Thoughts from Across the Cultural Divide: #12 (Unnecessary Smugness)

July 23, 2012 · Print This Article


New York Public Radio

If you’ve been reading my “Cultural Divide” contributions over the past several months, you’ve gathered that I go to great lengths to try to deliver evenhanded criticism. So much so that a few have accused me of being an apologist for everything from hunting to performance art. My on-the-one-hand-on-the-otherness isn’t a righteous stance of journalistic integrity but rather a reflection of a sincere belief that the terms of cultural difference in America stem from very basic misunderstandings about the structural composition of various cultures, which if inventoried, might bridge the widening divide.

An example: Many of my culturally agnostic New York friends adamantly oppose organized religion, yet they remain open to the most phantasmatic, shamanistic, quasi-religious conceptualism in the high cultural milieu. A Lutheran service severely disturbs their enlightened senses of rational propriety, but they’re more than happy to attempt the leap of faith needed to appreciate Richard Tuttle, Robert Wilson or Trisha Brown. Likewise, most of the parishioners at a Lutheran church in Wisconsin gladly throw their worldly faith behind a 2000 year-old fairy tale about a prophet conceived without intercourse, yet they walk into a contemporary art museum and feel a Duchampian readymade or a Specific Object by Donald Judd is part of a conspiracy dreamed up by cabals of elitist charlatans from Vassar trying to control their minds.

The two scenarios sound pretty similar to me.

The Lutheran church isn’t as religious as many would have it.

The High Art world isn’t as secular as many would have it.

Religion is culture. Culture is religion.

But none of that is my point. My point is that even though most of a particular culture’s eccentricities or attitudes can be written off to relativity, some can’t.

My wife told me last week that I came down a little hard on the tapas bar in northern Wisconsin that served jalapeno poppers and truffled popcorn. She said it was a little snotty of me and that in the process I tipped my hand a little. Sometimes a guy has to pass some judgment.

On the flip side, for the past week New York Public Radio has been running a series of commercials whose appalling arrogance makes me embarrassed to have participated in their pledge drive. It’s the kind of navel-gazing, self-satisfied righteousness that turns people off to New Yorkers and their near monopoly on advanced culture. New Yorkers have taken the blind patronage by the rest of America for granted. Sold out Broadway theaters and stuffed contemporary art centers aren’t a right, though. If New York dismisses everyone whose dinner conversations aren’t about Philip Glass, people may stop making the trip. Instead of traveling to New York for its wealth of culture, they’ll stay home and invent their own, spreading praise amongst themselves. Ever wonder why NASCAR is the most popular sport in America?

NASCAR, the most popular sport in America

As a cultural producer I’m not ready to completely alienate the 20 percent of the country who hasn’t defected to NASCAR and Captain America. We, at least I, need the 60 million Americans who might rather go to a Dodgers game, but still begrudgingly visit LACMA like a good boy eating his Brussels sprouts.

So here it goes: 15-yard penalty on New York Public Radio for Unnecessary Smugness.

(The spots are read by Stanley Tucci)

Stanley Tucci

“There are people who need you to explain things to them. They don’t understand about things like food co-ops and sleep deprivation in children.”

“There are people who count on you to be witty, at least smart. They don’t know what to think about Goldman Sachs or fracking in the Catskills. They expect you to tell them. And if you let them down, who knows what will happen to the world…or at least New York, which for some people is the world. You owe it to them to listen to WNYC all the time, so please don’t do a half-assed job, that’s not like you. WNYC. Never turn it off.”

Stanley Tucci

Thoughts from Across the Cultural Divide: #8 (Umlauts)

May 28, 2012 · Print This Article

Mos Eisley Cantina

* The country of Iceland is smaller (pop. 317,398) than Wichita, Kansas (pop. 382,368), but I can name dozens of Icelanders making avant-garde art and music and can’t name one from the entire state of Kansas (pop. 2,871,238).

