Reporting on the Culture Wars: An Interview with Wendy Steiner

Wendy Steiner received her B.A. from McGill University and both her M.Phil. and Ph.D. in English from Yale University. After holding assistant professorships at Yale and the University of Michigan, she joined the Penn faculty in 1979. She is currently the Richard L. Fisher Professor of English and, since 1995, Chair of the English Department. Dr. Steiner's fields are modern and postmodern literature but much of her research has involved the visual arts as well. These interests inform not only her numerous articles, lectures, and books (the latest of which, The Scandal of Pleasure, appeared in 1995 from the University of Chicago Press) but also her more than 100 book reviews and articles in The New York Times, The London Independent, The London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, and Art in America. Her section for The Cambridge History of American Literature, "Contemporary Fiction," is forthcoming.

Q: The subtitle of your new book, The Scandal of Pleasure, is "Art in an Age of Fundamentalism." Could you explain what you mean by "fundamentalism" in this context?

A: Fundamentalism is a literalist view of things. It pops up in religion and politics and other areas where ideology is important. Fundamentalists go back to the word, the document that started it all, whether that's a Bible or a Constitution, and base their actions on a literal reading of that text. The problem for me comes when they apply this thinking to literature - or to other arts such as painting and photography. Treating a work of art as if it were a literal statement with one and only one meaning meant to evoke a specific action in the audience is, I think, a serious error. Art doesn't work that way. Aesthetic experience is not the same as normal experience. I deal with a number of these mistakes in my book; these are the "scandals" in the title. They have produced shocking results. People have died over Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses - a dire consequence for a work of art that was meant as a symbolic expression.

Q: You describe examples of fundamentalism on both the political right and left. On the right, some people were scandalized by the sexual content of Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs. But on the left - certain feminists, for instance - fall into exactly the same kind of literalist mistake when they see something they don't like.

A: A few feminists - most notably Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin - have made it their business to campaign against pornography on the grounds that pornography damages women. They mean this claim literally: that any time a woman is shown in a sexual representation, whether violent or not, women are damaged. MacKinnon and Dworkin take this position extraordinarily far, and their polemics have led to a new child pornography law in Canada. According to this law, any representation of a person under 18 in any kind of sexual situation or state of undress is obscene and can be seized and, if found "guilty," can be destroyed. At the same time, the age of sexual consent in Canada is 14. So a picture could be illegal, even though the action it represents is legal. It is as if representation were incredibly dangerous.

Q: You point out that art has only a "virtual" relation to reality and only virtual power. It can move us to think and feel deeply but it can't coerce or oppress us. We can always walk away from it. So why should anyone feel a need to censor or, in extreme cases, silence or kill artists?

A: There are, no doubt, a lot of reasons for such a violent response. The most charitable is simple frustration. For a long time, especially since the 1960s, people have been convinced that certain kinds of social injustice are intolerable, but despite a great deal of public discussion and lawmaking, many problems remain. Some people react to this powerlessness by blaming art or the media. It's pretty easy to burn a book. It's very difficult to change the behavior represented in that book.

Q: Jacques Barzun once said that some people were afraid to lend their minds to an experience for fear they'd get it back battered and bent.

A: Yes, in lending our minds to art - experiencing it "virtually" - there can sometimes be pain. One may feel sad or disgusted or afraid. If art didn't have that power, we probably wouldn't care much about it. But those feelings come in response to a work of art, and the sadness or disgust we feel in response to art is always mixed with other feelings, often with pleasure or humor or intense satisfaction. The question is, what is the value of undergoing an unpleasant virtual experience? If you say, "I just went through a harrowing experience with absolutely no benefit," you've made a judgment, and aesthetic judgment is revealing. One finds out what is important or valuable to oneself in experiencing art, and in the process, who one is.

I argue in my book against the idea that only good art is art. Art is defined through its virtuality. It's a kind of experience that has a frame around it. It is cut off in certain ways from reality but still evokes reality to one degree or another.

Q: In addition to the specific art scandals that you discuss in the book, you suggest that aesthetic pleasure is a scandal in its own right.

A: It has been scandalous to all kinds of people - to puritans, to fundamentalists, even to art experts. The experts, for example, have been unwilling for a long time to speak about their own pleasure in art, especially in this country, where much of the discussion of art goes on in academia, with the sciences defining what knowledge is. In this setting, it has seemed dubious to have an English department or an art history faculty spend its time discussing what gives them pleasure rather than what constitutes knowledge in their field. Just think how embarrassing it would be for a humanist to explain a life's work as a record of preferences and enjoyment. Yet, at a deep level, aesthetic experience is just that.

Moreover, pleasure is the common ground between the experts and everyone else. Or at least it could be. But when nonspecialists read academic treatises on art works, they often find little that relates to their experience with art, little about pleasure and how art provides it. We in the academy have done a wretched job of making what we say about art accessible to other people.

Q: What are the kinds of pleasure that art can give us?

A: One way to answer that is to think about the expert testimony at the Mapplethorpe obscenity trial in Cleveland. Various experts were called to explain why these troubling photographs should be considered works of art. Virtually none of the answers constituted a definition of why these works were art, but they did supply a lot of reasons why the experts liked Mapplethorpe's art. For some, formal factors were important - lighting and the arrangement of shapes. Others said that because the pictures documented a difficult time in cultural history, they had a historical value. I like those things, too, along with the confrontational quality of these works. They're full of wit and juice and mischief.

Q: Toward the end of your book, you write that art "serves to open thought rather than close it down. It helps us entertain possibilities - enriching or threatening - which may 'bring newness into the world.'...It allows us to understand without assenting, to go over to the other side and still stay home...."

A: I think that sanity and clarity about art will make us realize that whatever art shows us - and there are whole realities that we would never know except through art - our knowledge is not the same as our knowledge of direct experience. I once saw someone stabbed on the street. How many times have I seen people stabbed in the movies or on television? So many that I can't count them. Yet in real life my shock was unbelievable.

If you took the fundamentalist position seriously, you couldn't distinguish between life experience and aesthetic experience. That's getting close to insanity. I'm not taking the position that art is totally separate from life and leaves us unaffected. We wouldn't care about it if that were true. But where do its effects lie - that we learn about things we might otherwise not know or experience certain feelings?

Q: If it's true that art does work on us to expand our sense of life's possibilities, then maybe the fundamentalists are right to be afraid of it. If you really experience art, you might be changed permanently. You might stop being a fundamentalist.

A: It's possible. But we do live in a democracy. The First Amendment protects our ability to be exposed to ideas. Presumably we can distinguish between ideas and acts, since we do not enact everything we think. Are we really going to say that only some ideas should be allowed to circulate in the world because only some kinds of actions are desirable?

Q: If you are the Ayatollah Khomeini, that is what you say.

A: Yes, that's what a fundamentalist would say. But that is not what people in a democratic society are supposed to believe. A democracy is an engine for circulating ideas. Insofar as art tests people for their willingness to tolerate certain kinds of ideas, it tests the democratic process. You can reject ideas. You can say that the Mapplethorpe pictures are ugly and aberrant and abhorrent in every way, but to say that we should never have been able to see them in the first place leaves you in a very difficult position in a democracy.

The model for the democratic citizen is that of an intellectual hero or heroine, who is not afraid to learn about anything or to rule out any idea, however challenging. As Caliban says in The Tempest, "Thought is free." If we don't believe that, we should get rid of television before art photography, since TV is full of questionable ideas and images and impinges on a huge audience.

Besides, we could outlaw anything pornographic or blasphemous and what was left would still be upsetting to some people. Restrictions are always arbitrary. Senator Helms launched a campaign against Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, but why didn't he outlaw violent movies or the Marlboro Man?

Q: It's going to be a debate for a long time, I'm afraid. The culture wars don't show any sign of abating.

A: No, they don't, and it's surprising that what at first seemed like a brief political fuss has turned into such a broad cultural discussion. I mention in my book that academics were rather pleased at the outset, because for such a long time the public had seemed so unconcerned about art, and now everyone was becoming an aesthetician. Academics felt that their moment had come - that their contribution to the debate would be eagerly sought. But the experts have been as vilified as the art they condone. (A smile.) It's too bad.

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