My post “generic writing (or how to say nothing in 430 plus words)” has been updated with new content. See
— Roger W. Smith
My post “generic writing (or how to say nothing in 430 plus words)” has been updated with new content. See
— Roger W. Smith
“Moralists come and go; religionists fulminate and declare the pronouncements of God as to this; but Aphrodite still reigns Embowered in the festal depths of the spring.”
— Theodore Dreiser, Dawn: An Autobiography of Early Youth
The words (characterization) “bombastic prose-poetry” are not mine. They are from Scott McLemee, “Keeping It Real,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 30, 2004.
— posted by Roger W. Smith
This is an unprecedented moment in our history; we all feel it. The pandemic continues to be deeply challenging for everyone, and tragic for too many. Now, the horrifying death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the protests that have followed are weighing heavily on all our minds. COVID-19 has magnified and exposed our most deeply embedded failings and fault lines. We stand with the Black community, our hearts aching for a country so divided by racial injustice, arrogance, and hatred. It’s hard not to be sad, not to be angry, and to remain hopeful.
In the face of cruelty, fear, and anxiety, we need to search for what we can still hold on to, what we can still believe in. We can all be proud that the mission of the Library—to educate, welcome and respect all perspectives, convene safe and productive conversations, and offer opportunity to all—directly combats divisiveness, ignorance, hate, and racism. It is and remains our founding idea: that everyone can learn and contribute, and must be respected. And in learning about others we learn about ourselves and hopefully find ways to live together, to embrace and better understand each other.
Our varied backgrounds and experiences within our city and society are our greatest source of strength: bringing new ideas and perspectives, teaching empathy, and shining a light on how we falter. But not if we close our eyes and ears to the lessons of diversity, rejecting the validity and equal value of experiences and lives other than our own. When we fail as a society to respect learning and each other, we become inhumane and untold tragedy follows.
We all have a responsibility to actively participate in our democracy as informed citizens, to collectively refine, demand, and enact justice. Educating ourselves further about the legacy of racial injustice in this country is a key piece of this.
The Library, your Library, is committed to enabling that learning. We will offer every tool, book, and collection we can, welcome and serve all, and encourage all to respect each other, learn together and from one another. All the accumulated knowledge we hold reminds us that we are capable, yes, of horror, but on balance, we are still capable together of imagining and achieving better.
For 125 years, whether in person or for now only online, we have led the fight against ignorance to support understanding, empathy, and solidarity. In this difficult moment, we reinforce our mission, and stand with all of our communities against injustice and racism.
Thank you, and please stay safe.
Anthony W. Marx
President, The New York Public Library
June 1, 2020
I am a devoted New York Public Library patron.
This message came in the form of an email.
I was hoping that Mr. Marx might say something about library services and plans for or the possibility of reopening.
If I may be permitted to do so, I ask what has Mr. Marx said here? Perhaps we have had similar thoughts in our private musings. But what is his purpose in writing this message? To library supporters and patrons. What has he said that might affect our views on anything one way or the other? And what does any of this have to do with the library, or Mr. Marx’s role as its president?
– posted by Roger W. Smith
June 1, 2020
addendum, June 2
There have been similar posts this evening from other cultural institutions in the City such as the Park Avenue Armory and Queens Public Library.
It has occurred to me that what Mr. Marx and the other executives of these institutions are doing amounts to preening. They are using the tragic death of George Floyd to get credit for THEMSELVES and perhaps increased support for their institutions. Should I, should I be so inclined, put a post here stating the obvious: that I am greatly distressed about George Floyd’s death — to perhaps show myself in a good light as someone who cares? Should I, could I afford it, take out an advisement in a newspaper for the same purpose? What would the point be? All decent people feel the same way. Should I tell everyone that I do? Do they need to hear that? Would it do them good to hear it?
addendum, June 10
The following are recent messages sent by email to alumni and members of the Brandeis University community by Brandeis University President Ronald D. Liebowitz.
June 1, 2020
Dear Members of the Brandeis Community,
George Floyd’s killing was cruel, inhumane, and contemptible. The injustice of violence against black people must stop.
The history of our great university is intertwined with the pursuit of justice. Brandeis was created in response to antisemitism and bigotry. We cannot tolerate discrimination, hatred, or violence against another person based on their race, religion, or background. These values are as important today as they were at our founding.
