Donald Rumsfeld certainly made a dreadful debut as secretary of defense by his crass mishandling of the initial government response to the Feb. 9 collision of the nuclear submarine USS Greeneville with the Japanese fishing trawler Ehime Maru, which sank off Hawaii with the loss of nine lives. Rumsfeld’s arrogant posturing, absent the facts, made a bad situation much worse. That civilian tourists, even before the lax Clinton administration, have routinely milled about in the control rooms of military ships on maneuver came as a shock to most Americans. Anyone concerned about the rehabilitation of the morale and prestige of the U.S. military had to be sickened by this tragedy, which appears at this point to have been caused by the stupidity and vanity of the Greeneville’s commander.
Speaking of stupidity, how ’bout them New York voters? They sure got themselves a plug nickle when they swept Flora Flimflam — er, I mean Hillary Rodham Clinton — into office. How could anyone be surprised at Sen. Hillary’s mendacity and venality when those traits were perfectly obvious during most of her tenure as first lady? The shameless Democrat partisans in the major media (notably at the New York Times) need their consciences hosed down for their silence when carpetbagger Hillary was forced down the throats of New York state Democrats, who were fascistically denied an open primary where they could have supported the smart, savvy, experienced Rep. Nita Lowey.
As an early admirer of the Clintons who was shocked awake by the 1993 healthcare fiasco and other scandals (see the transcripts of two 1994 CNN “Crossfire” shows, reprinted in “Vamps & Tramps,” where I defended Clinton accuser Paula Jones and argued that Hillary “hides from accountability”), I strongly feel that Hillary has always benefited from a weird residual sexism. Special treatment is still protectively accorded middle-aged heterosexual women by supposedly egalitarian journalists whose brains go soft when Hillary, who’s as butch as they come, turns on her pink estrogen light. It’s the manipulative tyranny of the mother imago.
But Hillary has already paid a high price for her willful blurring of the ethical borderline. Her maiden Senate speech two weeks ago, which had been glowingly projected by starry-eyed telejournalists last fall as sure to draw worldwide attention as her first step toward the presidency, was sparsely attended and largely ignored by both the press and her fellow senators because of boiling controversies over pardons, furniture and flatware after the Clintons’ chaotic decampment from public housing.
There was a far more eager crowd at Hillary’s impromptu hallway press conference last week where, with deviously wandering syntax and creepily hollow laughter, she brazenly claimed ignorance of her husband’s pardon process and of her brother Hugh’s involvement in two pardons for which he collected $400,000 in fees. It’s hard to know what was more outrageous — Hillary’s feeble self-defense or the utter supineness of the Washington press corps, which seemed unable to pursue any logical line of questioning. American journalists are a sad, cringing, overpaid lot compared to their British brethren, who would have drawn and quartered any government official who had left so blazing a trail of scandal as has Hillary Clinton.
Finally let me say that I was as surprised as anyone when I was informed that I have a brother named Hugh Rodham … While I did grow up in a household with numerous other people, I was never informed that I had brothers. It was never discussed. If it was, I was not present.
If Hillary had had any thought of dumping Clinton the name along with Clinton the man, her brother’s cash orgy, as well as his recent bizarre behavior and infantile ranting in full camera view, has made the Rodham name much less savory to reclaim.
In other news, the Brooklyn Museum of Art was in warmed-over pea soup yet again with its exhibition of work by black photographers, which opened two weeks ago and includes an image by Renée Cox in which she appears nude as the gesturing Christ of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” Neither the museum nor Mayor Rudy Giuliani appears to have learned any lessons from the last flap over the “Sensation” exhibit imported from England 17 months ago.
Once again, the Brooklyn Museum’s smug, intellectually inert leadership provided no curatorial context or intelligent advance support for Cox’s provocation, which in this case was worsened by her own rambling remarks to the press. (She openly maligned the Catholic Church and complained that “African-Americans are invisible, especially in Renaissance art.” Last time I checked, there were no Americans at all in Renaissance art.) Once again, Giuliani blew a legitimate issue by authoritarian grandstanding: His instant call for a “decency” review panel for city-funded arts institutions was not only grotesquely neo-Victorian (reminiscent of the Legion of Decency that once policed Hollywood releases) but positively ludicrous in view of his own flagrant carrying on with a mistress all over metropolitan New York.
