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Thursday, December 18, 2008
The Way We Weren't: Art Under Bush
Posted by Joel Bocko at 9:08 AM
"A cloying cliché presented as profundity" - so Peter Plagens, Newsweek art critic, describes Jeff Koons' Hanging Heart and, by turn, the Bush era in Newsweek's recent article, "The Way We Were: Art and Culture In the Bush Era." One could add that it's also a particularly apt description of what passes for socio-cultural criticism these days, with the contents of Newsweek's run-down providing the latest example. The article's opening reads, "If artists depend on angst and unrest to fuel their creative fire, then at least in one sense the 43rd presidency has been a blessing." The implication is that somehow the Zeros have been a bonanza of cultural expression, angry fist-waving at our social conditions, a constant artistic outcry at the folly of our times. This is, of course, absurd, and to be fair, many of Newsweek's critics take a different tack, highlighting - as Plagens does with Koons' Heart - the ways in which glib, narcissistic, or tacky art has inadvertently reflected the ethos of the epoch. Yet even here their critique is problematic, for if the arts are thrown in the lion's den with our much-maligned president, the castigators largely refrain from applying the same vitriol towards themselves, the cultural (and mostly liberal) establishment, or us, the American people. Reading this article stirred up a variety of thoughts and feelings, criticisms which both reflected the writing and responded to it. The rest of my reaction follows after the jump.
As a mission statement, the first paragraph states, "NEWSWEEK asked its cultural critics to pick the one work in their field that they believe exemplifies what it was like to be alive in the age of George W. Bush." How these cultural critics responded to this prodding is telling, and reveals a great deal about the cultural poverty of our decade, particularly as it relates to the zeitgeist (for example, only a few of the selections were actually fashioned after 9/11). But before examining these choices, let me offer a clarification of the context in which I believe these critiques exist. I don't know what "one work" I'd pick to represent the Bush years, but I do know which phrase I would select. It isn't "axis of evil," or "weapons of mass destruction" or "mission accomplished" or even "with us or against us." It's another Bush quote, a response to the implicit question of what Americans should do after 9/11. He responded: "Go shopping."
This was one of the most consumerist decades in our national history. On the surface, there is nothing particularly wrong with this, unless you oppose a capitalist economy (which I do not). Goods are made, goods are purchased, and so forth. But our era fetishized consumerism with a chutzpah and bravado unchecked by the callous narcissism of the 80s or the braindead naivete of the 50s, both of which allowed room for critiques and subversion. The sophistication of the media and the pop culture provided ample cover for 00s consumer fetishization. After all, how can you attack a culture which already regards itself with a chuckling irony? How can you dismantle a dominant aesthetic, a slick, exclusive visual language, which receives the implicit approval of cultural standard-bearers? In the wake of 9/11, elements in the media declared irony dead. This can stand on par with Bush's "Mission Accomplished" as the one of the worst prophecies of the age. True, the 90s irony, a scruffy, lovable kind of Seinfeldian nonchalance more or less disappeared, but only so it could mutate into a rabid, snarky, empty kind of irony, a hip postmodern glee which took a once subversive idiom and turned it into a reinforcement of power.
To put it as succinctly as I can, the Bush era was defined not only by its crises, but by the way it ignored these crises' implications, the way it papered over a damaged psyche with materialistic triviality and an inability to engage with the world in a serious fashion. To say the cultural establishment was complicit in this shallow cover-up is an understatement: it was the cover-up. It continued to perpetuate and facilitate an ironic, arch tone, a glib obsession with triviality and trash, and an aesthetic elegance which achieved the weird paradox of tasteful decadence. Why was this exactly? Institutions in denial about their own impotence and humanity? The disastrous fruits of postmodern surrender? Obsession with profits and success and trendspotting? The result of a corrosion of older (perhaps outdated) values, without new ones to replace them? I'm not sure. Perhaps all of these factors combined to create a cultural establishment which resembled an ostrich whose head was buried deep in the post-9/11 ash.
Meanwhile, the American people, including me and many (though not all) of you, went along the path of least resistance. Those who did seek to protest did so in outmoded ways, trying to inappropriately reenact the 60s with marches and strident proclamations. At best, some of these folks were misguided and confused, trying to register their disbelief and anger only to find themselves unexpectedly impotent. At worst, there was a self-satisfied narcissism at work - the most resonant, and saddest, symbolism I saw during the Iraq war was a group of students who marched inside a glass university building to stage a "die-in." As they lay quietly on the steps, making their symbolic, dramatic statement, pedestrians passed by on the sidewalk, not even noticing the demonstration inside.
