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Trash in Hyperspace: Markets, Institutions, and Artistic Freedom

Post #1889 • March 7, 2021, 12:35 PM • 7 Comments

The de facto head of the New York Times is Nikole “Doxxing Reporters for Social Justice” Hannah-Jones, and the newsroom is dominated by miscreants who harangue their Jewish colleagues. Nevertheless, something resembling free inquiry sometimes escapes the paper’s internal Reichskulturkammer, such as an item sent by an alert reader in which the actress playing the lead in Isabel Coixet’s “The Bookshop” wonders why Nabokov’s Lolita has not yet been canceled. Emily Mortimer, “How ‘Lolita’ Escaped Obscenity Laws and Cancel Culture”:

...I’d been talking so knowledgeably about Lolita to the press that I was overcome with a kind of sheepish compulsion to read it again, after the fact. I bought a copy and I read it, and I realized as I did that I had absolutely and for certain never read it before. I can’t have done. Any expertise I’d claimed to have on the subject of Lolita was invented. All I knew must have come only from SparkNotes, plot summaries and crib sheets, and maybe from watching the movie. Because if I had ever read Lolita, I would have certainly remembered the experience. I wouldn’t have been so shocked and scandalized, my breath wouldn’t have been so taken away, my brain and heart and soul wouldn’t have been so twisted and fried and made to feel so sad, so upset, so elated and so blown apart all at once.

I take that as a ringing endorsement.

You can’t help wondering why the same court of public opinion that has all but canceled artists like Balthus and Picasso has spared Lolita. At a time when even a painting of a female nude is talked about as a potentially offensive political statement, how has the novel managed to avoid a searing reassessment?

With apologies for excerpting her conclusion, as the whole article is worth your attention, she answers,

Lolita makes us see with the eyes of a man who is a pedophile, a rapist and a murderer, and that’s I think the essential reason it’s escaped the harsher accusations of both the courts and the moral police in the 60 years since it’s been published. While it doesn’t apologize for Humbert’s vile transgressions, neither does it romanticize them—although Humbert himself is ridiculously romantic at times. The author forces his reader to confront, on every page, the monstrous nature of his protagonist. There is no escaping his awfulness, but we get inside his head and his heart. We end up not only empathizing with but also loving a murderer and the rapist of a young girl. And it feels really good. It feels like a deep relief. It feels exhilarating and paradoxically cleansing. Nabokov called Lolita the “purest” of all his books.

This may be quite correct, though I have an alternate explanation that does not contradict it.

Cancel culture is, foremost, a form of iconoclasm. Its chief grievances regard supposed crimes of literal, not literary, representation. Cancelers attacked Balthus for painting women of an age no longer considered to be one of consent. Cancelers attacked Dr. Seuss for racial portrayals no longer considered to be of good taste. Cancelers attacked Picasso, and later, Philip Guston, for using imagery no longer considered to be permissible to “white” artists. Cancelers attacked Robert Crumb for all of the above, and, along with Picasso, for enjoying male heterosexuality to the full extent possible. Cancel culture relates genetically to other movements of iconoclasm in which self-appointed arbiters of propriety mistook their visceral reactions for the immutable laws of the universe and applied them retroactively. Alexander Adams helpfully provides a list: the Taliban, the Nazis, competing waves of Soviets and anti-Soviets, the Maoists, too many bad actors to name in the Spanish Civil War, the Jacobins, and so on going back to ancient Egypt. They are of a type, one that free thinkers have always had to combat.

(Balthus has gone from scandalous to banal to scandalous again, and it’s worth asking whether the initial and the latter scandals caused the same kind of people to clutch their pearls. That will wait for another essay.)

A more germane question might be why Lolita has not been canceled by the same crowd on Twitter—or as I like to call it, Jack Dorsey’s Woke Fascist Panopticon—that has turned contemporary YA literature into a veritable nest of vipers. Or by Amazon, which has seen fit to not to carry Ryan T. Anderson’s When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment, Michael Pack’s “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words,” and Eli Steele’s “What Killed Michael Brown,” to say nothing of what they did to Parler.

The answer points out an important distinction between the institutions and the market. The arguments over Balthus, Picasso, Guston, and others are skirmishes in a war for control over the institutions. I have described this in “Bureaucracy, Tyranny, and Woke Aesthetics” and Elizabeth Johnson’s interview with me. There would have been real cultural power in getting Balthus knocked off the wall, had nearly 9,000 petitioners succeeded in doing so back in 2017. Obliging the museums to consider canceling Gauguin even as they exhibit him is real cultural power. Derailing the Guston exhibition was unalloyed cultural power. From this last item:

Though scathing, [Robert] Hughes did recognise the metaphorical thrust of Guston’s hooded figures, pointing out that they were “not to be taken as symbols of a pervasive present threat, but as generalised symbols of inhumanity”.

