Publicly angry at each other
Earlier this year, this video clip went the rounds on Twitter, and all I can say is it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.
A little background: Susan Sontag, the darling of the intellectual left in the 1960s, with an illustrious career behind her including the seminal works Notes on Camp and On Photography, came out with a novel, The Volcano Lover, in 1992. A few years earlier, Camille Paglia had finally gotten her monumental opus Sexual Personae1 published, having shopped it to various publishers for nine years. Paglia was a huge fan of Sontag and had previously tried to get her to speak at Bennington college, but for half Sontag’s usual lecture fee. Sontag obliged but showed up to the lecture an hour late, and read, in Paglia’s words, “some boring and bleak story in the style of a French new novel.” Paglia began to be disillusioned about her former idol, and Sontag, secure in her position as one of the leading lights of American cultural criticism, didn’t feel the need to engage with Paglia’s writing, which evidently really annoyed Paglia. This clip, an excerpt from a Boston-area public television show, is from the height of the Sontag-Paglia dustup, and . . . well . . . it’s just beautiful. “Look, I can’t read everything.” “Suddenly everyone realized just how interesting I am.”
That self-satisfied smirk at the end!!
This whole incident reminds me of another literary spat, the one which whirled around Tom Wolfe in 1997 after he had published his second novel A Man In Full. The book was a huge success and was wildly popular with both readers and critics; but the vanguard of American literary fiction—represented by John Irving, John Updike, and Norman Mailer—took issue with Wolfe’s success, calling him a mere journalist and dismissing his new novel as entertainment and not art. Someone asked Wolfe what he thought of these respected authors’ dismissing of his work, and he had absolutely nothing nice to say at all. Back and forth it went for a few years; the whole business is hilariously recounted by Wolfe in his essay “My Three Stooges” from Hooking Up. This feud is legendary. It comes in at #2 on Literary Hub’s list of the 25 best literary feuds of the past 200 years. It’s easy to see why: it’s high entertainment to read about it, and it involves people who we thought would be respectable instead shouting and swearing at each other in public and calling each other names. It’s the sort of thing that publishers love, too: as The Telegraph put it,
If you are an author, your publishers will advise you that if you get a bad review you should rise above it, try to forget and, above all, refrain from responding in public. But deep down your publishers are hoping that you will defy them and compose a response, one that takes down your critics with such caustic brilliance that it seems wise and proportionate rather than bitter and petulant, and will generate oodles of publicity for your book. . . . Wolfe’s feud with Updike, Mailer and Irving was possibly more entertaining than anything the four of them actually published in the 1990s.
Okay, let’s be honest with ourselves: we all like hearing about art feuds. There’s something fascinating about them, and I think I know what it is: there is no better way to reveal, all at the same time, the full range of our assumptions about what art is and what it ought to be, why it should exist, and what its place should be in the broader culture—and to remind us of the truth that artists (those demigods, those lofty geniuses, who condescend to give us massed plebes a masterpiece or two for our benefit and edification, right?) are really just people, just like you and me, with egos, vanity, pride, and insecurities—than a good old rollicking, stomping, shouting donnybrook of an art fight.
If I could venture a taxonomy of art fights, I would divide them like this. There are two main genera:
Artists fighting with each other.
Fights between artists (or groups of artists) and the rest of the world.
I’ll get to that last genus in a moment, because I think it is very important—but for now let’s consider the cis-art fights, which come in several subgenera:
Fights between artists which are not about art.
Fights between individual artists which reference their art.
Fights between cliques and factions of the art world.
