what we see as huge moral lapses on display in older cultural products. No one today can look at a filmed scene with a character in blackface without a cringe and a sense of regret. Portrayals of race in public art and media are always an interesting case.

Even while the very different film To Kill a Mockingbird was considered a breakthrough account of justice denied to African Americans (book 1960, film, 1962), a modern view is that it’s still a “white narrative,” with a focus on Atticus Finch as the redeeming moral agent. The cultural rot that denied African Americans the right to live as equals was mostly overlooked in the story. We surely needed Mockingbird. Atticus is a wonderful character; his behavior enacts a form of empathy that is timeless. But we must turn to other sources to understand how depression-era Alabama was often a prison for its black residents.

And then there are the antique forms of racism intentionally or accidently on display in other films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) or the older Gone With the Wind.  It’s interesting that HBO will only show Victor Fleming’s 1940 multi-Academy award winner with the understated disclaimer that “it denies the horrors of slavery.” But that warning is hardly sufficient to prepare us for what is now a completely sentimental and tone-deaf narrative about the southern insurrection. In fact, live long enough, and it’s hard to find a film or novel that does not offer plots and characters that were once admired, but now labeled as racist or sexist.

On a parallel track, some younger academics and musicologists are throwing in the towel on the great canon of western classical music, unable to comfortably explore the works of Brahms or Haydn–among many others–who indirectly benefited from eighteenth and nineteenth century patrons who counted humans as their property. Does our interest in exploitative and unjust social structures require that we abandon the artistic products made possible by these benefactors?

                    Paul Robeson as Joe in Showboat

I see the question of how we treat the moral and ethical shortcomings of older art as partly understandable in terms of estimations of the intentions of the original artists. This is soft ground to be sure, since knowing the motivations of others is fraught with misperceptions. But if the answers are difficult to find, the questions are always worth asking. Did an artist seek to harm or exploit their subjects? Were characters created in ways to devalue their social identities? Were whole groups written off as less worthy of our understanding? As noted, it can be hard to know. But it is easier to feel better about the music of an old epic like Showboat (1936), knowing that Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics enact his deep respect for diverse cultural pathways. One of the best moments in the work is given to Joe, an African American deck hand who sings about the misery of his limited life. “Old Man River” can be heard as a lament of racial injustice: a theme that is also carried out in a plot line that challenges the absurdities of old miscegenation laws.

By contrast, the character of Mammie in the screen epic, Gone With the Wind, is more one dimensional.  She is an African American house slave with opinions that are freely given, but her character is not fleshed out in ways that are fully dimensional. The key film process that asks us align ourselves with one or two characters is loaded in favor of the privileged Scarlett, played by Vivien Leigh. For the record, The Ambassador Hotel where the ceremony was held required her to sit at a separate table away from others in the cast, suggesting something less than benign intentions from her Hollywood peers. More and more, the film has become watchable only as a dead specimen about the ostensible inconveniences faced by white folks at the end of the civil war.

Our tendency in the current climate of identity politics is to dismiss the earlier work of others if we detect personal slights that extend to a whole class of individuals. This rejection is not necessarily a bad impulse, but it is also an intellectual sleight of hand that matches the racist logic we abhor in others.  Any time that one is meant to stand for all we are on even softer ground. These kinds of synecdoches distort the actual world and obviously ignore individual differences.

But on a broader scale we still can note is that those living in previous eras are indeed captives to the norms and horizons of the culture they were in. It seems obvious that we must permit creators of art to exist within the parameters of the only world they knew. We too easily exempt ourselves from this limitation, preferring the alternate fiction that we are free agents not captive to the low horizons of our own tribe. In due course our heirs will correct this misimpression; some of what we take for granted will surely be rebuked by future generations.

In the meantime, thorny issues remain. Do we let Thomas Jefferson off the hook for not releasing all of his slaves, even on his deathbed?  His behavior was not necessarily a violation of the norms of the landed class at the time, but I can’t ignore this ethical lapse. It is clear from his partial creation of the Declaration of Independence that his horizons extended high enough to see the atrocity of owning others. He gave voice to values of equality and freedom; he only needed to enact them in his own behavior. Fully honorable intentions should have allowed him to leave this world not with a final business decision, but on a note of grace.

Is There a “Masculine Style?”


Robert Hughes illustration by John Spooner
       Robert Hughes illustration by John Spooner                                                 Google Images

It’s little wonder women are more likely than men to agree to couples counseling.  Counseling to mediate serious differences requires more than just serialized opinion-giving.

