Art, Culture, Literature, Top Stories

The Balkanization of Art

Art is primal. Necessary. Emerging from some deep, ineradicable human need, art has been an integral part of human society from the time humans sought shelter in caves. And since that time, art has been a means of exerting social control in ways both subtle and bold. In ancient Egypt the architecturally marvellous pyramids were designed to strike awe in the hearts of the slaves lugging the bricks, thereby reinforcing their lowly place in the universe and making them more tractable in the process. The Renaissance popes conscripted into their service anyone who knew how to wield a paintbrush and put them to work exalting Christian cosmology. As for Stalin, he corralled every writer (a notoriously cantankerous group) who wanted to earn a living by the pen into the Soviet Writers Union, where their raison d’être became the glorification of the state.

America was meant to be different, a beacon for people fleeing from dogma, a place where the collective project was that of creating a society where everyone could be an individual—nirvana for artists. From the poet Walt Whitman (“Song of myself”!) to the painter Georgia O’Keefe to the photographer Robert Frank, artists in America have been free to pursue their personal vision. If they chose to exalt the status quo, like Steven Spielberg, they won Oscars. Should they want to smash it, in the manner of Allen Ginsburg, they were given the National Book Award. But something fundamental has shifted, and the arts in America are lately meant to serve a specific moral or didactic purpose. That is not to say any artist can no longer write, paint, or photograph what they like. But unless artists and writers follow certain precepts, they decrease the chances that their work will be reviewed in prominent media outlets, talked about in the right postal codes, or considered part of the bien-pensant cultural conversation.

As an American novelist, it is risky for me to write the sentence you just read. Why should this be so? It is no secret that the American cultural temple is a liberal project. I believe that is to be applauded, and I say this as one whose own views are generally liberal. If someone has to control the culture, I’d rather it was liberals than the National Rifle Association. Unfortunately, this situation comes with a downside which is homogeneity. As Hegel would tell you (thesis, antithesis, synthesis), when everyone agrees, progress becomes more difficult to achieve. How is art meant to happen when everyone is supposed to be thinking the same thoughts? Art goes against the grain. It’s the sand in the oyster that creates the pearl.

Let’s take Hollywood as an example. It is a truism that the culture of Hollywood is liberal, but not liberal in the sense of freethinking. Perhaps you are considering writing a screenplay. Knowing the political orientation of the producers to whom you will be trying to sell your work, what would you do? Of course, there is the occasional producer who values complexity, but what you would probably do, because nearly everyone does, is leave complexity at the curb and write something that reinforces the outlook of those who are signing the checks.

We see a similar phenomenon in publishing, at least when it comes to literary fiction. If an author creates a protagonist who questions liberal pieties (not condemns, mind you, but simply questions), he will risk creating a barrier to the work being subject to critical consideration. In a world where critical approbation is necessary to sell books, this is not a happy state of affairs. Elucidate the interiority of that protagonist and the problem becomes exponentially worse. In contemporary American literature, there is no Michel Houellebecq, because the current conditions do not allow for it. New York publishers will avoid a novelist who writes about Islam the way Houellebecq does; critics would either ignore or lambast them. A novel like Submission can only be published by a major American publisher because Houellebecq is not an American.

There is another salient aspect of liberalism today and culturally it is perhaps the most important one of all—the privileging of groups that have previously been excluded from power whether female, black, Latino, Asian, gay, or any other historically marginalized peoples. On the surface, this seems to be an entirely positive development. Let’s call the phenomenon “radical inclusiveness.” But it is this feature of the current liberal project that has so troubled the arts. In an unwritten cultural fiat, writers are granted “standing,” as in an author does, or does not have the “standing” (or, is allowed) to tell a particular story. An inverted hierarchy has developed whereby those who suffered from exclusion are now on top and those who did the excluding (metaphorically, at least; one presumes these artists didn’t exclude anyone individually) are on the bottom. Chinese-American author Amelie Wen Zhao postponed publication of her novel Blood Heir when she was accused of racism for writing insensitively about slavery (in a fantasy novel!). Award-winning author Kristine Kathryn Rusch decided to self-publish her novels about a black detective because of the degree to which she, as a white woman, was discouraged by traditional publishers from writing about a black character.

Right now, a controversy is raging about the new novel American Dirt, written by Jeanine Cummins, an author of mixed Irish and Puerto Rican descent (one of her grandparents was Puerto Rican), who has long identified as white. The book, for which the author received a million-dollar advance, tells the story of migrants journeying through Mexico toward the American border. Despite doing copious amounts of research, Cummins was so concerned about being unqualified to write the book that she expressed this fear in a guilt-ridden “Author’s Note” that follows the fictional text in the actual book. “I wished someone browner than me would write it,” she laments. Large swaths of the literary community agreed with her assessment and Cummins has been viciously attacked on social media for having the audacity, as a white woman, to write about the migrant experience (there are those who say the book itself is not very good but that is the subject of another essay). Her publisher was so intimidated by the vitriolic response that her promotional book tour was cancelled because of fears for the physical safety of the author and of booksellers. The novelist Lauren Groff, who favorably reviewed American Dirt for the New York Times, fretted that, “I was sure I was the wrong person to review this book. I could never speak to the accuracy of the book’s representation of Mexican culture or the plight of migrants; I have never been Mexican or a migrant.” If the goal is a capacious literary culture, writers flagellating themselves over who is entitled to write what does not produce optimal results.

In 2016, the author Lionel Shriver, a white female, delivered a speech at a literary festival in Australia during which she donned a sombrero to underscore what she took to be the unfairness of the principle that so distressed Cummins and Groff, that only members of a particular group should be allowed to write about that group. And while it is difficult to endorse her sartorial choice, I am in wholehearted agreement with Shriver’s thinking. Nothing is more prized today than authenticity, which currently exists on a higher plane than talent. You can see the problem. Or perhaps you can’t. We can disagree and still co-exist which is how democracy works.

The same problem roiled the art world at the Whitney Biennial of 2017, at which the artist Dana Schutz had the temerity to exhibit a painting of Emmitt Till. Till was a black teenager lynched in Mississippi after he was falsely accused of whistling at a white woman. His death was a tragedy for the entire nation. Schutz’s powerful canvas depicts the slain boy in his coffin. The painting was unveiled; an uproar followed. The Internet predictably vituperated. Protesters linked arms in front of the work to impede the view of museum-goers. Schutz’s crime? Creating this undeniably potent work of art while being a member of the wrong race.

Why is all this happening now? The assault on liberal values represented by the ghastly presidency of Donald Trump is perceived by much of the creative community as an existential danger, and with nervous systems on high alert, this has understandably led to a certain amount of reductive thinking. Artists are in no mood to cede an inch of territory in the struggle. Groups under threat retreat into their own silos where they take comfort in the company of likeminded people. While the “melting pot” was always a bit of an American myth, for much of the post-WWII era it represented an aspiration, an ideal vision of society. In America today the peril in making one’s particular ethnic heritage (or membership in any group defined by a single characteristic) the most prominent feature of one’s identity is that we will no longer identify primarily as Americans. Ironically, it is liberal universalism that will ultimately suffer, and when liberal universalism suffers, then non-didactic art—art that exists for a higher purpose—is on the chopping block.

There is nothing inherently wrong with creative work that is informed by identity or by politics but, for me at least, the most powerful art remains that which is primarily imbued with the artist’s humanity. Were a brilliantly talented African-American artist like Kerry James Marshall or Kara Walker to create a work of art commemorating the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre we should all consider it a mitzvah.

 

Seth Greenland is an award-winning playwright, screenwriter, and author of five novels, including Shining City (A Washington Post Best Book of the Year) and The Hazards of Good Fortune (nominated for the 2019 Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger). His first memoir will be published in 2020. You can follow him on Twitter @sethgreenland

Featured Image: Jeanine Cummins discusses her novel, “American Dirt”, at Politics and Prose, 2019. (YouTube)

This article originally appeared in Le Monde.

Comments

  1. Seems like another article by a liberal complaining about the authoritarian nature of the leftists without being willing to draw a distinction between a liberal and a leftist.
    The two are not the same thing, why not name them.

  2. I agree with that. Liberals have been beat into submission by leftists.

  3. “In ancient Egypt the architecturally marvellous pyramids were designed to strike awe in the hearts of the slaves lugging the bricks, thereby reinforcing their lowly place in the universe and making them more tractable in the process.”

    Or to strike pride in the hearts of free Egyptians, building the pyramids when not needed on their farms? It’s been quite a while since it was universally believed that slaves built the pyramids.

    And neither were Michelangelo and the many other great Catholic medieval and Renaissance artists mere conscripts of the Popes or their other patrons.

    Lauren Groff’s grovelling is particularly weird.Writers flagellating themselves over who is entitled to write what indeed does not produce optimal results. But READERS flagellating themselves over who is entitled to READ what is truly bizarre.

    For readers interested in hearing more about the whole “American Dirt” affair I thoroughly recommend the articles of journalist Jesse Singal, who did Quillette Podcast 60 on a different subject last year.

  4. The assault on liberal values represented by the ghastly presidency of Donald Trump …

    Surely, a far more ghastly assault on liberal values would have been the presidency of Hillary Clinton.

  5. If “liberal values” have morphed into the shit show described then Trump’s presidency is a breath of fresh air by comparison. Hounding, threatening and de-platforming artists because they’re the wrong ethnicity is utterly appalling; the attempt to excuse it as a reaction to Trump absurd. The same thing is happening throughout the Western world regardless of the politics. You should take up writing for the N Y Times, Seth.

  6. I’m actually quite ok with the left wing circular firing squad making life miserable for their erstwhile allies. If Seth Greenland objects to what’s going on in his liberal land of milk and honey, perhaps he should drop his own rifle, abandon his twitter stream, and come over to the Dark Side where life is actually quite constructive and somewhat redeeming. Of course that would mean giving up his anti-Trump addiction to look at things from another perspective, but it might do him good.

    I do find it sad when people who know so little about a culture’s art feel the need to write about it, and thus look foolish. A really good start for those not familiar with American Art is the following book, written by a great Australian critic, the late Robert Hughes

  7. “If someone has to control the culture, I’d rather it was liberals than the National Rifle Association. “

    Said another way he thinks San Francisco is better governed than Omaha.

    However his criticism about the state of art in America is valid. Additionally in the U.S. art these days seems overly and unnecessarily preachy.

    “Trump is perceived by much of the creative community as an existential danger, and with nervous systems on high alert, this has understandably led to a certain amount of reductive thinking.”

    A euphemistic way of saying that Trump Derangement Syndrome is making the Left even more unhinged.

  8. Well, it wouldn’t be a proper Quillette contribution without a gratuitous, irrelevant shot at Trump. I actually thought this one was going to skip it; holding out until the 2nd-to-last paragraph is an achievement in itself.

  9. I DO condone Shriver wearing a sombrero. Why not? How does wearing a hat representative of another culture qualify as racist? This is emblematic of the idiotic concept of what racism actually is. A person who ‘wears many hats’ is a person capable of performing many roles. Or sympathizing with many roles. She put on the hat to demonstrate that she has the right to imagine what it’s like to be Mexican. Isn’t that what writing is about --putting one’s self in someone else’s place? Living vicariously, PUTTING YOURSELF IN SOMEONE ELSE’S SHOES.

    On another note, I had to subdue my trigger finger over a Writing Workshop for People of Color that floated through a social media feed courtesy of an aquaintance who expressed thrill over The Paris Review becoming a MATRIARCHY. There goes the neighborhood. And woopee-- writing workshops that are NOT inclusive. How is this OK?

    What I see happening is – sorry to say – how the arts are tanking under female leadership. “Social Justice” is merely another suffrage movement. On this end, I don’t ever give a rat’s ass what’s in the pants of the writer. I care about the WRITING. I recall how back in the 90’s my reading list for a literature class I taught as a grad student had to be revised to include someone with brown skin. I couldn’t believe how bad the book was that I was forced to include. And wouldn’t you know – no one knows who this person is today – while the others on that list endure. (The class particularly loved Dostoyevsky – a writer we’re expected to sacrifice for more brown skin, brown skin, brown skin, brown skin…)

    I do agree with the harpies, however, that the million dollar advance for American Dirt seems rather excessive, and when publishers do this, well, it does cut into PR for other books. But here’s a comment that is all too frequent, in response to American Dirt – that the reason this book got published is because the writer is white – publishers don’t publish great books by people who aren’t white. Gee, you really have to wonder where the hell this person has been. Certainly not in the People of Color Writing Workshop. Or a literature class in college where the reading list is the color of coffee and the only theme available is feeling bad about being the only brown person in the room.

    YAWN.

  10. This art Balkanization predates Trump by at least ten years, probably more. The Conservative-Libertarian Fiction Alliance organized around fighting back against this systematic repression of intellectual diversity, for instance, and Andrew Klavan has talked about it for a decade or more as well. While there has been an intensification of the publishing world’s self-inflicted PC purification, it is far from new, and bringing Trump into it was just, well, stupid.

  11. Why is all this happening now? The assault on liberal values represented by the ghastly presidency of Donald Trump is perceived by much of the creative community as an existential danger, and with nervous systems on high alert, this has understandably led to a certain amount of reductive thinking. Artists are in no mood to cede an inch of territory in the struggle.

    This started well before Trump; the author’s quoted statement is merely a convenient excuse for what is in fact a deeper pathology than mere TDS. The real problem is that artists have, with their surplus of empathy, swallowed the logic of identity politics and intersectionality, which has had the consequence of letting rather bad actors engage in the artistic version of forming a picket line.

    As Jonathan Kay wrote on this very website not long ago:

    And in this aspect, intersectionality is well-suited to a cult paradigm because its adherents presume that the “lived experience” that typifies every sub-group is fundamentally unknowable except to members of that sub-group. The conceit of secret knowledge confers an aura of mysticism on followers, especially in regard to the issue of gender identity, which is cast as an internally experienced secular rapture.

    This basic set of beliefs then results in the phenomenon described in the article, where “Asian author can’t write fictional story involving slavery because Not Black.” What the author here fails to note is how advantageous this dynamic is for authors of a certain kind: if you can convince other writers that they don’t have “standing” to write certain stories, you’ve effectively limited the supply of those certain kinds of stories or characters, and created a little segment of the market for yourself you can exploit, much like a labor union tries to drive up wages for its members by becoming the sole supplier of labor at certain factories or companies or even whole industries. “Chicano Writers Local 147” and the like. The difference is that real union workers will beat the crap out of scabs; these dopes will just trash you on Twitter and echo chamber sites like Medium.

  12. The lefty philistines are on the march in a war in which they will try to put art and literature into little boxes based on their fascist, nasty beliefs.

    Do not read their literature, listen to their music or watch their films and plays. There are many and diverse works of art produced before the philistine lefties ruined everything. There are plenty of modern works too that eschew the rubbish outlook of the left. ENjoy those and enjoy real culture. Make the left-wing arseholes go broke.

    Sinistra delenda est.

  13. ”It is no secret that the American cultural temple is a liberal project. I believe that is to be applauded, and I say this as one whose own views are generally liberal. If someone has to control the culture, I’d rather it was liberals than the National Rifle Association. Unfortunately, this situation comes with a downside which is homogeneity. As Hegel would tell you (thesis, antithesis, synthesis), when everyone agrees, progress becomes more difficult to achieve.”

    Liberals? Do you mean the ones that will not let conservatives speak in universities. I am pretty sure that if a leftist walked into a room of conservative academics and said that conservatism is bad that person would be invited to sit and explain his basis for that statement. Turn the tables around and the leftist would beat the daylights out of the conservative person before throwing him or her out the door. Leftist are so sure they are right that they don’t want to hear contrary ideas. They certainty never want public debate to defend their ideas.

    And the left has the American cultural temple? Pardon me, I think I am becoming ill.

  14. Regarding the “assault on liberal values represented by the ghastly presidency of Donald Trump”:

    From where I sit–and I admit my view from here is limited–this is how I see it. The prevailing impression that the Trump presidency is frightful, is, I believe, what happens when people who say they value individuality realize that they don’t actually want that in a President. What they want in a President is a person who isn’t himself (or herself)–isn’t his own person–but an avatar in which they can see themselves. Trump is one of the most unapologetically genuine President we have had in modern times, for better or worse. He is unafraid to be himself and refuses to transform into the thing any one group of people needs or wants for him to be. He cannot be controlled, and a lot of people hate that. Ironically, that he can confidently be himself–again, for better or worse–and still rise to the office of President of the United States should be cause for much celebration.

    So do we value individuality or not?

  15. I’ve observed all the other pile-ons over the years, and, of course, found it all creepy and authoritarian. But, you know what? At one point I just found myself unable to care. I‘d say to myself that I should buy the book to support this poor author but then realize I have no real interest in reading the book in question. I think with this one I can finally pinpoint why. Notice how the drama is never about just any random book? MOST OF THE TIME it’s some pandering, wannabe-woke nonsense by a white lady thirsty for attention from the cool kids. So now I shrug. Maybe I reached a new level of nihilistic detachment that will surely come back to bite me, but… serves you right for kissing up to SJWs. Welcome to our side.

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