That first kind of art fight is what Sontag and Paglia are doing. They are both just fluffing up their own personae, both trying to establish themselves as superior—but they are really just arguing about themselves, not their art. Certainly it helps that they are very similar; as the interviewer notes, they both tackled the same sorts of ideas and themes in their writing. Deciding whether Paglia or Sontag is the more important and relevant thinker is like trying to pick which doughnut to buy at the gas station—they’re both equally good, really. It seems writers get into this kind of fight quite often: here is a recent write-up of the Caroline Calloway / Natalie Beach fight (warning: this fight is very “internet” so if you don’t like that sort of thing, you’d best stay away). And do we all still remember the “Bad Art Friend” incident from a few years ago, the one where Dawn Dorland and Sonya Larson basically accuse each other of being mean and nasty a whole bunch of times? None of these fights really have anything to do with art, per se; they are more like meta-fights about how artists ought to interact with each other. There’s no theory in these fights, no philosophy of writing or literature or whatever. In that sense they are all very similar to rap rivalries—for some reason, rap artists continually pick fights with each other which usually only go so far as clever wordplay directed towards the object of the fight. Of course, in the cases of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, it went much, much farther.
The Wolfe / Mailer / Updike / Irving fight, on the other hand, really was about art. Wolfe was the one who started this particular fight when he published his essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” in 1989. In Wolfe’s long war in the service of realism, this essay was a tremendous salvo, and by publishing it Wolfe was basically demanding an answer from the art-lit crowd. The literary world looked askance at Wolfe’s ideas, puzzling and fretting over them for a decade—then Wolfe published A Man in Full and garnered the publicity and sales figures to prove he was on to something . . . and, well, I already told you the rest. Wolfe was trying to defend a conception of what “The Novel” should be; his whole point was that it was time for a reimagining of the novel’s artistic aims and possibilities in the current American cultural moment. His fight was about art. I happen to think Wolfe is right, but more than that, I think his method is right; by publicly challenging the literary world and the then-current crop of senior novelists, he is inciting the kind of serious and sometimes cantankerous discourse that is the catalyst for real change in the arts. If Wolfe had instead chosen the Thomas Pynchon approach and sent his novels out into the world with no public statements or theoretical apparatus . . . I doubt we would be talking about him right now.
This kind of art fight has a long history, and not just among writers. Berlioz often would make a scene when the orchestra of the Paris Opera would dare to alter the scores or be otherwise less than respectful to the works of his favorite composers.2 Schoenberg attacked Stravinsky in his song cycle Three Satires for Mixed Chorus.3 The third of my subgenera, the kind of art fight that happens between different factions of artists, is a frequent occurrence in the world of painting (Wolfe himself chronicled some of it in his book The Painted Word). Again, all of this is good; although individual artists might take things a bit too far and get unnecessarily rude or belligerent, the basic principle of “let’s get publicly angry at each other over art theory” is a sound one. There is, however, another way that art and artists get publicly attacked; let’s look back at the two main kinds of art fights I mentioned and focus our attention on the second one.
This latter kind of fight is almost always “artists versus the philistines” for some reason; the people who care the most about art, the ones who have season tickets to the opera and are big patrons of museums, don’t seem to get involved in the art fights as much. Why is this? Do the patrons of the arts feel like fighting about art would be harmful to their own cause? Or do they consider their patronage, their ability to vote with their money and to gatekeep the cultural institutions, as giving them enough clout and pull in the art world that public fights are unnecessary for them?
But it is practically unavoidable for artists to get attacked by people who are outside the art world. This is the defining feature of the life of the artist in the past 100 years; more common than poverty, more common indeed than lack of critical recognition, is the lack of understanding that new art has with the general public. Can you think of any avant-garde, experimental, provocative, or otherwise boundary-pushing artists of the past century for whom this is not so? I can’t.
