November 2, 2007

Anti-intellectualism in America?

Anti-intellectualism in Popular Culture

copyright 2007

“Intellectuals in the twentieth century have thus found themselves engaged in incompatible efforts: they have tried to be good and believing citizens of a democratic society and at the same time to resist the vulgarization of culture which that society constantly produces. It is rare for an American intellectual to confront candidly the unresolvable conflict between the elite character of his own class and his democratic aspirations” Richard Hofstadter

The painting above, “Artist Cannibals” was inspired by my looking at a horror film, which I should never do. Stylistically it was also inspired, I think, by some of the colors and compositions I saw recently at the “Cats on a Leash” exhibition in Columbia.
I had just finished a complicated commission and sought some evening relaxation at the television. I only have minimal cable so there was not much variety to choose from. PBS is the only really worthwhile program but on this particular evening there appeared to be a dry spell there as well - so it was back to surfing the waves of popular culture. Although I am not very enthusiastic with what comes down the pipeline of mass media culture, I cannot resist peering in to that pipeline regardless - and most of the time of find it relaxing and entertaining. Who can resist Super Nanny placing recalcitrant children into the “naughty chair” to calm them down and give everyone else a break? I think of many adults I know who should be sitting there. But this particular evening I watched disjointed patches of the horror movie, Hannibal. I watched it in snippets because a good portion of it was so revolting that I had to avert my attention to items on other channels. The story line wasn’t much disrupted by my doing so - just more killing and eating with overt sexuality upon my return.
I sat entranced - or should I say entrapped- by a particularly horrifying episode in which the evil genius Hannibal drugs an FBI agent and performs impromptu brain surgery on him. How a fugitive from justice obtains the drugs and equipment to do that is perplexing to say the least. But that little oversight aside, we are treated to a feast of cinematic gore in which Dr. Hannibal Lecter removes parcels of the hapless FBI agent’s brain and cooks them up in a convenient portable skillet. The Doctor then feeds them back to the victim who enthusiastically praises the Doctor’s cooking skills. As the victim consumes more and more of his own brain, he becomes progressively more stupid. It literally made me gag. Sorely regretting that I had watched this and wondering how I would ever sleep that night, I went to bed and tried to put it out of my mind. The following morning, however, the unfortunate memory of the movie I saw the night before haunted me again as I was cutting up some walnuts for baking. The walnuts started to look like little brains to me. I definitely should not watch horror movies.
But as I reflected on the movie with several hours of the rawness removed, I realized that there was something more than gore that left me with a bad taste. The film Hannibal creates an evil protagonist with painstaking details and it was these details that were so disturbing for a number of reasons, both personal and philosophical. The film carefully crafts a character, who, in addition to his penchant for killing and eating people, is an educated, urbane, gentleman with a fondness for gourmet food, opera, and art. We see his letters to the FBI agent Clarisse illustrated with his virtuoso renderings of figure drawings that would make a Michelangelo proud. We watch as he attends the opera, dressed to kill, so to speak. And he is never far from caviar.
In this film, the psychotic psychiatrist Dr. Lecter is an ex-patriot fugitive residing in Florence, Italy. He works in a library that boasts exquisite architectural details and classical sculpture amid anxiety-provoking poor lighting. For a victim who he ends up disemboweling and hanging, he does research in this library’s archive first to turn up a drawing of the victim’s ancestor, who was hanged in the piazza in a similar fashion. He does this so that he can give the victim a little art history slide lecture before killing him. One wonders why a supposedly highly trained law enforcement professional would be meeting someone he knows is a serial killer in isolated dark places without backup and persistently turning his back to him - but that’s American cinema.
In the final scene, after he has just exercised his culinary skills on a human brain, Dr. Lecter is on a flight, no doubt to some new European country where the people are artistic and cultured but inept at catching criminals. He has eluded authorities once again - free to star in more sequels. As a young boy in the seat next to him watches, Dr. Lecter, in avuncular fashion, introduces him to the delicacies that he has brought with him. Patronizingly promoting the virtues of his packed lunch over the inferior airline food, he opens a tupperware container with suspicious grey matter in it. The curious child asks if he can try some, and Dr. Lecter offers him a taste, spoonfeeding the brain to this unsuspecting innocent while remarking on how his own mother always taught him to be willing to try something different.
So why am I bothered by this piece of pop culture? I suppose on a personal level because I am an artist and opera fan, who loves Florence, gourmet food and art history. I have even been known to carry my own cooking onto airplanes - in little tupperware containers no less. So what is popular culture trying to tell me? That I have great cannibal potential? And what does this tell us about popular perceptions of artists and intellectuals in general? Does a film like Hannibal horrify because the artistry and intellect we so trust and admire is surprisingly and unbelievably juxtaposed with cold-blooded killing? Or has Hollywood tapped into the psyche of Americans and come up with a great formula for a super villain who embodies everything that arouses horror and suspicion: libraries, art history, food that doesn’t come from golden arches, opera, psychiatrists, artists, intellectuals, dark corners of Europe, serial killers and cannibals. I hope that it is the former but I fear it could be the latter.
I see almost no depictions of artists in American films and on the rare occasion they do appear, they are usually portrayed very unfavorably. The misanthropic, chronically irritated painter in the film, Hannah and Her Sisters comes to mind, for instance. Images like these in the mass media may have indeed penetrated the American consciousness, for at a recent art conference in Columbia, SC, a public opinion survey revealed that 75% of people polled said that they disrespected artists. Yet it was interesting that this point was not taken up by the participating artists. Is it because of a passive, fatalistic feeling that this is our lot in these United States? The focus of the conference remained then, on how to better market ourselves as artists. Market to who? Anonymous surveys are telling us that people don’t like us. It would seem to me to be an exercise in futility to try to effectively market to the 25% of people who are not unfavorably disposed to artists - considering that only a fragment of that population has the means or desire to purchase art. Futile, at least, without considering the public relations factor.
But before anything constructive can be accomplished with regard to remedying a tarnished image, it behooves one to investigate the sources of these impressions. My questioning led me to wonder whether negative impressions of artists are a recent phenomenon, or if they merely reflect an ongoing alienation between artist/ intellectuals and the public.
This prompted me to start a search for the sources of anti-intellectualism in America which led me to the Pulitzer-prize winning book by Richard Hofstadter, Anti-intellectualism in American Life. I was led to this book by an interesting on-line article by Deborah M. De Simone at the College of Staten Island, New York. Richard Hofstadter published his famous treatise in 1963, when the country was still recovering from the McCarthy era - a veritable witch hunt which cost writers, academicians and artists their jobs. Professor M. De Simone considers the work so prophetic, however, with regard to the present climate in our country and in particular within our educational system that it warrants a second look. So I got a copy through inter-library loan at our local library and have been reading it ever since. It is a beautifully written book and in many respects, still timely - for Hofstadter so clearly defines what artists and intellectuals are and what their roles in society can and should be. In addition, it is a remarkably detailed historical analysis of the slow evolution of artistic sensibilities and intellect from virtuous attributes to character flaws. Hofstadter gives some solid social/historical basis to the feeling that should any of us presume to say that we are liberal, feminist, artistic, or intellectual that there is a crowd out there poised to throw tomatoes at us ...or why we want to throw tomatoes at them. It struck me as remarkable that given all the evidence laid out in his long treatise, that Hofstadter could actually conclude on an upbeat note.


