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.

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March 22, 2013

“Traditionalists” on the culture front

Kinkade

Kinkade “Sunrise”

[This is the second blog that mentions Andrew Klavan. See part one of this series here: https://clarespark.com/2013/03/11/do-paleoconservatives-want-a-theocracy/.]

As if the “culture wars” had not already sown enough confusion and polarization, some “traditionalists” are now encouraging right-thinking conservatives to make popular art that would challenge what is seen as the Hollywood monopoly on popular entertainment—a mass culture with way too much sex and not enough religion. Some warriors are humorously grotesque, for instance Bill O’Reilly’s offensive on behalf of the Easter Bunny. But others on the right participate in this war against “secular progressives” while others scan high culture for salutary examples with potential to heal a sick “body politic.”  For instance, Andrew Klavan (a convert to Christianity, and an ex-liberal as well, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Klavan), who writes popular mysteries, also writes on culture regularly for Pajamas Media. Klavan deplores what he calls “moral relativism,” preferring Immanuel Kant, the ethical universalist, over godless Nietzschean Supermen and the dread (and misconstrued) “deconstructionists” whom he links to Nazism. (See his talk of March 18, 2013 at the David Horowitz Freedom Center: http://tinyurl.com/ch8ucow.)

In the high Renaissance, great artists limited their subject matter to either religious art or to naked goddesses that pleased the propensities of aristocratic patrons. Recall too that Shakespeare was a Catholic, an anti-puritan, and a proponent of the organic society.  The Reformation, then the Enlightenment, began the long road to (partial) independence for artists, and a freer choice of subject matter and (subtly limited) freedom of thought and expression.

It is my own view that any repressed human being will be unable to make anything that passes for “modern” art, and that the traditionalist artists and illustrators (like Thomas Kinkade or Andrew Wyeth that seemingly upheld either “Christian” (Kinkade) or rural values (Wyeth) may be popular among older conservatives and even among liberals nostalgic for representation, but in this age of mass media with its celebration of youth culture, the call for more conservative artists and writers will find few patrons to subsidize their neo-“puritanism” except among themselves. But then today’s “culture warriors” define themselves against “modernity” and the dissenting individual, even as they protest groupiness–those notions such as multiculturalism that are collectivist in nature. For many “libertarians” (Klavan), the goal in “speaking truth to power” is to demolish Big Government, not to criticize authoritarian institutions, whether these appear at the national, local or state level, let alone within the family. (Even moderates may call for a revitalized mass culture: see https://clarespark.com/2012/04/29/fred-siegels-melodrama-of-20th-c-cultural-history/.)

Easter Bunny

Easter Bunny

We are all anticapitalists now. Modernism in the arts participated in the degeneration narrative, for these confusingly named “modernists,” the big corporation and technological pseudo-progress were agents of decadence, producing seductive consumer goods that vitiated class consciousness.  Along with celebrities, movie stars, and journalists, were the mobs unleashed by industrial capitalism, the New Woman, and the international Jewish conspiracy. Cain’s cities therefore were the site of hyper-sexuality, homosexuality, and all nervous anxieties, to be cured by a return to Nature and/or to order and anti-secular religion. The path to neoclassical safety would be mapped by primitivists and/or neo-medievalists from Left to Right seeking to renew paternal authority in the family. (On the dangers of cities see https://clarespark.com/2009/11/19/the-scary-city-lamprecht-becker-lynd/.)

Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth “Spring” (1978)

May 28, 2011

Diane Ravitch and the higher “moderation”

Diane Ravitch with Jon Stewart, March 2011

[Added 5-29-2011: As I write this, the UFT and the NAACP are attacking charter schools and supporting multiculturalism.] Diane Ravitch (often considered the most astute historian and critic of educational reform) is now an opponent of charter schools.   This is how she ends her history of conflict in education policy in New York City:

[Ravitch, The Great School Wars, New York City, 1805-1973: A History of the Public Schools as Battlefield of Social Change (Basic Books, 1974):] “While the language of school wars relates to educational issues, the underlying contest will continue to reflect fundamental value clashes among discordant ethnic, cultural, racial, and religious groups. And this very fact underlines the importance of comity in the politics of education—comity, that basic recognition of differences in values and interests and of the desirability of reconciling these differences peacefully which the school itself aims to teach. The effort to advance comity, in educational affairs and in the affairs of the larger society, has always been at the heart of public education. Whatever their failings, whatever their accomplishments, the public schools have been and will be inescapably involved in the American search for a viable definition of community” (p.404).

