New York Diarist: Kitsch and Culture

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POLITICS DECEMBER 23, 1996

New York Diarist: Kitsch and Culture

Am I right that this Thanksgiving there was less of that guilt-burdened anxiety which has suffused Thanksgivings of the recent past? No one at my dinner table asked: What do the American Indians have to give thanks for? (The absence of this question is already something to give thanks for this year.) Apparently, even the chichi-est private schools were permitted to celebrate the Pilgrim fest without apologies or embarrassment. Columbus Day, which came off almost entirely without that tiresome public debate about the deadly viruses brought to the "new world" by the Santa Maria, had already augured this renewed self-confidence. And the restoration of guilt-free Thanksgiving would be symptomatic of a healthy impulse in our society: the impulse to accept the national legend, at least metaphorically, as applying to all of us. My parents came from a shtetl called Levertov, near Lublin, in Poland. Yet when, as a child, I sang those mythic lyrics, "My country, 'tis of thee, Sweet Land of liberty... Land where our fathers died, Land of the Pilgrims' pride...," I was appropriating the American past to myself; it was not appropriating me. Citizenship begins in such symbolic appropriations. It is how sea-tossed immigrants arrive and rise, and how descendants of slaves do, too. The denial of collective metaphors may be thought to bolster particularist identities. But what it really does is marginalize them, not a happy outcome either for the dominant culture or for the minorities whose lives are fated to be fragile strands within it.

Thanksgiving having just past, the Christmas rush is upon us. I count at least six dance productions of The Nutcracker in the metropolitan area. There is the usual Christmas extravaganza at Radio City Music Hall. And you have to endure lines a block-and-a-half long to get through either of the two doors to FAO Schwarz. This being New York, the Hanukah rush is also upon us. For centuries, Hanukah--with no basis in biblical text--was a minor holiday, with a minor nationalist trope. Modern Zionism gave it new gravity. And assimilation forced Jews to employ it as a counterweight to Christmas for Jewish children: eight presents over eight nights commemorating a miracle not as wondrous as the Virgin Birth, but a miracle nonetheless. And while there aren't as many performances of Judas Maccabeus scheduled in New York as there are of the Messiah, there is the usual range of sensibility: from high culture to schlock. There is, moreover, rough equality (or, to be more precise, rough proportionality) accorded the holidays in public space. Wherever there is a Christmas tree, there is also likely to be a menorah. And the creches? They've gone down the dustbin of history, thanks to a particularly stupid Supreme Court opinion by Justice Harry Blackmun in 1989, in a case brought by the aclu, the usual pursuers of the baby Jesus out of the town square. Five years earlier, the Court had upheld a nativity scene surrounded by a clown, an elephant, a teddy bear, Santa's workshop and a talking wishing well. In the 1989 case, Blackmun upheld a menorah next to a Yuletide tree and a sign saluting liberty. But he struck down the creche because, without the garish accoutrements, it was so explicitly religious as to transgress the establishment clause. Legal practitioners call this the " three plastic animals rule."

But perhaps Blackmun was right about the nonreligious character of the menorah. Or maybe, through some serendipity, he foresaw what would happen to it. This year the Hanukah candelabra has become (along with the four-sided top, called the dreidel) a licensed Disney promotion in various permutations. I saw four or five different versions myself: each with Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Minnie, Pluto. There is a menorah structured around clowns as well, and one with the requisite nine lights portrayed by the nine players on the baseball field. When push comes to shove, I suppose I am part of the movement for "Jewish continuity," the community's latest programmatic cliche, and I am willing to endure many strategies to keep the tradition alive. But this is a bit much. How, for example, would Catholics feel if Minnie were portrayed-- and for sale--fingering her rosaries?

The associations of commerce and culture are often not just strained but grotesque. Take the coincidence of the big Corot exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum and the desire of Van Cleef and Arpels, a jewelry emporium for the extravagant lodged at Bergdorf Goodman's, to sell its gems. What coincidence? you ask. You are right. There's no link whatever. Nonetheless, in vitrines around the upscale shopping district, you will find copies of Corot paintings, an allusion to the Met show and some spectacular strands of precious stones draped over the canvas. My favorite is the reproduction of a particular signature Corot image, a Gypsy woman, no doubt poor and perhaps nomadic. Here on Fifth Avenue, though, her picture is adorned with an elaborate diamond necklace.

But Barney's still remains the true arbiter of the ludicrous. Take its five Christmas windows at the southeast corner of 61st and Madison, each of them finicky contrivances to evoke shabby and slapdash memory. There's one called Blue-eyed Yule, an homage to Frank Sinatra, with relics from Sammy Davis Jr. and Dino. There's Cool Yule, an homage to the Beat generation, grunge-style not for sale anywhere inside, with several icons of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac plus liquor bottles and, as if excavated from antiquity, actual typewriters. Politically Incorrect Yule is an homage to blondes, from Shelley Winters to Ivana Trump. And we are also wished a Neurotic Yule, by way of an homage to Sigmund Freud. This one was "licensed" to Barney's by the Roger Richman Agency, Inc. of Beverly Hills, California, apparently the Freud heirs' representatives to the world of entertainment and commerce. The estate of Martin Luther King Jr. has rented out Dr. King's memory for Barney's fifth theme window, a "Glorious Yule" with "I have a dream ..." and a grave pronunciamento on nonviolence accompanying gloomy photographs of American blacks from another time. There was, I should say, no Hanukah window; the agent for Mattiyahu Maccabee and Sons could not be found. In any case, Freud did not celebrate Christmas. So Freud's neurotic Christmas on 61st must be a sublimation of Hanukah.

It's instructive that Christmas shopping is taken as an index of the economy's overall health. Even without knowing the retail figures for the Thanksgiving weekend one cannot escape the impression that economic anxiety in the middle- and upper-middle strata has given way to ebullience--which is to say to spending. In recent years, much of the postThanksgiving rush was due to foreign shoppers. You still hear French and Spanish, Japanese and Italian, and even a bit of Hebrew, on the fancy streets. But the dollar has gone up, way up, and it is going higher. This may be the foreigners' last chance for bargains.

By Martin Peretz

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