Artforum alerts us to this bit of aesthetic wisdom from the editor of The American Spectator: "Outrage at obscene photos would be a little easier to take from liberal senators if they didn't have a history of financing them. Had Robert Mapplethorpe snapped the photos at Abu Ghraib, the Senate might have given him a government grant. Jesse Helms would certainly be surprised at the moral horror on display these days in the Senate. In 1989, he asked his fellow senators to stop funding degrading photography coming out of the National Endowment for the Arts. They refused. . . Who knows, perhaps the photos from Abu Ghraib will reappear as modern art at one of the museums the senators have patronized over the years. . .The Abu Ghraib scandal did not happen in a cultural vacuum. It is a reflection of the libertine pop culture the American left has long tried to impose on a military culture it considers too 'rigid'. . . ." And Rush Limbaugh apparently added: "You can see these pictures on American websites where they win awards. These kinds of pictures with these kinds of acts depicted. They win awards. They are considered progressive, they are considered enlightened. . . ."
All of this would be just too stupid for further comment, if it didn't conveniently reveal the utter bankruptcy of what has become the "conservative" philosophy of art. (Not among all conservatives, for sure. And the far left has its own problems in coming to terms with art as well.) On the one hand, when these conservatives look at the Mappelthorpe photographs, or any other kind of iconoclastic art, all they can see is a posed rearrangement of the "real"--the depravity and the obscenity of it all, whatever aesthetic effects the artist intended to create notwithstanding. On the other hand, when viewing the Abu Ghraib photos, all they can see is the posed rearrangement, the depravity and obscenity of what really happened notwithstanding. Apparently only when a photograph is an actual record of "degrading" acts can they manage to call attention to what they can then identify as the "art" in photography, "libertine" though it may be. Art becomes reality and reality art, each act of critical appraisal, of course, determined by the political ideolgy it ultimately is meant to buttress.
A less obvious, if no less telling, strategy for insinuating a conservative critique of the arts--in this case literature specifically--can be seen in Max Watman's omnibus review of recent fiction in The New Criterion. Watman makes no explicit political judgments about the fiction he reviews, relying instead on this initial remark in the form of a thesis:
I recently saw a man wearing a t-shirt that said “I bring nothing to the table.” These t-shirts should be handed out at the orientation session of every MFA program in the country. Not as a rebuke, but as celebration and encouragement. It is not always a new angle, or a new approach, or a new gimmick that your book needs. Don’t add something just for the sake of adding. That’s destructive. How about bringing nothing to the table? How about thinking inside the damn box every once in a while?
If this were simply an exhortation to take the form of fiction seriously, to avoid extraneous tricks or "gimmicks," I might agree with Watman. But I fear it's not. It's just another attack on attempts to experiment with fiction ("new angle," "new approach"), but in this case it's also an attempt literally to banish conceptual thinking from the writing of fiction. "Thinking inside the damn box" can only mean not thinking at all.
In the rest of the review, this translates to the criticism that The Confessions of Max Tivoli is too clever, The Dew Breaker too "exotic," Little Children too jokey. The current release Watman approves of most unambiguously is Stuart Dybek's I Sailed With Magellan. Presumably this is the book in which Watman finds the least "on the table." (I don't mean to criticize Dybek, rather the way in which Watman is using Dybek's book for the larger purposes of his review.) This is Watman's conclusion:
Dybek knows the rhythm of his streets and his voices. He can put them to use. His fiction is subtle, strikingly original, and brilliant. He never pushes too hard for effect, and he never lets you down.
These are elusive stories. One is not entirely sure what to think. These days, where authorial intention and opinion are so easy to spot, where writers hang little flags on the characters they use to make points, it is refreshing to see a writer so involved in the art. He is carefully, subtly putting together human emotions, not to make a point, not to disapprove or champion, not to comment, but to illustrate.
I haven't read Dybek's book, so those who have will have to decide whether these superlatives are deserved. (I'm perfectly willing to believe they are.) And if Watman means to discourage the use of fiction for polemical and political purposes, I'm with him. But I confess I don't really know what that last sentence means. How does one "subtly put together human emotions"? Doesn't a writer put together words? More importantly, what's the difference between putting these words together "to make a point" and doing so "to illustrate?" Something has to be illustrated, and it can't be just human emotions. A story full of emotions without shaping or intention or, indeed, hanging flags on the characters, is just emotional, not necessarily artistic. Subtlety is good, but it's not inherently superior in an aesthetic sense to other effects an author might want to create. Like any other strategy, it's the means to an end.
I must say I also find it somewhat strange that critics with conservative political leanings would embrace an approach to fiction (loosely, "urban realism") that has traditionally been used most often indeed to "make points," and in fact has been associated with left-leaning writers. (I've read other reviews in conservative publications where realism has been embraced in this way as well.) Have these critics come so strongly to detest the unconventional approaches associated with modernism/postmodernism that any fiction that seems content with traditional realism gets their support? As long it's not "degrading" or "obscene"?