Monday, 9 July 2012

Controversy Contained

How’s this for a hot potato? Katherine Lee left her job at the Art Institute of Chicago to become director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts August 19 as Richmond was all adither over a planned museum screening of Marlon Riggs’ “Tongues Untied”, an eloquent plea to treat gay black differences in America as if they really made a difference not just a deviancy. The local PBS station, like many of its Southern peers, had already very publicly declined to telecast it. Lee did what most bureaucrats under pressure would do: she delayed the entire film series until spring of 92. But what made her delay credible was the brilliant symposium on “Art and Social Responsibility” she organized for April 25 to follow by three days the museum screening of Riggs’ controversial film. The symposium itself was a sell-out (350 participants, including many local blacks and gays) high IQ affair with nine speakers (for the Muses?) and splendid audience participation.
 It was also keynoted by the equally contentious editor of the NeoCon cultural monthly, the New Criterion. Hilton Kramer lived up to his reputation as the Peck’s Bad Boy of the Cultural Right by trashing the as yet unheard panel—for having no right wing artists on the panel and for having two constitutional lawyers who he assured the audience would have nothing to contribute to the discussion which involved moral and spiritual issues (censoring publicly funded arts programs) not legal ones. He should have done some fresh homework: one of the lawyers, Bruce Fein, was if anything more conservative than he, and indeed was counsel for those who penned the widely despised Helms Amendment.

