The Clare Spark Blog

August 22, 2013

The Godfather, Jamie Wyeth Gorgon, culture wars and rustic chivalry

Jamie Wyeth unsettles Dr. Taussig

Jamie Wyeth unsettles Dr. Taussig

I was gone for a week, and ONLY 52 viewers (outside of regulars who come to the home page) came to my last blog (https://clarespark.com/2013/08/13/victor-hugos-93-and-condorcet/), which quoted from Victor Hugo’s 93. I haven’t had numbers that low since I started the website. What was unattractive about this contrast of Terror and Mercy? Was a preference for absolute standards in morality the problem? Be warned, as a historian, I understand that morality is culture-specific, though the Enlightenment popularized the notion of universalist ethics as first advanced by the early French Revolution, and before the Reign of Terror. The Enlightenment philosophes were looking to a future where all people would live in republics and abide by the rule of law.

While gone I had three or four interesting encounters with popular and high culture.

First, the New York Times article about the controversy regarding Jamie Wyeth’s long-hidden painting of a famous female doctor. See http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/18/arts/design/a-showing-for-jamie-wyeths-portrait-of-a-cardiac-pioneer.html?pagewanted=all. Helen Brooke Taussig was the subject, but when her portrait was unveiled in May 1964, male doctors/colleagues freaked out. Look at the portrait yourselves and leave comments if you care to. (Jamie Wyeth preceded by famous painters and illustrators N. C. Wyeth, grandfather, and Andrew Wyeth, father and realist painter.)

Second, I have been reading both academic and coffee table studies (written by professors here and in Germany) of the history of the movies. Before that I read a recent biography of Joseph P. Kennedy, and to leave him out of the story where dopy Jewish moguls (all by themselves) are said to have caused mass degeneracy and a misreading of history in our most popular art form, and without mentioning either Joe Kennedy, Will Hays, Joseph Breen, and the Catholic Legion of Decency, is yet another depressing episode in the cultural history we teach to our eager beaver tech-savvy children who adore images and are virtually on their own in finding out how stories and images can shape their emotions and politics. What the “history of the movies” reveals, for these liberal writers, is the inevitability of radical subjectivism, mystery, and the unknowability of even the most famous, documented lives. A running theme in many of these film histories:  McCarthyism caused brain drain in Hollywood, so the 1950s were beneath contempt, except for Vertigo (Hitchcock learned from the German refugees) and On the Waterfront (“cold war liberalism,” thumbs down on snitch Elia Kazan).

The recent film histories, obviously directed to an upper-class readership, are glitzy, often lavishly illustrated, sensitive in a superficial English major way, and hardly do justice to individual artifacts. If these English professors or culture studies specialists ever turned in such hasty plot summaries to a graduate seminar, they would possible be thrown out of school. As for film noir, blame it on the German refugees and their immersion in German Expressionism and post Great War angst, which, though partly true, does not fully explain disillusion and cultural pessimism (See https://clarespark.com/2011/04/27/james-m-cains-gorgon-gals-2/, retitled Film Noir, decoded.)

Speaking of angst, on the flight home I watched all of The Godfather  (175 minutes). Like zillions of others, I thought it was a powerful and well-made movie; I have done zero research on it yet, but here are some guesses ahead of my future study. First, it was obviously Coppola’s FU to the Hollywood system. The first villain, though not identified as Jewish, was vulgar (rather like Citizen Kane/Cain). His name was Woltz (sounds German, could be German-Jewish). The corruption of Hollywood stands for a society that is utterly bought and sold by criminal elements: politicians, law enforcement, newspapers, everybody that shapes public opinion or protects us from the bad guys: (more Citizen Kane). The transformation of war hero, Ivy-educated Michael from “civilian” to his father’s successor as head of the family “business” could signify that brutalization of the young that is said by many historians to have followed the Great War. Note that conflicts between gang bosses are always referred to as wars, not disputes between criminals. In the world we see depicted everybody is guilty, except for the women, who are merely hysterical when they are not putting up with spousal abuse or neglect. They are both protected from the world of men, or are contented to be Sicilian breeders and feeders. Finally, I noted the importance of neighborhood, religion, family and ethnicity to Southern Italian immigrants. The Godfather series came out during the height of the social policy transition from an emphasis on class, to an emphasis on the durability of ethnic ties over class ties. The Corleone family has not assimilated, and doesn’t care. They hew to the colorful ways of 19th and 20th century urban ethnics with their scofflaw patronage systems, or in the case of the Corleones, Sicilian peasants and the patriarchal system. In comes localism, radical historicism, and multiculturalism. In other mass media offerings, the demonic is celebrated, in dangerous neo-Romantic fashion, see https://clarespark.com/2013/03/30/philip-roth-the-following-and-identification-with-the-aggressor/.