To be honest, I find such fights rather boring. Artists are in the business of making new stuff; of course what they are doing is going to be uncomfortably new to someone or other. People who are outside the art world and have no interest or desire to be in the art world are the last people who ought to pass judgment on whatever is happening down at the gallery.4
However, there is a specific subset of these kind of “artists vs. philistines” fights which I find not boring at all—the kinds where my own tribe gets involved in the fray, the kind where it is Christians objecting, as Christians, to the doings of the avant-gardists. Christians are notorious for trying to co-opt the arts for their own propagandistic or ideologic ends, and the flipside of this is that Christians love to freak out when an artist creates something which they feel is detrimental to those ends—especially when the artist appropriates symbols that, in the minds of Christians, are really theirs. I used the word “appropriates” in that last sentence quite deliberately, because that is what is really going on here: Christians often feel exactly like members of marginalized subcultures who feel that their identity, as manifested through symbols, is being threatened by those symbols being used by non-group actors. And this makes sense! Some of the works of these artists can seem blasphemous, and it’s perfectly reasonable for Christians to get upset about that. But it is strange that a number of the artists whose work has been attacked by Christians—Chris Ofili (The Holy Virgin Mary), Andreas Serrano (Piss Christ), Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader (The Last Temptation of Christ), for example—in fact identify as Christians themselves. What is going on here? Is it that these fights are attempts at brand control? Do those who claim authority in their religion feel the duty to police the borders of allowable discourse about the religion? Or perhaps these arguments and disputes are originated by Christians who are, in fact, involved in the arts—and this is the way they choose to be involved?
Speaking as a Christian, I find these fights distressing because I can see both sides. Such fights represent the Christian groups acting upon a totalizing, power-centered approach to cultural engagement which doesn’t vibe with my idea of what the church should be about. But I also believe it is legitimate for Christians to get upset, or at least to voice their concerns, about blasphemous art. What is, and is not, blasphemous is another question altogether—and my sympathies really lie with the poor artists stuck in the middle. It can indeed be very dangerous for Christian artists to publicly, and through their art, puzzle over the meanings and implications of their faith. And perhaps if Christians were to come alongside artists in dialogue, offering support (financial or otherwise), engaging intellectually with them, and building lasting relationships based on mutual vulnerability—then perhaps artists would be more willing to listen to the Christians’ concerns.
We are coming out of a long period in which the arts were considered by some groups of Christians to be not worthy of notice. Evangelical Christians, especially, have been telling themselves for the last several generations that the arts don’t matter. It seems these old attitudes are gradually passing away, and as that process continues I look forward to seeing more fights among different groups of Christian artists, fights in the good and real sense, fights about ART. Because the underlying assumption behind all art fights, of all kinds, both the fights among or between artists, and the fights between artists and the culture in general, is that the arts do matter, and are worth fighting for. Despite what some Christians might say about the arts not being worthy of sustained attention, the fact that Christian groups bristle when art doesn’t conform to their idea of appropriateness shows that they really do care about the arts, or at least that they are aware of the immense power that the arts wield, to shape society and direct our thinking . . . I mean, they aren’t getting that upset about something like gardening, for instance . . .
Notice how, in the Sontag / Paglia clip above, Susan Sontag absolutely does not admit the possibility that she might be at fault for not having acquainted herself with Paglia’s books. As Sontag says, “I read all the time, and I don’t think I’m wasting my time with what I read.” If Sontag’s personal and professional routes of inquiry don’t lead her in Paglia’s direction, is Sontag really to be blamed? “I can’t be bothered” is after all a perfectly reasonable stance; no one should be expected to give the last word on everything, every literary and speculative current that makes up the great river of discourse. Paglia is brilliantly, hilariously stunning in the clip above, but really, I’m on Sontag’s side.
This shows humility on her part also; the humility of a person who does not feel qualified to talk about everything. Perhaps this is not in fact what Sontag is feeling at the moment, but I’m trying to be charitable.
However, it must be admitted that if the conversation goes one way, that’s where people are talking. And if Sontag is unwilling to become part of that discussion, then she runs the risk of being tossed aside. But is that really such a terrible thing? Would we rather our favorite pundits speak about things of which they obviously have no knowledge, or would we rather they get passed over in favor of thinkers whom we might not care for as much?
Hector Berlioz, Memoirs, ch. 15.
Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, p. 216.
That being said, I think the fights over public art—such as the dispute which arose over Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc—are legitimate and reasonable, because the art is being displayed in such a way that it is thrust into the consciousness of random people who otherwise wouldn’t have encountered it. The avant-gardists in the gallery ought to be able to do their own thing, but when they come out of the gallery and begin to colonize the public landscape, shouldn’t they expect at least some hostility?