These are not just words or noble ideas. These are principles that inspire us at Brandeis to educate, to learn, and to act.
With that in mind, I join with Mark Brimhall-Vargas, chief diversity officer, in calling for us to come together, even if virtually. In the message Mark sent on Friday, he mentioned two different events happening this week. The Heller School is hosting a conference, “Co-Constructing Racial Justice through Life and Work.” And Mark will host “Coming Together to Face Systemic Racism.” I hope you will join me in attending both.
As Brandeisians, not all of our experiences are shared ones. We come from different backgrounds and have different perspectives. But I know that there are some things we have in common. This includes an unwavering commitment to justice, equity, and inclusion. It includes respecting other people, no matter their background.
I hope to see you at one of the events tomorrow or the next day. Let us come together to express our commitment to ending racist violence.
June 9. 2020
Dear Members of the Brandeis Community,
Black Lives Matter.
Last week, I wrote to all of you saying violence against Black people must stop. The killing of George Floyd by police was inhuman, contemptible, and tragic. We gathered together virtually, and I heard many of you express outrage, fear, and the exhaustion of living with cruel racism in your lives and on our campus.
I said then that we must do more; we must do better.
In that spirit, I am announcing an initiative that will transform our campus and address systemic racism. I have asked key administrators to develop and submit action plans in the next 90 days.
• These action plans must include ongoing, significant engagement with members of the campus community. We must listen, and understand the kinds of systemic racism, bias, and ill-treatment experienced by Black members of our community. But we must go further than dialogue and understanding. We must rapidly move toward concrete change.
• The action plans I am calling for must be transformational, including new approaches regarding the roles and responsibilities of Public Safety, the Department of Community Living, Human Resources, Athletics, the Academy, and all of us who are charged with creating and sustaining a safe, respectful environment for learning and living.
• Action plans must be developed with broad input from diverse constituencies. Black students, Black student organizations, other students of color, other student organizations, faculty, members of each of the aforementioned departments, and other staff should all be invited to be part of the drafting process.
I am asking the following administrators to develop and submit these action plans by September 1:
• Executive Vice President Stew Uretsky, Vice President of Campus Operations Lois Stanley, Vice President for Human Resources Robin Switzer, and Director of Public Safety and Chief of Police Ed Callahan for the plans for Public Safety and Human Resources
•Vice Provost for Student Affairs Raymond Ou, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Tim Touchette, and Director of Athletics Lauren Haynie for the plans for Community Living, Residential Life, and Athletics
• Provost Lisa Lynch, Dean Eric Chasalow, Dean Dorothy Hodgson, Dean Katy Graddy, Dean David Weil, and Vice President Lynne Rosansky for the plan for the Academy and its constituent Schools
Despite concerted efforts to address past incidents on campus, discrimination and bias continue to be issues for us at Brandeis. While we have piloted a number of initiatives, most of them voluntary in nature, across the university, we are committed to a more comprehensive approach to addressing racism in order to build stronger, more respectful relationships within the community.
Our university was founded on principles of inclusion that are as relevant today as they were in 1948. As I said at the community virtual gathering last week, we have not always lived up to our ideals, but those ideals — our values — point us in the right direction. The administration and I are committed to moving beyond “business as usual” and requesting voluntary efforts for change. We must work together to build a community that is diverse, welcoming, and free from bias and discrimination.
These communiqués are similar to the above email sent by Anthony W. Marx, President of the New York Public Library, on June 1.
I am a Brandeis University alumnus. The school has always been a liberal, forward looking place, in terms of views on the issues and the university community. University President Liebowitz feels it is incumbent upon him — he has taken upon himself, as have administrators of all sorts of educational and cultural institutions — to articulate his views at this time as the voice of the university.
But what has he said? What do these communiqués tell us? Why is he writing?
Because he feels he ought to say something.
President Liebowitz says in his first communiqué: “We cannot tolerate discrimination, hatred, or violence against another person based on their race, religion, or background. These values are as important today as they were at our founding.” And, in the second, he writes: “We gathered together virtually [after the murder of George Floyd], and I heard many of you express outrage, fear, and the exhaustion of living with cruel racism in your lives and on our campus.”
