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« Getty vs. Acropolis | Main | Free Reads -- Dana Gioia »

October 23, 2002

Philosoblog and Envy redux

Friedrich --

Heavens! I go away on business for a couple of days and return to find all the neighbors having a party in my backyard. What fun. Did you read the comments left behind on my recent “lefties and attractiveness” posting? Good stuff! Little flurries of conversation on the topic even appeared on other blogs. What a sharp, civil and humorous bunch. Just try opening up such a subject in arty New York circles. “Civil and humorous” is not what you’ll encounter.

It was fascinating that no one saw any need to dispute my central assertion that the left has succeeded in associating itself with attractiveness, and that the right has failed to keep up. Why this should be so, whether it has any real importance, and what (if anything) might be done about it -- all that’s up for grabs. But there’s a general acknowledgement that the left not only markets itself more attractively than the right does, but has made the topic of art-and-pleasure its own.

I was impressed (as well as surprised and touched) that everyone who commented on the posting actually seemed to have read it and registered its argument. A few (perfectly civil) emails did come in from people who seemed under the impression that I was arguing something else entirely -- that lefties eat better, know what real art is, and probably fuck better too.

For the record, no, I don’t think any of that. What I was hoping to say was that lefties own the discussion on these topics. There is almost no debate about such topics as food, sex, pleasure and art whose terms aren’t dictated by the left, which means that there is no real debate on these topics. How can there be, when one of the debating teams also sits in the judge’s chair?

I was also, of course, hoping to say a few more things. One was that the left’s takeover of the topic of attractiveness is an accomplishment of some importance. Left policies and ideas have failed over and over again. How to explain the fact that, despite this, leftie-ism continues to do so well for itself? My humble suggestion? That “attractiveness” must be a large-ish part of the explanation.

It was striking that even our brainy readers seem to accept the left’s definitions of art and pleasure. To them, “art” is Chris Ofili and his elephant dung, “cuisine” is the high-strung faddish restaurants the gals of “Sex in the City” hope to get tables at. As you and I know, contemporary visual art is and can be many things -- from Southern rural “yard art” to the neoclassical “toga painting” done by graduates of the New York Academy, from marine watercolors to the latest Flash’d corporate website. It’s striking too that our visitors don’t seem to realize that “cuisine” can be home cooking, barbecue, and corn on the cob as well as Latino-Asian fusion avant-gardism.

The fact that what occurs to such a well-informed and open-minded bunch when they think “art” is Chris Ofili -- well, isn’t that yet another tribute to the dominance the left has established over the discussion of art and pleasure? As well as, unfortunately, how unresourceful the right has been in taking part in this debate? Why continue to let the Left get away with this nonsense?

Righties -- don’t avoid these topics! Quit being so damn clueless and defensive, and start defining art, pleasure, and attractiveness in your own terms!

Sorry, had to get that out of my system.

The good news is that the web is throwing the art-and-pleasure-and-attractiveness discussion wide open, and in ways no one group can control. People who are doing stuff that the media and art elite snub are finding each other and forging connections. The late-and-lamented website Arts & Letters Daily did a phenomenal job of exposing people to a wealth of often-unfamiliar points of view -- I think its birth, existence and impact are some of the best things to have happened in the arts in the last few decades. Luckily, its successor Philosophy and Literature (here) is continuing the fight. Dissidents are locating each other, minds are being opened, and art-and-thought-Kremlins are being bypassed. Let’s hear it for all of that.

If ego can be allowed to roar out of control for a second, I think you and I agree that part of the goal of 2blowhards is to hasten this process along. Wouldn’t it be lovely to play some small but helpful roll in ending the leftie-professoriat-arts-adminstrator-NYcentric-Ivy monopoly on the topics of art and pleasure?

What I’d personally like to see is healthy, even raucous debate, with lots of people from lots of points of view making tons of exceedingly good cases -- a true marketplace of ideas, work, approaches and responses. The left tends to view pleasure as an invalid in endless need of their specialized ministrations. They view the arts rather as they view poor people -- as clients and symbols. My view is: get the arts off welfare, quit making excuses for them, and treat ‘em like adults. Only that way do they stand a decent chance of flourishing.

A confession: Shhhh, but I’m not really rooting for any particular side in the debate. I’m rooting for the debate itself. I’m not a primarily political person, and the last thing I’d think of doing is submitting my art-and-pleasure interests to any kind of political check, except under the most extreme conditions. Chris Ofili? I think he’s pretty talented. But it was crazy to feature his work at that Brooklyn Museum show, and an insult to taxpayers to give him any public money. My art-and-pleasure preferences are one thing, my political preferences another.

Do you feel the same way? What's most important to me is the freedom to explore and sample. I’m a huge fan, for example, of some of the new architectural classicists, but I also adore expeditions into the East Village in search of out-there theater. Sunday was a semi-typical day: The Wife and I attended a good NYC Opera production of “Salome,” then returned home and watched animated Japanese horror-porn on DVD. Fun!

In any case, I’d like to offer thanks to everyone who dropped by. Art and pleasure mean a great deal to me, and it’s a treat to meet people who are serious, humorous and open-minded about these topics.

Many thanks especially to Jim Ryan of Philosoblog (here), who kicked this whole conversation off. Our Lousy Ivy College would have been a lot less lousy had it had a number of Jim Ryans on its staff.



posted by Michael at October 23, 2002


Well... I live in the middle of the conservative, small town South. (diverse, within its narrow boundaries) I still assert that the right defends a positive interpretation of status quo living. They won't be entering any debates on beauty and the arts, except to comment on the changing leaves in the Smokies, or the latest football victory.

The right here is SO grounded; they have a strong sense of identity from their DEEP home and community roots. From my perspective, they honestly need only a drop of novelty. The concept of beauty and pleasure doesn't seem to be an interesting topic of discussion to them. When they do discuss it, they go back to the Renaissance, when art was art, or quote from Southern Living Magazine with its "gourmet" recipes.

I have a lovely group of friends that often debates the ideas you have presented... they of course are all lefties. Personally, I enjoy the challenge of learning from both perspectives without the desire to make one more like the other. The conservative right has so much to offer. But I just don't think they'll ever play ball in the world of pleasure and beauty the way some would like.

Posted by: Laurel on October 23, 2002 10:40 PM

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