Thursday, March 20, 2008

What's shocking? entertaining? political? art?

Elizabeth Zelvin

When I started sending out my mystery about recovery from alcoholism to agents and editors several years ago, I quickly discovered that the topic of alcoholism served as a kind of litmus test, sometimes telling me more about the reader’s psyche than about the quality of my writing. Some said outright that they found the subject depressing—though my protagonist succeeds in turning his life around, the story ends in a burst of hope, and I hope I don’t sound too humorless if I say I think the book is funny. One editor, I remember, said that readers are looking for escape, and my irreverent but affectionate depiction of life in the 12-step programs was too much of a dose of reality. I find this puzzling in the current state of our culture, which embraces reality TV shows on the one hand, and on the other, mysteries and thrillers that focus on gory forensics and/or the psyches of serial killers. How come we find sociopaths and torture entertaining but people giving up their cynicism and despair along with the booze depressing?

This paradox occurred to me a few weeks ago when my husband, who surfs the online news daily, called my attention to an article about the resignation of the president of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA. We were interested because we’ve been to Williamsburg and have an ongoing general interest in history. I’ll be visiting Virginia on my book tour later this spring. And I happened to have had a lunch date the day before with a friend who lives in the state.

What had caused the furor in America’s oldest institution of higher learning? Two issues, it seems, had offended the powers that be: a controversial art exhibit on campus—the Sex Workers Art Show—and the president’s decision to take down a monument known as the Wren Cross—designed by the great architect Sir Christopher Wren and, according to one’s perspective, a symbol of sectarian religion or a work of art.

If indeed I understood the facts correctly—not always easy in the online news—I had mixed feelings about the package as presented. Censorship of art? Thumbs down! As in the Mapplethorpe brouhaha a few years back, I don’t believe that work conceived as creative art should be judged by conservative moral standards. Sex work as the politically correct conceptualization of prostitution? I don’t buy it, and I’ve been concerned for quite some time by the increasing tyranny of “political correctness”—a term handed down to us from Stalinism, as many people nowadays never knew or don’t remember. I’m not sure I don’t smell thought police on both sides of this particular controversy.

As for the Wren Cross, hmm. As an American Jew, I am horrified that some of our leaders seem to think America is “a Christian country.” I’ve always assumed it was a secular state all of whose citizens were free to choose our beliefs. On the other hand, Christianity has been the major inspiration for art in Western civilization for many centuries. Forbidding the display of art using its symbols is yet another kind of artistic censorship. How different is it from banning, say, the Easter bunny? Or should we ban the Easter bunny? How many people know it’s a pagan symbol, not a Christian one? The rabbit goddess Estre, an avatar of Ishtar, was said to lay multicolored eggs.

I don’t have answers. And I hope nobody gets too mad at me for asking questions. But let me offer one more anecdote to meditate on. A university that I’ve promised not to name has forbidden its theater department to produce and perform Eve Ensler’s feminist masterwork, The Vagina Monologues—the play that put the V word into our everyday vocabulary, and high time, in my opinion. The ongoing ban is moot, because every year, a new group of students organizes the play and one feminist department head or another helps enough with funding to make it happen. This pleases me, as a member of the half of the human race that’s got them. How about you?

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