Slate Culture Elites and How the Play is the Thing; A Response
by Mari A. Gomez
The constant attempts of popular celebrities, tv stars, actors, comedians and whatever category Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer fall under, telling people how to vote or spouting off political opinions is generally not well received. This is particularly true when their arguments are somewhat condescending. Take for example the Save the Day ad during the election, where celebrities cryptically told you to vote for Hillary and to exchange your vote for a chance to see Mark Ruffalo naked. Scarlett Johansen held up a child-like drawing of a rocket and gave a thumbs down. How about Robert de Niro making an intelligent argument by saying he wants to punch Donald Trump in the face. Recently Martin Sheen and a bunch of other nobodies pleaded with Republican electors to vote for anybody other than Trump on December 19. There is an attitude that just because they are famous or somewhat recognizable, their opinion is somehow more important or better informed. In the same tone, before the election there was a coalition of writers, including Junot Diaz and others, who signed an open letter about how they oppose Trump. In the letter, they outline a few generalized reasons. It begins:
Because, as writers, we are particularly aware of the many ways that language can be abused in the name of power;
This implies that writers understand manipulation of language to achieve certain ends. This might be true, but the implication here is that because they’re writers they understand far better than the common person what is being said. That somehow, perhaps, their interpretation of reality is the correct one and everybody else, presumably Trump supporters, simply don’t see that reality. So, I get it, we’re all doing our fair share of interpretation. I was disappointed by that letter. Reading it felt like another group of people, some of which are simply low level writers teaching creative writing at Universities, telling you the “right” way to think. There is no mention here of any of America’s founding principles, they are not espousing an ideology, or championing a political philosophy. There is no powerful metaphor or argument, it’s not even all that eloquently and poetically written. They are quite simply attacking a candidate. It’s the creative writing equivalent of a child crossing his arms, kicking his legs, and saying, “I don’t like him!”
And this brings up an interesting question. Why is it that writers, often held in such high esteem, are reduced to writing this childish and impotent letter to the American people? Perhaps these writers found themselves so confused by Trump’s success that they, on some level, might have noted how largely inconsequential and out of touch they have become. They’re jealous of the following Trump generated, filling stadiums and getting people to chant, “Lock her up!” while they struggle to get students to show up to their poetry reading, even when they offer extra credit. Perhaps they see it too: culture has failed, and they are part of that failure, so they feel humiliated and angry.
I found an interesting piece published in Slate, just a couple of weeks ago. This was being shared on social media by a few local artists I know. The piece is titled, What Can Artists Do to Oppose Trump by Adam Kirsch. It begins:
In his introduction Kirsch reveals an arrogance and elitism in style at the moment, particularly with celebrities as mentioned above. This attitude is also rather strong in academic circles and those that deem themselves intellectuals. The same attitude we saw in these Hillary loving celebrities during the election. When Kirsch writes, “Even if he didn’t realize it, he was there to triumph over an enemy.” This is a projection, an assumption, an interpretation of Pence’s actions without any evidence or actions to suggest it. Pence did not wear a Make America Great Again hat to the theater, he did not demand the cast applaud him and acknowledge his presence, he did not have a royal fanfare playing as he walked in yet to this writer it is clear what Pence was doing even if it wasn’t clear to Pence himself (thank god for intellectuals like this that reveal the deepest truths of our own actions.) I could just as easily say, even if he didn’t know it, the writer here, Adam Kirsch, wrote this piece for Slate as a way to get laid because he’s clearly very desperate and lonely and understands that a piece like this will only work on impressionable young liberal girls.
Because according to Kirsch, it was obvious that Pence was not there simply to enjoy a night at the theater with his young daughter, but rather to walk into a battlefield full of the wounded to which he had just personally and methodically delivered a shot to the heart. I’ve seen this kind of language frequently in the popular media and it’s become commonplace for these people to say things like, “Even if you don’t know it, you’re a racist,” or “if you voted for Trump and you don’t think you’re a racist, you’re lying to yourself.” These people are so sure of their own version of reality they truly believe they understand your reality, your feelings, and motivations better than you.
In this piece the writer’s own personal disdain for Trump seems to have dominated the opening paragraphs and tone, so much so that it detracts some credibility from the important questions he goes on to ask later.
This writer considers Hamilton as the holy grail of culture in the Obama age. Forgetting that a large chunk of Americans probably cannot afford to participate in this beacon of ‘liberal hope.' Other than a few $10 dollar lottery tickets (meaning you have to ‘get lucky’ to win them) tickets start over 100 dollars and go all the way up to 800. Not only that, but Broadway does not happen all over the country. Haven’t seen this holy grail of hope in El Paso recently. I wonder if it plays Detroit? So if Hamilton is some representation of the Obama years; he’s right: a seeming attempt at a racialization of a story that has nothing to do with race or ethnic diversity.