This is so vague as to be meaningless.
If there are racial injustices embedded in university policies — or in present campus realities — President Liebowitz could have said what they were, without necessarily going into detail. Then, we could see what they were; what problems he feels the university should address; and steps he is contemplating or undertaking. No such problems or injustices are mentioned. They are conspicuous by the absence of any mention of them.
So why should one read these communiqués? President Liebowitz did mention that the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis was hosting two conferences on addressing the problem of systematic racism. They don’t sound interesting to me, but at least this is informative.
Here, in essence, is the letter I would have written: We deplore the murder of George Floyd. We deplore the racism endemic in our society and the murder of our black citizens. We are ever mindful of these issues and are holding two virtual conferences this week that you may wish to attend. …
— Roger W. Smith
post updated June 10, 2020
“Feverishly, madly–visions, desires, all-but-impossible dreams, brewed and tossed as spume upon, enormous, exhilarating waves of fancy.”
— Theodore Dreiser, “This Madness, Part Two–Aglaia,” Hearst’s International combined with Cosmopolitan 86 (March 1929), pg. 166
This post focuses on an opinion piece in Friday’s New York Times:
The Dominance of the White Male Critic
Conversations about our monuments, museums, screens and stages have the same blind spots as our political discourse.
By Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang
The New York Times
July 5, 2019
An opinion piece written to challenge conventional ideas and positions. To stimulate readers to rethink issues. To challenge unenlightened Establishment views.
It will get attention, but as a piece of writing it is a soporific.
It is built on a very insubstantial tissue of generalities and awkward locutions often intended to serve as code words. And which shows that the authors are preaching to the choir. They don’t feel compelled to explain and elucidate things for the general reader or for skeptical readers. They are confident that those who agree will get it (the points they are making) without them having to take pains to be clear. In fact, a certain arch obscurity, a predilection for almost unintelligible generalizations couched in faux-high-flown language, which, in their view — from their perspective as writers — fits the piece well. While it challenges conventional thinking, the op-ed is itself an example of weak, unoriginal thinking and a specimen of very poor, insipid writing.
A header states: Ms. Méndez Berry and Mr. Yang started a program to amplify the work of critics of color.”
Quoting from the piece, below, I have provided my own annotations and comments in boldface. Excerpts from the op-ed are in italics.
I am not going to try and respond to the op-ed’s major premises. But here are some examples of what I feel is shoddy writing. Writing that obscures rather than clarifies issues and shows a tendency towards tendentiousness.
— Roger W. Smith
Yet those who have for decades been given the biggest platforms to interpret culture are white men. This means that the spaces in media where national mythologies are articulated, debated and affirmed are still largely segregated. The conversation about our collective imagination has the same blind spots as our political discourse.
Typical wording for this piece. This is generic-speak. It is very portentous and actually says very little.
“those who have for decades been given the biggest platforms to interpret culture”
Awkward and wordy.
“the spaces in media where national mythologies are articulated”
Poor, imprecise, fuzzy wording. Also, pretentious.
Yet the most dynamic art in America today is being made by artists of color and indigenous artists.
There is nothing wrong with this sentence syntactically, but such a broad claim is not sustainable.
The example of “Green Book” [an Oscar-winning film, the critical reception of which the authors discuss] shows how uncritical affection for superficially benevolent stories can actually reinforce the racial hierarchies this country is built on. We need culture writers who see and think from places of difference and who are willing to take unpopular positions so that ideas can evolve or die.
“how uncritical affection for superficially benevolent stories can actually reinforce the racial hierarchies this country is built on”
More boiler plate generic-speak, a kind of language which says nothing and clarifies nothing.
“culture writers who see and think from places of difference”
This is horribly vague (and affected) wording. So much so that it says nothing. Critics write, they don’t “see and think.” They write at their desks. “[P]laces of difference”? This is doublespeak.
In a clickbait attention economy where more than half of visual arts critics make on average less than $20,000 per year from arts writing, the voices that are most needed are the least likely to emerge.
Something is said supposedly cleverly where the words are actually muddying the waters. “[C]lickbait attention economy” is a maladroit coinage which adds nothing informational- or content-wise.
In 2017, we began an initiative called Critical Minded to help amplify the work of critics of color and knock down the barriers they face. (The project is focused on racial justice in criticism, but we’re also concerned about class, gender identity, sexual orientation and ability.)