Many of the artistic and cultural attempts to speak out, register protest, or even (hubris of hubris) challenge the status quo followed this same pattern. One thinks of the Iraq movies, flops all, many dismantled by critics sympathetic to their cause but disbelieving the sense of self-importance and flimsiness these works conveyed. Or the controversy of a Michael Moore film, rallying the troops and preaching to the choir and notably failing in its attempt to unseat Bush. Or the cries of neo-McCarthyism which emerged when artists and entertainers like the Dixie Chicks or Tim Robbins were criticized for their opinions, as if the worst fruit of the Bush era was revealed when celebrities had to endure the insults of the rabble. In all of these examples, we see a pattern, an inability to deal with the present on its own terms - antiwar critics seeking refuge in the myth of Vietnam redux, as if the rice paddies of Southeast Asia had been transferred to the sands of Mesopotamia; angry activists trying to rally people to the streets in big "marches," which was probably the least effective place for Bush's opponents to be; wounded celebrities trying to wrap themselves in the age-old martyrdom of the blacklist. This obsession with history, as if we could only make sense of our fresh experiences with a recourse to the past (and an overly mythologized past at that) was of course reflected on the right, with the noble cause of World War II and occasionally the Cold War being the favored metaphors.
At any rate, despite all these drawbacks, one is tempted to give these critics a pass because, well, at least they tried. The rest of the decade was overwhelmingly characterized by an apathy, a self-satisfaction, and a complete disconnect. The best forms of cultural criticism emerged in "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," consistently scathing critiques of political malevolence and media idiocy, but here there was a dark side too - one often detected in the applause and laughter of the audience a disgusting smugness: well, we've clapped and chuckled, we've done our part. This emerged most discomfortingly in misplaced applause, as Jon Stewart would call the war a failure and the audience would cheer. There's a palpable borderline between relief that someone has finally stated the obvious, and short-sighted, arrogant boosterism, an "our side has won" mentality that ignores the horror of what it means to say the war is "a failure." Quite often, one could sense these audiences crossing that borderlines, and perhaps sense one's own self slipping into this realm as well.
And this brings up another point, another chink in the cultural and liberal establishment's flimsy armor. I believe George W. Bush was one of the worst presidents in history, based in large part on his decision to go to war in Iraq, the bungling of the occupation, and the paralysis when faced with Katrina. It's come to the point where the vast majority of American people agree. But let's face it, President Bush is the proverbial fish in a barrel, and what's more, he was shot dead long ago. That stinking, decaying corpse floating in the dirty water doesn't need any more bullets - could we start to look around for other targets? How about looking in the mirror?
The displacement of blame has come to rest not only Bush but on the proverbial, almost mythic "Red America" which supposedly explains his success. Let's return to the Newsweek article for a moment. Marc Peyser chooses "American Idol" as the TV show which most accurately represents the Bush years. Fair enough. The wildly popular series is often mean-spirited, vapid, and arrogant. But where does Peyser take this potential self-critique? To Red America of course: "'Idol' is the quintessential television show of the Bush era not just because it's been the most popular show of his tenure but also because of where it's popular. You'll find defenders and detractors all over the country, but this is primarily a red-state show...Whenever those elitist critics on the coasts trash 'Idol' as mediocre, middlebrow entertainment, we rally to the show's defense, whether it deserves it or not."
First off, let's take that dishonest "we." Who's "we" here? It certainly isn't Peyser, who spends several paragraphs thrashing the show, while playfully and rhetorically distancing himself from "those elitist critics on the coasts." No, "we" is those overweight, stupid, reactionary, racist, greedy, materialistic, arrogant rural folks, the kind of people who believe in Biblical literalism, play with guns, and pig out at McDonald's. When the time comes to criticize America, and not just its president, the cultural establishment is always able to turn to one portion, neatly slicing it off from the rest of us in the same fashion that the right-wing establishment does when proclaiming the virtues of the "heartland."
Let's clear the air for a moment. I find it maddening that a majority of the American people re-elected Bush in 2004. But even putting aside the fact that many Blue-Staters voted for Bush, let's look at this evil, ignorant, crass Red America for a moment. Is this really the cultural home of "American Idol"? I remember lots of New Yorkers watching the show, but never mind. The deeper, more relevant point is, do Red America's values coincide with the vapid, mushy, materialistic values of the TV show? Towns across Red America, and the rural, more conservative slices of Blue America, have been sending their sons and daughter overseas at a far higher rate than the coastal cities. At the very least, don't they put their money where their mouth is? Isn't it the overpriced, oversaturated with advertisement, superficial, trend-obsessed cities which reflect the values of "Idol"? But Peyser ignores the implications of all this to take cheap potshots at the easy targets.
