Somehow, the three new items posted at Arts & Letters Daily on Friday, December 3 seem wholly typical of the kind of commentary this otherwise useful website has favored almost since it made its appearance in the cultural cybersphere. In general, A&L Daily likes to present links to articles the editors seem to think are "contrarian," but they're really not. Most of the time they're entirely consistent with prevailing ideas among conservative writers, journalists, and academics who have themselves more or less become the established sources of opinion in a mainstream media and political culture that has been given over to conservative conventional wisdom. And it will become only more firmly embedded now that G.W. Bush has been reelected.
The first, an essay from Art News Online that would otherwise, shorn of the reactionary context a link from A&L Daily provides, seem innocuous enough, describes a return to representation among painters previously known to use abstraction. What seems to be at issue is not a rejection of abstraction per se, but the shift from one mode to the other by artists who find working in only one needlessly restrictive. The essay concludes by asserting that "Today, deciding to paint figuratively or abstractly, artists and curators agree, is no longer considered a problem. 'My own sense is that it is now a false distinction,' says Robert Rosenblum, a professor at New York University and a curator at the Guggenheim. . .'The issue is why paint at all versus whether what you paint is representational or not,' adds [Russell] Ferguson. 'If you are going to paint, paint what you want.'"
This seems to me a perfectly sensible view. Indeed, if painting has reached the stage where both representation and abstraction are seen as possible strategies to be used to accomplish particular goals, then the modernist/postmodernist "revolution" has triumphed. Painting "what you want" is now an uncontroversial approach.
But anyone who visits Arts & Letters Daily knows perfectly well that this is not the idea it wants to promote by linking to Art News. As it did vis-a-vis writers and narrative in the recent link to Julian Evans's silly essay on the "return of story," A&L Daily is instead suggesting that in returning to representation artists are perhaps now coming to their senses, have rejected all that fancy-pants avant-garde stuff and are again defining "art" as it ought to be defined: the painting of pretty pictures. This is analagous to Evans's notion that linear narrative is needed in fiction to overcome the "modernist attitudes" and "the meanness and the fear of involvement" brought on by "introspection and irony." Can't all those writers and artists just get with the program and play nice?
The second item, a Wall Street Journal article by Roger Kimball on Umberto Eco's History of Beauty, might again seem to the uninitiated a hamless enough discussion of Eco's book, except that Kimball is of course a well known conservative arts critic, writing in perhaps the foremost conservative newspaper in the country. (And both Kimball and the WSJ are frequently featured on A&L Daily.) Kimball, at least, disavows the association of art and beauty with fluff. He has much bigger ideas in mind:
Mr. Eco is ever alive to such paradoxes of beauty, its strange filiations with its opposite--the ugly--and with its explosive counterpart, the sublime, which might be described as the beautiful startled by an electric current. His book touches on the melancholy fact that much contemporary art is less about beauty than other more brittle realms of experience: "the interesting," "the challenging," "the transgressive," not to mention the perverse and the inane.
And what about beauty? We live at a time when many important words and ideas survive in maimed or diminished form. Think of what has happened to the word "virtue," for instance, or "respectable," and the realities they name. It is the same with "beauty." Sometimes it seems synonymous with the merely pretty or insipidly anodyne. The real pulse of art, of life, seems elsewhere.
Mr. Eco seeks to disabuse us of such diminishment. He does not, I believe, quote Dostoyevsky, but "History of Beauty" might be taken as an illustration of Dostoyevsky's observation that "beauty is the battlefield where God and the Devil war for the soul of man."
It's telling that in attempting to revitalize the concept of beauty, Kimball wants to connect it with "virtue" and "respectability," but what's most interesting in this passage is that after noting that many people seem to find beauty frivolous, he doesn't try to rescue aesthetic beauty from such misconceptions at all but instead quotes Dostovesky on beauty as theology. Dostoevsky? I'm admittedly less taken with Dostoevsky as a writer than most other people seem to be, but where in any of Dostoevsky's fiction is there any evidence that he cared about the creation of aesthetic beauty in the least? (If we heed Nabokov's critique of Dostoevsky as a stylist, we know he certainly had no interest in language as an aesthetic medium.) Kimball seems more concerned with religion and with abstract metaphysical doctrines than with anything that could tangibly be called beauty--in an aesthetic or any other material sense.
The third article is a straighforward political screed in which Anne Applebaum dismisses anyone who questions American policy toward Ukraine, or any other aspect of American foreign policy, as being "freedom haters" and "anti-American." Its the sort of blinkered and paranoid neocon argument to which we have by now surely become accustomed, but its appearance on A&L Daily is also entirely typical of the kind of political view this site implicitly endorses. (How often does it link to articles in Counterpunch, or even The Nation, that challenge the accepted wisdom of what has become the conservative establishment, that question such wisdom at least as vehemently as Applebaum seems to question the views of the "Western left"?) I think it would be very hard for anyone who monitors Arts & Letters Daily on any kind of consistent basis to deny that the neocon-ish sneering at the antics of "the left" represented by Applebaum's article is essentially A&L Daily's own preferred political take on current affairs.
The Arts & Letters Daily worldview seems to perceive all truly contrarian opinions and practices, whether in politics or art and literature, as the collective expressions of radical leftists and dippy postmodernists. They are approached not usually with outright scorn but with mock surprise (Can you believe these people?) and unconcealed sarcasm. Usually they are conflated, as if political dissidents and artists were all members of the same infernal club, always conspiring to undermine Western values and American hegemony. This is done both through the specific articles to which the site links and the often unfair characterizations of other articles provided by the site's own teasers. The result is a website whose motto, "truth hates delay," would appear to mean that all those enemies of truth--those who don't accept the political wisdom of the Bushworld idea men, who don't accept the reduction of art and culture to social ritual and traditional metaphysics--need to be dealt with posthaste. Because of its permanent links, and because it does still occasionally link to worthwhile items from non-mainstream sources, A&L Daily remains a site worth visiting. But in my opinion, if you think what you're getting there is an objective survey of "arts and letters," you're not paying very close attention.