This is an example of opinions supposedly being stated forcefully, weakened by careless phrasing: “knock down the barriers” they face,” for example.
“[W]e’re also concerned about class, gender identity, sexual orientation and ability.”
In other words, the authors are concerned about everything. Way too broad and general.
Think of cultural criticism as a public utility, civic infrastructure that needs to be valued not based just on its monetary impact but also on its capacity to expand the collective conversation at a time when it is dangerously contracting. Arts writing fosters an engaged citizenry that participates in the making of its own story.
This is too general. The point is not sharply made or clearly elucidated. And, it is an example of how generic writing can obfuscate rather than clarify things. In my mind, criticism is just that. I know what the word criticism means: a book or film review; a review of a concert or museum exhibit. Criticism as a “public utility, civic infrastructure”? By trying to be profound and all wise, the authors stray beyond the parameters of common sense and lose the reader.
Culture writers are often unpopular, and critics of color doubly so: Marginalized by mainstream outlets, they’re sometimes viewed with suspicion within their own communities when they challenge a beloved artist. At their best they are unbought and unbossed, which makes them difficult to employ, and doubly necessary.
The authors of the op-ed may think this. But the point is so broad, and is communicated in such a fuzzy and heavy-handed manner, that most readers won’t be convinced. “[T]hey are unbought and unbossed” is atrocious wording.
We need a rigorous, rollicking culture coverage that’s uncoupled from class and credentials.
Same thing here. Supposedly en pointe, clever wording which actually says very little and shows writers trying to convince and impress who fall flat. ‘[R]igorous, rollicking” is an oxymoron.
We should move away from anointing a talented two or three critics of color and toward kaleidoscopic ecosystems of ideas and taste.
“[K]aleidoscopic ecosystems of ideas and taste” Another pretentious, fuzzy, and awful coinage. An example of writers violating the principle of simplicity and clarity.
Coverage shifts when people mobilize for change. It’s time for culture writing to follow culture to where it flows and to value the people it engages.
This is overly generic. Such overly generic writing is flabby and invariably unconvincing.
Some of my own thoughts about the term “people of color” and associated or implied ideas. The authors assume that we all know and agree as to what the term means (and, implicitly, approve of its usage).
What is a person of color? It is supposed to mean, in contemporary parlance, a person other than a white person or a person (presumably white) of European parentage.
What is a white person? A person who is not a person of color.
Is a Spanish (i.e., a person born or residing in Spain) person white? Yes, according to the above definition.
Is a Hispanic person (who is presumably or with a fair degree of probability, descended from Spaniards, although perhaps — it often seems to be the case — of mixed ethnicity comprised of descent from Spanish settlers in the American continent and other perhaps indigenous races) a person of color? Yes, as “people of color” is meant to be understood. In other words, perhaps of European ancestry (wholly or partially), going back a way, but not now one of that group.
This divides humanity into wide swaths, with well over a half in the category of persons of color.
These “definitions” seem to be an example of what might be called reductio ad absurdum — in that, by the time we have made the distinctions between categories of persons based upon a nonsensical formulation or formula, we have elucidated nothing and created considerable confusion; and left one wondering why, for example, people of descent from this or that ethnic group end up being in distinct categories. Separated, arbitrarily, into two groups, which obliterates any and all other distinctions.
Does the term “people of color” have meaning and is it based upon skin color, as the words seem to say unmistakably? It must be based upon skin color, since whites are in a separate category from non-whites. But how does one distinguish between the races this way, and make sense of it? When I was growing up, we were told that there were four races: white, black or brown, yellow, and red. Do Asians have yellow skin? I have met hardly any American Indians, but they don’t, in photographs I have seen, look that different to me from white people. Perhaps their skin is slightly more ruddy, and they do seem to have distinctive features that I would not be able to categorize. I don’t know and I don’t care.
I think this whole thing about “people of color” and the rest of humanity (us whites and Europeans) is nonsense. It is a very crude “measuring device,” rule of thumb, guidepost, or whatever one wants to call it. It divides people arbitrarily with no rationale and negates our common humanity.