Elsewhere, this projection and misplaced grievance continues. Jeremy McCarter, proclaiming a play called "Far Away" as the theater's great statement of post-9/11 America writes, "George W. Bush's presidency hasn't been especially accomplished, or ennobling, but it has turned out to be awfully fantastical. Almost by the month, things that once seemed barely imaginable became all too real: an election better suited to a banana republic than a mature democracy, airliners converted to lethal weapons (see also exploding sneakers, powdery letters of death), an American city left to drown." Notice how easily the "airliners" line is sandwiched between the (only partially) Bush-fueled disasters of the 2000 election and Katrina. Though there's nothing in this passage to directly link the president with 9/11, the defining moment of our decade is mentioned as if it's merely yet another (cue rolling eyes and flippant tone) disaster of the Bush era.
Would it kill any of these critics to mention Al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden? McCarter later throws in "fought two wars" with a list of other Bush atrocities, as if Afghanistan was part and parcel with the arbitrary invasion of Iraq or the downfall of our international reputation. Joshua Alston, in his appraisal of "Battlestar Galactica," does mention the elephant in the room, and his brief essay is one of the few to actually grapple with the complex questions of our times, rather than just wielding some Bush-bashing snark. "Battlestar," he claims (I wouldn't know) "confronts the thorny issues that crop up in a society's battle to preserve its way of life: the efficacy of torture, the curtailing of personal rights, the meaning of patriotism in a nation under siege. It also doesn't flinch from one question that '24' wouldn't dare raise: is our way of life even worth saving?"
Few of the other cultural critics grapple with this profundity, but they do occasionally skirt around the edges of the apathy which defined our decade and which primarily implicates those who disagreed with Bush. Praising Green Day's American Idiot, Lorraine Ali writes off the more thoughtful angst of Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen: "But the iPod generation—and its artists—had better things to do, like downloading a billion ringtones and partying like it was still 1999. Maybe that's why 'American Idiot' was such a bolt of lightning: not just because of the message—finally, a rock-the-boat album that actually rocked—but because of the messenger, too. The clowns finally got serious, and no one could look away." But did they? Could they?
I remember American Idiot in two installments: as it premiered in the fall of 2004, deeply tied into the upcoming election, and then later as its tunes filtered out of bar jukeboxes and in music videos on TV (one of which, though silly and maudlin, at least tried to grapple with Iraq, while the others threw up some flashy imagery and coasted on their expensive budgets). In other words, the "iPod generation" (a generational displacement now, to echo the geographical and personal ones which have preceded) might have unplugged their earbuds for a moment, but soon they were rocking away again. And within a couple years, Green Day was neutering "Working Class Hero" for the screaming teenyboppers of "American Idol."
And was American Idiot itself ever really a coherent cry of protest? I must confess I have a soft spot for it. Certain of its singles do strike a chord, albeit a confused and generalized one. Yet the majority of the album's tracks, even the evocatively titled "Wake Me Up When September Ends" don't appear to be part of any post-9/11 context, focused as they are on typical adolescent angst and alienation, and one senses that the political vagueness is not accidental. Perhaps Robert Christgau was on to something when he acidly noted, "The emotional travails of two clueless punks—one passive, one aggressive, both projections of the auteur—stand in for the sociopolitical content that the vague references to Bush, Schwarzenegger, and war (not any special war, just war) are thought to indicate. There's no economics, no race, hardly any compassion. Joe name-checks America as if his hometown of Berkeley was in the middle of it, then name-checks Jesus as if he's never met anyone who's attended church."
Nonetheless, I'd grant American Idiot an A for effort. Certain of its songs resonate and there is an obvious - if only occasional - attempt to say something, anything, instead of nothing. But we have to look elsewhere for a coherent statement on post-9/11, intra-Iraq America. Since this is a movie blog, we might as well look in the annals of cinema, right? Fat chance! If other realms provided disappointments when it came to representing the zeitgeist, the film industry proved itself a disgrace. Not only was it unable to produce more than a handful of major fictional works which even tangentially grappled with the era, it couldn't even come up with many major works to begin with. Comic-book adaptations, endless sequels, turgid remakes - these provided the lifeblood of the most unimaginative decade in Hollywood's history. Into the rubble step Evan Thomas and David Ansen, looking for pieces of the wreckage which can be salvaged.
