BOOKS : AT THE ART OF THE MATTER

Private pleasures in the public interest? A recent book debates the roles of of art, privacy and belief
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The Independent Culture
ART is paradoxically public. No matter how private, how interior the mood that inspired it, once it is finished and put on view it becomes an interpretation of the public world. If we thought of art merely as a slice of private subjectivity, it would never make us angry. But it does. Art says, this is your world, and modern art adds: whether you like it or not.

Robert Mapplethorpe's late exhibitions included photographs of himself with a bullwhip up his anus. He is staring back at us, as if to say: these are not merely my desires; they may also be yours. This sight forms part of your world, not just mine. Let's get real: you probably enjoy looking at this nearly as much as I like doing it. The paradox is that his behaviour might well cause less offence than his representation of it. Behaviour makes no statement. Representation, on the other hand, is all statement. It claims to define the public world, and it is this claim which offends and outrages.

People who are outraged by Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs are not necessarily prudish. People seek to ban these images not because they threaten their private sexual impulses, but because they insist that the public world make a place for these desires. The claim Mapplethorpe's images make is that they are entitled, as art, to a place in museums and galleries. This is their essential transgression. Most viewers would admit that Mapplethorpe's beautiful, austere studies of flowers are appropriate for the public gallery; as for his X, Y and Z portfolios, they are better kept between brown paper covers. Mapplethorpe, needless to say, deliberately set out to subvert this division between the public and private domain.

Wendy Steiner's The Scandal of Pleasure is a pleasure to read, a marvellously intelligent and committed guide to the outrage aroused by modern art, especially by the Mapplethorpe exhibition in 1989. But she doesn't give enough attention to the challenge offered by Mapplethorpe to the private/public distinction. Her argument is that the public were offended by the photographs because they were unable to grasp what she calls "the virtuality" of art, the fact that photographs of sexual acts are representations, rather than the sexual acts themselves. The professional defenders of Mapplethorpe made matters worse by taking refuge in formalism: praising the "almost classical" symmetry of the bullwhip-in-anus picture and studiously refusing to talk about what the picture was actually about. Formalists and literalists talked past each other in a debate in which, Steiner argues, the simple idea was lost that the photographs give pleasure because they make us ponder the ticklish question of what it means to watch the pleasure of others.

But this misses the public dimension: Mapplethorpe outraged because he wanted his pictures shown in public. The problem was not their status as virtual objects. Anybody with a second's acquaintance with pornography is acutely aware of its "virtuality": the boys and girls aren't real; that's why you can do anything you want with them, in your mind. Mapplethorpe's provocation was to put private pornography on public show and call it art. This is less of a challenge to the sexuality of his audience than to their assumption about what kinds of places museums and galleries are. He challenged an imbedded idea of the public realm as an area of shared value. We put up statues in public parks to embody not what we are, but to express what we wish we were. There aren't many full-blooded erections on the statues in public parks. Mapplethorpe makes us ask why.

Steiner's book is aptly subtitled "Art in the Age of Fundamentalism", but I'm not sure she has quite identified what fundamentalism really is. Although she devotes a valuable chapter to the Rushdie affair, the fundamentalism she has in mind isn't just Islam. She means the broader cultural tendency - evident in Washington as much as in Tehran - to deny art its paradoxical status as a language game which subverts our settled conceptions of the real. The Satanic Verses did not blaspheme Islam: it envisaged a fictional world in which blasphemous thoughts about Islam (and about much else) were entertained and explored.

Steiner argues as if Rushdie's opponents were unable to distinguish between language games and reality. But that was not their problem. Telling them The Satanic Verses was "only a book" didn't begin to meet their objections. Their problem was the book's publication. Rushdie had forced into the public sphere not blasphemy but a debate, within a book, about the nature of the sacred and the profane. This was the outrage: to conceive of Islam as a matter of radical debate and discussion. For fundamentalists, Western or Muslim, the public realm is, by definition, the realm of the shared and the sacred. If there are disputations and blasphemous thoughts, these are properly confined to the private world. Doubt is private. Faith is public.

These controversies about the boundaries of private and public are equally evident in America, where what "we" stand for always has been a battleground. Being a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, she devotes some of her most acute and deeply felt chapters to the debate about the canon in American literature.

It is insightful to suggest that there is a fundamentalist impulse behind the resistance to revisions in this canon, the list of books American undergraduates are required to read. When conservatives object to the substituting of Zora Neale Hurston for Ernest Hemingway, they are not merely engaged in white resistance to the demographic tide of multiculturalism. Canon reform triggers a central anxiety about the coherence of the culture as a whole. Whose culture is it anyway? To ask such a question is to assume that culture can belong to any one group. Steiner rightly insists that this anxiety about cultural coherence derives from a contradiction in the idea of the liberal education itself, between education as a force for social cohesion, and education as self-improvement and self-transcendence. Education can't serve the gods of order and individualism at the same time. The deeper reality is that the defence of the canon of dead white males misunderstands the public realm. It is not an Athenian agora of shared value, but a rough-and-tumble street market.

But the enemies of this ideal of a disputatious public realm are not just found on the right. There is also a literalism of the left, a puritan refusal to allow art and pornography their right to please and incite, to disturb and discomfort. The feminist attack on pornography, led by Catherine Mackinnon and Andrea Dworkin, misunderstands the "virtuality" of representation no less completely than the Ayatollah Khomeini. In the same way, Steiner argues, those on the left who have campaigned for politically correct speech codes on campus also seem to assume that if you stop misogynist or racist speech, you will stop misogynist or racist behaviour.

Once again, Steiner has greatly illuminated the connections between these apparently unrelated campus controversies, but she has missed the more obvious point that they are about whose speech will prevail in the public sphere. When intelligent people struggle to change speech codes, it is not because they think this will, of itself, change reality, but because they are fighting over whose language dominates the public realm. Feminists don't necessarily suppose they can stop men thinking disgusting or degrading things about women; they do believe they can create a public world in which women have the same right as men to define what is said about them.

Steiner calls her book a liberal defence of artistic pleasure, and she does liberalism no end of good with her robustness, humour, and passion. But she doesn't quite focus what it is that liberalism is trying to defend, not just "the virtuality" of aesthetic pleasure, but a certain idea of the public itself. A liberal believes that the public sphere can only ever be the site of an argument. The human good is controversial; human goods conflict. The most a society can ever agree about is how to conduct the argument. The most unity we can aspire to is a certain degree of procedural fairness and tolerance when we disagree.

If we are serious about respecting the sovereignty of individual judgement, and if we grasp the unresolvable character of human disagreements about ultimate ends, then we must think of the public sphere as a policed battlefield. It is not where we celebrate what we have in common, but where we establish where we disagree, and how we must compromise in order to live with each other. The good, the true and the beautiful will never bring us together. Art exists to make us aware that these words never mean the same thing to all of us.

Fundamentalists believe, each in their proper tradition and sphere, that moral consensus is intellectually conceivable and socially enforceable. Liberals do not. This is the scandal of liberalism: its willingness to insist that cultural agreement is a nostalgic dream; that we can have the orderly and pious silence of shared belief or we can have the clamour of freedom, but we cannot have both. Wendy Steiner's book is a welcome call for clamour.

! Wendy Steiner's 'The Scandal of Pleasure: Art in the Age of Fundamentalism', University of Chicago Press pounds 19.95

! Michael Ignatieff is finishing a biography of Isaiah Berlin.

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