December 14, 2018

The Morality Wars

“The “hot or not” lists of yore have, more direly, become “O.K./Not O.K.” Individuals are not necessarily permitted a say in the cancellation — or, for that matter, in the coronation — of artists or their work. A temperature is taken and you’re advised to dress accordingly. What’s bad for some people is deemed bad for everybody, and some compliance is in order, lest you wind up problematic, too.

That leads to something farcical like the Grammys’ rumored prophylactic shunning of the popular white musician Ed Sheeran from the three biggest award categories, lest he triumph over Kendrick Lamar or Childish Gambino and cause a firestorm of upset. It leads to the Oscars now being more a moral purity contest in addition to an artistic sporting event. At awards shows, the nominated works have become referendums on the moral state of the business; their quality has become secondary. Maybe the ratings are down because no one’s seen the movies and the broadcasts are too political. But maybe it’s because no one wants to watch an industry prosecute itself.

No event captures this anxious confusion of activism and criticism better than the time a group of artists descended upon the Whitney Museum during last year’s biennial and demanded, in a protest letter, for the destruction of a painting that morally offended them. Their issue wasn’t only with the painting but with the painter. Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket” depicted Emmett Till in a whirring rictus of earth tones. It’s a vague, unsure, respectfully deferential work, different from Schutz’s bigger, more dazzlingly audacious stuff. One problem, according to the protesters, was that Schutz, as a white woman, had no business painting this young black martyr. This was not, the letter argued, her story.

The writer Zadie Smith spent the latter part of a rich, enfolding critical essay saying she failed to see what the protesters saw. She, too, found the inciting work underwhelming. But some readers got fixated first on Smith’s being biracial, which, they argued, would make it implausible for her to relate to their protest, then on her use of the word “quadroons” in a hypothetical description of her children. Certain corners of Twitter erupted, both to shake their heads at Smith and to tsk her defenders. At least on the topic of “Open Casket,” Zadie Smith — and her text — had been canceled. As far as her critics were concerned, she’d made a moral typo. But shouldn’t her puzzlement stand?”

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