Hughes’s take is interesting, not least because, like every other critic who panned the show, it never entered his mind to question Guston’s right to create such potentially provocative imagery. Nor did he question the gallery’s right to exhibit the paintings or their responsibility to visitors who might feel offended or emotionally disturbed by the subject matter. That, in itself, may be an index of the whiteness and insularity of the New York art world of the time. Fifty years later, things have changed, if way too slowly....

Back in 1970, Willem de Kooning was one of the few present at the Marlborough opening who grasped the full import of the work. He congratulated Guston, saying: “Do you know what the real subject is, Philip? Freedom!” When Guston recounted the story later, Musa Mayer recalls, he said: “That’s the only possession the artist has – freedom to do whatever you can imagine.”

That freedom, once taken for granted as one of the foundations of artistic expression, may be in the process of becoming unimaginable. It is being challenged most urgently by those who have long not been afforded the same platform to express themselves in an art world that, for all the conversations about diversity, is still defined to a great degree by the lack of it. Belatedly those issues are being addressed, but, as the controversy surrounding Guston’s work shows, it feels as if the art can too easily be made to carry the can for the failings of the institutions created to serve it, as well as their public, in a respectful way.

This only makes sense in a battle for control of the institutions. Real, individual freedom, the kind that de Kooning was talking about, is God-given and positive-sum. It only becomes human-given and zero-sum in a collective, or a bureaucracy. I’m going to continue to insist that the institutions’ lack of identity diversity is an artifact of its lack of class diversity, and they are improving the former only in ways that minimize the latter. (The above item at the Grauniad further reveals that Musa Mayer, Guston’s daughter and a core contributor to the postponed exhibition, still doesn’t understand why the delay was deemed necessary. Her treatment is a disgrace of a severity that would justify the resignations of every museum director associated with this project.)

This hoarding of cultural power via progressive domination of the institutions is the key feature of institutional life today. B. Duncan Moench:

Confusing as it may be, woke thought is now the authorized agent of 21st-century Anglo elite norms. It has been since at least President Obama’s second term. For fun, download nearly any elite institution’s fellowship application, or instructions for a foundation grant, or higher ed faculty job post from 2013 onward. Play a drinking game with how many times the applicant is asked to explain how their work supports the cause of “social justice,” “racial justice,” “equity,” “diversity,” or “inclusion.” If you’re sober after examining more than two applications, see a doctor immediately. You may have more than one liver.

The pressure to comply has recently moved far beyond elite credentialing and philanthropy do-gooderism. Those who will not submit to the new, chic LASP [“Liberal Anglo-Saxon Protestant,” the author’s term for contemporary, racially expanded WASP culture] values accepted across the cocktail party set will be met with explosive accusations of cultural heresy and character assassination—just as defenders of the crown were during the American Revolution, allies of the kaiser (and socialists) encountered during the First World War, and “pinko communists” endured in the 1950s. We are living through yet another manifestation of Anglo Protestant moral hysteria and its fondness for blacklists—now remade in the values of the post-Christian age.

That is to say, hebephilia is beside the point. (And Balthus always denied it anyway.)

The markets are another story. The ascendant National Socialists installed party men at the top echelons of the corporations. For the 2020 election, the converse happened, as described in glowing terms by Time Magazine. Time carefully framed that effort as a fight against disinformation, but if you look at that list of recently spiked titles at Amazon overhead, it’s clear what “fighting disinformation” means to the contemporary corporation. The merger of corporate and state power, the defining condition of fascism, is something to take seriously. (Trumpism, I believe, was doomed anyway, having prompted a widespread desire for normalcy. Unfortunately, normalcy in this country means endless foreign military operations, fiscal profligacy, executive overreach, and White House-led culture wars. We’re just a balloon looking for a needle at this point. That too will have to be another essay.)

Thankfully the state remains somewhat constrained in America, notably by a Bill of Rights that certain fascists wish they could overturn. If I want to look at Balthus or Guston, my ability to do so hinges on particular museums remaining in a humanistic and liberal mood that lately they have shown less appetite for than I would like. If I want a copy of Lolita, I can drive up to Harvard Book Store—I just checked their website, they have it in stock—and be reading it by the fire by sundown. Trying to put a stop to that would force the cancelers to notice their spiritual resemblance to the perpetrators of Kristallnacht.

