Culture Is Downstream of Politics
Top Stories of the Year: #2
I've been counting down the top stories of the year, looking back at the big events of 2018 and reviewing my coverage of them.
Andrew Breitbart famously said that politics is downstream of culture. But if he had lived to see the art and entertainment in 2018, he might have concluded that it's the other way around.
For a long time, we've had to confront Political Correctness in its negative form, as a mechanism for telling us what we can't say and can't do. But now we're seeing Politically Correct culture given its own artistic voice, such as it is, and the result is an era of didacticism, the use of art and entertainment as a vehicle for lecturing us about the right views on politics.
Sherri and I were pointing this out the year before in response to the "Fearless Girl" publicity stunt.
In The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe memorably described how 20th Century art became less and less about the painting itself, which is usually indistinguishable to the layman from every other smear of paint on a canvas—if we put you on the spot, could you tell one Jackson Pollack from another?—and came to be more about the theory behind the art. Wolfe joked that in the future, museums would splash up on their walls the writings of the art critics and theorists, with the paintings reproduced on tiny little plaques as mere footnotes. This is why if you've read a highbrow art review in a newspaper or magazine any time in the last 50 years or so, you've probably found it deadly boring, because every work of art is a "commentary" on some esoteric issue only known to a select few in the insular little community of the art world but meaning nothing to anyone outside it.
So you can see the natural next step for art in the Politically Correct 21st Century. If art is just a footnote or illustration of some theoretical issue outside the artwork, why can't it be about something more interesting? Why can't it be about politics? And since artists are still trying to appeal to the cultural elites, it can't just be any politics. It has to be the right politics, the kind universally applauded by their peers.
This year, the phenomenon began to be noticed and named. New York magazine's Molly Fischer dubbed it "The Great Awokening," in which criticism of popular culture is reduced to approval or disapproval of its political messaging, especially on racial politics.
At its most simplistic, such criticism tends to involve delineating the [race and gender] identities a given work depicts, then saying whether that depiction is good or bad, particularly in relation to restrictive norms or harmful stereotypes. "Woke" becomes a valuable nutrient no matter how dubious the product. Thus, headlines like Bustle's "The CW's 'Dynasty' Is Doing What Every Reboot Should—Righting the Wrongs of the Original" (i.e., dispensing with blatant '80s-era homophobia and adding a black billionaire to the roster of white ones) or "13 Ways 'Stranger Things' Season 2 Sent Oppressive Gender Roles Back to the Upside Down" (Number 7: "Hopper Lets His Emotion Shine Through"). Praise in this register tends toward routine hyperbole—"groundbreaking," "revolutionary," "empowering," "powerful"—with "problematic" and "not okay" as terms of censure. Readers become accustomed to learning that a popular TV show "Has a [Rape/Race/Woman] Problem," or that a new movie offers "The [Teenage Heroine/Same-Sex Love Story/Portrayal of Depression] We Need Now."
Here's where she gets harshest in her assessment:
The critical climate could foster a tone along the lines of an after-school special. On one episode of the Times podcast "Still Processing," co-hosts Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris described the dutiful attitude of a show like "Dear White People" toward its audience: It seemed constrained by its awareness of representing blackness for white viewers in a way that a previous generation of black entertainment was not. As Wortham put it, describing an episode in which a white character is patiently taught that he shouldn't say the n-word, not even while rapping along to a favorite song: "Is this a 'School House Rock' for white people, for understanding how to be around black people?"...
Or consider Master of None, Aziz Ansari's Netflix series about the life of an actor named Dev working and dating in New York City.... At its best, "Master of None" gives a platform to voices too rarely heard. More often, however, it mines the rich material of human difference for neat lessons in empathy. Here, say, is why Dev should have greater understanding of his female friends, or his immigrant parents, or old people. In the episode "Ladies and Gentlemen," the show's précis on sexism, situations occur that illustrate the problem of sexism. Then, the women Dev knows sit around bars and restaurants explaining to him (and to viewers) that sexism exists. Dev learns a lesson. The lesson is that sexism exists. Presumably viewers are to learn this also. It is difficult, though, to imagine a viewer likely to be simultaneously surprised by and receptive to such lessons. This is not a blow to the patriarchy; this is "Sesame Street."
