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Seismic Shift, Bad Art, Broke Media, Great Resignation
I’m sharing the ‘Curator’ post of the week. These are riffs on the most interesting articles I’ve come across from the ‘arts/intellectual web.’ Btw, I’m going to start throwing up a paywall every so often - like once every week or two - just as a gentle reminder that paid subscriptions are appreciated. At the partner site, explores the ‘new now’ as opposed to the ‘new normal.’
ACTING CULTS AND WOKE THERAPY
I read two articles this week that gave me the odd sense of straddling some cultural fault-line - or, more precisely, seeing the before-and-after, how the progressivist mindset of the last five or ten years congratulates itself on the sweeping cultural changes that have taken place.
One is a New York Magazine hit piece on a culty theater class — an indictment of the way things used to be. The other is a New York Times Magazine piece on the promises of therapy when infused with progressive politics.
The Times article is one of these pieces that’s, like, calculated to drive the internet berserk, but I can understand a bit where its author, Orna Guralnik, is coming from. The point is that therapy may have suffered from being overly focused on the private, on family drama, whereas, as Guralnik writes, “As a collective we appear to be coming around to the idea that bigger social forces run through us, animating us and pitting us against one another, whatever our conscious intentions.”
I believe Guralnik when she says that she’s seen dramatic transformations: woke language is psychologically powerful and is very effective at compelling people to reckon with themselves. But Guralnik gives the game away when she reports approvingly of one couple: “#MeToo rhetoric was woven into their discussions, functioning as a superego, shaping and inhibiting what they could even think.” The woman in the couple — the two of them were grappling with her husband’s infidelity — felt that “the lessons of the movement were telling her not to forgive but to leave him.” And the conversations Guralnik reports of this couple sound very far from freeing. She can’t approach her own pain because she’s brought up by the thought “oh poor cis white woman”; he’s detached from the process because the news about “another Black or brown person being killed” makes him feel “a little guilty to be sitting here.” In the end, Guralnik concedes when writing of the wife, “it was hard for her to know how she actually felt about it all.”
It becomes very clear that what Guralnik is promoting doesn’t have much to do with the underlying ideas of therapy; it’s a spectacle of redemption, not really dissimilar to, for instance, what Catholic confession offers. It’s like looking at a maze in which all paths lead to the same destination: to recognizing one’s complicity in power structures and in the nexus of privilege (above all, if one happens to be white or male) and then accepting with humility a more enlightened vantage-point from which it becomes possible for patients to, as Guralnik writes, “check for their impact on the other person and then quickly notice or apologize.”
This is church talk and cult talk — maybe not such a departure from the usual sunny bromides of couples’ therapy but far removed from the search for authentic emotion. In a remarkably jumbled passage, Guralnik writes:
When these gaps are filled by new concepts, social change can follow. The expanding lexicon around bias and privilege includes terms like ‘white fragility’ or ‘white tears,’ referring to white people’s defensive refusal to fully engage with accountability; other phrases like ‘virtue signaling,’ being ‘a Karen’ or ‘performative allyship’ underline the difference between honest and fake engagement with questions of ethics, morality and responsibility.
The keywords here are ‘honest or fake emotion.’ If a person makes it only as far as ‘virtue signaling’ or ‘performative allyship,’ then more therapeutic work is needed, more dredging, until a real breakthrough is reached — like, for instance, Matthew who, Guralnik writes, “with the mention of the word ‘privilege’ came around to realizing they were talking about forces larger than themselves; or Nick who tells Guralnik, “In recent years I realized how easy certain things have always been for me simply because I’m white. And that has changed the way [my partner] and I talk with each other.”
As therapeutic breakthroughs go, this is of course much easier to achieve than, say, remembering the primal scene or coming to grips with one’s family dramas. The lexicon is there and the redemption is there: it becomes possible to just name one’s sin and then say the appropriate number of Hail Marys to atone for it (and to get in the good graces of one’s partner and therapist). The inherent corruption within this process is so obvious that Guralnik can’t help but keep bumping up into it in her own manifesto - as in the acknowledgment that her patients often don’t know what they really think at all - but nonetheless is passed off in our enlightened era as genuine progress.