(The only discouraging part of the day, apart from Kramer’s paradoxical close-mindedness was the way the artists and gays in the audience hissed Fein when he made points they were too intellectually lazy to contend with. They were also vocally hostile to Edward Grimsley, the editorial page editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, who made the tactical mistake of bringing humor to bear on an audience that is grimsly humorless when it perceives itself to be unloved. One retired local lawyer made the essential observation that both gays and blacks found hard to swallow: the First Amendment demands only that we tolerate dissent not that we embrace it.)
Kramer’s by now familiar indictment was that the cultural establishment in America has been taken over by tenured radicals from the Left who have jettisoned several centuries of connoisseurship in the arts for a simpleminded agenda of reducing all art to gender, class, and race issues. He offered as a disgraceful instance the art historian who disqualified herself in her own introduction as a credible witness for talking about gay black issues—because she was white, middle class, and heterosexual. It was, alas, the only believable bit of evidence he presented all day in support of his paranoid theme. When, for example, Cassandra Fletcher, a brilliant black Ph.D. who is both a VMFA docent as well as administrator at the Thomas Jefferson Magnet School for International and Governmental Studies in Richmond asked from the floor if there were not some few things to be learned from the new trends in literary studies, Kramer teetered on the brink of intellectual apoplexy when he asserted that the new trends in literary studies were worse if anything than those in art history, talking ominously about an unnamed New Criterion colleague with a fine publication record who was asked when he applied for a job in the English Department at an unnamed New York University by an unnamed member of the appointments committee whether he would vote for Jesse Jackson in the then upcoming New York primary. Kramer properly observed that this was a violation of the local equivalent of the Hatch Act. What, it seems to me, was highly improper was that his colleague never had the courage or integrity to ask that his leftist interrogator be prosecuted. Kramer seems to exculpate his right wing colleagues for their pusillanimousness by asserting that there is now rampant in the cultural sphere an insidious McCarthyism of the Left that keeps his kind of colleagues out of university positions and keeps their books from being published.
When I chided him at the first coffee break by citing recent right wing university publications on the subject, he sullenly (and silently) literally walked away. This argument by anecdotage and innuendo was a serious disappointment to me personally, a charter subscriber to his magazine “The New Criterion”, which started appearing incidentally the very month that my early retirement from teaching American Literature for thirty years began. Sadly, Kramer’s once vigorous confrontation of the more outrageous leftist idiocies (God knows there really are enough of those, and their incidence does seem to be increasing too rapidly for comfort) seems, alas, to judge from his highly uncivil Richmond performance to be declining into a whine—or, perhaps better, a whimper with less and less bang.
But Kramer’s churlishness did not even put a chilling effect on the day’s deliberations. Much credit is due to the skillful jockeying of moderator Jock Reynolds, a sculptor and public arts activist (he gave the Corcoran banned Robert Maplethorpe retrospective a venue at the Washington Project for the Arts where 49,000 visitors over a 21 day run elicited only two complaints.) Incidentally, that gay photographer remains a flash point. The conference concluded with a most eloquent plea from the floor by a self-described 90’s thirtysomething Richmond mother, Mary-Elliott Wheeler, who heartfeltly asked the panel what she should tell her teenage sons when they saw Maplethorpe’s notorious images of one man urinating into another’s mouth or the artist’s self portrait of his putting a bullwhip up his own anus. That local lawyer had it precisely right when he said we are obliged to tolerate not embrace such materials if we want to be faithful to the First Amendment. Incidentally, when I asked gay activist Chris Burnside if I could have a Xerox of the Edward Grimsley editorial he read from to test whether Grimsley would publicly recant his judgment that the Marion Riggs’ film “Tongues Untied” was “disgusting”, Burnside very unkindly refused. Heh, gay guys, when we demand public approval, we accept certain parameters of civility, no?
By far the most impressive participant was the UC/Berkeley journalism professor himself. Marion Riggs argued, unconvincingly to me, that the symposium itself was a maneuver to neutralize his message. I can only speak for myself directly, but as the straightest Roman Catholic non-nurtured (nine years at a Dominican boarding school) hetero in North America, I found his newest film (screened after his talk) “Anthem” tremendously liberating. When I retired to San Francisco, for example, I found the bourgeois-baiting public male kissing in the Castro district tremendously unsettling—as I guess it was intended to make me. But the tender foreplay of two black gays that is the leitmotif of “Anthem” was the sweetest bit of lovemaking I ever remember in the cinema. I’m not at all ready to cross-kiss myself. But my sixty year old fears and anxieties simply evaporated during the screening of that film. Its real purpose, by the way, in this centennial of the death of Walt Whitman is to ask all Americans, gay and straight, black or white, rich or poor, to create an ideal country in which differences make a difference.
South African refugee (now Columbia professor) David Freedberg gave a witty as well as wise slide show on the history of artistic censorship, beginning with the absurd tradition of Egyptian pharaohs to excise the names on the stone statues of their predecessors and replace them with their own! And concluding with the deLeninization of public statuary in the Commonwealth of individual states. Particularly pertinent was his explanation of how Catholic ideologues countered the iconoclastic bent of the Protestant Reformers by asserting that images benignly instructed the illiterate Catholic masses—as long as their fleshly contours were obliterated. (His cache of slides illustrating that strain of censorious foolishness was as hilarious as it was sad, sad, sad.)
Holliday T. Day’s contribution was geared to the then imminent appearance at VMFA of her Indianapolis Museum of Art generated exhibition “Power: Its Myths and Mores in American Art 1961-1991”. Kramer made the further mistake of trashing this unseen (by him) show based on his reading of the catalog. She shrewdly began her spiel by juxtaposing a fully clothed recumbent woman in a Chanel ad with Titian’s naked Venus corporeally deployed in the same languid manner. She then gave a marvelously convincing potted lecture on Michel Foucault. (I had just read the new biography of him with utter disbelief.) Foucault asserts that our values and perceptions of Nature are pervasively influenced by power relationships. Indeed the more widely held a belief is, the more “natural” it appears to those who uncritically believe it. She cited the example of the American family with its dominant parent/child relationships as a social relationship that is not only THE WAY THINGS ARE (or should be), but very very temporal and very very changing.

