News and Features
Reports of its demise are exaggerated.
Farai Chideya, Christopher Hitchens, Barney Frank, Susan Brownmiller, Alexander Cockburn, Katha Pollitt, Slavoj Zizek and Arthur Danto on their favorite screen stars.
Hitler's filmmaker is Foster's fixation.
Why The Sopranos is therapeutic TV.
If a critic's clout can be measured by the ability to make an artist's name, the most important art critic in America today is clearly Rudolph Giuliani. Just over a year ago he excoriated the Brooklyn Museum of Art for including in its "Sensation" show Chris Ofili's Holy Virgin Mary--the elephant-dung-decorated painting of an African BVM, which the mayor found "anti-Catholic," blasphemous and disgusting--and turned Ofili himself into a sensation overnight: One collector, I heard, complained that the media attention had driven Ofili's prices so high he couldn't afford him anymore. If I were Jake & Dinos Chapman, represented by a perverse sculpture of deformed and weirdly sexualized children, I would have been seriously peeved, and if I had been Richard Patterson, whose Blue Minotaur, a profound meditation on postmodernity and the heroic tradition, got no attention at all, I would have wept.
You'd think the mayor would have learned to stay his theocritical thunderbolts, but once again he has gone after the Brooklyn Museum for including an "anti-Catholic" work--Renee Cox's Yo Mama's Last Supper--in the new show of contemporary black photographers, "Committed to the Image." He's even suggested that what New York needs is a "decency commission," which got big laughs all around, since the mayor, a married man, is openly carrying on with his mistress, upon whom he has bestowed police protection worth some $200,000 annually at taxpayers' expense. As the whole world now knows, Yo Mama is a five-panel picture in which Cox appears naked, as Jesus, surrounded by male disciples--ten black, one white--at the Last Supper. As an artwork it's negligible, glossily produced but awkwardly composed and, to my eye, rather silly. Cox is thin and beautiful; the men, in robes and caftans, are handsome and buff--apparently the first Christians spent a lot of time in the gym and at the hair salon, getting elaborate dreadlocked coiffures. Unlike the figures in Leonardo's Last Supper, which are highly individualized and dramatically connected, the figures here are generic and stiff. My eye kept going to the limited food on offer: bowls of wax-looking fruit (did they have bananas in Old Jerusalem?), rolls, pita bread. Was the Last Supper a diet Seder?
If you want to see visually haunting work at "Committed to the Image," there's Gordon Parks, Albert Chong, Imari, Nathaniel Burkins and many others. LeRoy W. Henderson's black ballet student, dressed in white and standing in front of a damaged classical frieze, interrogates the Western tradition much more deeply than Yo Mama does. Mfon's self-portraits of her mastectomized torso, a meditation on beauty, heroism and tragedy expressed through the female body, lay bare the high-fashion hokiness of Cox's costume drama. For fan and foe alike, the interest of Yo Mama appears to be political. Cox describes her art in ideological terms ("my images demand enlightenment through an equitable realignment of our race and gender politics"), and she has been quite pungent in defending it. As with The Holy Virgin Mary, the mayor hasn't actually seen it, nor had the numerous people who sent me frothing e-mails after I defended government support for the arts on The O'Reilly Factor.
Even the New York Observer's famously conservative art critic, Hilton Kramer, who usually delights in withering descriptions of pictures he hates, apparently felt that depicting Christ as a naked black woman was so obviously, outrageously anti-Catholic he need say no more about the photo before embarking on his usual rampage. It would be interesting to know where the offense lies: Is it that Cox as Christ is naked, black or female? All three? Two out of three? If one thinks of Catholics, the people, there's nothing bigoted about any of this. (Like Ofili, Cox is Catholic--as are most perpetrators of "anti-Catholic" works.) There is no ethnic stereotyping of the sort on view, for instance, on St. Patrick's Day, when the proverbial drunkenness of the Irish is the butt of endless rude humor, especially from the Irish themselves. While we're on the subject of ethnic stereotyping, it's worth noting that in a great deal of Christian art, Jesus and the disciples are portrayed as Northern Europeans, while Judas is given the hooked nose and scraggly features of a cartoon Jew.
But if what is meant by anti-Catholic is anti-Catholic Church, why can't an artist protest its doctrines and policies? The Church is not a monastery in a wilderness, it's a powerful earthly institution that uses all the tools of modern politics to make social policy conform to its theology--and not just for Catholics, for everyone. It has to expect to take its knocks in the public arena. A church that has a 2,000-year tradition of disdain for women's bodies--documented most recently by Garry Wills (a Catholic) in his splendid polemic Papal Sin--and that still bars women from the priesthood because Jesus was a man can't really be surprised if a twenty-first-century woman wonders what would be different if Jesus had been female, and flaunts that female body. And a church with a long history of racism--no worse than other mainstream American religions but certainly no better--can't expect the topic to be banned from discussion forever.