You can buy Ryan Anderson’s book directly from Encounter. “Created Equal” is likewise available from its creators, and “What Killed Michael Brown" returned to Prime after widespread backlash that included the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal. Even Parler is back up. (I’m at @einspruch. Also, while I’m glad that Amazon was not able, in the end, to destroy its own customer, I regard these multiple failed attempts to rout the alternative social media platforms as the social equivalent of antibiotic overuse. If you think people are talking past each other now, just wait until they’re not even using the same social mediums. This is shaping up to be a disaster.) So while the cancelers are using market power to implement cancel culture to the extent that they can muster it, it doesn’t seem to be sticking in the same way.

For a while, woke morons like Lindy West were trying to claim that it’s not censorship if a private company is doing it. This is incorrect. It’s not a First Amendment issue, as the associated rights are all described correctly as constraints upon government, but it’s patently an act of censorship. (Despite Ms. West continuing to portray herself as a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, her contributions there sputtered to an ignominious end in October of 2019, with the author still insisting that political correctness was nothing more than a “right-wing neologism” and that private companies were not censoring anyone.) It is also beside the point. Cancel culture, censorship, and iconoclasm are the three ugly heads on the Cerebus that guards cultural hell.

The salient difference here is that the market corrects in a way that the state cannot, and will not. Are the museums a product of the markets or the state? They are a Frankenstein’s monster of both—not the lumbering one from the movies but the original from Modern Prometheus, fearfully blessed with unnatural agility, strength, and insight, forced to live in the world of men but never to be one of them. Consider the Guston debacle in that light. Much remains to be uncovered about this story, but we know two things to be true. One, the cancellation originated from within the bowels of the National Gallery of Art, that is, the state. Two, it ran up against the world of individual actors, who in their protests wrestled it back to a one-year postponement, an unsatisfactory stalemate but a stalemate nonetheless. As for Balthus, Thérèse Dreaming remains on display on Fifth Avenue as of this writing, but I expect never to see another American retrospective of his work in my lifetime. (Fortunately I caught the last one.) Picasso is too great a figure to memory-hole, but for the foreseeable future we can expect to see his work conscripted into the promulgation of “chic LASP values,” as Karen Wilkin has reported.

Consider further the new digital realities. As the great hacker John Gilmore once noted, “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” Were I willing to obtain it illegally, I could acquire Nabokov’s complete oeuvre in ninety seconds. The two great counterforces of cancel culture are markets, and what we might call shareability.

As I discussed in “Bureaucracy, Tyranny, and Woke Aesthetics,” the arts bureaucracies are reaching into woke aesthetics as a preservation mechanism. The degree to which that relationship is mutually parasitic didn’t occur to me until recently, when I saw a work of woke aesthetics get put on the market and fail in a particularly spectacular fashion. Wash down a Valium or three with your favorite adult beverage, and behold one of the promotional trailers for a new arc in the Star Wars universe, dubbed The High Republic, taking place before the filmed prequels. The aesthetic program for the High Republic is saturated with golden yellow, which tends to make all within it look like the crucified Jesus in Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. I’ve watched this a couple of times without chemical assistance, and as best as I can tell, it’s about Leox Gyasi, a pilot described as “a charming rogue from the frontier” whose surname is an anagram for “is gay,” a co-pilot named Affie Hollow who is not described in any manner whatsoever (the character is female and black, and it is an established norm of woke literature that identity traits count as character traits, resulting in such characters having no distinct personalities at all; in what may or may not be an act of authorial self-awareness, her name is literally hollow), and a sentient rock named Geode that looks like an oversized tombstone and somehow serves as a navigator. In a genre that gave us the Millennium Falcon, the Enterprise, Serenity, Battlestar Galactica, the Orville, the Rocinante, the Raza, the Sulaco, and hundreds of others besides, the protagonists fly a vessel known as The Vessel. This crew of a rogue, a nobody, and a rock accept a mission to transport a team of Jedi to the outer rim of the galaxy. They encounter debris from a wreckage in hyperspace—trash in hyperspace is a thing now—and there are no consequences to this. Then... well, things happen of an unspecified nature. Needless to say, the internet is roasting this property like a pig. Woke aesthetics needs the museum to thrive.

What do we learn from all this?