Kirsch says, “a patriotic attempt to open the canon of American history to people of color…” What does this even mean? Is it black people that are paying an average of $300 dollars to see this? Was history not available to people of color before Hamilton the play? Was the Constitution not available for black people to read before Hamilton? Did it take ethnic person playing Hamilton to get people into it? Did it need to be told in hip hop form for black people to like it? That’s actually kind of racist! It’s precisely the left’s attempt to look at everything through the lens of race that has exacerbated race relations in this country and has turned popular culture into this impotent, banal, and sterile movement.
Kirsch’s opening here is whiny and irritating. It’s written eloquently enough and his disdain for Trump is masked in well constructed sentences. These sentences however, with a close reading, exude arrogance: “Many things that liberal educated people believed were cherished by all Americans turned out to be a matter of indifference to almost half of them….” That is to say, educated people are decent and the rest of you are not. I don’t even know what the term educated means to these people anymore. For this guy it probably means that you have a poster of Obama in your house and you were a little sad when Castro died.
The end of that first paragraph is insufferably dramatic. “Booing was all the audience could do having lost when it mattered.” I don’t know, it seems a bit like mob mentality to me, especially when these liberals are all about “loving Trump’s hate. Booing is their way of showing love, perhaps.
Have they never read Hamlet? “The play is the thing. Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”
Later, Kirsch describes this open letter I mentioned earlier signed by various writers. He describes how even with various ‘credible’ institutions like magazines and schools and this group of writers, Trump still won. That is, he is surprised that people didn't blindly listen to the opinion of others. He says,
“The arts and humanities stood exposed as what perhaps they always were-the pursuit of a small minority.”
And again, in a piece that is largely about the way culture has lost its influence, there is a lack of ability for self reflection, which is precisely the point: the arts have missed the rage of the common man, Mr. Kirsch. The arts have failed to recognize the zeitgeist because they’re too busy scoring political points or arguing about identity. Kirsch describes the depression setting in with “intellectuals.” This idea that it is only the ‘intellectual’ that can understand the true dismal state of our society; it is they, writing for Huffington Post and Slate and the New York Times teaching some liberal arts class at Universities, with nice vacations and trips abroad, bickering over the use of pronouns, it is THEY that have failed to see the other side, to pick up on the more complex, and frankly far more interesting, movement around them.
Kirsch also arrogantly suggests this idea that by default “artists” and “writers” have some kind of moral superiority or a refined sense of values over what he deems to be the largely uncultured and clueless majority. This writer cannot even entertain the idea that it is perhaps this small minority, to which he belongs to, that has lost its ability to communicate truth or to produce art that is relevant and transcendent. He absolutely refuses to see that it is this high horse academic bullshit that has alienated many Americans. That perhaps it is these “intellectuals” that saw the election as a personal blow to them and their ideas of decency, that have missed the point.
Now and then, writers and artists, and people who take their moral and intellectual bearings from literature and art, must reconcile themselves to a world in which they have no connection with power. And not just political power- no one every thought that there was a Culture Lobby on a par with, say, the National Rifle Association.
That is to say, the refined folks in society that understand art need to come to terms that they have no power in the world. Artists don't generally have direct political power. Any power over political thinking or philosophical inquiry is most effectively done through the work, through the transfer of ideas and sentiment. They feed people an intangible energy. If artists had any real direct political power they would seize to be artists, they’d become political activists or politicians. He seems to also imply that it is the culture of high art that is the truly morally upstanding one. What makes the NRA so powerful as an institution is the culture behind it. To this guy though, a gun nut and second amendment activist is somehow less culturally significant than the University professor pontificating about Hamilton the play and Obama's liberal hope. This is the elitism of the modern liberal intellectual. Of course, when shit hits the fan, it will be the gun activist that will most likely survive, while the high art intellectual might hide under their desk and compose a poem.
“The second lesson we must learn is the courage to insist on a private definition of reality, in the face of overwhelming pressure of public events.”
I can’t help but feel that what he’s saying here is precisely many liberals', and to some degree, culture's problem. The fact that they refuse to see beyond themselves and their own ideas and reality. In other words, insist that you are right, because you’re own private reality is what matters, not the outside world trying to invade your idea of reality. Of course, to some degree, we all form our own private reality, but that reality is informed by outside events/ideas/people and undeniable truths, by nature and nature’s laws, as the framers believed. To insist on a private definition of reality is encouraging the kind of arrogance and ignorance some of these leftists often exhibit. It is especially dangerous when the popular culture has has failed to connect and technology makes it easier for people to construct their own reality, to limit their experiences to what they want to see, to reinforce their biases again and again by having their own private playlist, by listening to only their news, by unfriending people that annoy them, by being able, in every circumstance, to check out of one reality and into another via a mobile device.
