PRINT Summer 1999


bad art

IT HAS BEEN SIXTY YEARS since Clement Greenberg denounced middlebrow culture in “Avant Garde and Kitsch,” and decades since a serious defense of Greenberg’s ultra-highbrow position didn’t meet with a certain amount of eye-rolling. Despite Greenberg’s current revival in upper reaches of academia (particularly in continental art-critical circles), the moral all-or-nothing of his critical vision increasingly seems to have been permanently consigned to the dustbins of art history. The “debate” that still goes on between defenders of high culture and partisans of pop, at least as it’s portrayed in the popular press, seems like something from a low-budget movie. The elitist bad guys are easy to spot—they’re a clutch of shrivelled, high-culture snobs, whose fingerwagging disapproval makes the pleasure-affirming adventures of our pro-Pop protagonists that much more compelling.

Of course, it hasn’t been that simple for awhile, as observers of the twenty-plus-year factional debate on the left between art history’s defenders and advocates of an expanded frame of reference know, but vivid examples of the cartoon version of this curious cultural war abound. One recent dispatch from the front lines came in the form of a January New York Times Magazine feature, inspired in part by the Norman Rockwell retrospective opening this November at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, in which journalist Deborah Solomon informs us of a daring new assault on the propriety police—the vogue for (as she puts it) “Bad Art.” The idea is easy to understand: Academic art critics are finding something worthwhile in the popular, especially in Rockwell’s long-disapproved-of melodramas. This is said to represent something that is brand new: democracy in the world of high culture. Strangely, though, Solomon insists on retaining the old language of vanguardism that she believes the latest “bad art” craze has permanently discredited: She doesn’t celebrate Rockwell because of, say, any insight he might offer into middle-American life, but simply because he has never been championed by academic critics before, and wouldn’t it be “outrageous” if he were?

Solomon’s article isn’t really about “bad” art, however, which is only discussed in passing and in condescending terms (her consideration of Rockwell as “a famous square” is particularly irritating): Hers is a story about critics; about the fun-filled new world of the intellectual, playfully embracing the “bad” and yet (subversively!) still calling it “bad.” Solomon invites us to marvel at the fact that the eggheads now think highly of Disney and Rockwell where once they thought poorly; to gape at professor Karal Ann Marling, who, we learn, is a fan of Oprah; to genuflect before the “authentic voice” of Dave Hickey, whose populist credentials are summed up by the breathlessly reported fact that he lives in Las Vegas. (It apparently doesn’t matter that Marling and Hickey represent two entirely different schools of thought.)

The news is that critics have changed. They have abandoned the “snobbery of the past,” the sort of “sneering disdain” that Solomon remembers from art-history classes in college. Today, however, with all lines demarking “elite culture” being erased, they evince an “unclouded affection for American life.” The art world is going populist, rejecting hierarchies of all kinds—even the cult of expertise that upholds their own profession, which Solomon compares to “taste and rituals . . . as mysterious as those of Byzantine priests.”

Solomon is correct when she points out that the little universe of art criticism is caught up in a wave of revulsion against snobbery. In the Winter 1999 issue of Dissent, Jon Wiener reports the same phenomenon at work in three Los Angeles museums, each of them desperate to distance themselves from the “elitism” of the past. (Wiener, however, actually criticizes his subjects, excoriating a show of Disney materials curated by the very same Karal Ann Marling who is treated so reverently by Solomon.) So familiar is the flight of art-worlders from the taint of elitisms past that John Waters has already satirized it. His 1998 film Pecker mocks the urge for the ordinary by telling the story of a jolly photographer from the provinces whose everyday snapshots are enthusiastically taken up by a cast of New York critics, agents, and gallery owners. The art-world folk, of course, are high-toned blowhards gleeful over the real, bad taste of The People and the exoticism of everyday life in Baltimore.

