Thursday, May 03, 2007

ARTS POLICY. I've been on a tear lately about rightwing dabblers in the arts-criticism racket, but I feel it behooves me to go into negative space to better define my territory. Here is the beginning of a recent book review in the New York Sun by Otto Penzler:
Let me make something clear. I'm prejudiced: I don't like people who don't like America, and I especially don't like Americans who don't like America. I've never met David Ignatius, but I don't believe I'd like him, though I hope I'm wrong because he sure can write. I just find it impossible to separate the political tone (it's all our fault) from the novel, just as I can no longer be enchanted by Barbra Streisand's voice or Sean Penn's thespian skills.

Now, if you're more open-minded than I am (I won't say liberal, because no one is more closedminded than liberals, thereby ruining a wonderful word and an outstanding concept), just skip this column and go out and get a copy of "Body of Lies" (Norton, 349 pages, $24.95) because it is an exceptionally exciting thriller.
I have no objection to this, nor even to the fairly politicized (but still analytical) body of the review that follows. In fact I admire it. Penzler lays his prejudices on the line right up front, so we know what his terms are. I may be suspicious of his conclusions, but I feel so because I have been warned, not because I smell a rat.

I suspect Penzler's rigor has much to do with his genuine interest in the material. Penzler knows from thrillers, being the proprietor the excellent Mysterious Bookshop, and I sense in his caveat a tinge of embarrassment that his personal preferences interfere, in this case, with his keen appreciation of cracking good yarns.

That isn't a bad way to approach any task of criticism that engages our dual loyalties when we come across a subject we find aesthetically interesting but abhorrent for other reasons. I try to do it myself -- see for example my review of The Passion of the Christ -- and I find it requires a good deal of doubt.

I was going to say "self-doubt," but isn't all doubt self-doubt? The religious think doubt is a demon, because it feels that way -- burning, confusing, easy for the simple to pin on the Father of Lies. I think of it as a safeguard. I think of the late adman Bill Bernbach, who carried in his pocket a piece of paper that said "Maybe he's right," which I imagine served for him a function similar to that of the crown-bearer who whispered in the Roman general's ear "Victory is fleeting": a guard against hubris fatal to his true purpose.

Doubt is not always easy to summon. Life is easier (I imagine, not having had the experience since I was a little boy) when every intellectual decision is binary and predetermined. Doubt makes us work, and allows error. It's usually inconvenient, it can wreck your career, it looks bad on your face, it invites others to doubt you.

But I think doubt is absolutely necessary -- not in politics, so much, as I fear this blog demonstrates regularly, but in matters of art, which I find much more important.

In politics, certainty is a winner. We can't elect candidates or win favor for ideas, on the platform "On balance, I think we might be right." I see its utility. But I fear that if I let such relative externalities as politics sink so deep into my own bedrock that I would let them affect my ability to appreciate the things in life that are really beautiful -- the things that make life worth all the tedious business that goes with it -- that I had to say, no, I reject the appeal of this character, this melody, this gesture, because it conflicts with my political program, then I will have lost my soul. Maybe if the compensation of gaining the world were available -- if I were a Presidential candidate, for example -- I would feel differently. But, for good or ill, I don't have that option.

That's probably why I'm so annoyed by the culture cops. They don't seem to know that there is anything more important than their smelly orthodoxies -- little, as Orwell had it, or big, as in the case of megachurchmen and other such fixers who seek to herd every true desire for transcendence into promixity to their ancient buncombe and collection plates. That's why any encounter with a work of art, however unpropitious its aspect, however contrary it may at first blush seem to the other thoughts I have rattling around in my head, is something to which I want to be available, and which I would rather enjoy than condemn. Wherever else I may be forced to hold the line, let my heart and soul be open.

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