But Is It Art Criticism?

Better ideas.
June 29 1997 3:30 AM

But Is It Art Criticism?

The Stalinist aesthetics of the Weekly Standard.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

John Podhoretz, deputy editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, moonlights as the magazine's movie critic. His reviews eschew the genre's conventions. Usually over a weekend, he scurries through his local multiplex (for one column he saw eight films). His "Moviegoer's Diary" is an almost-stream-of-consciousness monologue. Reporting on Marvin's Room, he informs us that he took his parents. In fact, "I am here under protest; I wanted to see I'm Not Rappaport, because Walter Matthau is in it and he is my favorite film actor of all, but my father vetoed it on account of Matthau's character is an old Communist and the whole thing would give him apoplexy."

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The reviewer does not say--but most of his readers will know--that his father is Norman Podhoretz, the legendarily curmudgeonly anti-Communist editor of Commentary. So Pod the Younger is making a small, charmingly Oedipal joke here. But the joke is actually a big one, because the Weekly Standard's cultural coverage (which John Podhoretz oversees) reflects precisely the view that Podhoretz gently mocks: that politics is the measure of art. At the same time, the Standard maintains the running conservative complaint about how liberal "political correctness" is hopelessly corrupting culture and scholarship.

Take the June 2 issue. The Standard publishes four reviews that turn on variations of the same question: Does the artist's political sensibility match the magazine's? The first review asks, "Is the Creator of Beavis and Butt-head and the New Hit King of the Hill a Social Conservative?" The second takes playwright Wendy Wasserstein to task for infusing her plays with fallacious liberal assumptions. The third argues that Philip Roth's latest novel is a "conservative" book. The last bashes Israeli journalist Amos Elon for his criticism of Zionism, "which makes him about as dangerous to Israel as the gun-toting zealots."

Certain Standard critics--Christopher Caldwell, Malcolm Bradbury, and Joseph Epstein--do a good job of keeping their taste in politics separate from their taste in art. However, most regular Standard critics do not.

There are loads of egregious examples. It is not all a matter of lefty-bashing. An essay on Rebecca West praises her McCarthyism. The pop star Van Morrison is lauded as a devout Christian. And when the temptation to praise a writer with the wrong politics becomes overwhelming, one Standard strategy is to discover an underlying conservatism. Salman Rushdie, for instance, "cannot help betraying a kind of grudging admiration for the human energy, vitality, and ingenuity of capitalism in action." Or my favorite example: a review titled "William Blake: Capitalist" attempts valiantly to rescue the poet from his revolutionary reputation. The piece glances over Blake's distaste for "dark satanic mills" and lines that warn that the "Dog starved at the master's gate/ Predicts the ruin of the state."

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

At its best, this scrutiny of an author's politics can debunk mistaken conventional wisdom. For instance, Stephen Schwartz's essay on the Albanian author Ismail Kadare, whose novels were widely celebrated as the work of a great anti-Communist intellectual, detailed Kadare's collaboration with Albania's authoritarian regime. But more often, the Standard approach harks back to the leftist milieu in which Norman Podhoretz (and, even more so, Irving Kristol, father of the Standard's editor, Bill Kristol) came of age. More specifically, it is reminiscent of the Communist Party's literary journal the New Masses, which obsessed over inane questions like whether bourgeois writers such as Proust would be acceptable reading after the revolution.

This tack is hard to trust. When Standard reviewers attack authors, even if there is no explicit political argument, you assume there is some sort of political vendetta at work. It is impossible to parse out whether they dislike something because it is bad art or bad politics. And they spend so much time immersed in the political arguments that they often omit aesthetic judgments altogether. A review of Katharine Graham's autobiography, for example, rails against the WashingtonPost but doesn't say if Graham wrote a compelling book. Another essay, on the Kronos Quartet, establishes that the group is the "Stalin-era spirit expressed in music," but remains silent on whether its music is any good.

It is especially annoying because the Standard claims to know better. There is more than one respectable answer to the question of whether art can be separated from politics, but there is no doubt what the Standard's answer would be. The magazine and its neoconservative comrades complain incessantly about the alchemy of ideology and aesthetics. Commentary and the New Criterion frequently invoke Lionel Trilling's The Liberal Imagination (1950)--in which Trilling took leftist critics to task for treating literature as documents of class struggle. The Standard itself is fond of condemning academia for cooking up a "Stalinist" stew of left-wing politics and scholarship.

But they strike the Trilling pose only when convenient. Deep down, today's conservatives, like Marxists, are disciples of 19th-century Romanticism. They believe art can do anything. If children read from William Bennett's The Book of Virtues at bedtime, they will become model citizens. When movies flaunt casual sex, people will go out and bonk like mad. The harmful impact of amoral movies and television is fundamental to conservative explanations of social decline and welfare dependency. Remember Murphy Brown (Dan Quayle's famous speech, conceived by Bill Kristol)?

Combativeness also comes from feelings of marginalization, both real and imagined. Conservatives complain of being shut out of Hollywood, Broadway, the major museums, and academia. And they have good reason to feel insecure. Limousine liberals disproportionately control important cultural institutions. Not many Standard subscribers are tenured in Ivy League English departments, and few registered Republicans curate shows at the Museum of Modern Art.

But their understandable feelings of loneliness quickly turn hysterical. Listen to David Gelernter, the Standard's most interesting and wrong-headed critic:

But we must be conservatives, because today's liberal Establishment is no mere defender of freewheeling 'anything goes' art versus conservative realism. ... Increasingly, the conservative intelligentsia is the intelligentsia. It is the place where love of art and learning and rational argument and country survives. It is the ark we climb aboard until the weather clears. ... Today's art establishment is fundamentally no good and needs to be replaced.

Throw down your Jasper Johns and unite!

To Gelernter, conservatism is no mere reactionary stance. It is the ideology of a vanguard out to overthrow the godless, unpatriotic establishment. Gelernter advocates that conservatives establish their own conservative institutions, including a "conservative museum" promoting "conservative art"--whatever that is. Criticism is a subset of this strategy. What does it matter that a left-wing poet is a good poet if the future of civilization is at stake? You bash your political enemies and praise your political friends, because culture war is hell and there are no aesthetes in a foxhole.

The Nation, the Standard's left-wing counterpart, is sometimes guilty of the same sins, praising--unconvincingly--obscure left-wing Nicaraguan novelists. However, on the whole, the left is less guilty than the right. Most journals with roots in liberalism--the New York Review of Books, the New Republic--set up implicit ground rules for criticism. No ideological bashing for the sake of ideological bashing. Publish conservative and liberal writers, regardless. They actually acted on Lionel Trilling's and Alfred Kazin's critiques of Marxist criticism. In its political coverage the Standard is not reluctant to criticize conservatives (though usually it is for not being conservative enough). (For a related article on conservative political correctness, see this week's Strange Bedfellow column by Jacob Weisberg.) In its cultural coverage, though, the magazine preaches aesthetic independence but often practices conservative political correctness of a remarkably crude sort.

Franklin Foer is editor at large of the New Republic. He is the author of How Soccer Explains the World.

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