"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
As the once wooden and now manic, overbouncy Al Gore sinks week by week in the polls vs. his still shadowy rival for the presidential nomination, Bill Bradley, I wonder whether the big bosses of the national Democratic Party are starting to regret their strident defense of President Clinton during last year’s impeachment crisis.
If he had had any conscience or class, of course, Clinton would have resigned at the first hint of scandal. But if Democratic leaders had followed principle rather than partisanship, they would have gelled behind the scenes to force Clinton out, allowing Gore to assume the presidency and to gain stature and experience in office — after which he would have breezed through the 2000 election against the relatively untested Gov. George W. Bush, the likely Republican nominee.
Former New Jersey Sen. Bradley is gaining on Gore because the latter, with his newly sandblasted owl eyes and his weirdly bulging, gym-hewn mammaries, seems slicker and slicker, a weightless creature of the Washington anthill despite his recent emergency eviction of campaign headquarters to his home state of Tennessee. Bradley’s drowsy, shambling style looks increasingly attractive to registered Democrats (like me) who are fed up with the narcissistic Clintons, but time will tell whether Bradley can re-create America’s aw-shucks Gary Cooper past or whether he will founder under the massive daily media bombardment that is politics today.
Other news of the past two weeks includes the official announcement of his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination by Arizona Sen. John McCain — who has given me the willies since his TV appearances in the months leading up to the impeachment vote. I continue to be dismayed by the coddling that McCain is getting by liberal Democratic journalists — a suspiciously easy ride that suggests he is being strategically used by the opposing party to help derail Bush’s onrushing electoral train.
The disciplined but darkly guarded McCain would make a good captain of the Praetorian Guard, but I just don’t see him in the Oval Office except in a “Doctor Strangelove” or “Fail-Safe” scenario. With his baleful eyes and unnervingly phoned-in smiles (always a beat too late), McCain utterly lacks the expansiveness, relaxed charisma and formidable managerial aptitude of Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose record as supreme commander of the Allied forces in World War II led to his elevation to the presidency.
As for the speech given by actor Warren Beatty at a Los Angeles awards ceremony last week, the televised excerpts were banal in content and nauseatingly coy in style. The man is a walking pair of parentheses, and his putative presidential candidacy is a very bad joke. All those filthy-rich Hollywood stars and moguls, with their smug, dated liberal rhetoric, should stop preaching to Washington about expanding the bureaucracy and endow their own private foundations instead for charity as well as arts grants.
The frontier between politics and art was commandeered for the past two weeks by New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in his attack on the “Sensation” show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, a once dignified institution that has in my view disgraced itself by this detour into the tacky. Of the behavior of some museum curators and library directors, Salon reader Carl A. Moore writes to ask “why liberals charged with the public trust go out of their way to incense the public.”
The rote attacks on Giuliani have been deafening. While the mayor certainly exceeded his authority in demanding that the entire show be stopped (rather than simply denouncing individual works that did not merit public funding), I am frankly enjoying his assault on the arts establishment, which is in dire need of a shake-up. I have nothing but contempt for Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman, who was hired two years ago and whose suitability for that position, on the basis of the present debacle, seems questionable.
“What a whiny slug!” I declared as Lehman nervously defended himself on TV. He struck me as an affected provincial oblivious to the fact that the zenith in campy collections of 1950s Tupperware and Formica kitchen tables was about, oh, 15 years ago. The liberal casuists who sprang to unqualified defense of Lehman and his show (which includes not just Chris Ofili’s dung- and porn-adorned Madonna but a rotting cow’s head and a formaldehyde-suspended bisected pig) seem to have lost sight of the larger question: What should be the role and status of art in the United States?
Since the Puritan hegemony of three centuries ago, it has been a struggle for art to win acceptance here. Each of these incidents of religious desecration or of ostentatious decadent display (I speak as a sympathetic theorist of decadence in “Sexual Personae”) simply poisons the cultural atmosphere and ensures popular hostility to art and artists.
