Is the “Sensation” show at the Brooklyn Museum art or trash? Is the Edmund Morris biography of Ronald Reagan literature or a big mistake? Culturebox doesn’t know, and neither do you, dear reader, unless you’re in the tiny minority of New Yorkers who have seen the one or read the other. But that doesn’t stop Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Hillary Rodham Clinton, a majority of U.S. senators, editorial page writers around the country, Culturebox’s colleague Chatterbox, and, of course, Culturebox from holding forth. And why should it? We know a biographer’s busted play or an artist’s insult to Catholicism and good taste when we see it.
But how do we know? From a few nouns and adjectives in a newspaper–“Virgin Mary,” “elephant dung,” “bisected pig,” “fictional biographer”–and some overlit images on the television screen. Since that’s all we need to come to a publishable understanding of a work of art–or something that may or may not be art, we’re not sure–we feel someone should advise “Sensation” artist Chris Ofili and author Edmund Morris that they’ve each made a tragically stupid choice of profession. Think of the paintings they could have avoided painting, the books they could have not written, the time they could have saved not layering paint (or, in the case of Ofili, paint, magazine pages, and elephant dung) or doing research! If it’s the idea of the thing rather than the thing itself that’s going to influence the people who will influence the public, why type the words or cast the dung upon the canvas? A press release would do as well.
Actually, we who labor in the quick-take manufacturing industry–which is to say, pundits in general, Internet pundits in particular, and Slate pundits most of all–know the following facts to be self-evident, even though, in the heat of the chase, we prefer to ignore them completely: The excerpt is not the book. The reproduction is not the work of art. If they were, we wouldn’t need museums or books. We could all study art books for our art and read magazines for our literature. Art critics could skip openings; book reviewers could rely on summaries in Publishers Weekly. Art and literature are not the rough approximations of themselves. They are the sum of their parts, and their parts include formal properties and details that do not translate into other media.
So, for instance, what is elephant dung in the context of Ofili’s painting of a Nigerian Virgin Mary? Culturebox doesn’t know, because she hasn’t seen the work, and neither do Giuliani, Clinton, et al., but it is at least possible that if she stood before the painting she would think: Aha! Dung has a whole new meaning in the context of the sardonic primitivism, the parodic putti-cum-naked-models, the way the entire picture functions both as an homage to and an ironic commentary on the Western cult of the Madonna and its role in African culture. Or she might think: This is horseshit as well as elephant dung!
The practice of pronouncing without firsthand experience will not stop just because Culturebox has ranted about it, of course–nor should it. But she, for one, is so humbled by the wrath of Giuliani, whose know-nothingism is attached to fearsome punitive powers, that she has joined her local chapter of Pundits Anonymous. There she will place her faith in a higher power and pray that next time she’s tempted to discourse on that of which she knows absolutely nothing, He’ll shut her up. Maybe she’ll drag Chatterbox to the next meeting.