he word “masterpiece” ought by all rights to be under assault, since it is, in the current parlance of political correctness, gender-specific. Yet it continues to be used widely, albeit in ways that would puzzle art lovers of the past. I recently Googled “masterpiece,” curious to see how it had been used in the preceding month. It was, not surprisingly, employed to describe such various works as Haydn’s Creation, Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel,” and Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. But it was also applied to dozens of pop-music albums, among them the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and Radiohead’s Kid A, and movies as dissimilar as Captain America: Civil War and Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, as well as the Audi 8 automobile, Disneyland, Nintendo Game Boy, a 1959 hairdryer designed by Richard Sapper, and a four-hitter pitched by Chris Sale of the Chicago White Sox.
In addition, I ran across the definition of “masterpiece” found in the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary: “Something made or done with great skill, esp. an artist’s greatest work.” This is the usage with which educated people over the age of 50 are most familiar. It implies that the artist in question is the sole creator of at least one work of high art that is thought to be of permanent interest. This usage is embodied far more often than not in the works chosen for inclusion in “Masterpiece,” a weekly Wall Street Journal column that has in the past year featured George Balanchine’s Serenade, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna, and Shakespeare’s Cymbeline—but also the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” a 1967 record described by Allan Kozinn as “one of rock’s most enduring masterpieces, a rich-textured, dark-hued four-minute essay in musical and lyrical psychedelia that both captures and transcends its time.”
Nowadays, it seems, anything and everything can qualify as a masterpiece: a hit single, a theme park, even a video game. And while the artistic merits of some of these objets d’art can be defended, it is tempting to suggest that the word itself has become, like “fascist” and “racist,” devalued by indiscriminate usage to the point of vacuity. But most people still feel the need for such a word in everyday discourse, which suggests that the idea of the masterpiece has not yet been emptied of meaning. Its meaning, however, has shifted—and this shift is not merely a function of our increased willingness under the aspect of postmodernity to take the fruits of popular culture as seriously as we do high art.
Most under-50 art lovers take pop culture very seriously indeed. So they should, not merely because it is popular but because so much of it, especially in this country, is so good. It may well be that our popular art is on balance of higher quality than the “serious” art of the present moment. True or not, a case can certainly be made that the best popular art has long aspired to, and often attained, a degree of aesthetic and emotional seriousness that is comparable to all but the greatest works of high art. Anyone who doubts the merits of (say) a rock album like the Beatles’ Revolver, a movie like Chinatown, or a TV series like The Wire is simply not paying attention to them. Like the masterpieces of earlier eras, these works infuse familiar forms and materials with a creative energy that allows them to transcend their mundane origins. They are, in the poetic sense, elevated, and to experience them elevates us.
Yet they still differ from their predecessors in a way that is fundamental, not superficial. Nor am I referring to the fact that they are less ambitious, be it in their structure (no rock musician has ever successfully engaged with the problem of large-scale organically developed form) or their genre-bound subject matter (most of the best TV series of the past decade have been about crime). No, something else distinguishes these “masterpieces” from their high-art counterparts, something that is implicit in the very act of their creation—and is central to the nature of pop culture itself.A
s the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary reminds us, the word “masterpiece” once referred to the single greatest work of a master. (The French equivalent, “chef d’oeuvre,” literally means “leading work.”) A master was an artist ranked among the outstanding figures in his medium, a creator of all-encompassing technical skill and, even more important, a uniquely personal, immediately recognizable creative vision. Today’s museumgoers have no trouble identifying the styles of Raphael or Rembrandt, even though both men maintained workshops in which some of “their” paintings were executed in part or whole by other hands. Long before the atelier system began to die out, the individuality of such artists was already acknowledged as central to their significance, and it became paramount once it was taken for granted that a truly great painting or sculpture would always be the unaided work of the artist who signed it.
When, in the 19th century, the novel emerged as the dominant form of literary narrative in the West, its practitioners emulated this model, as did composers of classical music. No one helped Tolstoy write War and Peace, any more than Beethoven used an orchestrator for his Fifth Symphony. Even in theater, by definition a collaborative art form, critics and audiences alike viewed the playwright (or, in opera, the composer) as chiefly responsible for the works for which he received principal credit.
