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6.11.03

Popularizing the Arts

The opinions are diverse about the financial windfall from the J. Seward Johnson show at the Corcoran, discussed in my post from yesterday (Corcoran Doubles Attendance). Lenny Campello of the new Washington, DC Art News (whom I also thank for linking to Ionarts) wrote about this in a post on November 5, in which Ionarts is cited by a link as "some writers who actually liked this show." I have not actually seen the show, and I can't really say that I like it. I am more interested right now in the polemical divide in reactions to the exhibit. Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes also reacted with emphasis in bold on November 5 to my characterization of the disconnect between critics and the public on this exhibit: "The JSJ flap is not about elite art writers and art-world-types looking down their noses on the masses who like Impressionism or J. Seward Johnson." Tyler continues in a vein that seems to contradict rather than support his first statement: "Should art museums, which . . . have a quasi-academic role in the cultural discourse, put on shows of wretched stuff just to move bodies through the turnstiles? Or should they be paragons of culture? Should their mission be to share quality art with the public?" If I understand the distinction correctly, it's not that elite art writers are looking down their noses on the masses, it's that a museum, to raise its profits, is pandering to the masses with art it knows is cheesy and inferior, when they should be conscious of their role to improve the public's taste. Judging by the public reactions to Gopnik's review on the Washington Post Web site (thanks to Lenny Campello for bringing this to my attention), the masses do not feel they are being pandered to (both people who had published comments at the time of this writing gave the show four stars), but they do seem to feel like Gopnik may have been looking down his nose at them: one wrote, "I was saddened that someone would be so critical . . . I had every intention of seeing it and the review would not deter me," and the other wrote, "I won't contend that Johnson's exhibit has any redeeming artistic value, but . . . put down the pince-nez and take the toddlers" (emphasis mine).

This thread relates well to a recent book that was sent by its publisher, HarperCollins, to Ionarts for review: The Middle Mind, by Curtis White. The book has already generated a lot of interest online (as you can see by the results of a Google search on "middle mind"). You can read an excerpt of the book's first chapter and read Scott Spires's less than favorable review of the book at New York Press. White teaches English at Illinois State University and is president of the Center for Book Culture, which he runs from Illinois State. This book grew out of an essay published in Harper's Magazine (a version of this article is available online in Issue 9 of Context: A Forum for Literary Arts and Culture), a forum and length that seem more appropriate to the subject than a full book.

I will probably write more about White's ideas when I finish reading his book, but his basic premise applies to the question of the mass appeal of J. Seward Johnson's sculpture installations at the Corcoran. White uses the term "middle mind" to describe a mainstream approach to cultural issues that is broad-minded and mildly liberal but also homogenizing, sanitizing, and lacking in imagination. A couple of points really seem to rankle Curtis White, one is "that the Middle Mind is winning." That is, mass media programs like the great bugbear White mysteriously singles out as a "pornographic farce" (Terry Gross's Fresh Air on NPR) have a greater influence over popular opinion than true critics of "the academic left or ideological right" (think here of someone like Blake Gopnik). The second problem is its wide-spread appeal: "it has the most plausible claim to being the true representative of the public's opinion." The fact that mass media have merged with cultural commentary means that support of the arts that is somehow popularized is actually insidious:

The Middle Mind imagines that it honors the highest culture and that it lives through the arts. It supports the local public broadcasting station, supports the symphony, attends summer Shakespeare festivals, and writes letters to state representatives encouraging support for the state arts council. The Middle Mind's take on culture is well intended, but it is also deeply deluded.
Personally, I never listen to Fresh Air for some of the same reasons as Curtis White: "Terry Gross has no capacity for even the grossest distinctions between artists and utter poseurs. (Many of the 'writers' she has interviewed recently have been writers for TV series and movies. People who can with a straight face say, 'Seinfeld is a great show because of the brilliant scriptwriting' love Fresh Air." I enjoy watching television from time to time, but I do not want to waste any time analyzing television. The fact that television programs are sometimes reviewed now in The New Yorker, for example, strikes me as a waste of resources. However, this is more a matter of my taste than any sense of cultural value that can realistically be applied: I do like to read about film and photography, two genres that until recently had the same problems of gaining legitimacy with critics. If a book or work of art has popular appeal, is it for that reason unworthy of serious consideration? (This was not Gopnik's motivation for panning the Johnson show. He simply thinks it is bad art, which is Tyler Green's point, but they appear to be a minority.) Is it really a bad thing for more people to give money to public radio or their local symphony, to engage their politicians on behalf of the arts, or to attend plays and go to museums?

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