harriett said...

Fantastic post! There are so many good discussion points to this . . . food for thought indeed (pun intended!) I haven't seen the film, and now I'm glad! I won't be able to look at walnuts the same way ever again!

Rico said...

This painting really caught my eye, and prompted me to read the entire post. I think this is one of the strongest paintings I've seen from you on this site, it is so free, so visceral.

I was also at the LINC conference, and it's important to mention the other part of that statistic about the public distrust of artists, that the majority of the public believes that art is worth having.

Though this seems counter-intuitive, -I mean, how is the art to be made if not by artists?! I think it gives us a place to start.

You are spot-on about Hollywood depictions of artists. We are almost always represented as hollow stereotypes; gay, deviant, drug addicts, mentally ill, violent, selfish or vain. But how much of this do we put on ourselves? How many people at that conference "looked like artists"? While I respect real individual expression, I sometimes wonder if we love to cloak ourselves in that image just as much as we are put into a box by film and the media.

But we shouldn’t take Hollywood’s portrait too personally. They are arguably no better towards lawyers, cops, people of color, or (especially) women.

Blogs like yours help put a human face on the public image. We are people who struggle, love, hope, strive and often times fail; all the while living our lives day to day. We give ourselves to a Way, and if there is a fundamental distinction between artists and others it is that we do not always choose to become what we are, rather we heed a call.

Keep painting and keep up the social commentary!

kozachekart said...

Dear Rico,

Thank you so much for reading this lengthy blog and for your insight. Thanks too for the reminder about the other side of the public opinion survery regarding the public's desire for art not tallying with their respect for the people who create it. I have thoughts on that as well.

Of course there are artists who fit into stereotypes. Stereotypes exist for a reason. But we have cause for concern if we live in a society that promulgates only that stereotypical image. I was almost ready to agree with you about Hollywood being equally disparaging of other professions when a rerun of an episode of Sex and the City came on late night. There was Mikhail Baryshnikov in the character of the self-absorbed installation artist Alexsandr Petrovsky callously slapping Sarah Jessica Parker. I think we have a problem here - especially in the absence of positive images of visual artists in fictional media. (there is occassionally a good film about an historical artist) I don't see cops, lawyers, people of color and women portrayed in such a persistantly negative manner - although a negative slant exists.
The stereotype of the wicked visual artist in Hollywood is ironic because the industry relies heavily on the work of visual artists. Look very carefully at set designs and you will see contemporary sculptures and paintings gracing the interiors. The mother in "Three and a Half Men," for instance, has a fine stone sculpture on her mantel and abstract paintings on the walls. These art works are often rented to the studios by living artists. Take a look at the walls behind the actors - it is very revealing. I haven't scrutinized closing credits closely enough yet - but I
wonder if these artists are acknowledged for their works. Let me know if you notice that they are.