In the New York Magazine article, the search for authentic emotion goes in a very different direction. Michèle Lonsdale-Smith has for decades been running a high-end, high-intensity acting studio that is, by any possible measurement, a cult.
I have no particular objection to New York’s exposé. As one former student puts it, “It’s a total cult atmosphere. She’s somebody who should not be a teacher. She’s damaged a lot of people and she’s wrecked a lot of lives.” And Lonsdale-Smith’s class sounds like Cult Indoctrination 101. She systematically shames students and has the rest of the class join in. She hyper-fixates on weight and sexual orientation. She divides the world into people within her classes who are doing “The Work” and non-studio “civilians” who, as much as possible, should be shunned, and she insists on intense personal loyalty - with a student, on one occasion, flying cross-country so as to help her carry her luggage through an airport.
There is no question that the boundary between what’s transgressive and what’s wrong can be very thin. A critical component of the whole process is the director, or master of ceremonies, the person who ‘holds the space’ so that the performers can focus entirely on their imaginary worlds without that doing harm to the “real people” whom they left behind when they entered into the rehearsal room. Like many acting teachers before her, Lonsdale-Smith neglected that responsibility - and probably does deserve the exposé, universal opprobrium, etc. But the presumption of an article like New York’s is that classes like Lonsdale-Smith’s, existing in an unregulated sort of space, must be standardized - must be answerable in some way to a body like SAG-AFTRA or the new ‘intimacy coordinator’ industry or just to the prevailing norms of the post-#MeToo consensus.
In a telling moment, a students recalls asking Lonsdale-Smith for advice and Lonsdale-Smith saying that she would be a more free and better actor if she lost her virginity. “Looking back, [the student] can’t believe she thought this was an appropriate way for teacher and pupil to interact, but at the time it felt completely normal,” New York writes, and, reading that passage, I felt the by-now-familiar frisson of coming across proof of an abuse. But thinking about it a little more critically, the question is: why isn’t that an appropriate interaction? The student was an adult. She had asked for advice about acting. She and Lonsdale-Smith were explicitly not in a school classroom or a job setting; they were in an acting class, in which the purpose was to break through barriers, to deal with authentic and difficult emotions, and to have the sort of heightened honesty that (really) is impossible to get anywhere else.
Is this dynamic subject to abuse? Yes of course — with Lonsdale-Smith being a case in point. Should it be reformed altogether? Should acting classes be subject - as the organization Keep Actors Safe suggests — to “regulation” and “background checks”? That’s a trickier question. The alternative to these sorts of charisma-driven classes is transparency - everything safe, everything above-board. But what that translates to is: no risk. The reality is that people taking a class like Lonsdale-Smith’s are looking to become better, to transform. They understand that work like that isn’t for the faint of heart and that a lot of other professions would be safer bets. But they chose to do this because they feel that the excavation of the self is a worthwhile pursuit. Get rid of risky spaces like that — find yourself in the sort of society where all acting classes are fully outfitted with intimacy coordinators; where therapy sessions lead you to the right answers of ‘checking privilege’ and acknowledging a partner’s “radical otherness” - and you lose something vital, the ability to follow the winding path of one’s own emotional truth and to see the subconscious in its terrifying and resplendent illumination.
ART BAD AND WORSE
I really need to stop doing a write-up every time Bill Deresiewicz publishes an article, but he has this uncanny ability to express the idea that’s on-the-tip-of-my-tongue and to do so with remarkable clarity and moral fervor.
In trying to figure out what’s gone wrong with art in our era - “the endless blandness of our Netflix queue,” as Deresiewicz puts it — he traces the story back, really, to the 1960s and to a series of institutional changes that succeeded in “norming” art.
Basically, there are three turns of the wheel. Turn one is the bohemian phase — “the century or so in which art evaded institutional control — a century of Parisian bohemians, modernist vagabonds, and visionary wackjobs.” Turn two is the ‘culture boom’ that followed World War II, in which an aspirational middle class “felt the need for the trappings of taste.” Turn three is the full institutionalization and domestication of art — the urbane layabouts ripped out of their cafes and sent off to MFA programs; and then the advent of the alphabet soup of government arts agencies — “the NEA, the NEH, PBS, and, in 1970, NPR….designed to furnish the college-going class with an officially sanctioned consciousness.”
