The Clare Spark Blog

July 6, 2014

The Hobby Lobby Decision and the War on Women

silencedwomanThree events prompt this blog today: 1. Last night I saw the much praised “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” for the first time (out of anxiety in watching a fiercely antagonistic marriage told through an existentialist lens?); 2. There was a Masters of Sex marathon in preparation for the second season starting next Sunday on Showtime; and 3. One of the panelists on Fox News Sunday predicted that Democrats would benefit from the Hobby Lobby SCOTUS decision, one that upheld the right of businesses to withhold abortifacients from their employees in the cause of “religious liberty.” This blog is definitely NOT about government forcing pro-life advocates to provide free contraception/abortifacients.

Start with Lizzy Caplan’s character “Virginia Johnson”—a witty and streetwise young woman “ahead of her time” as the show is set in the repressed 1950s, and the bohemian Virginia (a divorced ex-singer with a swing band and mother of two children) is a model of sexual freedom, outspokenness, an advocate for “women’s health”, and a reluctance to commit to bourgeois marriage. (The women’s health argument is currently featured in the talking points of liberal feminists reacting with shock and anger at the Hobby Lobby 5-4 decision.)

Which reminds me: numerous professionals on current television series are depicted as monomaniacally devoted to their professions, and wary of marital commitments (both “Alicia Florrick” and the late “Will Gardner” on The Good Wife, “ “Dr. Katherine Black” and her doctor lover on Black Box, “Olivia Benson” on Law and Order: SVU, “Meghan Draper” on Mad Men, and even “Olivia Pope” on Scandal. Is it any accident that married women or “male feminists” created most of these shows?

I have written numerous blogs criticizing the focus on sexuality to the exclusion of the context in which sex happens or doesn’t happen; I have also written about “the family” as the site of strife and even bondage—a point that is obscured by political rhetoric deploying the rhetoric of heterosexual family unity either to buttress collectivist ideology, or to fend off the decadence and poverty that conservatives attribute to illegitimate birth and mother-headed (usually minority) families.

I have also written extensively about misogyny, a neglected subject in defenses of male homosexuality, even as male critics praise film noir as their favorite genre, a genre that gloried in representations of the “femme fatale,” carrying forth the stereotype of the terrifying “woman with book” (as Leo Steinberg called her, in one of his popular lectures: I believe that the newly literate woman is one of the monsters inhabiting the Tory imagination: Woman as Jew of the Home). (See https://clarespark.com/2011/04/27/james-m-cains-gorgon-gals-2/, retitled “Film Noir decoded”.)

Also on this website, I have emphasized developments in the diagnoses of mental health problems, both aligning with and opposing the anti-psychiatry movement. I should have mentioned more frequently that individual psychiatry is no substitute for family therapy—a field that presumably closely examines how individuals in families relate to one another—or fail utterly owing to underdevelopment of the emotions in our supposedly “modern” society. Such family or couples therapy presumably avail themselves of attachment theory.

But most to the point, I have criticized the omnipresent, belabored usage of the phrase “hard work” especially as the key to achieving “the American Dream.” The subject of women’s labor in the home, with or without male participation, is rarely treated with the respect and caution it deserves: surely the second wave feminists were often on the lam and only partly deserved my scorn.

In one of my favorite episodes of Masters of Sex, Lizzy Caplan (“Virginia Johnson”) sings “You Don’t Know Me”—either a conventional love song about a triangle, or an ironic comment on a doctor lover who wants to tie her down, while her heart remains with another. She is in a booth in an amusement park, with the (temporary) boyfriend and her children looking fondly at her while she warns them through music not to presume anything about the content of her inner thoughts. (For the entire clip see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JjfQwNXSfgo.) We have always lived in hierarchies, whatever the pretensions of democratic “egalitarianism” may be. Let those higher up in the food chain beware: You don’t know me/us.