I will probably be accused of having reactionary, benighted opinions for saying the following. I believe that race and ethnicity do matter. A lot. What was my ancestry? My ethnicity? My nationality or my parents’, grandparents’, or ancestors’ nationality, which is to say cultural heritage?
Is it surprising that often athletes seem to have children who are also good at sports? Often the great athletes were sons of athletes of more than average ability. That great scholars and intellectuals often were raised in an intellectual milieu by parents who themselves were intellectuals? That prodigies in the arts often had parents who were similarly gifted or inclined? Offspring of singers and actors? Siblings who excel in the same area such as scholarship, sports, or the arts. And so forth. (A critic will say, the only reason the children of composers or musicians, say, are often musically gifted themselves is because their successful parents gave them lessons, or could afford to pay instructors, or had a prior interest or expertise that they passed on to their children. Perhaps so — undoubtedly environmental factors or what is called nurture were important — but I don’t think the fact can be ignored that there might be genetic factors in play by which traits get passed on to offspring: a “musical gene,” say, a baseball, basketball, or track and field “gene.”)
What does this show us? That ethnicity and heritage can mean a lot. In individual cases. Which will not lead one to jump to the conclusion, I hope, that I am a racist. I am not trying to say that belonging to a particular racial or ethnic group makes some people “better” than others in any conceivable way. But the group I was born into, which I am descended from — my genealogy — made and makes a difference to me. Meaning that, when I consider my strengths and weaknesses, my talents and proclivities, and so on, I can see that circumstances of birth and upbringing (the latter of which was influenced by cultural factors) had a lot to with the kind of person I turned out to be. Was I good at sports? music? book learning? learning languages? mathematics? dexterity? mechanical things and “practical wisdom”? Et cetera.
I have always felt that we should not leap from this — from analyzing and trying to understand how heredity and environment may have shaped and molded an individual, and may well influence his or her current outlook — to making generalizations or unfair comparisons, or setting up yardsticks. To favoring one group over another, barring anyone from competing in “the game” of life or getting an education or training in this or that field. It is my firm conviction that there should be a level playing field for all; and that race, ethnicity, color, or what have you — choose your own criterion — should not be a factor in making decisions about who is admitted, hired, gets a scholarship, and so forth. But that goes for EVERYONE, as I see it, all races and ethnicities, all nationalities: for “people of color” and the rest of humanity — there shouldn’t be any distinctions made in this regard between groups. And, generalities and commonly held beliefs are just that: generalities. For every example of behavior or achievement befitting a common assumption about differences among races — a presupposition someone has or that was once held (I see no point in enumerating stereotypes) — there are a zillion exceptions.
So (the authors note), the six most influential art critics in the country, “as selected by their peers” (this is important) are all white and almost all male. To me, this is not a problem. There would be a problem if women or minorities were excluded by policy as cultural critics and newspapers or magazines would not hire them. And, the fact of a critic being a woman or from a minority group might enable them to see things from a different perspective. But, basically, when I read criticism, I want it to be well written and worth reading, and to “educate” me in a way that is possible when the writer has a deep knowledge of the discipline. That’s all I care about. If a critic is good, he or she is good; and vice versa. I’m color blind and sex indifferent when I read criticism or anything else. Except that, I might realize that the critic is bringing to bear some of his or her own experience or background. One doesn’t have to ignore ethnic or cultural background, if it seems relevant or pertinent to what the critic is saying, somehow. That may add to our understanding, but if the critic is not, as is most often the case, a “person of color,” I feel that it is wrong of persons such as the authors of this op-ed to find that to be problematic, and to object.
— posted by Roger W. Smith
July 7, 2019
Two things are pertinent to this post — form a background to it, so to speak.
First, this past March, I wrote a blog post:
“Racism Rears Its Ugly Head”
about objections to a painting by the artist Dana Schutz based upon photographs of the mutilated body of Emmett Till, the black teenager who was murdered by two white men in Mississippi in 1955, which was featured in the 2017 Biennial exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan. Protests had arisen over the work. I am in principle opposed to the destruction of art for reasons of political correctness.
Secondly, I am working on a post of my own about the craft of writing. I want to be able to illustrate it with examples of both good and bad writing.