I fear the culturati in New York often fetishize strangeness, obscurity and diversity – and any other challenge to homogenized, corporatized, late-capitalist existence – rather than appreciate it. I’ve said too many times in polite Northeastern company that an artist with a few of those Norwegian Ø’s or umlauts in his name has an edge in getting into a summer group show on the Lower East Side than a Molly McEverybody from Peoria.

This is obviously anecdotal analysis, and perhaps slightly cynical, if they do reflect a real trend, one needs to consider both the possibility that Kansans tend to eschew the high-cultural and that Icelanders and Norwegians actively embrace it.

Holland Cotter, one of the foremost champions of multi-everythingism in the art world, holds that the degree of cultural diversity is an indicator of its vitality. I agree, but it’s only an indicator, not necessarily a cause. Like, the number of Mercedes in a neighborhood is a good indicator of privilege, but giving a Mercedes to someone without money doesn’t necessarily make him privileged. Or, many of the best restaurants, drinking establishments and art galleries happen to be located in alternative and edgy areas, but that doesn’t mean you can serve my grandmother’s green bean casserole in a cool guy’s closet in Ridgewood, Queens and have it taste avant-garde.

I love diversity and uniqueness as much as the next guy. Probably more than the next guy. I’m writing these words from a hotel lounge outside of Toledo, Ohio that I chose by sight from I-80 based solely on the chance that it might look something like the Mos Eisley Cantina on the inside. Incidentally, it doesn’t. I’m one of three people here and the other two are a couple with matching Crocs, quietly sharing some super nachos.

On my way to Brooklyn last week in the truck I’m now returning back to Wisconsin, I stopped for an interview with a small Lutheran university. It was my second meeting. The first one was the standard HR routine; this one was for real, with the head of the art department. He had my resume on his desk and from it served up a steady stream of questions.

“Did you live in Providence when you taught, or did you drive to Rhode Island from New York?”

“I commuted. It was actually rather enjoyable. I listened to courses on tape for eight hours each week. If I had gotten credit for all of them I might have a B.A. in history from Yale.”

“Looks like you’ve been showing in New York.”

He read some of the galleries on my resume. It was clear none of them had any significance to him. It seemed only the number mattered.

“Ten shows last year, you were a busy guy.”

Was I? I felt I could’ve given him a list of ten Arena League football teams and it would’ve stood up to his scrutiny. I could’ve given him the name of ten independent coffee shops in Oshkosh and he might have hired me on the spot. Who the hell knows? If I was a Ph.D. in biochemistry we’d be discussing the same journals and publications, but not in the wild west (east) of the art world.

Maybe the milestones on my CV symbolize my migration into obscure territory  too devoted to umlauted avant-gardists and, generally, non-Kansans and non-Wisconsinites. Or maybe flyover culture is all too happy to be whitewashed. It is a fact that I graduated from Shawnee Mission South High School in Overland Park, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City packed with Costcos, PetSmarts and lots of white protestants who don’t put anything as strange as contemporary art high on their list of worldly interests. Did I voluntarily leave the reasonable center, or did they?

I was dwelling this quandary when he launched into his dismount.

“How does your faith influence your teaching style?”

I was caught off-guard but gathered myself in time to save an awkward face-off. It seems I had checked a box on the application that indicated I was a Lutheran, which is technically true through marriage.

“I believe art, like faith…like love and like golf is about withdrawal and submission. ANYONE who wants to control their way to God or art or a perfect relationship will ultimately find their own ego and not salvation.”

“I read a book about the spirituality of golf.”


Golf and Faith


It was clear my answer satisfied him profoundly.

And it disappointed me to the same depths. Not because of any indignation about my professional bona fides nor because of his faith. I’m not spiritual in any supernatural sense, but still the answer I gave him was as pure and true as anything I know. I could relate to his version of art and culture, yet I felt to him mine remained an unintelligible morass of strangely named art spaces, arcane publications, esoteric theory, obscure locations populated by heathens. I can’t decide whether this is my fault or his.