The Age of Didacticism
My plan for the Culture War is that culture wins. If we have people trying to promote competing values, and we always will, at least they can promote them by creating interesting and worthwhile cultural products—art, architecture, novels, poems, movies, television, etc.—that entice us with their unique vision of how we might choose to live. But the cultural left, for all of its institutional dominance in media and the arts, is increasingly having a problem delivering the goods, and they're beginning to substitute an uninspiring didacticism for artistic creativity.
Exhibit A is Rupi Kaur, who is apparently the best-selling poet of our day. Actually, I expect that she is the only best-selling poet of our day, with her first book having sold on the order of a million copies.
We used to have best-selling poets, mind you. But as Mark Naida points out in The Federalist, for the past fifty years, poetry "has been largely confined to university English departments." Yet Kaur has managed to become famous by posting her work on Instagram, accompanied by simple hand-drawn illustrations.
The only problem? They're not really poetry.
Although her book may lead readers to read real poetry for the first time since high school, she is not really making poetry herself. She uses neither images, nor poetic devices, nor characters. She presents vacuous statements that invite readers to insert themselves. Her writing is meant to be so relatable that it becomes meaningless.
Kaur's most famous poem will give you an idea of the style:
if you are not enough for yourself you will never be enough for someone else
It's inoffensive enough, I suppose, and the sentiment has the virtue of being true. But it is stated so blandly that it sounds like a bromide from one of those old motivational posters. The drawings are pretty mediocre, too. And her style is so simple and almost formulaic that it's easy to mock.
Read more—you can get a sampling by doing a Google search on "Rupi Kaur poems"—and judge for yourself. Without meter and rhyme, without metaphor, simile, imagery, and a whole host of other poetic devices, what is there to mark this as poetry? The only thing I can think of is the lack of capitalization and the randomly placed line breaks. Yet these things serve no discernible literary purpose. The line breaks do not add to or underscore the meaning of the text. They are there only to make it look like poetry, but not to be an actual poetic device. Like many cultural products these days, it is artsy without being art.
So why are her books selling so well? Partly, Kaur's "poems" have the same appeal as those old motivational posters with their trite slogans: "Teamwork is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results." But there's a twist. Many of Kaur's poems have themes that relate to race or feminism. They're not just bromides, they're "woke" bromides—motivational posters for hipsters. Take this example:
the next time he points out the hair on your legs is growing back remind that boy your body is not his home he is a guest warn him to never overstep his welcome again
I wish I were making this up. What part of this is poetic or inspiring, apart from its superficial feminist message in the Culture War against rude boyfriends?
This is the counterpart in poetry of "Fearless Girl," a piece of mid-grade garden sculpture plunked down in front of Arturo Di Modica's "Charging Bull" on Wall Street—a publicity stunt for an investment fund disguised as a political statement about female empowerment. As my wife and I pointed out, the sculpture doesn't actually convey the intended theme and was almost certainly created for a totally different purpose. It was bought "off the rack," so to speak, and repurposed as a political statement. It's the same phenomenon: an absence of substantial or profound artistic content, compensated for by loud, didactic political messaging. We know what we're supposed to feel, whether or not the work of art actually makes us feel it.
The emptiness of Modernism, its failure to reach and inspire a wide audience, is the barren soil in which this new didactic style of art has grown. In the early 20th Century, highbrow Modern art was born in a frenzy of negation. The big new advances in poetry were the elimination of meter and rhyme. In music, it was the elimination of melody, harmony, and structure. In the visual arts, it was the elimination of realism and technical skill. In literature, you had novels without plots and exciting experiments like Beatniks writing long essays without using any punctuation. The things the Modernists negated were not unnecessary restrictions or dispensable conventions. They were the language through which works of art spoke to their audience. Without that language, art became incomprehensible and quickly disappeared from the public consciousness.
Hard-core highbrow Modernism today looks like this dance performance, a kind of Bizarro World version of the original Apple iPod ad.
2018 is canceled pic.twitter.com/85YnUEBOnU
— Ben McDonald (@Bmac0507) January 10, 2018
This'll get you a friendly write-up in the New York Times, but I doubt more than a few hundred people are likely to subject themselves to viewing it in person. (Its greatest exposure by far will be the notoriety of being mocked on Twitter.)
The NY Times caption is just as bad pic.twitter.com/OlUmbUCi1T
— Ben McDonald (@Bmac0507) January 11, 2018
Notice, though, why this gets such a nice write-up: "the work also has political underpinnings, and is a reaction to the current political climate. It's 'a real investment in making a feminist piece that empowers women's bodies.'" That'll show Donald Trump!
This is Modernism's desperate bid, in the 21st Century, to regain some degree of relevance to the culture. Empty of any discernable content or value, it fills that artistic vacuum with political sloganeering.
This is not just happening with highbrow art. We're starting to see the same complaints about the "Great Awokening" in movies and television, in which we're all supposed to choose what to watch based on its social justice credentials.
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."
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.
This approach has even filtered down, briefly, to comic books. Marvel recently cut a series of poorly selling titles that were praised by political activists for their ostentatious "diversity" but "have been widely derided on social media for being hamfisted, sociopolitically charged drivel."
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.
Good art does not have to avoid philosophical and political themes. It can certainly convey the artist's perspective, but it does so by showing us the world as seen from that perspective. It starts by showing us characters and events that are interesting on their own terms, not merely as illustrations to accompany a treatise. The wider intellectual themes should emerge from the details, not be imposed on them. Good art shows before it tells.
But not in our new Age of Didacticism. The art we're being told we have to like will lecture us endlessly and insipidly. In this phase of the Culture War, culture is losing.