With these things in the back of my mind, I read an op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times which stopped me cold, that was so bad it was unbelievable. I thought to myself, how did it get published? I posted an angry comment on the Times site, but the comment did not get posted. No doubt, the Times editors found it inappropriate. Strange, because often comments posted in response to Times opinion pieces are not well written or articulate; and, in fact, many are obtuse and display ignorance and lack of acumen.
The piece that has astounded me with its badness and inanity is
“The Art of Destroying an Artwork”
by David Xu Borgonjon
New York Times
October 25, 2017
The Times article merely indicates that “David Xu Borgonjon is a curator and writer.” Googling him at
I found out that “[David Xu Borgonjon] is a curatorial fellow at Wave Hill and is the co-founder of Screen, a bilingual Chinese and English platform for media art commentary. Currently he is preparing a series of “Strategy Sessions” for Summer 2015, a professional development workshops for artists using board games as metaphor. David has coordinated the Gallery of the Women’s Center at Brown University (where he graduated in 2014 in English with honors in a Dual Degree program with the Rhode Island School of Design).”
And so forth. The information on the site may be slightly dated. Wave Hill is a 28-acre estate in the Hudson Hill section of Riverdale, Bronx, in New York City which consists of public horticultural gardens and a cultural center which includes an art gallery.
One has to read Mr. Borgonjon’s piece in full to get a feel for its awfulness. It is a textbook example of flawed writing built upon cockeyed premises. A key problem is that the piece is too abstract, is not tethered to fact. One might ask, what’s wrong with a conceptual piece of writing, with exposition for the sake of exposition? Is there such a thing as too abstract? Yes, there is, and Mr. Borgonjon’s horribly written piece shows how this can occur.
It’s very hard to even figure out what he is talking about. One has to wade through the piece, which is tortuous reading, a ways to get some idea of what he is talking about. This, right away, indicates a problem. There are some would be intellectuals/thinkers and writers who seem to think that nebulous writing is a sign of great thoughts percolating in a genius’s mind, thoughts which he or she can’t waste time trying to explain to us. That it is our duty, should we wish, to come up to their level. This is ridiculous.
The following are some excerpts from the op-ed du jour, followed by my comments (in boldface). Good luck in figuring out what the writer’s fulminations mean.
“But there’s a problem with this binary formulation, which opposes the sacrosanct art object to the interests and demands of the public. Curators need to think about more creative ways to withdraw art from public display. Rather than thinking of calls to remove art as either right or wrong, institutions should think of them as creative opportunities to reimagine who their public is.”
This is pure nonsense. Highfalutin language signifying nothing. Jargon laden mumbo jumbo. The underlying premises are flawed and the views imbedded in them are toxic and pernicious. Idiotic premises lead to idiotic conclusions.
“What we should be asking, instead, is how it should ‘go.’ A work of art could be destroyed (burned, buried, shredded), edited, documented, mourned or even substituted. It could be supplemented with performances, talks, protests. It could be turned into minimalist furniture for the museum cafe, or sold on eBay, with the proceeds going to charity.”
Pure nonsense. How can the Times publish it? “It could be turned into minimalist furniture for the museum cafe, or sold on eBay, with the proceeds going to charity.” Is he serious? If he is, it’s sad. No, deplorable.
“Contemporary art theory has long held that the artwork takes place not in the moment of creation or exhibition, but rather in the ways that it circulates in the world. That’s why withdrawal isn’t just a negative act. The museum is actively putting the withdrawal into the world, which will then circulate beside and on top of the artwork, as a rumor, a footnote, a filter. I am arguing for a creative acceptance of the pressure to withdraw an artwork, rather than either outright rejection or reluctant acquiescence.”
Here we have an example of what might be called “over abstraction,” supposedly weighty observations, disguised as such, which amount to pseudo profundity. There is a pretense of deep thought, and nothing more. Everything is made perfectly UNclear. It shows an incapacity for thoughtful or meaningful analysis.
“Social media has changed how we communicate, and social inequity continues to differentiate how we feel. These dynamics are changing the way we curate. For one /thing, the work of exhibition-making no longer ends when the show opens. Instead, it continues as a process of listening, a public performance that goes on for months.