The price for this pointless provocation will be paid by schoolchildren whose arts programs are gutted for lack of funding. Sure enough, Republican presidential candidate Elizabeth Dole has just responded to the Brooklyn exhibit (which she calls “highly offensive”) by calling for the complete abolition of the National Endowment for the Arts, which had nothing to do with this show.
As an arts educator, I think that the behavior of the Brooklyn Museum has been self-interested and shortsighted. I want to raise the prestige of art in this country; I want to expand opportunities for young artists and to radically increase funding for community arts projects. The entire future of American art is at stake.
How ironic that Jane Alexander rejoined her actor friends on the barricades last week to support the Brooklyn Museum, since in “American Canvas,” her valedictory report as she left the NEA chairmanship two years ago, she sharply criticized the elitism separating American artists from the communities they should serve. The Brooklyn show is a perfect example of the improper diversion of public monies — in this case to aggrandize a single British collector, an obnoxious advertising executive of dubious taste.
At the end of the 20th century, when popular culture has triumphed, the mission of museums must be to evangelize for art, to demonstrate art’s higher meanings and continuing relevance to a mass audience that will otherwise be consumed in the blood-and-guts literalism of slasher films and shoot’em-up action-adventures. The Brooklyn show illustrates the utter bankruptcy and sterility of the avant-garde, which collapsed 30 years ago and is now desperately grasping at straws to get a reaction, even of disgust, from an indifferent public.
Great works of art, like the monumental “Laocovn” (with its giant serpent strangling the agonized Trojan priest and his two sons), can be made out of Hellenistic sensationalism — coincidentally a focus of my advanced seminar in aesthetics this semester at the University of the Arts. But the most lurid works in the Brooklyn show are pure kitsch. If I want to see carcasses or body parts floating in formaldehyde, I’ll go to the M|tter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia — a spectacular and grisly 19th century medical collection that I recommend to everyone.
Contemporary art, with its postmodernist gimmicks, is so divorced from science that Damien Hirst’s high-school-project rot-and-fly cycle strikes some museum-goers as a profound revelation. (Wow, nature exists! Rise and shine, Manhattan!) We’re back to Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” which four decades ago showed the cul de sac of modern intellectualism in scenes where chic partygoers raptly listen to nature sounds on a tape recorder and where an erudite, angst-dazed father murders his children in their beds.
Let’s get past this adolescent wallowing in slack “oppositional” art. The Romantic era of “subversive” gestures is over. As I have consistently maintained since my 1991 defense of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in Tikkun (where I derided his sentimentalizing liberal supporters), no self-respecting avant-garde artist should be on the government dole. Free speech protections in the United States do not extend to financial support of “cutting-edge” new art by taxpayers. Commissioned projects — whether by the Pharaohs, the Medicis, the popes or the French kings — always require the artist’s subordination to the values and publicity needs of the patron.
And I’m just as sick of “Catholic-bashing” as Giuliani himself. I may be an atheist, but I was raised in Italian Catholicism, and it remains my native culture. I resent the double standard that protects Jewish and African-American symbols and icons but allows Catholicism to be routinely trashed by supercilious liberals and ranting gay activists. Missing from media accounts was that this Brooklyn Museum flap disastrously broke in the midst of a furor over the alleged anti-Semitism of the Irish Catholic presidential wannabe Pat Buchanan.
That a Jewish collector and a Jewish museum director had no compunction about selecting a parodic image of the Madonna from the whole of Chris Ofili’s dung-bedecked oeuvre shows either stupidity or malice. The Brooklyn show has fomented hatreds in this country — as witnessed by the placard of a defaced Star of David carried, according to the New York Post, by a demonstrator outside the museum on opening day. Is this the destructive train of thought that the contemporary arts want to foster?