The debate over the latest show threatened to break down along predictable ideological lines except that a distinct note of weariness was perceptible among the media elite who would normally take to the hustings for the arts establishment. Cox’s work (which I’ve seen only in online reproductions) appears not to be strong or original enough to sustain a major culture war. But this incident, like the prior one (which centered on a dung-and-porn-bedecked image of the Madonna by Nigerian-born British artist Chris Ofili), suggests that black artists are being cynically used by white collectors, curators and museum administrators as a p.c. cover to attack traditional religious values. It’s exactly the same tactic used by gay activists when they facilely try to link racial discrimination with hostility to homosexuality.
As an arts educator as well as an Italian-American, I’m fed up with the snobbish insularity of those who fail to see that each incident like that now specialized in by the Brooklyn Museum not only besmirches the image of art in the eyes of a skeptical general population (whose daily culture is a degraded pop) but dangerously foments ethnic and sectarian animosity. Within 24 hours of the opening of the present show, local radio talk shows in New York and Philadelphia were seething with allegations about the Jewish presence on the Brooklyn Museum’s board and administration and denouncing the fact that museums and galleries that would never show racist or anti-Semitic art routinely mount material offensive to Catholics.
Although I’m an atheist who believes only in great nature, I recognize the spiritual richness and grandeur of the Roman Catholicism in which I was raised. And I despise anyone who insults the sustaining values and symbol system of so many millions of people of different races around the world. An authentically avant-garde artist today would show his or her daring by treating religion sympathetically. Anti-religious sneers are a hallmark of perpetual adolescents. When will artists climb out of the postmodernist ditch and accept their high mission to address a general audience? An art of chic coteries, whether in rococo aristocratic France or in drearily ironic, nervously posturing New York, ends up in a mental mousehole.
I was saddened to read of the recent death at age 72 of Emily Vermeule, the distinguished professor of classical philology and archaeology at Harvard University who represented the rigorous standards of scholarship that have been abandoned by the trendy humanities academics who came after her, not only at Harvard but elsewhere in the elite schools. With her first-rate work in the Bronze Age, notably in Mycenaean culture, Vermeule represented a view of learning that is grounded in the analysis of artifacts, that knows how to reason from ambiguous evidence and that is genuinely historicist (unlike the slick, ideological style that calls itself “New Historicism”).
Vermeule was among the stellar woman academics of the old school whom I’ve always found profoundly inspiring (and whose portraits, dating from before and after World War I, still hang in the steadily declining Seven Sisters colleges). Vermeule held herself to the highest standards created by great male scholars of the past; she did not advance by genuflecting before Michel Foucault or by spouting the simplistic social constructionist dogma that has made academic feminism such a morass of ignorance, fakery, gimmickry and bullying careerism.
That feminism is not yet out of the woods, despite the triumph in the 1990s of the pro-sex wing to which I belong, is shown by the garish visibility of Eve Ensler and her “Vagina Monologues,” which have apparently spawned copycat cells on many campuses. (The students and faculty at my urban arts college are far too busy and sensible for this kind of thing.) With her obsession with male evil and her claimed history of physical abuse and mental breakdowns, Ensler is the new Andrea Dworkin, minus Medusan hair and rumpled farm overalls. Wasn’t one Dworkin quite enough?
The perversion of feminism that Ensler represents — turning Valentine’s Day, the one holiday celebrating romantic harmony between the sexes, into a grisly memento mori of violence against women — has been well demonstrated by the ever-alert Christina Hoff Sommers, who gave early warning in her Feb. 11 article in the Wall Street Journal last year (as well as in her campus lectures, media appearances and an article in the Feb. 8 USA Today). That the psychological poison of Ensler’s archaic creed of victimization is being spread to impressionable women students is positively criminal.
