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The Scandal of Pleasure:
Art in an Age of Fundamentalism

By Wendy Steiner
University of Chicago Press, 232 pages, $24.95

It was inevitable, perhaps, that the “culture wars””the debate that continues to rage over the impact of political correctness, multiculturalism, and their allied ideologies”would spawn a genre of liberal apologetics designed to exonerate liberalism itself from its role in abetting the establishment of radical doctrine as a mandatory standard of judgment in mainstream cultural life. It is in the nature of modern liberal thought, after all, to see its ideas and its passions as wholly innocent of malign consequences. We saw something like this happen in the 1930s in the alacrity with which American liberalism allied itself with Stalinist ideology and then, when the horrific consequences of the Soviet regime could no longer be denied, disclaimed any role in advancing the interests of Soviet totalitarianism.

It was not to be expected, then, that when the culture wars heated up and evidence of the malign consequences of radical doctrine became too great to be denied that liberals would acknowledge their role in serving as the conduit by means of which cultural radicalism achieved intellectual respectability. On every campus, in every media office, in every arts organization, government agency, and foundation, it has long been recognized that the radicals could not have succeeded in their “long march through the institutions” without the complaisant collaboration of the liberals who run these institutions. Yet now that the battle has been joined in the culture wars, the liberals are once again attempting to act as if they have all along served as disinterested noncombatants and enlightened observers of others’ misdeeds and are therefore in a position to adjudicate the claims and counterclaims of the warring parties.

The bad faith that is implicit in this unearned posture of innocence is sometimes breathtaking to behold, and never more so than when its academic representatives condescend to offer instruction to “the laity” in the mysteries of art, the relation of art to life, and the niceties of critical discourse that deals with both. “The laity” is the patronizing term used by Professor Wendy Steiner in The Scandal of Pleasure to describe all those people in our society who, for reasons that remain unspecified in this book, persist in taking an interest in art and culture even though they are not possessed of the kind of privileged “acts of interpretation” that are reserved in our culture for “academics” like herself. In this cartoon version of contemporary cultural life, the role of the mandarin avant-garde is assigned to the “academics,” while everyone else is consigned to an undifferentiated “laity.”

For the author of The Scandal of Pleasure , who is the Richard L. Fisher Professor of English and Chair of the English Department at the University of Pennsylvania, what the culture wars are mainly about is this “gulf” that is alleged to separate “the laity” from the “academics” in understanding art. Owing to this “gulf,” the public”a.k.a. “the laity””remains in a constant state of befuddlement about art. It is therefore the task of “academics” like Professor Steiner to set “the laity” straight about all questions having to do with the relation of art to life. Without such guidance, the uninstructed public is likely to mistake art for life and thus introduce all sorts of extraneous moral considerations into the discussion of art’s social functions.

It is Professor Steiner’s view that art must be seen to be “a virtual realm tied to the world by acts of interpretation,” and these “acts of interpretation” can be performed only by “academics.” In other words, art means what the professors tell us it means, and not what we may glean from our direct experience of it. Thus The Scandal of Pleasure is, among other things, “a plea to the public not to vilify those who have devoted their lives to understanding art.” It is apparently permissible, however, to vilify anyone who disagrees with these academically sanctioned “acts of interpretation””including, on occasion, those academics who do not qualify as “academics” in Professor Steiner’s honorific sense because they do not perform these “acts of interpretation” in the requisite liberal manner. The late Allan Bloom, for example, is frequently cited for his failures in this regard. There is nothing more fatuous in The Scandal of Pleasure than the spectacle of Professor Steiner condescending to the author of The Closing of the American Mind . In this respect, The Scandal of Pleasure might more accurately be entitled The Closed American Mind Strikes Back .

The sad fact is that Professor Steiner is not much of a thinker. She attempts to test her theory of art as “a virtual realm tied to the world by acts of interpretation” by applying it to the Robert Mapplethorpe case. But what her defense of Mapplethorpe’s pornographic pictures comes down to is, quite simply, that she likes them. While cautioning “the laity” that art belongs to the realm of “the virtual,” where it is not to be mistaken for an experience of the real world, she promptly exits that sanitized realm by declaring that “I like all these provocations in Mapplethorpe’s SM photographs.” And again: “Perhaps most of all, I like Mapplethorpe’s fearlessness in dramatizing his difference from me and from all those whose appetites have not led their bodies such a chase. Mapplethorpe stands there, a self-proclaimed devil, and warrants my rights to enjoy my own deviltries, cautious as they may be.” And finally: “The point is that everything that involves aesthetic judgment involves a personal revelation of preference, of pleasure, and Mapplethorpe’s photographs”formalist masterpieces that shatter formalism”raise us to this realization.” These, presumably, are specimens of those “acts of interpretation” we are invited to embrace as guides to an understanding of art.