That’s pretty much where we find ourselves now — the same basic institutional structure, with a somewhat surprising ideological makeover. For Deresiewicz, again, the critical moment was in the ‘60s with the advent of post-modernism. As Deresiewicz puts it, “And then a funny thing happened. American humanities professors, devoid of large ideas of their own, began to fling themselves at the feet of the new French theory.” That turn takes a few different guises — political correctness, wokeness — but, basically, as Deresiewicz writes, “it’s new intellectual hooch in the same old moralistic bottles,” all of it built around the same never-ending querying of the act of performance as opposed to the expression itself. The lousy art of our moment stretches back to the homogenizing impulses of this whole period — art becomes institutionalized and, therefore, subject to the deeply politicized, and self-serving, norms of institutions. “‘Diversity’ becomes a cloak for uniformity,” writes Deresiewicz of the latest iteration of the trend. “The same old thing — the same kitsch pop songs, middlebrow fiction, wish-fulfillment streaming fare, agitprop gallery art — produced by a member of a ‘marginalized’ ‘community,’ convinces us that we have gotten somewhere new.”
This week I came across an old article by Richard Brody that could be Exhibit A for the mindset that Deresiewicz is decrying. The article, impelled by a fleeting rumor that The Princess Bride would be remade by SONY, responds with “a modest proposal to the film industry” to “remake everything, or at least anything.” Brody (as he’s also done in many articles since then) commits a classic fallacy of the woke era: he completely misses that the industry’s insatiable impulse to remake isn’t actually driven by progressive do-gooder-ism. It’s driven by the impulse to cut costs, and cheat creatives - and the progressive movement affords it a wonderful opportunity to do just that and to cloak its cost-cutting in sanctimony (with people like Brody serving as the ideal enablers). “It seems self-evident that no film is damaged by a remake,” writes Brody, but, as a whole, art is: turn everything into remakes and the industry forgets about any pretense it has to actually taking risks and creating new art.
Brody seems to believe that art offers a linear path to improvement. It’s possible to take “the pleasures of The Princess Bride, such as they are,” he writes, and to counteract the regressiveness of aspects of the storyline with some elevated sociopolitical conversation. Instead of the grandfather and grandson engaging in some patriarchal male bonding, as in the film’s current framing, Brody suggests that the two take the opportunity to have a teachable moment on Westley’s shortcomings as a romantic partner: “It’s one of the many notions that might, in a remake, elicit some illuminating discussion between the grandfather and the boy - or, perhaps even more illuminating, between a grandmother and her granddaughter at their story time,” Brody writes.
They are out there, I know, they are doing their work, but only on the margins, in the cracks. Expose them to the light, give them some mainstream attention, and instead of dragging us a little way in their direction, as they would have once, they just get homogenized, too. And it is tough; it’s very, very tough.
As it should be. If it was easy, everybody would do it.
BUZZFEED AND VICE
This month closes the books on two of the marquee news companies of the 2010s: BuzzFeed News and VICE. That means also accounting for what the whole much-hyped era of post-recession ‘new media’ brought us. Which is: not very much.
I was always fond of VICE and impressed by the sheer counter-intuitiveness of it. At the time when everybody was slashing international news coverage, they seemed really to believe that stories about Yemen’s war or gun manufacturing in the Philippines could somehow or other be lucrative. And they were really brave. Pieces like Medyan Dairieh’s reporting from Raqqa at the height of ISIS’ rule boggled the mind and were inspirational for what could be achieved by journalists with moxie and good life insurance. But it’s not at all surprising to realize that VICE was, financially, a house of cards — spending the last years badly overleveraged and continuing to borrow money throughout.
BuzzFeed I never liked, and the axing of its news division seems more emblematic of the whole era. Basically, BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti believed that it was possible to have it all, to be “fun and experimental” in the spirit of the Web 1.0, and to generate clicks, and roll in advertising dollars, and to have a credible news division - and discovered, after almost everybody else, that these were all contradictory aims.