She cited the pervasive nineteenth century assumption that too much education for a female was injurious to her mental health as an example  of how socially conditioned our values are. Most interestingly, she cited the concept of “mist” in the Hudson River School as an emblem of transcendental spiritual values whilst in Chinese painting it was a metaphor for ephemerality, for the moment when airborne water evanesces. In other words she presented the kind of scholarly evidence which was distressingly absent from Kramer’s dedicated diatribes. It was a salutary comparison. As a faithful monthly reader of Kramer’s magazine, I often worried about the potential disruptiveness of those “foreign” French ideas of deconstructionism. I needn’t have. They are prolegomenon to any future metaphysics of cultural relations in a polyvalent America. Barbara Hoffman and Bruce Fein gave opposing views of the constitutional issues, and the former got huzzahs and the latter hisses, the only disturbing aspect of this conference, apart from the mendacious muddleheadedness of the Keynoter Kramer.
But the best, for me, apart from Riggs’ “Anthem”’s epiphanous effect on my attitude towards loving gay men, was Judith Wilson’s eloquent explication of her double marginality. This light skinned African American art historian from the University of Virginia has double trouble: she is too light-skinned to be taken seriously by overideologized black critics and too Afro-centered to be easily accepted by whites. But did she ever turn her losses to gains in this Battle of Richmond? She gave an in situ “performance” as a critic by showing how the white Africanist art historian Bob Thompson dealt with a similar marginality, how philosopher artist Adrian Piper devised public art interactions to turn her analogous marginality as a light-skinned black to catalytic uses, and finally how the Meyer Shapiro crowd (Exhibit A so to speak of the Art as Art school Mr. Kramer fears we are losing to our own detriment, even disaster) couldn’t deal with a black abstract expressionist like Norman Lewis because blacks were supposed to be social like Jacob Lawrence. (Heh, who do them uppity blacks think they be, getting abstract and expressionist all at once on us?)

Ditto with the post-minimalist sculptor Marvin Puryear who had to hit it big in Sao Paulo’s international biennale before the New York critics began to take him seriously—or a New York gallery would have the self-confidence to take him on. The marvelous thing about Wilson’s performance was her scholarly demeanor: she is still a learner, and she learns from questioners right before your very eyes. Hilton Kramer, to judge by his contemptibly contemptuous performance in Richmond, may never learn another new thing in his life.
 It made Alvin Ailey’s rejected biographer Peter Bailey’s allegation sound plausible: Bailey, who now freelances for a new Richmond black paper, was in New York, when the Black Movement broke the stranglehold of institutions like the New York Times on the city’s, and eventually the country’s, cultural life. Bailey contends that Kramer is malcontent because he no longer wields the life and death power he did as chief art critic for the Times. Kramer’s weak riposte was that men like Bailey could never understand someone like him who preferred integrity to power as he left the New York Times because it was beginning to treat rock music with the space and attention it used to reserve for the elite arts.

(I agree with Kramer on this issue, that our middlebrow media are stooping lower and lower to conquer more and more stupid audiences with attention spans that are measureable only in nano-seconds: but that is an issue of the collapse of our common education system caused mainly because the likes of Hilton Kramer have sent their kids to private schools for generations, ignoring the Jeffersonian warning that a democracy can be no better than its common schools. That is why the luminous performance of Thomas Jefferson Magnet School administrator Cassandra Fletcher was so heartening, an earnest of the possible reconstruction of our civil society. If such a renewal comes, and I frankly am not at all optimistic on the subject, it will come from the humanism of folks like Fletcher and Riggs not from the predictable caterwauling of bypassed people like Hilton Kramer.)