“In some way, as curator Hera Chan points out, the dynamics of the platform economy threaten to make curatorial expertise obsolete. Who needs us when institutions can figure out, thanks to social media, crowdsourcing and machine learning, audience preferences quickly and accurately? The difficult question of who ‘we’ are, when we are faced with a controversial artwork, is the curator’s only remaining raison d’être. Consider that exhibitions don’t have a standard rating system, like movies or music — at some level, we must believe that every show should be accessible to all of us. Like churches or public television in a different age, museums are now our civic institutions, where we go to argue about who counts as ‘us.’
“The ‘should it stay or should it go’ approach fumbles the opportunity to broaden and enrich what that “us” is. It’s a difficult question, and we will not agree, but even asking it together creates a kind of community. It falls to curators to facilitate this conversation. Institutions, following the lead of artists, should respond creatively to the call for censorship. Perhaps the withdrawal of the artwork can make room for something else to come into view: a new public.”
Claptrap. Nonsense. And, like the nonsense genre, almost impossible to decipher.
“Fumbles the opportunity”? An infelicitous phrase if there ever was one! This writer clearly knows something about fumbling, from experience, displays verbal ineptitude that is plain to see.
I am almost inclined to say that this piece should be censored. It’s that bad, both as a specimen of writing and as an attack on art by someone who deems himself a curator. Of course, I’m against censorship. But beware of such writing by persons who pat themselves on the back for being in the intellectual vanguard. It’s just plain awful. And, as I’ve already said, it’s pernicious in its “know nothing” views worthy of a troglodyte and highly objectionable in a so called curator, presumably devoted (ha!) to preserving and promoting art. How about destroying? Anyone game?
— Roger W. Smith
October 26, 2017
Pete Smith, October 28, 2017
You are bordering on the pompous here yourself I think. Don’t disagree with your main point, I guess, but among many other things in your post, one could reasonably posit that “an infelicitous phrase” (correcting your typo — I think you didn’t mean phase, which makes no sense) is in itself an infelicitous phrase.
Roger W. Smith, October 28, 2017
Yes, it is, Pete. Thanks for catching the typo. I don’t see how you can call the post “pompous.” Am I missing something?
Pete Smith, October 28, 2017
Roger W. Smith, October 29, 2017
My asking, “Am I missing something?” was a rhetorical question inviting you to demonstrate how, in terms of what I wrote, the piece is pompous. Your “Yes” was a snarky response mean to trivialize what I said, what I went to great lengths to show.
Exerting intellectual effort to express strong disagreement is not pomposity.
I could not help but think of my recent post
“After Racist Rage, Statues Fall”
when I read an op-ed piece by Gail Collins in today’s New York Times:
“Dogs, Saints and Columbus Day”
The New York Times, October 6, 2017
It has taken me a while to realize it — I kind of liked her op-ed pieces at first (while never being that impressed by them or struck by her thoughts) — that Gail Collins is a weak writer. As this piece shows, a very poor writer.
She begins the piece with Christopher Columbus, specifically the statues of him across the country to which protestors object and which some have been desecrating.
After a digression, she writes that Christopher Columbus, whom she is writing about because it will be Columbus Day on Monday, has been “been on a slide for a long time” (an awkward phrase), has been reevaluated as not having achieved such great feats as an explorer as he had been said to and criticized and/or vilified for having perpetrated atrocities on native peoples.
She then gets to her key point, which every op-ed piece must have: “Our current statue obsession began, naturally, with Donald Trump, who claimed that if people start to remove monuments to Robert E. Lee, the next thing you know, they’ll be eliminating George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, since they were both slave owners.”
“This is obviously nuts,” Ms. Collins writes.
It is not “obliviously nuts,” despite the fact that Donald Trump said it.
Is she trying to emulate General Anthony Clement McAuliffe, who in 1944, responding to an ultimatum that he surrender to German forces, replied as follows: “To the German Commander. / NUTS!”?
Such an abrupt, peremptory dismissal by Ms. Collins — which she feels entitled to make in such a fashion because she assumes none of her readers would take anything said by Donald Trump seriously — of a sound point that requires thoughtful rebuttal proves nothing other than Ms. Collins’s weakness as a thinker who cannot go beneath the surface, and her flaws as a writer.
She goes on to say:
Robert E. Lee was perhaps a nice man and a good general. But his point was winning a war that would have divided the United States for the purpose of preserving slavery.