The version of BuzzFeed’s demise that’s making the rounds is that the dress - remember the dress that half of everybody thought was blue and half thought was yellow — did so well across social media that it prompted Facebook to change the algorithm. “I think that scared Facebook a little bit, that there could be a publisher that promotes a piece of content that then their algorithm feels like it needs to show to everyone in the world,” Peretti said in his BuzzFeed elegy. Ben Smith, the head of BuzzFeed’s news division, put it a little more grimly when he wrote, “Perhaps Jonah and I, thinking of ourselves as protagonists, had been passing through someone else’s story” — meaning Mark Zuckerberg’s.
This would appear to be the moment to wax nostalgic for the insurgent media companies of the 2010s — they were run by very young people who, often, were genuinely optimistic about the potential of the web and, today’s Monday morning quarterbacking aside, it really seemed like something or other should work — but the story of new media is moving on darker tracks than that. It wasn’t just that social media figured out how to turn the demand side of media into endless clicking and scrolling; it was that the numbers people at places like BuzzFeed finally figured out what the problem was — it was the staff.
At a meeting this week with company investors, Peretti announced that the majority of BuzzFeed going forward would be written by AI. "Over the next few years, generative AI will replace the majority of static content, and audiences will begin to expect all content to be curated and dynamic with embedded intelligence," he said. "AI will lead to new formats that are more gamified, more personalized, and more interactive."
I’ve been a bit perplexed by the idea of the ‘Great Resignation.’ Does it mean that, all of a sudden, nobody needs money? And perplexed also by the revolutionary idea of ‘quiet quitting’ — does that mean that everybody’s decided just to be bad at their jobs? But a really wonderful article by Erik Baker in Harper’s gives it some context.
Baker’s idea is that the ‘value’ of work is highly subjective and gets codified in very different frameworks at different points in time. The vision of industriousness spoke to the Industrial Revolution - “to contributing to the great project, to being a participant in the construction of modernity.” Once that was done, the “prairies plowed, the cities erected, the mines dug,” a new professional ethic emerged in the idea of ‘entrepreneurship’ - that a product “embodied the personality of the individual who created it” and work “served as an arena for self-actualization.”
That’s the dispensation that’s taken us, really, from World War II to the present. But, at the moment, Baker writes, “Something isn’t right. People are still showing up - and yet work has become somehow alien. It acts on us, not through us. It is a nuisance.”
His idea is that it was the 2008 financial crisis that “broke the spell” and then was compounded by the existential crisis of 2020. As Noreen Malone put it in The New York Times Magazine, “ ‘Nonessential’ is a word that invites creeping nihilism. This thing we filled at least eight to ten hours of the day with, five days a week, for years and decades, missed family dinners for . . . was it just busy work?”
And, in Baker’s view, the Great Resignation is really a jaded sensibility about the intrinsic worth of labor. The collective spirit and the entrepreneurial spirit have both gone away, replaced by a spirit of wary subsistence. “A job is just a job,” argues a blogger, Michelle S, on the site Zapier, “an exchange of your labor for your employer’s cold, hard cash.” What turns out to be of value for many of the quitters and resigners aren’t any of the incentives that the workforce can provide. What’s of value is leisure - which, as often as not, means the free time to do the work that you love, freed of market pressures.
What the Great Resignation amounts to, then, isn’t so much some sort of withdrawal-from-the-work-force in toto as a newly-empowered approach to it, more self-employment, more “canvassing for better deals than a radical refusal to work altogether.” The mainstream response to the ‘Great Resignation’ is despair. A Wall Street Journal article on the failure-to-return-to-the-office laments, for instance, that each New Yorker working from home costs city businesses an average of $4,600 in sales annually — and explores various means of luring workers back to offices. But what it may mean, really, is a new era — in which workers are less drawn into coercive arrangements for the sake of increasing their ‘value’ and are better able to set worth in their own terms. I’m very struck by a line in Deresiewicz’s Tablet essay in which he says, “We can’t help being boring but we can help being lazy,” and feel that it may be apposite here. His point is that what’s needed in art isn’t so much ‘support’ for artists — artists will figure it out as they can — as audiences to be better, be smarter, understand the ways that they are being manipulated by industry and to be more proactive in how they consume and think about art. And it seems that, in the great shift from one kind of economy to another, what matters most is an ethic of responsibility. Being an employee is lazy in the way that being a consumer is lazy. The economy we would want is people actively doing what matters to them and consumers that are intelligently spending their money on what’s actually important.