The buffoonish hooting and hollering incited by Ensler’s supposedly naughty play is really the hysterical desperation of aging women who have never come to terms with the cruel realities of nature and who cannot face the humiliating fact that, despite their accomplishments, they will always be culturally swept away by the young and beautiful. That in the year 2001 the group chanting of crude four-letter words for female genitalia is viewed as some sort of radical liberation implies that the real issue in the “Vagina Monologues” isn’t male oppression but bourgeois repression — the malady of the dainty, decorous professional class that was created in the first century after the Industrial Revolution.
Today’s upper-middle-class Western women, with their efficient, schematized lives, are so removed from elemental mysteries that they are naively susceptible to feverish charlatans and cultists like Ensler, who encourages the delusion that they are in full control of their reproductive system and that everything negative or ambivalent about it has been imposed by the prejudice of misogynous males. I wrote the controversial first chapter of “Sexual Personae,” which dwells on the horror and brutality of natural cycle, as an attack upon this sentimental complacency. (Probably because of its disturbing material, that chapter, called “Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art,” has gone on to have a life of its own, republished as a bestselling paperback in England and then translated into similar small-format European editions.)
Today’s genteel ladies would learn a lot more about life if they would cut the crap and get out of their gilded ghettos. A day at a potato farm or crab-picking plant would do a hell of a lot more for them than an evening at Madison Square Garden with Eve Ensler and her pack of giddy celebrity lemmings in hot-pink suits. My brand of Amazon feminism (very amusingly illustrated in Maurice Vellekoop’s cartoon of me as Wonder Woman kick-boxing with the Creature From the Black Lagoon in the current spring issue of the Abercrombie & Fitch Quarterly) is anti-bourgeois, or rather pre-bourgeois, since it’s rooted in my family’s history in the Central and Southern Italian countryside.
Here’s my kind of role model: Antoinette Cannuli, the Sicilian matriarch of Cannuli’s House of Pork in Philadelphia’s Italian Market. She was profiled by Rita Giordano in the Jan. 31 Philadelphia Inquirer under this headline: “Vendor is a tough customer: At age 91, South Ninth Street’s oldest merchant stays busy. And she still takes no guff.” Celeste Morello, an expert on South Philadelphia, says of Antoinette, who goes to work in her white coat every day at the family butcher shop, “She is the boss, and the most macho guy in the place shakes when she starts in.”
During the Depression, Cannuli was helping out at her husband’s butcher shop when a customer wouldn’t pay the full price for an order of chopped goat. “The man told her what she could do with the meat. It wasn’t nice. ‘I had a leg of lamb,’ Antoinette recalled. ‘I went boof! Right over the counter. He was bleeding.’” When she was 14, she insisted on getting a paying job and began work at a Philadelphia tailor shop: “Her first day, the boss came by — and gave her a pat on the bottom. ‘I went Pow, right in the face! I said, “You touch me again and I’ll poke your eyes out!”‘”
The energy and ferocity of Italian women, whose power came from the land itself, are the ultimate source of my take-charge philosophy of sexual harassment, which emphasizes personal responsibility rather than external regulation and paternalistic oversight. Too many women have confused feminism, which should be about equal opportunity, with the preservation of bourgeois niceties. Antoinette Cannuli’s code of life has infinitely more wisdom than what American students are getting from their politicized textbooks. Her prescription for longevity: “Keep straight. Be true. That’s the main thing. Be honest.”
In business from my last column, a number of Salon readers wrote to express bewilderment or dismay at their inability to find any book of essays by James Wolcott, whom I hailed as America’s premiere culture critic. Well, there isn’t one yet — scandalous as that may seem when publishers have been pouring out such mud floods of academic tripe on popular culture. For a tantalizing taste of Wolcott’s early work, see the enterprising letter to Salon by Damion Matthews, who dug through 25-year-old issues of newspapers and magazines in the library. Culture studies doesn’t have a prayer of reform until Wolcott’s work to date has been fully collected.