But then came Hollywood movies, commercial products manufactured not by individual artists but by teams of artisans whose members collaborate so closely that it is often difficult to the point of impossibility to ascribe principal creative credit to any one of them. Even in the case of a distinguished film like Chinatown, it can prove unexpectedly hard to say “whose” work it is. Roman Polanski directed Chinatown, but the project was conceived by Robert Towne, who wrote the screenplay. At that point, though, Polanski cut and edited the script extensively and insisted over Towne’s objections that the film end tragically. In addition, Chinatown was scored by Jerry Goldsmith, whose brooding music is central to its total effect—and he was hired not by Polanski but by Robert Evans, the producer, who brought him in at the last minute after scrapping the original score. Who, then, is the “author” of Chinatown? No one, in the usual meaning of the word. It is the result of a collective process of creation, a masterpiece without a master.1
It makes sense that Hollywood, with its quasi-industrial methods of production, should have become the center of an industry devoted to mass-producing such products. American culture, after all, was—and still is—essentially popular. Not only is our high art shallowly rooted in the culture at large, but modernism, with its pronounced tendency to sacralize and hermeticize art of all kinds, alienated the baby boomers, many of whose parents, raised on the accessible middlebrow art of World War II and the postwar era, had once aspired to higher things. Not so their children, who mostly preferred the more immediately palatable fruits of pop culture. As a result, movies had by the ’60s supplanted the novel as the master narrative medium in American art, just as younger music lovers turned away from classical music to embrace rock-and-roll—a music created in the same way as are movies.
We are seeing a permanent diminishment of the place of the masterpiece in American culture—which may help to explain the extraordinary appeal of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s HamiltonAllan Kozinn’s Wall Street Journal column about the making of “Strawberry Fields Forever” is a case study of how a record by a rock group embodies a collective artistic vision rather than an individual one. While John Lennon was solely responsible for the words and melody of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and sang all of the vocal parts heard on the record, the instrumental backing, which is no less crucial to the song’s artistic effect, was improvised in the studio by all four Beatles, then extensively elaborated after the fact by George Martin, their producer. Martin wrote and scored the overdubbed orchestral accompaniment and was also responsible for the overall structure of the record, which he created in the control room through tape editing. Hence “Strawberry Fields Forever” is “signed” not by Lennon but by the Beatles as a group.
One can see a similar process in TV series, which are written not by one person but by staffs of writers who work on individual episodes under the supervision of a “showrunner,” usually the same person who devised the original concept for the series and who typically writes the first and last episodes of each season. The Wire is credited to David Simon, its “creator” and executive producer, who came up with the idea for the series, wrote many of its episodes (usually in collaboration with other writers), and served as showrunner throughout its five-season run. But The Wire, though it bears Simon’s unmistakable imprint, is not “by” him in the same way that Angels in America is by Tony Kushner or Nighthawks is by Edward Hopper. It is, rather, a collectively created work of popular art—almost an assembly-line product.W
here will the increasing cultural dominance of such collective forms of creation ultimately lead us?
It is important to keep in mind that novels and live theater were not killed off by the rise of movies and TV. They have simply reverted to their “normal” place in the culture, which at midcentury had been grossly inflated by the coming of what I have elsewhere called the “middlebrow moment” in American life. Even after that moment was over, first-rate novelists continued to find publishers, and first-rate playwrights are still able to get at least some of their work produced. And while fewer serious artists can now make a living doing what they do best, it is possible, at least for the moment, for certain of them to use pop culture to subsidize their highbrow activities. Tony Kushner pays the rent by writing films like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, and no one criticizes him for doing so, any more than William Faulkner was criticized for working on The Big Sleep.
Nevertheless, something is bound to be lost in a culture where the best-known art is created collectively for commercial purposes rather than being motivated solely by the individual artist’s own need for self-expression. For all their self-evident excellence, movies like Chinatown and Francis Ford Coppola’s first two Godfather films and cable-TV series like The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Justified are all thrillers of one kind or another. To be sure, they use the familiar conventions of genre fiction to explore many other aspects of American life, but somebody almost always gets shot in the last reel, just as a pop song, no matter how well-crafted and emotionally moving it may be, is rarely ever more than four minutes long.
The very best modern American artists, by contrast, have not accepted the narrow restrictions imposed by pop culture. They go their own way—and do their own work. Not only are novels like Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, plays like Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, musical compositions like Aaron Copland’s Piano Sonata, paintings like Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, ballets like Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, and buildings like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater more expressively ambitious than their popular counterparts, but they were not conceived collectively. As a result, they reflect in every way the creative visions of their makers, whose styles are personal to a degree that no collectively made work of art can hope to rival. They are masterpieces in the purest sense of the word.
Man cannot and need not live by such masterpieces alone, so long as he never loses sight of what makes them masterly. But that is what seems to be happening under the aspect of group-made pop-culture art. Indeed, it is possible that we are seeing a permanent diminishment of the place of the masterpiece in American culture—which may help to explain the extraordinary appeal of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. Not only did Miranda write the show’s music, lyrics, and book, but he is its star as well. Might it be that Hamilton has been so successful in part because it is not a collectively made work of art? For in the end, there can be no fully satisfying alternative to the unswervingly personal interior vision that is and will always be the mark of the masterpiece. If we are henceforth to do without such works, then we will surely be the lesser for it.
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‘Masterpieces’ Without Masters
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A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find that kind of unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.