By Isaac Butler
Claudia La Rocco has a new blog post up pushing the ball a little bit further forward in talking about politics, representation and art, specifically w/r/t Seminar on Broadway (a play I have not seen and thus cannot address the content of). She is responding to a comment left by David Cote over at Rob W-K's place in which David writes:
Re: Claudia’s piece on Seminar. Agreed. Of course, I’m on record as having loved the play as a well-oiled entertainment. I didn’t interrogate the material’s sexual politics, which means I didn’t get them or I endorse them, I guess.
I find it interesting that Claudia, who normally reviews more experimental, interdisciplinary work for the Times, should hold a new mainstream play up to such standards of social-ethics role-modeling. It’s a satirical comedy, not a position paper on feminism. Characters might say sexist or piggish things; does that make the play sexist? The men are not glorified; they are just as flawed as the women.
To which Claudia responds:
So, obviously David and Rob and I disagree on Rebeck’s treatment of her characters. For me, the two central men are absolutely glorified, and the women are marginalized – one of them is a mere sex-object sketch, hardly developed at all, and the other is in the end dispatched as a lesser artist. (Not to mention the gratuitous nudity and gendered language.)... I’m totally confused as to why it should be an issue that a critic “hold a new mainstream play up to such standards of social-ethics role-modeling” – shouldn’t this be exactly what critics do? Writers working on Broadway wield a lot more power than writers working on position papers, after all.
I find myself disagreeing with both writers. I think the dichotomy Cote sets up here (if I understand it properly, which i may not, I haven't had my morning coffee yet) and that La Rocco assents to-- one in which the politics of a work are either (a) ignored or (b) interrogated as "social ethics role-playing"-- is a false one. The politics of a work of art can be interrogated without necessarily demanding that they reify one's view of how the world should work.
I happened to be talking to a student about this yesterday, and brought up the example I always bring up in these instances: Dune. Dune is a novel that comes out the same year that the pill is introduced into the marketplace and that positions as the its true villains not the fascistic, cruel Harkonnen, but rather the Bene Gesseret, a society of psyhcic women who control the Universe through deciding when they will have children.
I think that's worth interrogating for a bit. Part of having a rich and complex understanding of Dune is thinking about the implications of that world-building choice and talking about how there's a kind of panic at women gaining more control over their bodies that runs throughout the book.
Talking about this is not the same thing as dismissing the book due to its politics. Talking about this is also not the same thing as demanding that the book should've been changed to reflect your own world view. Talking about this is rather about discussing the book as it is, clear-eyed and honestly, including what about it is problematic. In just the same sense that we would disucss aesthetics aspects of the writing that may not work.
Now there are times that a work of art crosses some sort of line, one in which its politics begin to distract or undermine the artistic project at hand. I'm thinking here of the misogyny of John Updike's The Centaur, where women are either the source of all pain or they are sex objects, or the racism of Philip Roth's American Pastoral. Obviously, this line is a personal one (I've debated that second example many, many times). It's a kind of political taste. But again, talking about how you find the politics of a work disasteful enough that it impacted your opinion of the work is not the same as demanding art simply enact some idealized form of how the world should work, or reflect your politics back to you.
It can turn into that, however. There are people who encounter art who are simply looking to have their own view of the world reinforced. They have a kind of ideological checklist that they bring with them and their experience of art is one of perpetual paranoia and terror. They are always seeking the moment when a work of art will betray them and threaten them. On some level, they relish these moments, because it gives them an opportunity to grand-stand, but on some level it is often because what they really want from art is a kind of cocoon that they can enter to protect them from the world, often because the world is genuinely threatening to them.
This paranoid impulse towards art thrives on the internet, and it is one that we must move beyond. It also-- for the more politically minded critical writers amongst us-- is an impulse that must be interrogated within ourselves when we start talking about the politics (and particularly the representational politics) of a work of art.
I often find myself applying this test to see if something is worth dismissing: If it was a choice between this work of art never existing or this work of art existing in this way with X problematic politics, what would I choose? I'm not saying censor the work of art. I'm saying as a thought experiment. What if it didn't exist in the world vs. existing in this way?