Ravitch is writing from the higher moderation and hence inflicting the double bind that has been the theme of this website.  Yes, we have “fundamental value clashes”, but properly managed by a professionally disinterested elite, comity and community are attainable goals despite “discordant ethnic, cultural, racial, and religious groups.” Left out of this volatile yet potentially cooperative crucible is “class” difference. Yet it is upper class delinquency that she frequently mentions earlier in the book as the source of substandard ghetto schools in the big cities. Nowhere does she mention the unbounded search for truth as the aim of public education, nor does she criticize the notion of race, for that would offend parties to the Grand Reconciliation of E Pluribus Unum that Ravitch is advocating to the reader of her “history.” Ravitch does not want to be another Captain Ahab or any other opponent of state-imposed harmony.** Ravitch is no daughter of Eve, eating the forbidden apple of the Tree of Knowledge. Moral relativism does not disturb her sleep. Or perhaps it does, for it is my impression that she understands the contradictions in her work, but has chosen to paper them over for reasons I cannot fathom. This is a very insightful writer, and what I say here should not diminish her positive contributions.

Do I exaggerate about her moderation? Here is one section of her Wikipedia entry: “ Vincent N. Parrillo, author of Diversity in America, wrote, “She, too, emphasized a common culture but one that incorporated the contributions of all racial and ethnic groups so that they can believe in their full membership in America’s past, present, and future. She envisioned elimination of allegiance to any specific racial and/or ethnic group, with emphasis instead on our common humanity, our shared national identity, and our individual accomplishments.”

But racial theory is the sworn enemy to common humanity, let alone individuality: ask any “diversity” advocate. In the olden days when Hitler’s racial state was on the march, there was a significant debate in the West regarding the very notion of “race.” Yes, there were obvious physical variations among “races”, but to attribute common mental and character traits that were passed down through the genes was considered either proto-Nazi or misguided Lamarckianism. Even “ethnicity” was seen as a misunderstanding of the ancients (especially Herodotus), who, according to Julian Huxley in We Europeans, used ethnos to refer solely to a particular population, with no implication of national character or any other type of “national identity.”

Such beliefs in a shared bond between members of a “race” or “ethnicity” can only be mystical, not grounded in empirical fact. Yet that does not stop the “historians” of racial or ethnic conflict from writing books and playing leading roles in the formulation of national, state, and local policy, as is the case with Dr. Ravitch, or her humanist predecessor Robert M. Hutchins, whom she cites favorably in the last chapter of her big book, and in passing in other synoptic works. (See Hutchins and his colleague Paul Hoffman illustrating https://clarespark.com/2010/07/04/pacifica-radio-and-the-progressive-movement/. Also https://clarespark.com/2011/07/17/literary-criticism-ravitch-variant/.)

If such historians of education are going to do the work usually done by empiricist historians, then they should do history, not theology.** As a subsidiary issue, freedom in the classroom is at stake, namely the willingness of the teacher to encourage the full range of debate where controversial matters are concerned, even if the students do not reach an agreeable consensus or “compromise” (see “comity” one of Ravitch’s favorite words).

Ravitch wanted to bring “different” communities together, though her means remain utopian. Today, because of the alliance between radical intellectuals of the Left with militant cultural nationalists (an alliance burnished in the late 1960s, but echoing Leninism), the project of the Left and masochistic Left-liberals is no longer community control in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, but the political imperative to demonstrate that foreign and domestic policies of the U.S. government are outgrowths of some essential American project of imperialism, patriarchy, capitalism, ecocide, racism and so on as the New Americanists claim (e.g. William Spanos Jr.) against the prior notion of American exceptionalism (which had to do with advancement through merit, not hereditary status). Such are the wages of the moderate men, or, as I prefer to name them, the corporatist liberals. Instead of incorporating dissenters and other troublemakers to defuse their militancy through “inclusion,” they have yielded the field to America’s most determined enemies. And it is the latter who have rehabilitated the once discredited notion of “race.”

For a related short blog, see https://clarespark.com/2013/09/17/the-illusion-of-national-unity/.

*[Ahab speaking in “The Quarter-Deck”:] “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.”

**After many chapters relating the internal contradictions of the evolving civil rights movement (e.g., color-blindness vs. color consciousness), Ravitch ends one of her essays with this appeal to “spirit”: “As a people, we are still far from that sense of common humanity to which the civil rights movement appealed. We may yet find that just such a spirit is required to advance a generous and broad sense of the needs and purposes of American society as a whole.” (See The Schools We Deserve, p.259.) This is a thoroughly idealistic conception that there is a “spirit” or any such entity as “American society as a whole.” Ravitch reminds me of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. who fretted about the fragmentation of America, wishing for unity even as material interests drive us apart. In another book, The Troubled Crusade, she writes that ” literacy” should be the aim of education, but does not spell out whether that skill should decode propaganda and false ideas. I gather that for Ravitch, literacy signifies that knowledge that advances “the public interest.” As a fan of Hutchins, she must ally herself with the Platonic Guardians–an antidemocratic and ultimately anti-intellectual position.

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