The civilized dinner party is probably over — even when you’re dining with friends. Everything means too much now. Everything. Our politics, obviously. But our genders, our food, our television. Our television. Last month, I was in a six-way conversation about HBO that narrowed into two people hung up on “Insecure,” a sitcom co-created by and starring Issa Rae about two best friends — Issa and Molly — in Los Angeles. It just ended its third season on HBO, and I’d describe my ongoing viewership as “exasperated fealty.”
Relationships — sororal, heterosexual, professional — occupy a lot of the show. But its best mode is as a shrewd, satirical consideration of how race pollutes the workplace. Molly is an attorney, first at a corporate firm and then at a smaller, ritzy black outfit that, because it’s black, is more stressfully protocol-ridden. Issa works at a nonprofit that strives to do nice stuff for black and Latino school kids between fits of self-congratulation and casual racism.
It’s not always clear — like in a restaurant scene between Issa and Molly in which Issa asks, “So you bloopin’ and blippin’ and blappin’?” and Molly clarifies, “And blammin’, bitch!” — whether the show’s satire applies to their blackness too. I expressed that at dinner and mentioned how tough a time I had believing Issa, especially, as more than a sketch of self-consciousness.
My questioning Rae’s believability appalled one of my tablemates enough to rise in angry defense of the show. “This is about her life,” he said of Rae. “She worked hard to get this show made, and it’s her story. So you can’t just say you don’t believe it.” Here we were, two black men having it out about how to critique a black woman’s art. On one hand, he was right. Rae had labored to get a serious company to whisk her comedy — and her black face and body — from the internet to television. She succeeded, and people rejoiced. I was eating corn soup next to one of those people.
Implicit in his rebuttal was pride in the righting of a wrong. Even in this so-called golden age of TV, with its proliferations of nonwhite people, queer folks and women, some of whom are running productions, a comedy by and built around black women remains anomalous. So “Insecure” might be too rare to dislike.
On the other hand, where does that leave someone who dislikes it? My tablemate insisted that who and what the show represents are more important than whether the show works for me. We couldn’t have that argument because that argument was a luxury. My wish for entertainment was an affront to the show’s right to exist; its being morally good superseded any imperative for it to be creatively better.
The urge to protect “Insecure” isn’t dissimilar from the one to condemn old TV, like “The Simpsons,” “Friends” and “Sex in the City” for racism, homophobia, slut-shaming and rampant whiteness. Issa and Molly deserve to be on American television because, for so long, they weren’t.
The real-world and social-media combat we’ve been in for the past two years over what kind of country this is — who gets to live in it and bemoan (or endorse!) how it’s being run — have now shown up in our beefs over culture, not so much over the actual works themselves but over the laws governing that culture and the discussion around it, which artists can make what art, who can speak. We’re talking less about whether a work is good art but simply whether it’s good — good for us, good for the culture, good for the world.
We have language that helps do the sorting. A person who insults, harasses or much, much worse is “problematic,” and certain “problematic” people, and their work, gets “canceled.” Recent cancellations include Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Roseanne Barr, Kanye West, Ian Buruma’s stewardship of The New York Review of Books, Matt Lauer, Woody Allen, Netflix’s flagrant high school satire “Insatiable” (but only figuratively since it has been renewed for a second season), the YouTube star Logan Paul, the Nation’s poetry section. People you love but who’ve misstepped are “problematic faves” — Scarlett Johansson, Dave Chappelle, Cardi B, Justin Timberlake, M.I.A. — and you don’t outright cancel so much as temporarily block them until they get their acts together. The people who know who’s who, what’s what and when’s when are “woke.” They tend not to be black, because black people are born woke; the trick for them is to stay that way.
The nomenclature is supposed to make the moral sorting expedient. 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?