For example, The Wire is one of the greatest work of American narrative art of the past few decades. But the fifth season is a massive letdown and although it sort of tries with Kima, women's stories get seriously shortchanged in its very very male world. Given a choice, however, between a world without The Wire and a world with The Wire complete with problematic fifth season and Bechdel-test-failing, I choose the latter, enthusiastically. The 300 is a tasteless film with terrible, offensive politics. Beyond demonstrating both of those points, I don't find it worth talking about in greater depth or with any complexity. It is a work whose politics are odious enough that (for me) it crosses a line where it can be dismissed out of hand. Given a world in which The 300 never existed, or one in which our nation finally made its Triumnph of the Will, I'll take the former. But there are very few works that exist on that side of the ledger for me.
I actually think a similar test can be performed when one is deciding whether a work of art is worthy of the hatchet and the flame thrower in a review. Given a choice between Spider-Man TOTD 1.0 never existing or existing in the way it existed, I chose the former, which is part of why I felt comfortable writing about it like this. I think a similar (if unconscious) calculous may have informed Cote's decision to put Rabbit Hole on blast all those years back (which, sadly, I can't find a link to as TONY has changed their url formatting a few times since then).
I think critics can-- and should-- talk about the politics (both implicit and ex) of the work they encounter, even (especially?) the mainstream, well-oiled entertainments. My bias is always towards complexity in these matters. I think people who reduced The Social Network to discussion of its sexism for example, were both sort-of right and totally missing the point at the same time. TSN was a film that was, amongst other things, attempting to portray and interrogate a deeply misogynist milieu. It made certain chocies in pursuit of that (cutting all meaningful female characters out of its story, showing scenes of misogynist undergraduate revelry but framing them with horror film lighting and music so that they become repulsive, etc.) that are complicated and don't always work. And the ways those choices do or don't work or conflict with one another is a genuinely interesting thing to explore.
Of course, it's genuinely interesting because The Social Network is a really well-made, complex film and so what's flawed about it in some ways becomes part of its value because those flaws become an opportuntiy for further examination, an invitation to get closer to it as a work of art that works and doesn't as all art works and doesn't.
I don't think talking about the political flaws of a work is (or should be) demanding political perfection-- or a positive model for how the world should work-- in just the same way that talking about the aesthetic flaws of a work isn't demanding aesthetic perfection, partially because we know the latter is impossible and should know the former is too. In other words, there's a spectrum going on here. It ranges from work that really doesn't deserve much more than dismissal because its politics are so odious and overwhelming to work where the politics embedded within the piece begin to distract or undermine the works artistic project-- this can be true with politics you agree with as well as in Kushner's Bright Room Called Day-- to work where the politics function more like bad prop design, they're there and weird and should be discussed, all the way through infinite other gradations to hey this is doing something really interesting politically and that's part of what I like about it, works like Baldwin's Another Country or Heartbreak House.
And then we have those other kettles of fish. Like the cultural context of when a work was created and whether that matters or not, or rather when it matters and when it doesn't. And on and on and on.
As a postscript: One of the interesting points that Cote brings up is that he didn't interrogate the piece's politics in part because he was enjoying it so much. He (in a moment I'm guessing of self-depricating humor) writes that that must be because he was agreeing with them. I actually think what he raises there is another really interesting layer to this whole thing. If you're having a blast with a work of art, really digging it, really loving it, than often both its flaws and its politics (not saying they're the same thing) become invisible. So part of what's going on here is that well-made art in a way justifies itself. To move totally away from politics for a second: A good work of art that wears its influences on its sleeve is reconfiguring and remixing the history of the form while a bad one is derivative, etc. Part of why Claudia may be interrogating the politics of Seminar sthat she didn't like the play as much as David did.
And of course there's the final (for now) layer, which is that interpretations of a works politics, like all exercises in interpretation, are sites of conflict. Claudia sees the play as troulbingly sexist, both because of the behaviors it endorses and because of its representations of its female characters. David and Rob, at least on the first point, disagree, believing it demonstrates certain behaviors without endorsing them.