Thomas emerges with Black Hawk Down which, like the majority of items on Newsweek's checklist, was created before 9/11. Isn't it telling that the most evocative descriptors of our national consciousness were prophets rather than witness? No matter. Thomas introduces some compelling ideas about Black Hawk which he doesn't quite follow up on (presumably his space was a bit more limited than mine...). Ultimately his statement is that Black Hawk "seemed to enhance the desire of Americans for a thumping war to avenge 9/11." He goes on to list the examples of Americans hedging on war, as new generations come of age unfamiliar with its horrors, only to discover them afresh, and see yet another generation rise in its wake, that martial spirit building again.
This is an interesting point, but hardly unique to our decade. I get the sense that Thomas punted; unable to find a film which dealt directly and evocatively with post-9/11 America, he ruminated on a larger theme which tied into the age. Fine, but hardly the stuff that "exemplifies what it was like to be alive in the age of George W. Bush." The implication, of course, being that there aren't many movies which do "exemplify what it was like." Thomas is a journalist, not a film critic, so his emphasis is understandable. Critic David Ansen goes a poppier route, selecting Borat, proclaiming that it "paints a portrait of the American unconscious that we all do our best to hide." I don't think you can take Borat's rather selective schema at face value as an accurate depiction of the American psyche, and though Ansen tries to be inclusive with his "all," the examples he provides of ignorant, embarrassing Americans are by and large Red State standbys: a used-car dealer, a gun salesman, and a Southern hostess.
Still, as Ansen observes, "What other film captured our mania for dirty linen so succinctly or caught our culture at the very moment when it seemed most eager to discard its claim to privacy?" In some ways, this is an astute pick but again, not particularly in the ways Newsweek ostensibly set out to pursue, unless Ansen follows the thread of his thought. He doesn't couple the "mania for dirty linen" with its obverse, the wilful ignorance of more important matters - neither does the film - and so Ansen's implicit social critique falls a little short. He gets half of the equation right, but until we take another step back and look at this "portrait of the American unconscious that we all do our best to hide" in the context of what we're really trying to hide, namely the repressed trauma of 9/11, the communal spirit which briefly emerged and than wilted, and the powerless culpability for an unnecessary and bloody war, we're not going to get anywhere.
Which brings us back to that "Hanging Heart." In a way, I like what Plagens is doing here, but he doesn't really follow through. He couples what he sees as the banal art-world materialism of Koons with the lazy, greedy, subtly powerful banality of the Bush administration. But wouldn't a better, more fitting analogy be a pairing of Koons' heart with the cultural establishment, whose apathy, greed, and triviality allowed Bush to roam free? Plagens writes that, "Koons likes to pretend that he's not an avatar of irony for billionaire collectors." Actually, the artistic and cultural establishment's apathy and irony greased the wheels not only for billionaire collectors and millions of consumers, but for the Bush administration's wilfully defiant acts. Bush and his cronies were the only ones in the room who seemed to care about anything, so naturally they got their way. As Plagens' Koons is to billionaire collectors, so the cultural elite is to the Bush administration.
In the past, I've been criticized for lobbing harsh appraisals of others' stands without clarifying my own position. So let me make it clear. I opposed going to war on Iraq. I found easy answers hard to come by once we were already there. I supported and continue to support the war in Afghanistain, and in broad terms the idea of a War on Terror though I vehemently oppose torture, rendition, and indefinite detention. I think that post-9/11 America presented a wasted opportunity and that the election of Obama is, in part, a displacement of our desire for change and unity 7 years ago. I think we are sweeping Bush and his "crazy base land" under the rug to avoid looking at ourselves and what we enabled. And by ourselves I mean, at least in part, myself. I did not do anything in the past 7 years that I am particularly proud of. I voted, I complained, I went about my way.
The best we can hope for now is an honest reckoning, a real awareness of where we've been and where we're going. No, we can't go back and change history, shaking our past selves out of our slumber - but we can at least grapple for the larger, more complex truth and burnish it going forward. As I see it there were three fundamental problems during the Bush administration, particularly the early years, and only one of them is tied directly to Bush himself: first, the relative minority who had a strong will to reshape the Middle East and fight the War on Terror without regard for the rest of the world or the rights of the accused; second, the inactive, distracted American culture, populated by anyone who worked in arts and the media, mired in notions of postmodern meaninglessness and obsessive materialism devoid of values, whose action may not have arrested Bush's aims, but could have at least provided a viable alternative; and finally, us, me, the American people, the masses who in fits and starts asked questions, got angry, but never cared enough to really do anything about it. If you don't fall into these categories, apologies. If you do, you know who we are. And I suspect we're in the majority.
Please leave comments below - these are just my initial thoughts on the matter, something which I'll be mulling over for years to come, as I have up to now. Certainly many of my ideas may need to be clarified and I'd be happy to do so in a lively back-and-forth. Let me know what you think.
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