Notwithstanding its claim to be a book about “Art in an Age of Fundamentalism,” The Scandal of Pleasure actually deals with the fate of art in our time in only the most cursory terms. Mapplethorpe is the sole visual artist whose work is considered in any detail, and Salman Rushdie the only novelist, and in both cases it is their respective ideologies”in the one case sexual, in the other political”that is Professor Steiner’s principal concern.

The chapter on “The Literalism of the Left” casts a baleful glance at the radical feminist campaign against pornography as a way of establishing Professor Steiner’s position as a liberal centrist in the culture wars, and then hastens to take cover by lavishing praise on Toni Morrison”one of the current idols of the politically correct academy. A chapter called “Caliban in the Ivory Tower” purports to examine the politically correct academy, and while acknowledging at the outset that “the excesses of politically correct behavior certainly deserve . . . derision,” the discussion of this subject is mainly devoted to deriding the conservative critics”one of them my colleague Roger Kimball”who have succeeded in making this matter an issue of national debate.

There is also a chapter, “La Trahison des Clercs,” which deals with what Professor Steiner calls “three cases of treason and textuality,” reducing the discussion of Anthony Blunt’s services to Stalin and those of Martin Heidegger and Paul de Man to Hitler and Nazism to new levels of academic imbecility. It is typical of Professor Steiner’s “method””if anything so intellectually shoddy and morally obtuse can be called a method”that she prefaces her approach to the discussion of Anthony Blunt’s treachery by reminding us that “a surprising number of Yale English professors . . . have been actual spies.” What she means, of course, is that Norman Holmes Pearson, Louis Martz, Richard Ellmann and others served their country by working for the OSS during the Second World War”service that is somehow seen by Professor Steiner to be morally equivalent to the very different kind of services performed by Blunt, Heidegger, and de Man. It is difficult to know in reading such stuff whether Professor Steiner is guilty of aestheticizing the history she purports to be examining or is merely being dumb about it.

From such discussions there is nothing, in any case, to be learned about art in our age or in any other. To apply such an absurd appellation, “Age of Fundamentalism,” to the realities of American cultural life at the present moment does little more than illustrate the liberal paranoia that has become a standard feature of the academy since its politically correct programs and appointments came under attack by conservative critics. This conservative criticism has yet to be met by anything resembling a cogent and comprehensive response by the liberal academic establishment, which has largely resorted to strategies of calumny and demonization in dealing with every challenge to the status quo. Professor Steiner pretends to occupy some mythical political center in this particular theater of the culture wars, but from start to finish The Scandal of Pleasure is simply another liberal attempt to stop the debate.

Just occasionally, however, Professor Steiner inadvertently lets one or another cat out of the bag and gives us a glimpse into the real world of the politically correct university today. Discussing the problem of “canon reform” in the English Department over which she presides at the University of Pennsylvania, for example, she writes:

In my own department, doctoral students must pass an oral examination on the canon. In the past ten years, responsive to PC debates, the exam has gone from a set of fifty prescribed texts to thirty-five prescribed and fifteen chosen by the candidate, to forty chosen from a pool of 350 possibilities and ten at the student’s prerogative. Guidelines for the exam insure that the choices are spread over time, ethnicity, and gender. But since the traditionally trained faculty know primarily the old canon and their particular areas of expertise, they are unlikely to have read a good portion of any given student’s elections. We could all take a year off from research and speed-read the essential works we somehow missed, but when a faculty of professionals are incompetent to test the canon, it might be more reasonable to assume that they are not testing a canon at all. The violent adjustments we make in the name of social justice sometimes undermine the feasibility of an academic discipline.

To this politically enforced collapse of an academic discipline, Professor Steiner’s response is to attack William Bennett. The Scandal of Pleasure is itself a scandal, but not the one Ms. Steiner thought she was writing about.

Hilton Kramer is the editor of the New Criterion.