The major media event for me of the past three weeks was unquestionably Bravo’s two-hour TV profile of Rudolf Nureyev, who represented such a brilliant image of the smoldering, Byronic artist for my generation. There is no figure in any of the arts today who has that kind of dynamism or stature — what a loss for young people.
The still photographs and film footage of the young Nureyev were electrifying as the program traced him from his early conflicts with his macho father (who thought that a real man shouldn’t be a dancer but an “engineer or doctor”). When in 1955 he left his home in the Bashkir Republic to seek his fortune as a dancer, he had to travel three days by train to get to Moscow and then another 16 hours to Leningrad, where he sought admission to the Kirov Ballet.
The documentary stressed not only Nureyev’s fiery, athletic, Tatar style but his exquisite skill and passion in partnering. It was fascinating to watch his self-sculpting over time: his raw, spiky, peasant intensity clarified and hardened, and his resolute jawline emerged exactly like Joan Crawford’s as she metamorphosed from dance-hall girl to megastar. There was just one missing detail: surely in the years after he defected in a famous 1961 incident at Orly Airport in Paris, the still-awkward and socially insecure Nureyev merged his persona with that of Mick Jagger. Their ephebic faces melted into one.
Another highlight was Turner Movie Channel’s showing of John Schlesinger’s “Darling” (1965), starring the luminous Julie Christie as a blithe spirit of Swinging ’60s London. This witty, sophisticated, superbly edited film (one of my selections for a 1999 festival at the National Film Theatre) never seems to lose its freshness. My favorite lines in Frederic Raphael’s script remain “One felt madly in!” and “Put away your Penguin Freud, Diana” — upon which I built my theory of the “English epicene” in the Oscar Wilde chapters of “Sexual Personae.”
Finally, I took enormous pleasure in Love Stories Channel’s broadcast of the Barbra Streisand version of “A Star Is Born” (1976), one of the most absurd yet strangely engrossing entries in Hollywood’s megalomania chronicles. Kris Kristofferson, by career a singer rather than actor, has never gotten sufficient credit for his sensitive, agonized portrayal of a rugged pop star in decline.
Despite the unbearably corny, faux-rock score (the musical director was schmaltz elf Paul Williams), there are many fine moments in this film — such as the scene during the Streisand character’s first visit to the Los Angeles mansion where Kristofferson very credibly improvises lyrics to a dreamy song she has been composing. It’s very rare that movies catch the texture and haphazard spontaneity of collaborative art-making.
My favorite moments in “A Star Is Born” — which I realized with consternation that I’d been watching time without number for a quarter of a century — are when the goaded, leather-clad Kristofferson hurls a trim, black-and-white case of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey through a glass partition at an obnoxious DJ (“Baby Jesus”) and then when Streisand, finding her husband in bed with a dopy groupie, flies toward the camera like a banshee and whips a pool cue through a shelf of exploding liquor bottles. “You can trash your life, but you’re not going to trash mine!” she proclaims — which I’ve always felt should be a feminist rubric, far more effective than legal restraining orders for women with abusive spouses or boyfriends.
Of course we cannot omit the high-camp finale when, after the James Dean-like death crash of the Kristofferson character on the open road, Streisand, apparently concerned that the movie not be stolen by her costar, imprisons the audience for 16 more endless minutes of moping, weeping and wailing. The musical climax is a single long take in close-up as, clad in a white pantsuit (having internalized her angel man?), she sings herself from grief to acceptance to genuine ecstasy in what is supposed to be a concert hall but feels like the underground tomb in “Aida.”
Nor is Streisand done with us mere mortals. As the credits slowly unfurl over a still of her with head flung back and arms extended in crucifixion mode, we are informed of her mind-boggling omnipresence in this project, beginning with her role as executive producer. One line reads “Musical concepts by Barbra Streisand” and another (the pièce de résistance) “Ms. Streisand’s clothes from … her closet.”
Divas this ruthless, daring, tasteless and grand are born, not made.