Third, I found a copy of a documentary study and chronology of the Culture Wars, that covers the censorship of artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, and focuses primarily on events during the Reagan administration and the first years of Bush 41. The introduction that I raced through made the claim that the artist freedom jeopardized by right-wing kvetching about tax dollars going to the National Endowment for the Arts, was tied to working class benefits. It does have a useful chronology of government funding of the arts since the Kennedy administration, and it is something to look into. How “high art” that many Americans see as handmaidens to the wealthy became a matter of interest to the labor movement and other ‘slobs’ defies comprehension. Artist Richard Bolton explains away this seeming  contradiction, “It is more than passing interest that ‘populist’ conservatives, while rejecting ‘high culture’ in the name of the masses, also detest the popular culture–television, music, and film—commonly shared by these same masses. And in matters of policy, conservative activists and officials  have consistently opposed government programs that would benefit the typical worker….” (Culture Wars, ed. Richard Bolton, p.5) Bolton goes on to describe statist interventions against the market that ostensibly benefit the working class. In other words, Bolton’s ‘populist’ conservatives are hypocrites. Mapplethorpe and Serrano et al are the true populists.

But there was solidarity of a sort evident in the movie The Big Chill that I watched on my way back East. This cloying cluster of U. of Michigan graduates, ex-radicals who have gone bourgeois in their forties and feel guilty about it, is hardly worth mentioning, though it was interesting to see how major movie stars looked when much younger. The one Jewish character was something of a geek (played by Jeff Goldblum) whose attempts to fit in were ludicrous.

Give me Cavalleria Rusticana transferred to post WW2 America any day over 60s-70s nostalgia felt by successful hippies.  Or perhaps The Big Chill was a less obvious form of rustic chivalry as the Glenn Close character makes a gift of her husband (Kevin Kline) for a night to fertilize the egg of her chum (played by Mary Kay Place). After all, the story was set in the South.

April 4, 2010

“What is truth?”

Giotto’s Pontius Pilate

Wander about public space these days and wear dark glasses, for it is very bad out there, and friends can turn out to be bosom enemies. I cannot recall a period during my lifetime (with the exception of the 1960s) when our country was this polarized about the very meaning of words.

In the pivotal chapter of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab addresses the crew in an attempt to gain their allegiance as he pursues the White Whale, leaving commercial considerations aside. At the climax of his peroration, he declares, “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.” This is not a statement that has inspired much commentary from the academic establishment that tries to control acceptable [i.e., anti-Ahab] readings of Melville’s masterpiece, but it has inspired me for decades, and made me a renegade. In my reading, Ahab’s ruling idea is ultra-democratic and aligned with the antislavery men and women for whom the immorality of slavery was paramount. It also recapitulates the significance of popular sovereignty as partially established in the American and French Revolutions, and prefigured in the English Civil War of the 1640s. Over a period of centuries, mobs have been turned into citizens*, a process that is nowhere near complete, either in the West or elsewhere.

To continue Captain Ahab’s impudent assertion:  ruling classes, whether they were comprised of English aristocrats or Southern slaveholders who dominated the American government in the antebellum period (while Melville was writing his major fiction), could not keep their secrets from the public with impunity. (See Godwin’s Caleb Williams, a book Melville read before he commenced on his great whale hunt.) These new “levelers” (my sympathetic readers and I) expect the powerful, like all others,  to cough up the truth so that citizens may choose their representatives, not out of coercion or blind charisma, but because concrete policy, enunciated without double-talk,  protects them and helps improve their condition.

I looked for images of Pontius Pilate on the internet, and was not surprised to see a website entitled “What is truth” that asserted the subjectivity and relativity of all knowledge. That is the winning line in our age of multiculturalism, an ideology and a practice that asserts that cultural (read “racial”) differences mean just that: we cannot reach each other over the “racial” or national divide to arrive at an agreement over what is or what is not a fact, as opposed, say, to an opinion based on limited knowledge. That we are all entirely irrational is now the ruling ideology, and if you want a job in academe or wish to ingratiate yourself with the mass media establishment, you had better adhere to that line. Sadly, some persons of my acquaintance who have a background in science, seem to doff their hats to power when they leave their laboratories or classrooms. When challenged, they wash their hands and defer to force. (For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2012/06/29/the-neutered-state/.)

*Think about the title of the “greatest”  movie ever, Citizen Kane. I had focused previously on the link to Cain and the Wandering Jew myth, but the word “citizen” is ironic and suggests that the writers had a dim view of the French Revolution, emphasizing the Terror as its essential gesture, rather than the movement away from absolute authority toward popular sovereignty.

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