The New York art world is a special place. It attracts hopers and dreamers, of course, but it is catnip for anyone who wants to overcome conformity and let his creative juices flow freely.
The New York art world has always proclaimed itself the home to free spirits, to aspiring creative talents, to anyone who wants to escape the spirit-numbing mainstream American culture.
Or so says Jerry Saltz, an important player in the New York art world. Saltz is the art critic for the influential New York magazine. He has been featured on a television show on the Bravo network.
Lately, he has been having a problem. He has been noticing that today’s thought police have no respect for his free expression:
Flexibility is life, but lately I keep thinking that the art world has gotten a lot less flexible, and the freedom that I've always thought of as completely foundational — freedom to let our freak flags fly and express ourselves, even bizarrely — has constricted considerably. And it’s happening at such mutated and extreme rates that we must ask if the art world is not now one of the more self-policing areas of contemporary culture. How did we come to live in an insular tribal sphere where unwritten rules and rigid moralities — about whom to like and dislike, what is permissible to say and what must remain unsaid — are strictly enforced via social media and online disapproval, much of it anonymous?
Need I say, Saltz’s progressive credentials are impeccable. He does not belong to the Tea Party, God forbid!
And yet, he has recently been publicly denounced for sins against political correctness. It is ironic, Saltz feels, because he holds to all of the correct progressive beliefs.
Take his, not my word for it:
Obviously, as a good little progressive humanist myself, I love holding people accountable for prejudice and bigotry. There is genuine progressive value in that, especially these days. This is why we have to address military and campus rape, laws restricting voting, the relationship of the police to people of color (in Ferguson and everywhere else), and dozens of other issues on which righteous indignation is a weapon. But when we’re treating works of art as ruthlessly and unsubtly as we would hate speech, is it political progress or aesthetic ignorance?
For the thought police, it is not enough.
Saltz describes his ordeal:
A handful of cases in point, all from the last year (and not including being trashed for daring to call Trayvon Martin shooter George Zimmerman “psychotic” on CNN or not hating George W. Bush's thrift-store paintings).When I wrote that I didn't like phenom Oscar Murillo's gallery-filling David Zwirner chocolate factory, it was said on Twitter that I had "a brown problem"; others threw the word racist around.
Since then, I've become "sexist," an "abuser of women," and a "pervert" for posting on Facebook a graphic picture of a woman's thrashed behind. The photo was a self-portrait from one of my Twitter friends' feeds. It'd been posted proudly by her. No matter. I got scores of Facebook messages from horrified "friends," and tweets like, "What was Jerry Saltz thinking!" People stormed off the internet in disgust; letters were written to my editor demanding that I step down and asking me to "explain myself." The strange thing was that I'd already posted dozens of similar and in fact far more graphic images on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram — images from medieval illuminated manuscripts featuring men being castrated, tortured, and set upon by demons, each posted with some idiotic caption like, "This is what art critics do to bad artists." These images delighted everybody (or seemed to). But when I switched the gender of the “victim” (now female) and the medium (now photography), all hell broke loose, and the decency police descended.
Why is this happening?
It is easy to understand. The denizens of the art world are the product of America’s university system, especially its Humanities programs. They resort to name-calling because that’s what they have been taught. It’s all they know how to do.
Saltz is suffering because these programs have not been teaching liberal values. They have certainly not been teaching conservative values. They have been teaching radical values. They have taught young people that the world of art creates the real world and thus that if you want to change the world you need to change the way it is portrayed in art.
They believe that insufficient diversity results from the fact that the populace has not been exposed to a sufficient number of sit-coms and docudramas where a diverse group of people is living, working, loving and laughing together.
Humanities education does not teach people how to learn from art or literature or philosophy. It does not teach the canon of the world’s great artists. Heck, a schoolteacher in California just replaced Hamlet with a podcast called Serial.
Humanities education teaches students to conduct their own pogroms on the canon… to pick out all of the politically offensive parts and to discredit whatever other value the work might have.
The practice, otherwise called deconstruction, does not limit itself to art. It extends to works of literature and philosophy. It is even used against influential art critics like Jerry Saltz. Its manic intensity does not spare the reputations of even the most progressive art critic.
In one respect, Saltz has misunderstood this phenomenon. He calls it “conservative,” presumably in an effort to embarrass the decency police.
And yet, the prototype of the decency police exists in Saudi Arabia where they really do have a decency police and in phenomena as diverse as Ernst Rohm’s Storm Troopers and Mao Zedong’s Red Guards.
Dare I say that the Storm Troopers who set out to destroy all evidence of Jewish culture were not conservatives. They were radicals. They did not seek to conserve. They sought to destroy.
Idem for Mao’s Red Guards when they tried to destroy all vestiges of traditional Chinese culture, from Ming vases to the works of Confucius to politically offensive operas. When the Red Guards submitted party bureaucrats and even their teachers to public humiliation they were not being conservative. They were being extremist radicals. When they banned all but one book, the writings of Chairman Mao they were not being conservative. They were practicing brainwashing on a grand scale.
Saltz is correct to not that some American conservatives tried to shut down artworks that they found offensive, but, at the least, theirs was a failed crusade. Conservatives do not control the culture. They have next to no influence on it.
The radical leftist decency police rules the culture. It has not merely shut up those who disagree with it, it feels so empowered that it can even take out after progressives like Jery Saltz.
It is true that conservative forces, like the Catholic Church has put books on the Index. The church has certainly exercised an outsized influence on art.
And yet, ask yourself this question: how good was the art created under the aegis of the Christian Churches. After all, a great deal of Bach’s music accompanied religious observances. Did the influence of religion constrict Bach’s creativity? Who is a greater artist: Bach or Eminem?
Of course, the Catholic Church gave us Giotto and Duccio. Our politically correct art world has given us Jeff Koons. Take a look at some of the work and tell me whether the conservative church or the radical art world is producing better art?
For your edification:
More Jeff Koons: