June 27, 2019


The Triumph of the Literal Mind: Art and debate cannot thrive so long as irony-proof social media simpletons are shouting down anything they don't like. (DAVID MASCIOTRA, June 20, 2019, The American Conservative)

Christopher Hitchens once wrote that "the struggle for a free intelligence has always been a struggle between the ironic and literal mind." The late journalist and social critic made that argument in an essay on the fatwa against his friend, Salman Rushdie--a case with stakes that were literally life and death. And while the triumph of the literal mind over its ironic competitor in contemporary American culture has not yet wrought consequences as severe and urgent as a death warrant on the head of a novelist, it has succeeded in making public debate numbingly dull and tiresome.

In his first nonfiction book, White, a mix of memoir and cultural criticism, Bret Easton Ellis devotes several chapters to the troubling prioritization, in the arts pages of major newspapers, on cable news, and throughout insipid social media campaigns, of ideology over aesthetics. Ellis speaks from personal experience, recalling his own confrontation with an asinine mob of ideologues after he had the audacity to criticize two recent films of liberal folklore, Moonlight and Black Panther. Ellis is careful to note that he both commended and condemned aspects of each film. Yet millions of people on Twitter refused to settle for anything less than worshipful adoration.

For Ellis, who has worked on several Hollywood films, aesthetics and artistry are more important than allegory and ideology. He explains that he prefers "genre films" over "message movies." The debate regarding the social function of art dates back thousands of years, and presents a fascinating opportunity to discuss the fusion of philosophy, art history, and sociology. Most people likely fall somewhere between the two camps--not crude Marxists or religious fundamentalists who demand that art adhere to dogma, but also not libertines who rank mastery of form over all cultural considerations.

Yet the conversation about aesthetic versus ideology is no longer one that can take place in American public discourse. It appears to have become the duty, and reflexive response, of the pundit to moralize, and in doing so, to destroy nuance with political absolutism.

When Ellis recently appeared at the Commonwealth Club to discuss his new book with New York Times journalist Nellie Bowles, the audience actually gasped and booed when he said, "I didn't really like Moonlight." It is worth noting, perhaps, that Ellis is gay. Bowles then asked, "Who are you to decide what is good and bad art?" Ellis reacted with genuine bafflement at the question. "It is for all of us to decide, and I'm a critic," he cried to deaf ears.

There's nothing funnier than tweaking literal mindedness.

Posted by at June 27, 2019 7:32 PM