As I wrote last year in the progressive London magazine Index on Censorship, culture has shifted as we approach the millennium. Through “over-repetition and feeble imitation,” I asserted, transgression and subversion have lost their once-potent charge: “We should be concerned now not with defiling and defaming traditional beliefs but in reconstructing out of the nihilistic ruins left by modernism and post-structuralism some enlightened new system of affirmative spiritual and political values.”
I oppose Mayor Giuliani’s arbitrary and needlessly inflammatory use of city power to intimidate and harass an arts institution, but I applaud the position he has taken against an arrogant, pretentious, parasitic arts establishment that has made a mockery of art and injured its reputation in the eyes of the nation at large. The Brooklyn Museum has turned itself into Madame Tussaud’s Wax Works — a collegiate carnival and tinny video game for desensitized poseurs who fiddle while Rome burns.
Retired U.S. Army Maj. Richard Rail writes to ask my view of the ongoing controversy
about literary critic and Palestinian spokesman Edward Said, whom the September issue of Commentary accused of fabricating details of his childhood and adolescence in Jerusalem. Rail observes that “today’s Left seems even more dishonest than the old Left of Stalin’s day” and that it is “increasingly comprised of those who force fit ‘reality’ to their ideology, inventing and lying as they go.”
My admiration of Edward Said is on the record in my review of his 1993 book “Culture and Imperialism” in the Washington Post. Said is a true man of the world, an intellectual who has blended art and politics in a sophisticated way that makes most American campus leftists look like callow schoolboys. That Said did embroider elements of his history seems to be so, and he must take responsibility for it. However, the exaggerations don’t fundamentally alter his brief against the European interventions in the Near East that led to the creation of Israel and the unjust displacement of Palestinians.
More troubling to me, as I observed in my Sept. 30 op-ed piece on archaeology and education in the Wall Street Journal, is Said’s pivotal role in introducing Michel Foucault to American literary criticism and, second, Said’s slighting of the enormous contributions to modern knowledge made by Egyptologists and the great schools of Oriental studies. I also wish that, over the past two decades, Said had been more forthright in publicly decrying the weak scholarship of his academic followers, who have little feeling for literature and art and who have vitiated the humanities programs in this country.
As the current president of the Modern Language Association, however, Said has indeed tried to swing the profession back to concern with literary values, though a great deal of damage has already been done. In summary, whatever his sins of omission or commission, they do not alter my view of Edward Said’s stature as a world-class scholar, whose only peer is my distinguished mentor Harold Bloom.
On the pop front, I must make a terrible confession. I actually liked the dreaded Gwyneth Paltrow for one fleeting moment — in her parody of Sharon Stone on a recent repeat broadcast of “Saturday Night Live.” Though Stone herself denounced the skit (ostensibly because of its jab at her “creepy” husband), it was clearly Stone’s incandescent femme-fatale divinity that inspired Paltrow to transcend her usual simpering self-consciousness. The satire was hilarious, and Paltrow carried it off with lighthearted drag queen flair.
Finally, I must register bitter disappointment with the new female private-eye series “Snoops,” which ABC flagged with tantalizing ads all summer. Its beamish creator, the overextended producer David E. Kelley, didn’t develop this program a whit beyond its initial hip concept. What stilted writing, limp direction and muddy camera work! Assignment: close scrutiny of three episodes of Aaron Spelling’s “Charlie’s Angels” (1976-81) to see how such sex-and-mystery shows can be crafted for the ages. Discuss among yourselves!
And there’s no excuse for the show’s prodigal waste of the mercurial talents of Gina Gershon. She has a cerebral Suzanne Pleshette directness and intensity with a tough touch of Ida Lupino and a whiff of the mischievous Juliet Berto (see Jacques Rivette’s “Celine and Julie Go Boating”). For Sarah Siddons’ sake, will someone please write Gina Gershon a decent script? Until then, I’ll continue to revel in the vintage films of the American Movie Classics and Turner Classic Movies channels. Long live old Hollywood!
Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her most recent book is "Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World's Best Poems." You can write her at this address.More Camille Paglia.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)