Kirsch makes a distinction between the "good" and "the beautiful." Suggesting that artists passion for the beautiful should be separate from their passion for the good. In other words, artists are there to create useless art that sounds good but does nothing. It's not clear actually what he means by the "good," perhaps a form of political activism. It's almost like he's accepting the irrelevancy of art and almost like he's ok with that. But they are not separate ideas, an artist's search for beauty is a search for truth, which is inherently good. Art, when it is honest, is good and has a purpose, but it does not yield to immediate political power, as I think he recognizes.
“If we are to oppose Trump and the policies and crimes that are likely to emerge from his administration, we will have to do so as citizens not as artists.History shows that the attempt to make art serve a direct political purpose mostly results in bad art and empty self-congratulation.”
Kirsch also assumes that Trump’s administration, unlike that of the “liberal hope” of Obama, will be riddled with crime and bad policy. Perhaps he's missed the unpopularity of Obamacare and how the law was pretty un-American in its architecture. He's missed Obama's hand in empowering Russia and allowing the Syrian conflict to escalate, including being soft on Iran, what is supposed to be an enemy. Perhaps he missed Obama's doubling of the national debt. Perhaps he missed Obama's encouragement of racial tensions.
The odd contradiction here is that Kirsch is right about art when it tries to serve a direct political purpose. It can be argued that Hamilton is such an example, but he fails to see this, despite his admission that a poem doesn’t change the world and that art should be subversive, he raises Hamilton into a pedestal.
Yet when the cast of Hamilton performed at the White House, wooing President Obama, then spoke against Vice President elect Pence in that childish, less than artistic way, they chose sides; they turned it into a political statement. They rendered the play useless, broke the fourth wall and chose to make the play about themselves. They admitted that this so called “high art” had been co-opted by leftists narratives and that this is perhaps the biggest indication of culture’s self-castration. This is why, despite the many cultural figures supporting Hillary, she lost.
In a Rolling Stone article Hamilton’s lead producer Jeffrey Seller expressed:
"The cast, the creators, we all felt that we must express our feelings to vice president-elect Pence. This is not a normal time, this is not a normal election. This has not been a normal result. And in a democracy, one must let his and her voice be heard, and we were not going to the show tonight without expressing how we feel," Seller said. "Everybody should be able to see this show, regardless of their politics, but it does just so happen that the politics of this administration have been so negative toward minorities, people of color, gay people that we felt the need to speak up. As a cast comprised of minorities, women, gay people, it was necessary. We had to speak. We had to express how we feel."
I think what he means by "this is not a normal result" is that they do not agree with this result. The work should speak for itself, but by making the play about the feelings and political leanings of the actors, they cheapened it. They chose to create a thirty second You Tube video that would promote themselves as social justice warriors, rather than performing and pouring themselves into the work and letting the play penetrate as it should. I wonder if they considered any Conservative audience members.
Most of the disagreements they alluded to are largely unfounded, Trump is not a racist, (That's old at this point. He has since appointed a black person a major position) or a sexist (his campaign manager was a woman), he has actually embraced the LGBTQ community. The so called “anti gay legislation” that Pence signed, which was cited as one of the grievances in this Rolling Stone article, was to allow businesses to decide who they did business with. That is freedom of choice. So if a business doesn't want to make a cake for you because you are gay, they are allowed to do that and they risk the social consequences and potential profit loss. This freedom is lost to these people, even as they perform a play based on Alexander Hamilton, because, like Kirsch, they are so convinced about their side, they have so intensely insisted on their "private reality," as Kirsch himself calls for, that they've manged to create a rather impenetrable one.
And it’s so absurdly ironic that Kirsch, who opens his piece with Hamilton's little protest, fails to see that it is the perfect example of art trying to serve a direct political purpose which resulted in bad art and empty self congratulation. These actors went home that night feeling they were true heroes, not for the story they told, but because they instructed people to take out their phones and record (in a theater! Why not make it just about the people there then?) a statement, to be shared, posted and re-posted, as the actors held hands, about how scared they were of this administrations imminent civil rights violations. In other words, about assumptions based on nothing but irrational fears and misguided impressions.
This will all backfire on them. On all of these media sites who already feel their influence slipping. The culture is waking up. And I'm not talking about those sad celebrities that campaigned for Clinton. I'm not talking about Miley Cyrus calling Pence an "asshole." They will be there to watch themselves fall into irrelevancy and that, more than anything they have ever produced will be true transcendent art and entertainment. I'm talking about those seeing through this kind of elitist language and attitude. I'm talking about those rejecting the college group think and returning to liberty and rebellion. I'm talking about those rejecting, laughing at, and composing satire out of the popular narratives. I'm talking about those people discovering truth through different channels, shedding their dependency on whiny opinions like this one and coming to an emboldened sense of artistic expression.
They're out there. They are happening.