You judge historical figures by their main point [italics added], because if you demanded perfection on the details you’d have nobody left but the actual saints. … The point of George Washington’s career was American independence. Thomas Jefferson’s was the Declaration of Independence. I say that even though I have never been a huge fan of Jefferson, who was possibly the worst male chauvinist in Founding Fatherdom. [Note that she has to make the point about Jefferson being a male chauvinist to satisfy her readers that she is criticism-proof correct politically.]
The point of Christopher Columbus was exploration. Although people knew the world was round, they had no idea how long it might take to get around it. Columbus’s goal was to try to make it to the other side of the planet. He sailed out into the great unknown and brought back word of his discoveries.
And so on.
This is very weak thinking.
Since when was it decided that one should “judge historical figures by their main point”? What does this mean, either as a guiding principle or in practice? How would it work? Since when do individual persons — historical figures, leaders in the present, and everyday people — amount to a POINT. A controlling idea? Since when could they be summed up that way, given the actual complexity of human personality, human motivations, and human actions?
What was Lyndon Johnson’s “main point”? (The Great Society or the Vietnam War?) Or Richard Nixon’s “main point”? What was George W. Bush’s?
What was JFK’s main point? The New Frontier? What was that anyway? It’s awfully vague.
This is simplistic, fuzzy thinking of the worst sort. It’s an attempt at dissimulation by which the “good guys” in history can be gotten off the hook for doing “bad” things such as racism or owning slaves, while the “bad guys” are still held accountable.
A final thought. Ms. Collins says: “Our current statue obsession began, naturally, with Donald Trump [italics added], who claimed that if people start to remove monuments to Robert E. Lee, the next thing you know, they’ll be eliminating George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. …”
This is totally inaccurate, and I find it hard to fathom how she could be so misinformed as to make such a claim. The controversy over historical monuments dedicated to and buildings named after Confederate heroes, slaveholders, and other historical figures considered racist has been going on since long before President Trump’s statements about the Charlottesville violence, which were made in August of this year.
— Roger W. Smith
October 7, 2017
I am working on a new blog about writing examined from all angles. I have found that, in trying to ascertain what the elements or good writing are, it helps to occasionally look at bad writing. Ms. Collins’s article is an example of bad writing that is founded on a weak premise and is jerry-built. This kind of writing seems to be the product of a writer wanting to have something to say and be clever, but writing hastily or flippantly without serious reflection or doing any preparation.
An element of a shared symbolic system which serves as a criterion or standard for selection among the alternatives orientation which are intrinsically open in a situation may be called a value …. But from this motivational orientation aspect of the totality of action it is, in view of the role of symbolic systems, necessary to distinguish a value-orientation” aspect. This aspect concerns, not the meaning of the expected state of affairs to the actor in terms of his gratification-deprivation balance but the content of the selective standards themselves. The concept of value-orientations in this sense is thus the logical device for formulating one central aspect of the articulation of cultural traditions into the action system.
It follows from the derivation of normative orientation and the role of values in action as stated above, that all values involve what may be called a social reference …. It is inherent in an action system that action is, to use one phrase, “normatively oriented.” This follows, as was shown, from the concept of expectations and its place in action theory, especially in the “active” phase in which the actor pursues goals. Expectations then, in combination with the “double contingency” of the process of interaction as it has been called, create a crucially imperative problem of order. Two aspects of this problem of order may in turn be distinguished, order in the symbolic systems which make communication possible, and order in the mutuality of motivational orientation to the normative aspect of expectations, the ‘Hobbesian’ problem of order.
The problem of order, and thus of the nature of the integration of stable systems of social interaction, that is, of social structure, thus focuses on the integration of the motivation of actors with the normative cultural standards which integrate the action system, in our context interpersonally. These standards are, in the terms used in the preceding chapter, patterns of value-orientation, and as such are a particularly crucial part of the cultural tradition of the social system.
— Talcott Parsons, The Social System
The sociologist C. Wright Mills “translated” the above passage into jargon free English, as follows:
People often share standards and expect another to stick to them. In so far as they do so, their society may be orderly.
— C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination
Thus, reducing the length of the passage from 331 words (per Parsons) to 23 words (in Mills’s “translation”).
The quotations/examples are included in Style: An Anti-Textbook by Richard A. Lanham.
— Roger W. Smith