Art Attack

By Torri Still and Anne Diffily / May / June 1998
December 28th, 2007
nce upon a time an artist could work alone on a poem, painting, or play and know with some certainty that it would be loved and understood by a like-minded audience. But if such a world ever existed, it vanished long ago. Instead - as the eighteenth Providence Journal-Brown University Public Affairs Conference demonstrated in late February - the arts have become a battleground of the culture wars. Government officials, businessmen, teachers, foundation directors, and - oh, yes - artists skirmish not only over such basic questions as what constitutes good art, but also over who should pay for it, what messages are appropriate in it, and where and when kids should be exposed to it. The title of this year's conference may have been "The Arts in America," but it was the subtitle, "Creativity and Controversy," that more accurately summed up the week.

Kicking off the five evenings of panels, speeches, and readings on February 23 was Time art critic Robert Hughes, who set a provocative tone by describing himself as an unrepentant elitist. The author of The Culture of Complaint, in fact, called not for an end to elitism, but for an infusion of it into art criticism, which, he said, has become diminished by identity politics. Hughes stressed that art should be judged by the "skills, talents, and imagination of the artist." Judgment, he added, should not be tinged with "the odious brush of gender and racial discrimination."

Shana Harvey '99 and Adam Arian '99 performed a snippet of Sweeney Todd on the first night of the Arts in America conference.

Hughes suggested to the overflow audience in the Salomon Center that the constraints of identity politics reach far beyond the field of art criticism. "The air is full of declarations of identity and victim status: `It's a black thing, a white thing, a woman thing,'" he said. Such an approach is "a substitute for thought." The problem, he argued, is "too many artists for the base to support." Artists whose work is unrecognized attribute it to racism and sexism, but not all artists are wrongly ignored. "Most art made by blacks and Asians is mediocre," the Australian native asserted, pausing for dramatic effect. "Most art made by whites is mediocre. Under the rubric of self-esteem, we are supporting ethnicity and difference rather than looking for true excellence."

Hughes complained that the "elitist" label - a term he has come to embrace - is an equal-opportunity epithet, employed by everyone from Newt Gingrich to "left-wing performance artists." He continued, "To be called an elitist today is like being called a communist sympathizer forty years ago. It requires no proof. Both sides use it, but it is an unexamined term." Judgments of quality, he said, are now seen as undemocratic, but as a critic "some things do just turn you on. It's your duty to explain why."

By the time Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky walked onto the Salomon Center stage on February 27, the audience was ready to hear something a little different. They had heard about politics from Frank Hodsell, the former director of the National Endowment for the Arts; about education from Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Education Constance Bumgarner Gee; and about good and bad art from an entire panel of newspaper critics. Now they wanted some art.

Square-jawed, with cropped salt-and-pepper hair, Pinsky looked and sounded like a smart street-corner philosopher. For the next hour, wearing a dark collarless shirt and black jacket, he delivered poetry and wit in the blue-collar locutions of his native New Jersey.

U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky ends the Arts in America conference by reading from and discussing his work.

Two opposing motivations fuel the creative impulse, Pinsky began. On the one hand, art represents an effort to please people. "`I made this, Mom,'" he joked, imitating a child holding out a crayon drawing. "And then [Mom] puts it on the refrigerator." But artists are also rebels, he continued. In his own case, as a teenage saxophonist he was angry with a society that didn't value "sensitive young men" as much as macho athletes. "My history as a writer has been trying to be cussed, trying to argue back," he said.

Pinsky's poetry goes beyond cussedness, however. A renowned translator (most recently of Dante's Inferno) and professor of creative writing at Boston University, he writes verse filled with both historical references and descriptions of everyday objects. In "Shirt," one of the poems he read in February, Pinsky began with a list of garment components - "The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams..." - and detoured into a riff on a 1911 New York City factory fire that killed 146 sweatshop workers:



The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out

Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.


In some of his poems, Pinsky reimagines people and events. In "From the Childhood of Jesus," he imagines Joseph scolding the five-year-old Christ for playing on the Sabbath and then Jesus turning on another boy who thoughtlessly wrecked the miniature dam he'd built in a stream. Pinsky describes a furious Jesus, "his child's face wet with tears," putting a terrible curse on the other boy, who withers before the families' appalled eyes. Later that night, "alone in his cot in Joseph's house, the Son/of Man was crying himself to sleep."

At his best, Pinsky wrestles the past into the present, describing and confronting it, discovering unexpected connections. "The shopping mall is precisely and equally as historical as Florence," he insisted, urging young writers to see the timeless in the timely. "Thousands of years of history are playing a chess game against you. Now, it's your turn. That's art: `I'm going to make a move against history.'"

What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
May / June 1998