A disagreement over one piece of culture points to where our discourse has arrived when it comes to talking about all culture — at a roiling impasse. The conversations are exasperated, the verdicts swift, conclusive and seemingly absolute. The goal is to protect and condemn work, not for its quality, per se, but for its values. Is this art or artist, this character, this joke bad for women, gays, trans people, nonwhites? Are the casts diverse enough? Is this museum show inclusive of enough different kinds of artists? Does the race of the curators correspond with the subject of the show or collection? Increasingly, these questions stand in for a discussion of the art itself.
A lot of this zealous police work makes sense. Groups who have been previously marginalized can now see that they don’t have to remain marginal. Spending time with work that insults or alienates them has never felt acceptable. Now they can do something about it. They’ve demanded to be taken seriously, and now that they kind of are, they can’t not act. This territory was so hard won that it must be defended at all times, at any cost. Wrongs have to be righted. They can’t affect social policy — not directly. They can, however, amend the culture. But as urgent as these correctives, cancellations, pre-emptions and proscriptions may be, they do start to take a toll. It can be hard to tell when we’re consuming art and when we’re conducting H.R.
The past two years are a disorienting inversion of the previous 30. The culture wars, as they came to be known in the 1980s and 1990s, were less existential and more ideological. The moralizers tended to be white people from politics and the church. Their concern was that television, movies, books, museums and music were exposing people — young people — to unsavory concepts like abortion and lust. In 1988, for example, fundamentalist Christians promised a boycott of any theater that showed Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” for imagining a mortal, married, procreating Jesus.
There were lobbying outfits — maternalistic lobbying outfits! — like Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center, which released its Filthy 15 playlist (my word, not theirs, but it’s not not a playlist), ultimately won warning labels for music packaging and probably wound up teaching sex ed anyway. Cyndi Lauper didn’t tell 9-year-olds what a she bop was: Tipper Gore did. This was a period in which Florida ruled 2 Live Crew’s album “As Nasty as They Wanna Be” obscene then banned sales of it, and the Supreme Court had to tell Florida that 2 Live Crew could stay nasty. It was a period in which conservative family groups blew a gasket over the single motherhood of the fictitious Murphy Brown.
You had political and church groups boycotting the ornately furious, sexually explicit art of David Wojnarowicz and a show of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of men — naked men, naked gay men, naked gay and black men. Meanwhile, people — including, eventually Wojnarowicz and Mapplethorpe — were dying of AIDS, and no one important was saying more about it than “good riddance.” No one would miss them, the country seemed to say. They didn’t fear God.
The culture wars back then always seemed to be about keeping culture from kids. Now the moral panic appears to flow in the opposite direction. The moralizers are young people, not their parents. And the fight is no longer over what we once called family values. It’s for representation — seats at the cultural table on the basis of race, gender and sexuality — in museums, on television, in movies. And what’s most valued is existence. And the fight is to keep that existence unobstructed.
In the previous incarnation of this conflict, the prevailing mood was mockery and more boundary expansion. All kinds of artists seemed eager to tick conservatives off, while testing how free freedom of expression really was. A queer independent cinema came out of this era. There seemed to be one erotic thriller a month. Tony Kushner wrote “Angels in America.” Madonna happened, over and over. Andres Serrano put a crucifix in a tank of his own urine, photographed it and called it “Piss Christ.”
The animating crisis of that era was sex — from the paranoia, shame and judgment during the AIDS epidemic to the national cataclysm of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. The animating crisis of this era is power: the abuse, sharing and stripping of it. Empowerment. Art might not have the privilege of being art for art’s sake anymore. It has to be art for justice’s sake. Suddenly, but for very different reasons, the kinds of people who used to be subject to censorship are now the purveyors of a not-dissimilar silencing. Something generational has shifted, even among the cool kids and artsy-fartsies. Members of the old anti-censorship brigades now feel they have to censor themselves.
So we wind up with safer art and discourse that provokes and disturbs and shocks less. It gives us culture whose artistic value has been replaced by moral judgment and leaves us with monocriticism. This might indeed be a kind of social justice. But it also robs us of what is messy and tense and chaotic and extrajudicial about art. It validates life while making work and conversations about that work kind of dull.
Questions about representation and diversity are scarcely new. The 1970s lesbian literary journal “Conditions” featured work that wondered how inclusive feminism really was of nonwhite women. In an eloquent elegy of the painter Horace Pippin that accompanied a long overdue 1994 show at the Museum of Modern Art, Cornel West argued that Pippin was basically too good for the “sterile ‘quality vs. diversity’ debate” that had taken root in the museum world and hasn’t really left. But what has shifted is how blindingly monolithic the thinking around representation and diversity has become.
I graduated from college in the late 1990s, so I got an identity-politics education in a culture-wars climate. I learned how to read a text (a movie, a book, a painting) for both meaning and a kind of aesthetic morality. How does this film treat this woman? How does it look at her? And, as a consequence, how do we? If you read and write about enough film theory, not only do you become well versed in enough points of view on women and, I don’t know, Alfred Hitchcock, you also synthesize enough of these ideas for there to be no one way to read him or his heroines. He’s open, as they say, to interpretation.
What rarely came up was biography. We rarely dwelled on who these artists were. We were students of the work — its devices, strategies, vision, achievements and problems. We were little deconstructionists. The makers’ personal story? Their intent? Those didn’t matter. The text was all. What has transpired in the past decade — the shifts in power, politics, media, higher education and economics; the calls for reckonings and representation of all sorts — might have transported us to an uneasy new place: post-text.
Maybe it’s always been naïve to think about culture in a moral vacuum. Art comes from someplace and brings with it at least a little of wherever it has come from or whoever has made it. Why not keep those things in mind as you consume it? It also feels important not to let those considerations consume you.
A life of daily film criticism entails an element of judiciousness, of moral pacing. In the past, my idea of fairness, when warranted, was to wait until the end of a review to introduce a grievance of racism, misogyny, homophobia or the like. In a review from 2007 of a moist romantic drama called “In the Land of Women,” I complained about the lack of young directors capable of making even incidental generational statements and pointed out (in a parenthetical) that “sadly, we’re talking only about white males.” (It didn’t take long for piqued white-male mail to find my inbox.)
Nobody has time to wait for the last paragraph now.
I can imagine the distress of graduating from a high school or college campus in the Obama era, having missed the early culture wars but having imbibed the real possibilities of multiculturalism; having fought against hate speech and cultural appropriation and for greater emotional and atmospheric sensitivity; living in the Donald Trump era, in the #MeToo era, with “Hamilton” on Broadway and white people more aware than ever of the totality of their whiteness, but with white nationalists on the march even as Confederate statues are being toppled. Things might truly feel apocalyptic. And a determination to stem further distress might be radicalizing.
I understand the outrage. I share it. I can’t go a day without rolling my eyes at an ad for something. NBC has some new show whose poster features seven untroubled faces looking here and there in the clouds. All the faces are white, or whitened (they’re really in the clouds), and the show is called … “Manifest.” And even though it’s about some kind of air-travel miracle (“Found” instead of “Lost”) with all kinds of people in it, that billboard is selling me a show made by a network that seems clueless about how that array of faces with that title would make some people reach for a Sharpie. Then I got mad at the idea of Ryan Gosling in a movie called “First Man” and knew I was losing my mind. Am I really mad about this? It’s a Neil Armstrong movie! Lots of us are losing our minds (some people are way past that; they’ve been lobotomized by rage). But two centuries of whites-only entertainment might drive you insane enough to demand that cartoons be redrawn and plays be recast or scrapped altogether, to leap from mere activist to moral crusader.
It is possible to make art from these crusades. There’s now a class of sophisticated television that understands representation to be a starting point, not an end. Earlier this year, the Tasmanian comedian Hannah Gadsby caused a sensation when her comedy special “Nanette” arrived on Netflix. Gadsby’s official mode is stadium-size live comedy done as an owlish college lecturer. But her tools include personal confession and barbed criticism. A close reading of art, its sexism, our misreading of Vincent van Gogh and the toweringly unassailable significance of Pablo Picasso is more than very funny. It’s convincing. Eventually, she sheds “ha-ha” laughter to consider how sexual assault, cultural misogyny and prolonged exposure to homophobia made her her — or unmade her. With 15 minutes left, she’s invented something new: standup tragedy.