Generalizing about gender and communication is fraught with problems. As we would expect, there is considerable variability within individuals.  And the idea of gender is undergoing tectonic shifts.  But research in the area persists, always with interesting and sometimes conflicting outcomes.

One conclusion of special interest is the idea that men are more assertive. Based on research over the last several decades, analysts such as linguist Deborah Tannen have proposed that advocacy composed of open declarations, frequent opinion-giving, and summary judgments tend to be dominant in a typically masculine communication style. While admitting many variations from person to person, this trait is thought to be in contrast to a feminine style that emphasizes asking questions, giving feedback, and withholding early judgments.

I’ve always thought the distinction—though fuzzy—carried some validity. To be sure, the exceptions are numerous and notable. Take the case of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. People would come out of meetings with her with the complaint that they’d been “handbagged to death” with unilateral demands. That’s in sharp contrast to men like Bill Clinton, who can be more tentative and feminine in his relational patterns.  Even so, listen to a group of men compare notes on the state of nation or likely matchups for a professional sports showdown.  The odds are that you are probably going to hear a lot of opinion-giving, all freely offered to any and all listeners.  Typically, each opinion is given serially, with each individual taking a turn, sometimes with an opposing introjection, but not as a part of a sustained search for agreement.

This is a feature in the political rhetoric of Donald Trump that can be so annoying. Qualifications, expressions of puzzlement, empathy, or the desire to first hear what the other side thinks: all of these seem to alien forms of address to the presidential candidate. By contrast, Hillary Clinton started her Senate career in 2000 with a “listening campaign.”  And by all accounts she did listen, especially to upstate constituents.  By contrast, Trump pontificates.  Endlessly.

In my field some have made the claim that academic debate as a structured form of public discussion is a uniquely masculine style. Debaters learn not to over-qualify, not to admit to more than is necessary, and especially to cling tenaciously to the claims they’ve laid out in their case notes.  It’s not such a big jump to the conclusion that women are much more likely than men to agree to couples counseling.  Counseling to mediate serious differences requires more than just serialized opinion-giving.

What can be annoying in a political candidate like Donald Trump can be winning in a gifted thinker or writer.

But there’s a twist: what can be annoying in a political candidate like Donald Trump can be winning in a gifted thinker or writer. We often like decisive rhetoric if its well conceived. Think of Ernest Hemingway, Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley or David Remnick. The annoying comments of Uncle Fred at family get-togethers may just be a common variation: opinion-giving stripped of grace and wisdom.

My favorite writer in the masculine style was Robert Hughes. The native Australian who was Time Magazine’s art critic for many years has left us a body of provocative criticism, including wonderful books on Francisco Goya, the history of Rome, the unusual origins of his home country, and rise and fall of New York as a cultural mecca.  His gifts for incisive criticism were formidable:  occasionally ill-considered but always rich in following historical arcs. Consider Hughes dim view of American television after an unsuccessful stint in the late 1970s as a co-host on ABC’s 20/20:

You cannot watch network TV without being shouted at or wheedled, every two minutes, to buy something.  This saturation is now so extreme that many cheesed-off viewers feel that commercials are the actual content of network television.  And they may well be right, particularly if you agree that the chief purpose of network TV is to create an entirely fictive paradise of desire to which daily reality is merely a backdrop, a world so carefully rearranged that we don’t have to experience it.  In this Paradise, information is replaced by infotainment, as events are constantly altered to fit the requirements of TV editing.

For millions upon millions of people, a vast audience, much larger than print can claim, TV has taken over their image banks, their modes of social expression, their dreams, their fears.  TV creates the icons to which they look and the forms of homage they pay to them.  And yet there are some things TV cannot do; and because it knows this, because it is not made by fools, TV favors and strives to create a mindset in which those things are not values. They include, for instance, the ability to sustain and enjoy a nuanced argument; to look behind the screen of immediate “iconic” events, to keep in the mind moderately large amounts of significant information, to remember today what some joker said last month.  Instead it wants us to be content with a seductive blizzard of images, a fast surface a few electrons thick, full of what is called “information” but is in the main just emotively skewed raw data.  It’s content lurches between violence and blandness, and it never, ever, stops. (The Spectacle of Skill, 2015).

All of this from a writer who died before having a chance to polish these words as part of a planned biography.

It’s perhaps a given that we expect critics to have opinions. That’s why we read them, whether men or women.  And when they are this good, they elevate what can otherwise be an unproductive mode of address. So if it exists, the masculine style has its limits, especially as pertains to developing an empathetic interpersonal style.  But it can also be bracing in the critic or analyst who has opinions worth listening to.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu