From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

David Brooks and Susan Estrich

From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

David Brooks and Susan Estrich

From the Ridiculous to the Sublime
An email conversation about the news of the day.
June 29 1998 10:52 AM

David Brooks and Susan Estrich

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Dear Susan,

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Something about e-mail forces me to start with the shallow and move to the profound, so let me begin with a question. Do you like Katie Couric? I see she's just signed a $5 to $7 million-a-year contract, so she must have fans, but I don't think I know any of them. Shades of Joan Didion's famous outburst in 1972: "How could Nixon have won? No one I know voted for him." Maybe the Nixon and Couric constituencies are the same. That should scare her.

I also read in the Washington and New York Posts that one of Monica Lewinsky's friends says she claims that Clinton always stopped at foreplay. I don't believe it (in for a dime, in for a dollar) though Clinton is an odd mixture of total self-discipline (in his demeanor and focus on the object of his ambition) and total lack of discipline (lateness, verbosity, promiscuity). Speaking of things I don't believe, Drudge reports that Penthouse considered buying nude shots of Monica Lewinsky. They were taken from a porn video audition, but nobody is sure they are her. Give me a break. Drudge does include one quintessential, Drudge-like sentence, "There are indications that parties close to the White House may be involved in placing the Lewinsky look-a-likes." That's an allegation with no evidence, no clear meaning, and yet which still contains a sly and gratuitous anti-Clinton tease.

Still I like Drudge more than Harry Thomason. Apparently in the New Yorker he takes credit for stage managing Bill Clinton's finger-wagging denial, "I did not have sex with that woman." Maybe you know Thomason from L.A. circles, and maybe he's a saint, but from a distance he looks repulsive. If it is true he choreographed the photo-op, why betray your friend by talking about it in public?

The Wall Street Journal has an editorial called "This is an avant-garde?" about last week's federal funding for the arts decision by the Supreme Court. The court said the government could impose a "decency" standard on the art it funds. But the editorial's headline gets at the crux of the issue, which is that the categories we use to think about the arts are obsolete. The idea of the avant-garde was based on the notion that artists are precursors. They were thought to be the sensitive spirits who felt the future first. Or even more heroically, they were considered superior souls who exist in a universal space of creativity and ideas, and that they therefore serve a unique social function by reminding us of eternal truths. I recently came across a quote from the 1950s by the painter Clyfford Still, that captures the essence of the belief: "A single stroke of paint, backed by work and a mind that understood its potency and implications, could restore to man the freedom lost in twenty centuries of apology and devices for subjugation."

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Nobody talks that way anymore. Few people seem to believe in Art as a religion. Instead the artists one sees seem like professionals or academics. They are more worldly and less pretentious, and maybe less ambitious. They get in these fights with the likes of Jesse Helms that are totally bogus--it's done just to make each side feel embattled and for fundraising purposes. People are forever declaring the death of the avant-garde, but we still haven't created a vocabulary to take its place. We must be in a long period of culture lag, when our concepts haven't kept up with our reality.

Which brings me finally to another story that has to do with time accelerating. I'm not old but I remember when a generation took 30 years. Now generations seems to go by in months. Gen-X came and went before I had a chance to make any money off it, which is the purpose of generational labels after all. Now in today's Washington Post I read about the Millennium Generation. There are a lot of them. There are more kids in America today, 70.2 million, than there were in 1966, the height of the baby boom. One of the experts in the Post story says, "This generation will redefine society in the 21st century just as baby boomers shaped social, political and economic changes in the last half of the 20th century."

If he is predicting another generational revolt, I don't believe it. We tend to assume that children revolt against their parents. But historically, that's the exception not the norm. Today's teens are completely unrebellious. I spent a week last year hanging around Silverlake, the boho neighborhood near Hollywood. It's like a cul de sac of alienation there. People are living in a perpetual state of Lou Reed. They are reenacting the rebellions of their parents with the same icons, the same manners and the same poses. Except they look less happy even though they are making a lot more money.

Sincerely, David

p.s. I don't know how you correct errors on-line, but last week I said it was Pierre in War and Peace who proposed to his wife with initials, "W...Y...M...M"--will you marry me. It turns out it was Levin in Anna Karenina. My only excuse is that they are both relatively inarticulate characters.

David Brooks is a senior editor of the Weekly Standard. Susan Estrich is a law professor at the University of Southern California.