While the market is not a test of truth and beauty, institutional acceptance doesn’t test for them either, especially nowadays. Artistic freedom circa 2021 is set up to thrive in the markets and wither in the institutions. Since freedom is the key necessity of greatness if not the only sufficiency, we should look for market solutions and disdain institutional ones for its cultivation. Small-scale, individual philanthropy is likely to produce better results than large-scale, institutional philanthropy. Shareability is freer than uniqueness. A generous attitude towards intellectual property is freer than a miserly one. Finally, the protection and nurturing of creative freedom against the satanic trinity of cancel culture, censorship, and iconoclasm is the supreme artistic issue of our time.



John Link

March 8, 2021, 9:34 AM

Franklin said:

Finally, the protection and nurturing of creative freedom against the satanic trinity of cancel culture, censorship, and iconoclasm is the supreme artistic issue of our time.

Myself, the major issue is making good art, of which there is not much of the visual variety these days. Film and other story telling vehicles are doing a lot better, despite the problems you cite. But it is never easy for anyone. "Creative freedom" is an issue, but not the most salient one. Artistic goodness is always the elephant in the room that is the cause of whatever worthwhile that follows, it is the cause of the causes.



March 8, 2021, 10:31 AM

I agree that artistic goodness is of ultimate importance. The goodness is what we want in the end. But while we cannot guarantee goodness in any fashion, we can to a great degree guarantee one another conditions of freedom and cultivate them for ourselves. It's hard to see how we get goodness without them. Larry Poons said something to that effect when he spoke to our art department way back when, that art school should first of all be a place of permission. Yes, there are always constraints, sometimes authoritarian constraints, and good art gets made anyway, in spite of or even because of them. But with good visual art already rare, the product of repetitive labor that hardly anyone wants to do punctuated with mysterious grace that hardly anyone achieves, it seems the least we can do shove back all of these art worlders who think it shouldn't be tried, or only attempted in certain ways.


John Link

March 8, 2021, 8:21 PM

Larry Poons said... art school should first of all be a place of permission.

I sure have seen a lot of permissions granted by art schools lately. Performative mattress carrying? A woman got credit for her senior show at an Ivy League university for doing that. Cancel culture brings a lot of that and similar permissions to the table at prestigious art schools, even as it makes some alternatives taboo, and even as some of its permissions are moot.

Ultimately Poons, like any successful artist, got to where he is by restricting what he does. I guess someone could say he had permission to impose restrictions in the manner which he did. Nothing wrong with that logically, but I don't think that is actually how it happens in artistic development.

Self-imposed restriction is the zone in which artistic character is forged.



March 9, 2021, 1:55 PM

The operative term being self-imposed. I doubt that Emma Sulkowicz would have flourished if only she had more parameters. On the other hand, I don't think Larry Poons would have become Larry Poons if he was NYU class of 2015. Talent without opportunity is like electricity without a light bulb.

...I don't think that is actually how it happens in artistic development.

Are you sure about this? I know that I go through a paring-down process on just about everything.


John Link

March 9, 2021, 4:05 PM

With respect to Sulkowicz: I am not so sure she could not have done better with restrictions from her teachers. I really don't know what she was doing other than the crazy stuff. It probably was not as irrelevant as the mattress carry.

With respect to artistic development: "permission to impose restrictions" isn't how it appears to be done. You suggest it is more instinctual and I agree. An artist directly absorbs both the restrictions and permissions that are implicit in wherever art has gotten to contemporaneously, then develops his or her own that push the cultural project to its next stage, whether creative or conservative. The greatest accomplishment of the (visual) art of our time has been to conserve what the best Impressionists produced. For example, neither Pollock nor de Kooning, good as they were, reached Monet or Matisse but they kept the spark going. The qualifier against this perhaps overly bold assertion, was the outlier Morris Louis who virtually painted in just his own cave, without much influence, despite what happened when he saw Mountains and Sea. His viewing of Frankenthaler's work clearly opened him up, but he simply used what happened that day to further his own art and avoided NY and its scene with a passion thereafter. I believe he eventually dropped Noland too. In any case, Louis holds his own when set beside any of the Impressionists.

That is a very interesting statement about Poons and the class of 2015.



March 9, 2021, 6:04 PM

There's someone else - Noland. Try to imagine his arc without his getting a GI Bill to attend Black Mountain College right at the time Albers was running it and Greenberg was dropping by with Frankenthaler in tow. If BMC is not an argument in favor of cultivating an ethos of freedom, I don't know what is.

Alas, the converse of that aphorism is also true: opportunity without talent is like a light bulb without electricity.


John Link

March 9, 2021, 6:27 PM

You are right: Black Mountain is the archetype of a good art school, to the extent an art school can be good. I wonder what happened to its "campus"?



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