As I put it, "After-schools specials, 'School House Rock,' and 'Sesame Street'—all in three paragraphs. Ouch. This also hints at the infantilization of the viewer by those who think they need adult supervision on how to think about the world."
I call this the "Age of Didacticism": "It's like we're voluntarily attempting to recreate the school of Stalinist 'Socialist Realism,' in which the purpose of art is to serve as propaganda, instructing citizens in the right way of thinking."
This came up again and again. That first comment was in response to Rupi Kaur, a Politically Correct poet who is more Politically Correct than a poet. Then there was a rap video that required extensive footnotes.
The music itself, if you can call it that—and I would prefer you didn't—is of no interest at all. I would probably say this about most of today's popular music, particularly anything in the genres known as "rap" or "hip-hop." But friends who take this kind of music more seriously generally agree that the piece is unexceptional even by contemporary standards. Moreover, the mumbled lyrics are mostly gibberish, except for the repeated, spoken refrain, "This is America."
It is spoken, not with pride, but as an indictment, and that gets to the real content of the video: a series of images that are supposed to be biting social commentary on racism and violence. But an ordinary viewer would easily miss at least half of it. This also is widely acknowledged, because numerous people have put out guides to the video (like this one) purporting to explain the social and political significance of everything in it.
The symbols seem either too subtle or too ham-handed.... But the important thing is that people believe the message to be there, and they believe this hidden, symbolic content is what gives the video value and makes it great....
All the earnest guides to the hidden symbolism of "This Is America" remind me of what Tom Wolfe said in The Painted Word. Modern art galleries have it all wrong. They put the Jackson Pollock painting up on the wall at full size, with a little block of text explaining it off to the side. To really capture the spirit of Modernism, Wolfe argued, they should reproduce the painting in a little box off to the side, as a mere illustration, and put the words of the critics and theorists up on the wall. In this case, the only appropriate way to watch Glover's video is in one of those tiny boxes off to the side of a webpage, while you read all of the notes pontificating about its historical references and hidden messages—because they are the real point, not the video.
(Speaking of Tom Wolfe, who passed away this year, I celebrated his legacy as "America's Carnival Barker.")
Then there was an Alanis Morissette jukebox musical hailed as "the most woke musical since 'Hair.'"
What is interesting here is not just that the musical has a political message. It's the fact that so little is said in this article about the esthetic qualities of the music. Instead, Morissette's breakout success way back when is describes as a blow to 'the patriarchy,' because I guess there had never been a successful female singer before, and the songs and their staging are hailed mostly for their dedication to the currently fashionable side of a parade of political issues.
"The show tackles hot-button issues like opiate addiction, gender identity, and sexual assault, as well as more quietly urgent ones like transracial adoption, marital bed death, and image-consciousness. It also contains imagery from the Women's March and the #NeverAgain gun-control movement. Picture a pageant of liberalism, with your favorite '90s songs as the soundtrack."...
The political and cultural left was always predisposed to turn every aspect of life into a political crusade. They are, after all, the ones who brought us the motto, "the personal is the political," which was the basis for the concept of Political Correctness. The "trauma" of seeing the wrong corrupt politician get elected just gave them an excuse to embrace that PC creed as the ultimate standard for the arts.
Then there was the stand-up comedy show that was widely celebrated for not being funny.
The latest buzz in the middlebrow media is a stand-up comedy act which the New York Times praises as "comedy-destroying."
"Ms. Gadsby, an Australian comedian, is the creator of 'Nanette,' a stage show turned Netflix special that is lacerating in its fury.... In stark personal terms, she reveals her own gender and sexual trauma, and doesn't invite people to laugh at it.... Ms. Gadsby has perhaps pointed the art form of stand-up in an altogether new direction."
So it's not funny, but it's "woke," and that's what matters....
This is the most extreme expression of a wider trend. Another overview sums it up: "a new wave of comedians doesn't want to be funny."
But I'm afraid they really got my blood up when the tried to tell me that Jim Kirk was a Social Justice Warrior.
Art becomes didactic when it is considered valuable for its political theme alone, overshadowing everything else, as if having the right message is the only thing that is important. Good art can definitely have a political message, but it is integrated into a good story, ingenious plot structure, interesting characters, thoughtful meditations on life, and so on. This gives it a meaning and appeal far beyond the narrow circle of those who agree with its politics....