Incidentally, I think it is worth noting that Bailey is the “rejected” biographer of Alvin Ailey because he wanted to tell all the truths he had recorded in miles and miles of interview tapes with the dancer before his death but the Alvin Ailey Foundation is afraid of what such truths might do to the future funding of the dance troupe! Put your DeConned mind on that paradox, Hilton Kramer. Black culture vultures are not intrinsically better than their white counterparts. They are just bitterer, for historical reasons. And for you to allege that people like Bailey can’t understand your saintly integrity is silly poudre aux yeux. Sorry, old chap, reality has a way of passing by those who have stopped looking but not ranting. And may Katherine Lee thrive in her new role. She sure knew how to handle one very hot potato. Bless her. And Marlon Riggs, and Holliday T. Day, and Judith Wilson, and Mary-Elliott Wheeler. They’re all getting us on the right track, after years and years in the ditches of despair.
And VMFA director Katherine Lee knows how to keep a good thing going. The museum staged a follow-up conference on Saturday, November 20, 1993 on “Frames of Reference: Cultural Diversity and the Arts”. The keynote was by Mary Schmidt Campbell, Dean, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University; the curator of the allegedly politicized Smithsonian exhibition, “The West America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920,” William H. Truettner will defend himself; then the Director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, Kinshasha Conwill will speak to the subject of “Identity and Assimilation”; the afternoon will be devoted to “African Americans in Richmond History: Whose Right, Whose Responsibility?”
Dean Campbell began her talk on “Shaping the Public Sphere” by defining public sphere: it typically means two sectors—the first including any public arena, as in subways, parks, or institutions for the public such as schools, libraries, colleges, all of those mechanisms, in short, “which sustain traditions in a democratic society”, and the second encompassing the media. “When these institutions are healthy, and when the society is healthy, they are the crucible within which American culture shapes and reshapes itself. When they are unhealthy, they are barricades against which change, like battering rams, relentlessly drives itself, reflecting the battles raging in the larger society… While American public life has not deteriorated into outright warfare, the fractiousness, and the bitterness between ethnic groups are heightened by a media hungry for drama and conflict, and present nonetheless a very real danger to the health and productivity of those public institutions which sustain a healthy society.” She concluded by contending that “we have never rid ourselves of the need to demonize the other and the media has/sic/ been the chief culprit.”
Kinshasha Conwill, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, approached her theme of “Identity and Assimilation” from the viewpoint of her “culturally specific museum”, a new phenomenon (which includes Native American, Asian, Hispanic, European Ethnic, and so on, whenever a group seeks to legitimize its identity while resisting assimilation in to the larger culture). She cited some of the anomalies that ensue from a kind of Thermidor period after thirty years of revolutionary growth in these museums across America. She has run into red Indians who resent what they consider the Eurocondecension of the label, “Native American”. 

And conservatives opposed to the very concept of “culturally specific museums” point out that there is, for example, no African-American nation, no cohesive single culture, but just a mishmash of traits emerging differentially among various black groups undergoing the stressed of the diaspora. About to celebrate her museum’s 40th birthday, she believes she has to be a role model for the some 200 similar institutions which have grown up in the third generation of museum buildings since the riots of the 1960’s. These are especially hard times for CSM’s and Conwill regards it as a responsibility as the oldest kid on the block to set an example, to talk to the point of surviving the downsizing of cultural expectations in America. Katherine Lee put the CSM phenomenon in the broader context of the gradual evolution of the museum over the past two centuries as, first, a royal collection, then a public access to such private caches, followed by the emergence of the research oriented museum in the 1880’s using German methods of doctoral study, and finally the current proliferation of specialized museums for specialized interests and commitments. It is wrong to judge one kind of institution by the criteria devised by other types.
Coincidentally, the Valentine Museum, widely regarded recently as the most imaginative local history facility in the country, is staging both a traveling show from the Schomburg Collection/Langston Hughes Library/Harlem on “500 Years of African Experience in America: 1492-1992”, (a luminous explication which itself would justify a weekend in Richmond, only 256 miles south of us in Philly), and “shared spaces” a highly eloquent account of how blacks and whites shared spaces in Richmond but not lives in the period before and after Reconstruction. There is an especially harrowing (and exhilarating) account of how a certain Henry Brown, a slave tobacco worker, fled to Philadelphia in 1850 on an Underground Railroad run by dockhands and boatmen in Richmond harbor.
Thus out of that tempest in a public television teapot of the Marion Riggs Affair, Ms. Lee has managed to stimulate an ongoing dialogue on the role of the arts in our currently somewhat beleaguered egalitarian democracy. Museums, both culturally specific in Kinshasha Conwill’s formulation, and mainstream, ought to broaden this dialogue as local conditions suggest changes and diverse alternatives. We should be grateful to Ms. Lee for making such auspicious gains out of what the cynical might have too easily concluded were permanent losses at the beginning of her directorship.

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