And on FX there’s “Pose”, which is set in culture-wars-era Manhattan amid an enclave of queer folks, nearly all of whom are black and Latino. It’s wholly unconcerned with goodness. Nobody is pleading for you to love them. The show would be medicine if it were. Instead, it has the dramatic priorities of a 19th-century novel and the morals of a “Fast and Furious” movie. I’ve never seen a show like “Pose,” something that feels like half a dozen decades happening at once, that has ideas (and some clunkiness) but also knows exactly what it is, what life is. I can’t believe it works as well as it does. But I’m also thankful that it works at all because, given the rareness of what it is, it would be terrible to have to hate it, at least out loud.
Art can be reparatory — a means for the oppressed and ignored to speak, for the visible to be seen. The defining objective of the civil rights movement and the women’s movement and the gay rights movement was equality, sure, but also motion — forward, upward, outward. The country has never looked both more and less like what these movements aspired to achieve. All this toppling and canceling and shushing feels like a radically logical extension of equality. It was to put more nonwhite people and women and queer people alongside the straight white men who have kept them away from equal power, then lectured and legislated away the exclusions. A bonus aim is to rid us, by any means necessary, of everything deemed hateful or intolerant. Why should the truly equal have to put up with any of that?
This shift in priorities comes with moral side effects, and the side effects are scaring people — smart, opinionated people; not just white men — from saying the wrong the thing about “Atlanta” or “Crazy Rich Asians” or “Wonder Woman,” from not liking them, or not liking them correctly. If Beyoncé comes up at a cookout, do you offer more than a dutiful “yasss, queen”?
Beyoncé is, of course, the most traffic-stopping artist we have. She is also the patron saint of these “sshhh” times. If “Insecure” feels too important to doubt, Beyoncé is almost too iconic to discuss. Dare do something as simple as rank her last three albums in the “wrong” preferential order — “Lemonade,” “Beyoncé,” then “4” — or wonder about the wisdom of the choreography during a tiny part of her Coachella performance last spring, and check for the Beyhive to sting up your Twitter account in her name. Other artists know this. Holding her brand-new Album of the Year Grammy last year, Adele practically groveled for Beyoncé’s forgiveness. “Lemonade” was, to my ears, the best album of the five, but Adele, in addition to exuding utter earnestness in her adulation, also didn’t want to get stung.
An aspect of Beyoncé’s cultural vitality is the moral power she wields. She performs, but she also represents — as a feminist, a black person and a black woman. She operates as a solo artist but thrives in sisterhood — as a bandleader, dancer and conjurer of histories. She has come to take herself, that power and what it can do, very seriously. There is activism in her art and a real disdain, from its consumers, for critique of it. “Lemonade,” for instance, arrived with a demand that white people refrain from commenting until black people had had their say.
This version of the culture wars casts Beyoncé as the goddess of empowerment who shan’t be blasphemed. She offers herself as both deity and politician, someone here to embody and correct. That was the thrust of this summer’s “Apeshit” video, in which she, Jay-Z and some dancers took over the Louvre to practice a politics of upstaging.
They positioned themselves in the space — in lines and tessellations, as statuary — so that they became the art, in a way that both made them equal to the permanent collection and rendered it secondary. The video was meant to address the relative exclusion of nonwhite artists — as creators and subjects — from that collection, while also testifying to the privilege Beyoncé and Jay-Z enjoy of being Beyoncé and Jay-Z. Here, they had committed representational vandalism: the black body as physical graffiti.
Beyoncé’s work is sometimes interrogated, but mostly for references and allusions, for clues: Does “Formation” lift footage from somebody else’s documentary? Does the video for “Apeshit” ape the photographs of Deana Lawson? We’re reluctant to talk much more about her process lest it seem to undermine her legitimate ingenuity. Furthermore, she doesn’t talk about it. She speaks to and through. Her recent Vogue cover story wasn’t a profile. It was the Gospel according to her transcriber, a testament. So her mystery is compounded and her excellence undiminished, undisturbed, unchallenged.