One of the hallmarks of good art is that it can have many fans who don't agree with its specific political solutions. Take Ayn Rand, who occasionally let political themes creep into her novels. Yet if you are an Ayn Rand fan like me, you hear pretty frequently about some famous person or Hollywood star who you would never in a million years peg as a staunch right-winger, who nevertheless turns out to be an Ayn Rand fan. The Fountainhead may be an attack on collectivism in which the central villain is a socialist, but it is also a tribute to creativity and artistic integrity in the face of conformism. That's a theme with wide appeal, which many people in Hollywood would certainly like to tell themselves they agree with. But here you'll find Mother Jones getting the vapors about the existence of Hollywood Ayn Rand fans. After all, the arts is a domain they have marked out as being owned by the left, so authors from the right are not to be permitted.
It all fits together. If nobody can read and enjoy Ayn Rand unless they sign up to her entire political agenda, then it stands to reason that nobody on the right is allowed to play in the Progressive sandbox of Star Trek fandom.
This is a good way to enforce tribal dividing lines. It's also a good way to make our understanding of art militantly superficial and keep us from appreciating its most profound and universal meaning.
By the end of the year, I noticed that "Mainstream art and entertainment critics are really beginning to struggle with the dogmatic didacticism that has overtaken their profession."
In the New York Times, Wesley Morris call it "The Morality Wars" and complains that, "In 2018, culture is being evaluated for its moral correctness more than for its quality."...
"The conversations are exasperated, the verdicts swift, conclusive and seemingly absolute. The goal is to protect and condemn work, not for its quality, per se, but for its values. Is this art or artist, this character, this joke bad for women, gays, trans people, nonwhites? Are the casts diverse enough? Is this museum show inclusive of enough different kinds of artists? Does the race of the curators correspond with the subject of the show or collection? Increasingly, these questions stand in for a discussion of the art itself."...
Yet I called this a struggle, because Morris still ends up paying a lot of lip service to PC didacticism.... The whole thing comes across as a kind of cultural Stockholm Syndrome, in which the intimidated art critics are enthralled by a perverse kind of loyalty to the very ideology that restricts them—and they can't really seem to imagine any other way of looking at things.
When some of these critics do manage to break free, they may find they will be joining a broad and diverse majority.
Political Correctness is not actually widely accepted in our culture, certainly not as widely accepted as it seems, but is instead driven by a small minority.
"The overwhelming majority of Americans oppose political correctness. A recent survey of 8,000 Americans reveals that people of all ages, races, and educational levels oppose it by lopsided margins. None of the demographic categories presumed to be aligned with it, or to fall within its protective embrace, actually support it. Three out of 4 black people, 2 out of 3 people with postgraduate degrees, and 78 percent of people under the age of 24 all regard political correctness as a problem. While 79 percent of white people oppose political correctness, it is Asians (82 percent), Hispanics (87 percent), and American Indians (88 percent) who are most likely to be resistant to it."...
So if Political Correctness is so unpopular, how is it becoming increasingly dominant?
"The survey's findings confirm the intuitions of those who have long regarded political correctness as what it has become: a mode of exercising power within an intramural contest between rival elites.... The only group within which a majority of respondents do not regard political correctness as a problem are those that the study characterizes as 'progressive activists,' a category that comprises 8 percent of the country. Only 30 percent of this group considers political correctness to be a problem."...
Like Soviet Communism, Political Correctness looks invulnerable from the outside because it seems so universally accepted, with courageous dissidents so few and far between—yet it can collapse in an instant when the majority lose their fear. If that could happen with Soviet Communism, which had secret police and gulags at its disposal, think how much easier it will be to escape from an oppression imposed by nothing more than the phantom fear of a Twitter mob.
Combine that with a few other stories, such as a student rebellion against PC madness at a private high school in New York City, and I can't help thinking that the worse things get, the closer we come to Peak Leftism, the point at which people begin, en masse, to find the new regime cloying and suffocating and decide they've had enough.
That is also going to require an overhaul of the technological means by which we exchange and debate ideas—which is the top story of the year. Stay tuned for the final installment of this year's countdown.