At the Brooklyn Museum, Yo Mama's Last Supper is in a separate room with its own security guard. On Sunday afternoon, it attracted blacks, whites, Asians, parents with small children, older women in groups, dating couples, students taking notes--le tout Brooklyn, which is turning out in large numbers for the show. I asked one black woman, who described herself as a Christian, what the picture meant to her. "It shows Life as a woman," she said. "It's beautiful." Her friend, who said he was a Muslim, liked the picture too.
If only I could get the Mayor to review my book!
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Show George W. Bush you support RU-486. Make a donation in W.'s name to the Concord Feminist Health Center (38 South Main Street, Concord, NH 03301) and help it buy the ultrasound machine this method requires. The center will send the President a card to let him know you were thinking of him when you wrote your check.
They distort. They decide.
industry has been celebrating the supposed defeat of Napster. The
Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has affirmed the grant of a
preliminary injunction that may well have the effect of closing the
service down completely and ending the commercial existence of
Napster's parent (that is, unless the record companies agree to an
implausible deal Napster has proposed). But despite appearances, what
has happened, far from being a victory, is the beginning of the
industry's end. Even for those who have no particular stake in the
sharing of music on the web, there's value in understanding why the
"victory"over Napster is actually a profound and irreversible
calamity for the record companies. What is now happening to music
will soon be happening to many other forms of "content" in the
information society. The Napster case has much to teach us about the
collapse of publishers generally, and about the liberative
possibilities of the decay of the cultural oligopolies that dominated
the second half of the twentieth century.
The shuttering of
Napster will not achieve the music industry's goals because the
technology of music-sharing no longer requires the centralized
registry of music offered for sharing among the network's listeners
that Napster provided. Freely available software called OpenNap
allows any computer in the world to perform the task of facilitating
sharing; it is already widely used. Napster itself--as it kept
pointing out to increasingly unsympathetic courts--maintained no
inventory of music: It simply allowed listeners to find out what
other listeners were offering to share. Almost all the various
sharing programs in existence can switch from official Napster to
other sharing facilitators with a single click. And when they move,
the music moves with them. Now, in the publicity barrage surrounding
the decision, 60 million Napster users will find out about OpenNap,
which cannot be sued or prohibited because, as free software, no one
controls its distribution and any lawsuits would have to be brought
against all its users worldwide. Suddenly, instead of a problem posed
by one commercial entity that can be closed down or acquired, the
industry will be facing the same technical threat, with no one to sue
but its own customers. No business can survive by suing or harassing
its own market.
The music industry (by which we mean the
five companies that supply about 90 percent of the world's popular
music) is dying not because of Napster but because of an underlying
economic truth. In the world of digital products that can be copied
and moved at no cost, traditional distribution structures, which
depend on the ownership of the content or of the right to distribute,
are fatally inefficient. As John Guare's famous play has drummed into
all our minds, everyone in society is divided from everyone else by
six degrees of separation. The most efficient distribution system in
the world is to let everyone give music to whoever they know would
like it. When music has passed through six hands under the current
distribution system, it hasn't even reached the store. When it has
passed through six hands in a system that doesn't require the
distributor to buy the right to pass it along, it has already reached
several million listeners.
This increase in efficiency
means that composers, songwriters and performers have everything to
gain from making use of the system of unowned or anarchistic
distribution, provided that each listener at the end of the chain
still knows how to pay the artist and feels under some obligation to
do so, or will buy something else--a concert ticket, a T-shirt, a
poster--as a result of having received the music for free. Hundreds
of potential "business models" remain to be explored once the
proprietary distributor has disappeared, no one of which will be
perfect for all artistic producers but all of which will be the
subject of experiment in decades to come, once the dinosaurs are
No doubt there will be some immediate pain that will
be felt by artists rather than the shareholders of music
conglomerates. The greatest of celebrity musicians will do fine under
any system, while those who are currently waiting on tables or
driving a cab to support themselves have nothing to lose. For the
signed recording artists just barely making it, on the other hand,
the changes are of legitimate concern. But musicians as a whole stand
to gain far more than they lose. Their wholesale defection from the
existing distribution system is about to begin, leaving the music
industry--like manuscript illuminators, piano-roll manufacturers and
letterpress printers--a quaint and diminutive relic of a passé
The industry's giants won't disappear overnight,
or perhaps at all. But because their role as owner-distributors makes
no economic sense, they will have to become suppliers of services in
the production and promotion of music. Advertising agencies,
production services consultants, packagers--they will be anything but
owners of the music they market to the world.
What is most
important about this phenomenon is that it applies to everything that
can be distributed as a stream of digital bits by the simple human
mechanism of passing it along. The result will be more music, poetry,
photography and journalism available to a far wider audience. Artists
will see a whole new world of readers, listeners and viewers; though
each audience member will be paying less, the artist won't have to
take the small end of a split determined by the distribution
oligarchs who have cheated and swindled them ever since Edison. For
those who worry about the cultural, economic and political power of
the global media companies, the dreamed-of revolution is at hand. The
industry may right now be making a joyful noise unto the Lord, but it
is we, not they, who are about to enter the promised land.