If Waters sees the humor in the issue, others have seized on cultural populism as a new master narrative to supplant played-out tropes of nation, épater, and the onward march of the proletariat. In his 1990 book Highbrow/Lowbrow, historian Lawrence Levine asserts that hierarchies of taste and of cultural authority are essentially analogous to the most repulsive varieties of social hierarchy you can imagine, and digs up all manner of foolish and offensive remarks by various art-loving nineteenth-century Yankees as “proof.” Andrew Ross carries both the argument and the rhetorical strategy into the twentieth century in his 1989 volume No Respect, finding in virtually any expression of highbrow taste a tacit snort of contempt for The People. The dozens of recent books that include some variation of the phrase “art and democracy” in their subtitle offer the same aesthetic populism in a variety of flavors ranging from stridently anti-intellectual to pathetically self-loathing.

I have no doubt that each of these writers and thinkers is motivated by the very noblest of impulses: respect for the intelligence of common people and the desire to bring the logic of democracy to bear on questions of taste and judgment. But the actual effects of the populist turn are hardly as noble as the sentiments that inspire it. Populist language hasn’t been the uncontested property of the left since the time of Joe McCarthy, and these days any political or “democratic” claims that are made for the anti-elitist turn must be judged alongside the burgeoning field of rightwing and corporate literature, where anti-elitism also just happens to be the fantasy of the day. In recent years, capitalism has been sold to us not just as an inevitability or as fabulously productive; it’s said to be a force of irresistible democratization, leveling hierarchies and opening up to The People’s voice all manner of forums (Wall Street, cyberspace, the daily paper, the focus group) from which it was once barred. It takes just a glance through Wired magazine or a half hour with Rush Limbaugh to figure out that business sells itself today as a warrior against the snobbish; it takes even less to understand that this particular war on highbrow pretense is pretty much a sham battle, a cover for industrial kleptocracy or worse.

It’s worth recalling in such an atmosphere that the democratic version of populism—the kind that wasn’t generated outright by the media conglomerates—has traditionally been concerned above all with challenging the power of corporations. It produced critiques of the newspaper industry like Lords of the Press, and attacks on purveyors of Americana like The Disney Version. But contemporary aesthetic populism seems to run in exactly the opposite direction. Now, corporations are beyond questioning, since to do so seems to involve an elitist theory of culture in which the common people are unthinking dupes. For the populists profiled by Deborah Solomon, respecting the people means respecting their choices, and they choose Disney. What matters today are not the practices of social actors outside the art world but the attitude or “authenticity” of the critic; the result is that the political charge of populism is inverted quite magically. Its primary enemy today isn’t the culture conglomerates but the leftist critics of the conglomerates, themselves now understood as elitists snobbishly proposing that they know what’s best for The People.

Not only does the antielitist turn neatly dovetail with the corporate populism of recent years, but it also essentially endorses a nasty neoconservative theory of recent cultural history, in which a cabal of obnoxious leftists known as the “New Class” conspired to lose us the Vietnam War and then took over the institutions of education, media, and government. With liberal intellectuals cast as a “class” unto themselves, the entire post-1929 history of the United States becomes a nightmare of “elitism,” of hateful snobbery toward the ways and tastes of The People. The most important of the popular expressions menaced by the New Class, of course, is the free and unregulated market, but issues of taste run a close second, and for truly conservative critics, the two are always linked: The New Class’s snobbish disdain for John Wayne, Walt Disney, and Norman Rockwell is identical to their impulse to regulate, their sense that they know better than The People/The Market. Once critics on the left were content to answer this conspiracy theory with the simple, contemptuous obloquy it deserves: To understand what critics or artists do as an expression of “snobbery” or free-floating “elitism” is willful philistinism of the first rank. And yet, Solomon’s cast of wacky intellectuals seem perfectly willing to concede the whole affair, as long as their colleagues’ snobbery can be understood as a thing of the past—forgotten along with Clement Greenberg’s mean remarks back in the ’40s.

Thomas Frank contributes this column regularly to Artforum.