As I have said over and over, “hierarchies breed deceit.” The Woman Question may never go away; in any case, the women’s vote may well decide the next series of elections. And it will be about sexual freedom. (For my explanation of “sexual freedom” see https://clarespark.com/2014/07/08/what-is-sexual-freedom/)

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February 11, 2014

Leo Steinberg and the dilemma of the Jewish intellectual

Leo Steinberg

Leo Steinberg

Leo Steinberg, the famous and controversial art historian who died only recently, was the most cultured and brilliant of all my New York friends after my divorce in 1971. I sought him out after reading his essay on the serpentine manner in which Picasso drew or painted sensual women, an article published in Artforum in 1972. We were close friends until he died in 2011.  It was he who urged me to study antisemitism, claiming that there was no European myth of the Good Jew, an idea that I applied here: https://clarespark.com/2010/08/15/nazis-exhibit-der-ewige-jude-1937/.

I bring him up, because though he had Freudian psychoanalysis, he never escaped the specter of his famous father’s disapproval.  I. N. Steinberg, briefly in a coalition government with Lenin, was head of the Social Revolutionaries, but fled the SU in 1923 in the [surely correct] belief that his life was in danger. The socialist father never approved of Leo’s artistic proclivities, demanding that he should devote his life to the suffering masses, instead of indulging himself in drawing or the study of art and architecture. You won’t find that in Wikipedia.

After periods in Germany and the UK, the Steinberg family emigrated to America, where Leo studied both art and art history. He was a breathtakingly handsome and charismatic figure, wrote like the acculturated European he was, and never believed that he had made an impact on his profession.  Or so he told me over and over.

Isaac N. Steinberg, leader and refugee

Isaac N. Steinberg, leader and refugee

I am writing about Leo today, because he had the limitations of all academics; though world famous, worshipped, and bold, he ever viewed his life as a failure. While in graduate school, I was appalled by the timidity and narrow outlooks of my fellow graduate students, even the best of them. No surprise there, as getting a job in a semi-aristocratic profession with high status was their objective, not making waves and challenging old narratives.

scaredycatdog

Leo adapted to American life by ingratiating himself with powerful persons, and adopting their culture heroes. In a sense, he became more Catholic than the Catholics he competed with and occasionally shocked with such books as The Sexuality of Christ In Renaissance Art And In Modern Oblivion (Pantheon, 1983). (Revealingly, he refers to Catholic art as “Christian art,” as if there had never been a Reformation.) He owned eleven copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses and worshipped this author, as did his au courant contemporaries.

To return to the Jewish question, Leo showed some gumption by criticizing the martyred conceptual artist Hans Haacke, whose exhibition on the Manhattan real estate holdings of Nathan Shapolsky (a Jew), had been cancelled by the Guggenheim Museum, and the curator Edward Fry fired for protesting.

Yesterday, I picked up the catalog dealing with Haacke’s work: Hans Haacke: Unfinished Business, ed. Brian Wallis (MIT Press, 1987). Leo had the lead essay in the volume, “Some of Hans Haacke’s Work Considered as Fine Art,” briefly noting that Haacke had singled out a Jewish “slumlord” and, even when permitted to change the name of the exhaustively documented monopolist, Haacke chose the pseudonym of “Harry Schwartz.” This second Jewish name did not go over well with the trustees, so the exhibition became famous through reputation and was installed elsewhere (I recall).

Even though Leo, unlike other critics, identified the antisemitic slur in the choice of subject matter, he caved on Haacke’s later more mature work, for Leo  was a social democrat like Haacke, and a critique of antisemitism is something to be dropped or picked up on an ad hoc basis, depending on the presence or absence of top dogs.

Such is the socialization of academics in America, even tainting the one who, more than anyone else on the Left, urged me to educate myself in the nuances of antisemitism.

We are all prisoners of our context and life histories. Leo Steinberg taught me that writing expository prose was as challenging as poetry or fiction, and that it took months and years to master even one image handed down from the past.  If he was at times a scaredy cat, like other precariously situated intellectuals, I don’t hold it against him. He was my best, and most faithful mentor. I should have dedicated my book on the Melville revival to him, especially since he read Moby-Dick in a gesture of comradeship.

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