'Privileging' Postmodernism: There Are Facets of Contemporary Culture That Not Even a Jonathan Swift Could Satirize

By Will, George F. | Newsweek, February 5, 2001 | Go to article overview
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'Privileging' Postmodernism: There Are Facets of Contemporary Culture That Not Even a Jonathan Swift Could Satirize


Will, George F., Newsweek


The word "privilege" has become a ubiquitous verb in commentary, part of the patois of cultural theorists who say things like, "Hegemonic phallocentric bourgeois culture privileges white male art at the expense of the marginalized." There are facets of contemporary culture that not even a Jonathan Swift could satirize.

While repairing the stone floor at Houston's Museum of Fine Arts outdoor sculpture garden, workers put a velvet rope in front of a bronze bas-relief piece to protect it and secured the burlap with duct tape. Wind pulled loose a corner of the burlap, exposing about 30 percent of the piece. An executive of the construction company described what his crew heard some museum visitors say:

"For about half an hour they discussed the deep symbolism and implication of the artist having covered his work in burlap and why he allowed the public only partial access to what was there. They waxed long and hard about the appropriateness of the texture of the burlap in relation to the medium used. And what the use of the velvet rope meant in juxtaposition to the base materials of the burlap and duct tape. And the cosmic significance of using degradable materials to hide the true inner beauty."

The confusion was understandable, given what many art museums have become, partly because of the National Endowment for the Arts. If you care about the condition of the culture, read Lynne Munson's mesmerizing book, "Exhibitionism: Art in an Era of Intolerance." Munson, who worked at the National Endowment for the Humanities when Lynne Cheney was chairman, provides much more than a tour of NEA inanities (although the jacket photo is the "performance art" of an NEA grantee wearing a hula-style skirt of dollar bills, his wrist attached to a bank door by a string of sausages). Munson targets the intolerance of the postmodern art establishment. It is intolerance of the West's cultural patrimony, intolerance masquerading as egalitarianism.

The NEA has preferred video and "performance art" to painting and sculpture, which supposedly are suffering "historical exhaustion" and reinforce "hierarchies of the past." Postmodernists dislike the "white cube" of gallery space, which they think implies that art is "difficult." They like, Munson says, making art out of "opinions and unfiltered experience," making esthetic concerns subservient to social critiques. Increasingly, museums and art schools disparage what used to be their raison d'etre, the cultivation of connoisseurship.

Connoisseurship assumes that high-quality art is rare, rather than equally common to all cultures. Connoisseurship assumes that excellence in art can be defined and identified by scholarly judgments that are more than political acts or manifestations of cultural biases. Connoisseurship assumes that esthetic values have ethical force--that high art is elevating, that it pulls those who comprehend it up from the everyday. Hence the serious symbolism of the steep, stately flights of steps by which visitors used to ascend to a typical museum of fine arts.

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