Is a rigorous eclecticism possible? Can you admire, simultaneously, works of art that reflect widely and even wildly differing styles and sensibilities? I want the answer to be, “Yes.” I believe the answer must be, “Yes.” Only a heterogeneous sensibility can match the heterogeneity of our experience. But I know that nothing is more difficult to maintain than a rigorous eclecticism. The trouble is that knowledge is constantly being confused with knowingness. You are always in danger of losing the sense that fuels the sensibility.
The Scottsboro Boys playing at the Lyceum got some unwanted – more or less – publicity a little while ago when members of New York City’s Freedom Party picketed it for its framing of the plot in minstrel show format. The minstrel part is, in fact, the least interesting thing about a show whose main problem is being just plain hokey – which makes it as questionable to treat it as serious business as it is to picket it for the minstrelsy.
If Walter Benjamin were alive today, would he be writing a little essay about “Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen,” the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art? It is easy to imagine Benjamin crafting a few intricate, elegant pages, combining a collector’s ardent admiration, an intellectual’s theoretical flights, and a novelist’s sensitivity to the pop-chic ambience at MoMA.
I am deeply disturbed by “Chaos and Classicism,” a survey of the arts in Europe from the end of World War I to the beginning of World War II that is currently at the Guggenheim. I know many people have been excited by this exploration of classical tendencies in France, Germany, and Italy between the wars. The subject matter has been treated in major shows in Europe—such as “Les Réalismes” in Paris in 1980 and “On Classic Ground” in London in 1990—but is not so well known over here.
Is it true that children’s picture books are going out of fashion? “Parents are saying, ‘My kid doesn’t need books with pictures anymore.’ ” That’s what Justin Chanda, publisher of children’s books at Simon & Schuster, explained to a New York Times reporter the other day. Whatever the kids may be thinking, the thinking of their parents is all too easy to understand. In our test-score crazed culture, pictures are seen as a waste. Why linger over a farmland vista or a knight in shining armor or one of Richard Scarry’s crazy traffic jams when there’s real work to be done?
“Abstract Expressionist New York,” the huge new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, is three-quarters brain dead. That is better than entirely brain dead. My advice is to begin with the strongest material, which you will find in galleries on the second and third floors at MoMA. Walking through “Rock Paper Scissors” and “’Ideas Not Theories’: Artists and The Club, 1942–1962”—with their excitable mix of works in multiple media by midcentury painters, sculptors, and architects—you can feel the gritty romantic spirit of downtown Manhattan in the years during and after World War II.
Nobody talks about “midcult” anymore. I wonder how many people are even aware of this nifty coinage. I like the clipped sound of those two syllables locked together, the efficiency with which “middle” and “culture” have been shortened, abbreviated, then spliced together. Dwight Macdonald tossed midcult into the intellectual playground with his 1961 essay, “Masscult and Midcult,” originally published as a pamphlet by Partisan Review. And whatever the strengths and the weaknesses of that long, elaborate essay, the word has its own kind of mid-twentieth-century fascination.