Imagine Madison Square Garden brimming over with 18,000 laughing and ebullient women of every size, shape, age and color, along with their male friends, ditto. Imagine that in that immense space, usually packed with hooting sports fans, these women are watching Oprah, Queen Latifah, Claire Danes, Swoosie Kurtz, Kathleen Chalfant, Julie Kavner (voice of Marge Simpson), Rosie Perez, Donna Hanover (soon-to-be-ex-wife of New York's bigamous mayor) and sixty-odd other A-list divas put on a gala production of The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler's theater piece about women and their mimis, totos, split knishes, Gladys Siegelmans, pussycats, poonanis and twats. Imagine that this extravaganza is part of a huge $2 million fundraising effort for V-Day, the antiviolence project that grew out of the show and that gives money to groups fighting violence against women around the world. That was what happened on February 10, with more donations and more performances to come as the play is produced by students at some 250 colleges around the country, from Adelphi on Long Island--where it was completely sold out and where, sources assure me, the v-word retains every bit of its shock value--to Yale.
And they keep saying feminism is dead.
The Vagina Monologues, in fact, was singled out in Time's 1998 cover story "Is Feminism Dead?" as proof that the movement had degenerated into self-indulgent sex chat. (This was a new departure for the press, which usually dismisses the movement as humorless, frumpish and puritanical.) In her Village Voice report on the gala, Sharon Lerner, a terrific feminist journalist, is unhappy that the actresses featured at the Garden event prefer the v-word to the f-word. ("Violence against women is a feminist issue?" participant Isabella Rossellini asks her. "I don't think it is." This from the creator of a new perfume called "Manifesto"!) Women's rights aren't what one associates with postfeminist icons like Glenn Close, whose most indelible screen role was as the bunny-boiling man-stalker in Fatal Attraction, or Calista Flockhart, television's dithery microskirted lawyerette Ally McBeal. Still, aren't we glad that Jane Fonda, who performed the childbirth monologue, has given up exercise mania and husband-worship and is donating $1 million to V-Day? Better late than never, I say.
At the risk of sounding rather giddy myself--I'm writing this on Valentine's Day--I'd argue that the implied contradiction between serious business (daycare, abortion, equal pay) and sex is way overdrawn. Sexual self-expression--that's self-indulgent sex chat to all you old Bolsheviks out there--was a crucial theme of the modern women's movement from the start. Naturally so: How can you see yourself as an active subject, the heroine of your own life, if you think you're an inferior being housed in a shameful, smelly body that might give pleasure to others, but not to you? The personal is political, remember that?
The Vagina Monologues may not be great literature--on the page it's a bit thin, and the different voices tend to run together into EveEnslerspeak about seashells and flowers and other lovely bits of nature. But as a performance piece it's fantastic: a cabaret floor show by turns hilarious, brassy, lyrical, poignant, charming, romantic, tragic, vulgar, sentimental, raunchy and exhilarating. In "The Flood," an old woman says she thinks of her "down there" as a cellar full of dead animals, and tells of the story of her one passionate kiss and her dream of Burt Reynolds swimming in her embarrassing "flood" of sexual wetness. A prim, wryly clever woman in "The Vagina Workshop" learns how to give herself orgasms at one of Betty Dodson's famous masturbation classes. At the Garden, Ensler led the cast in a chorus of orgasmic moans, and Close got the braver members of the audience to chant "Cunt! Cunt! Cunt!" at the climax of a poetic monologue meant to redeem and reclaim the dirtiest of all dirty words.
How anyone could find The Vagina Monologues antimale or pornographic is beyond me--it's a veritable ode to warm, quirky, affectionate, friendly, passionate sex. The only enemies are misogyny, sexual shame and sexual violence, and violence is construed fairly literally: A poor black child is raped by her father's drunken friend; a Bosnian girl is sexually tortured by Serbian paramilitaries. None of your ambiguous was-it-rape? scenarios here. Oprah performed a new monologue, "Under the Burqa," about the horrors of life for Afghan women under Taliban rule, followed by Zoya--a young representative of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA)--who gave a heartbreaking, defiant speech. Three African women spoke against female genital mutilation and described ongoing efforts to replace cutting with new coming-of-age rituals, "circumcision by words."
I hadn't particularly wanted to see The Vagina Monologues. I assumed that it would be earnest and didactic--or maybe silly, or exploitative, or crude, a sort of Oh! Calcutta! for women. But I was elated by it. Besides being a wonderful night at the theater, it reminded me that after all the feminist debates (and splits), and all the books and the Theory and the theories, in the real world there are still such people as women, who share a common biology and much else besides. And the power of feminism, whether or not it goes by that name, still resides in its capacity to transform women's consciousness at the deepest possible level: That's why Betty Friedan called her collection of letters from women not It Got Me a Raise (or a daycare center, or an abortion) but It Changed My Life. Sisterhood-is-powerful feminism may feel out of date to the professoriat, but there's a lot of new music still to be played on those old bones.
Besides, if feminists don't talk about sex in a fun, accessible, inspiring, nonpuritanical way, who will?
* * *
Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics and Culture, a collection of columns originally published in this space, is just out from Modern Library as a paperback original. It has a very pretty cover and a never-before-published introductory essay, and contains most of the columns I still agree with, and one or two about which I have my doubts.
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