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?
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)
“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.”
February 6, 2012 · Print This Article
Back in Brooklyn last week I met a couple artist friends at the Boulevard Tavern. Several beers into an informal and boozy summit to transform the mechanisms of cultural production, I made a comment about how faintly the art world registers in small town America. They agreed that this was generally true, but held that certain properties such as Jeff Koons were universally appreciated.
“Jeff Koons’ balloon dog guest-starred in “Night at the Museum” and he was married to an Italian stateswoman!”
“So what,” I barked. “If you set up an autograph table at a shopping center in Peoria and had Jeff Koons sitting there next to a B-list actor like, say, Harvey Keitel, a line would form in front of Harvey that would lead around the block and they’d think Koonsy was his assistant.”
Buddy #1 disagreed that Harvey Keitel was B-list, and I granted that he was a poor choice as an example. Buddy #2 wondered if and why anyone would line up at a shopping center for crappy celebrity autographs, and I granted that the scenario was a poor choice to reflect recognition. We were splitting hairs at that point, quibbling over semantics about what is “small town” America and what are the measures of “universality.” But even after accounting for the language slippages and fallibilities, we remained in disagreement over Jeff Koons’ esteem outside the cultural beltway.
In Wisconsin a few days later I decided to conduct a test of my hypothesis by posing the question to actual small townspeople. The test was completely unscientific; I chose my subjects from a single department of a Target store at 2PM based mostly on who seemed least likely to run away from me.
I asked a woman with a chain of Valentine’s Day lights in her hands, “Have you heard of either the artist Jeff Koons or the actor Joe Mantegna?”
“I can’t place his face but I’ve heard of Joe Mantegna. No idea who Jeff Koons is…should I have..is this a Target promotion?”
My first thought after she answered the question was that in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the average person wouldn’t be nearly so happy to interact with an inquisitive stranger or to concede ignorance.
I repeated the inquiry with seven other shoppers, one man and six women. Five yeas for Mantegna and none for Koons. Though I have some reason to believe that at least two of the subjects were confusing the star of “Airheads” and “Searching for Bobby Fisher” with a famous football player, Mantegna clearly took the round.
I left Target with some padded envelopes, a sense of triumph, and still, a tinge of dejection that the father in Joan of Arcadia was infinitely more recognizable than the most prominent living visual artist in the solar system.
Those padded envelopes were for a residency application that I was trying to get out before 5PM. When I got home, I signed my letter, wrote out the addresses on the front with a sharpie, sealed the envelope shut and walked to my father-in-law’s office to steal some stamps. He caught me rummaging through his desk drawers and, after a semi-good natured joke about my freeloading ways, handed me a book of stamps, and I headed to the post box. It was only after I fished the book of stamps from my pocket that I realized that they were Ronald Reagan commemorative stamps staring at me like it was 1983. I came so close to adhering them to the front of the envelope, but in the end, I just couldn’t bring myself to send them to what were most likely progressive liberals with personal vendettas against the Gipper.
I saved the letter for the next day, when I could buy some bells or forevers. On the way back I thought, “how self-conscious have I become that I would choose even my postage stamps with guile?” Then I immediately started resenting the art world for being shallow enough to justify my fears, knowing that a rejection due to the implications of a postage stamp was not far-fetched.
So, the question I’m proposing for the next shop-talk drinking session is whether eight Midwestern Target shoppers, ignorant to the genius of Jeff Koons, would ever think to politicize a postmark? And whether and to what degree I am paranoid.