(The first part of this article is here.)
In order to get to the point of this comparison—cultural history as screwball comedy—we need to take a short side trip into political science, and the long-argued idea of “civil society.” Civil society is the halfway house between the individual and the state: organizations and associations formed around shared interests, joined voluntarily. In a democracy, though, civil society can go in one of two directions: it can either expand shared public intellectual space, facilitating participation in—and accountability of—government, or it can contract shared public intellectual space, focusing on individual rights and property (freedom from government) to the point that the government ends up largely unchecked. Dana Villa in his upcoming (and very good) book Public Freedom, argues that America, and much of the rest of the world, has fallen into the latter pattern, giving up the public freedom of a responsive and responsible state in favor of the private freedom of financial security and individual gratification. Here’s Villa, defining a healthy “public sphere”:
Plurality, not sovereignity, is the precondition of the political world. To uproot it or make it superfluous—as all manner of authoritarian, totalitarian, and class-dominated politics have tried to do—is to create a world without the possibility of authentic politics. For authentic politics… is possible only where diverse perspectives on a common world have a durable and institutionalized space for their free play. We know that our political sphere is healthy when, first, everyone who wants to be a “participant in government” can in fact have access to it; and second, when the talk that takes place there is viewed not as mere bavardage or spin, but as one of the chief and most valuable expressions of public liberty.
The ideal “civil society” is the one that nourishes rather than impoverishes this public sphere. But Villa’s analysis suggests that the last century or so of American history—a period corresponding with the rise of consumer culture, coincidentally or not—has privileged the privately beneficial civil society over the public.
Now, it’s possible to consider art as an apolitical, experiential civil society, mediating between individual experience and the universal condition of human existence. But here’s the question: if we’re living in a society in which the universal aspects of political civil society are in disrepair, are we likely to have a clear idea of how to create or find art that provides access to a similar universal space? (Or, for the politically prescriptive subset of artistic activity, how to create art that rebuilds such a space?) Probably not—hence the chaotic, screwball evolution of American culture. Maybe we have a vague sense of what we want, but we don’t know what it would look or feel like unless we stumble upon it. Or maybe the influence of consumer culture has resulted in artistic searches based on what we only think we want.
Last week, Dana Gioia announced that he would be stepping down as head of the National Endowment for the Arts, prompting a spate of articles characterizing his tenure as a success: funding up (though still less than at its height, nearly twenty years ago now), controversy down. But has it been an artistic success? I think that one of Gioia’s first and most widely praised initiatives, the Shakespeare in American Communities project, which sponsored performances of the bard in all 50 states, represents a signal moment in American cultural history. Because, when you think about it, justifying the existence of 21st-century American arts funding by promoting a 17th-century British playwright—to quote another cultural touchstone, that’s pretty f****d up right there. But, then again, in part that’s the hand Gioia and the NEA were dealt, going back a century or more: art as personal gratification, as the fulfillment more of a consumer impulse than an aesthetic one.
This is not to say that those categories are mutually exclusive. Gioia’s choice of Shakespeare can’t be faulted on artistic grounds, but it’s why no one would find fault that’s interesting. It’s catering not so much to middlebrow culture as to a middlebrow view of high culture. That’s actually a fairly good barometer: Shakespeare is a truly great playwright, just as Beethoven is a truly great composer, just as Rembrandt is a truly great painter. But such status, from a consumer standpoint, is based in large part on the accumulated, repeated historical vouching for such art, reducing the need to judge it anew. It’s a sure thing, from the point of getting quality for your money, because it’s a mirror of artistic judgments held over from previous eras, when civil society still focused on public freedom, and thus opinion on what made for correspondingly universally great art was more directed and coherent. Looking for art that would mediate between the individual and the universal, the NEA reached back to art that had already been sanctioned as such in the past. Finding similar new art in the present would be, inevitably, a risky, screwball endeavor. Gioia is an award-winning poet, but also, famously, a corporate guy—he used to be an executive at General Foods—and ran the NEA with a corporate eye to avoiding risk. This buttoned-down NEA wouldn’t be following any dizzy females to strange places—it’s like a screwball comedy where the timid, nervous hero remains determinedly timid and nervous. In all fairness, I think the NEA’s artistic choices are reacting to the condition of society, not driving it, and maybe Gioia was working with a more adventurous long-term vision, but at this point in time, the NEA is hardly the equivalent of the institutionalized space for free play that Villa recommends, an indication that the course of cultural history will still continue in its screwball ways.
I get the sense that we’re in an epoch of artistic activity exhibiting a kind of paradox: one the one hand, seemingly closer to what the audience seems to want, but on the other hand, resulting in a less deeply satisfying experience. For all its blind alleyways, the old, anything-goes avant-garde modernism stood a better chance of stumbling upon sublimity, given the screwball-comedy mechanisms of post-consumer culture. The hero of many a screwball comedy finds what he really wants only after being pushed seriously outside his comfort zone. Screwball comedies, in the end, are in fact glorious celebrations of change for the sake of change, of controversy and disruption. The screwball choice is ingeniously direct: you can stay on the path, you can do what you’re supposed to do, or you can be happy. If you find yourself in a screwball world, the most despairing thing to do is to play it safe.
The hope of screwball culture is that, for all their zaniness, screwball plots are goal-oriented, at least from the point of view of the better halves of screwball couples. If you can envision a desired outcome—romantically or artistically—you can get there eventually, given a sufficient combination of persistent and crazy. But can the culture as a whole get there, a culture that dissolves barriers of class, one that successfully marries high and low, one that either reinstates or reinforces an expansively public civil society? There’s an art out there that’s exactly what we want, even if we don’t know what it is, or even that we want it. We can end up there, happy and liberated—but the journey, inevitably, is going to take us to some awfully screwy places.