That prerogative doesn’t come from nowhere. Decades of music writing have been less than fair to the work of women — especially black women. So the aversion to criticism of Beyoncé has a ring of historical justice. Her people won’t let you disrespect her. But this is artistry robust enough to withstand — and be illuminated by — serious criticism. Yet she rarely receives much. The imagery gets inspected for its allusions even though there’s a lot more to her work than whom it’s channeling, although some of what’s ingenious about, say, that Coachella performance really is the grandeur of all that it synthesizes. I tend to have little if anything bad to say about her. But criticism isn’t about saying what’s bad — well, not only. It’s partly about situating a work in the world, in your feelings, in your collection. It can take any form and go to any place, the very surprising places an artist like Beyoncé typically tries to take us. Not everybody has to like being there, and saying so shouldn’t feel like you’re risking your life.
The risk should come from the art itself, the discomfort it can produce and whether it can transcend that discomfort. Avoiding that unpleasantness feels natural, but it denies a truth in art, which is our humanity — all of it. Take the most effective sequence — the only one, really — in Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman”: a double viewing of “The Birth of a Nation” that splits the screen between white supremacists and black activists. It’s as intelligent and rousing an argument for engagement with unpleasant art as I’ve seen in a movie.
Out of curiosity, I recently asked some people in my life for a work of art that “morally upset” them. The wording was vague enough to mean anything. So I got a little of everything: “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Lolita,” “Disgrace,” the paintings of Balthus, “Dirty Harry,” “Places in the Heart,” “Aunt Dan and Lemon,” Guns N’ Roses’s “Used to Love Her,” “Last Tango in Paris,” the music of N.W.A., the films of Leni Riefenstahl, the art of Anibal Lopez, Santiago Sierra and Teresa Margolles. Some people explained their choice and made a point of clarifying that its being upsetting was a condition of the art itself.
But they didn’t clarify what I was looking for in asking. The controversies surrounding most of what’s on that list had been settled, but I was looking for something rawer — something that started innocent but had become morally upsetting, and because it’s morally upsetting maybe had to go. I guess what I was looking for was “The Cosby Show.”
My mind went there because somehow I find it more difficult than, say, the rape sequence in the middle of Gaspar Noé’s “Irreversible,” which has always felt morally reprehensible rather than merely upsetting. Noé was cruising for shock. Since 60 women have accused Cosby of sexual assault, among other things, “The Cosby Show” has had trauma visited upon it. Over the past two years, I’ve gone back and forth about how to handle that trauma. Parting with the show felt like the moral thing to do, out of respect for the women he has allegedly abused. Who is served by keeping it around? There is, after all, so much other stuff to watch and read.
Cosby has been sentenced to three to 10 years for sexually assaulting Andrea Constand. And his cultural demise redoubled devotion to “A Different World,” which hails from the Cosby universe but doesn’t involve him. But loving “A Different World” feels easy. And I don’t know that I want easy. Besides, the culture didn’t actually make “The Cosby Show” go away. Corporations made a choice for us — a moral choice — by erasing it from all platforms. But the show is innocent of Cosby’s crimes.
The show predicted the cultural climate we’re in now — America as some fantasy of itself, yet also a place where black people were obviously black and more obviously people, a representation of life rather than imitation of it, comedy that made some of us us. It was pop entertainment, a parenting guide and an essential, unprecedented feat of folk art, and now the River Styx runs through the living room. But the show wasn’t like one of those downed Confederate statues, a tribute erected and defended in cynicism and bad faith. It was called “The Cosby Show,” but it was never really only his (there are lots of unpaid actors and crew members who can attest to that). Those 6,000 or so hours belong as much to the culture and country as they ever did to him. He canceled himself. He was never the show’s legacy. That was always going to be us.