Lee Smith

lee smith smiles

By Ray Sawhill

Lee Smith’s books are homegrown rarities: serious literary works that incorporate the pleasures and strengths of popular art and folk art. The stories in her rich new collection, “Me and My Baby View the Eclipse” (Putnam), her ninth book, range from a parody of a Silhouette Romance entitled “Desire on Domino Island” to “Intensive Care,” which concerns a man whose second wife is dying. Like much of her work, it’s moving in ways that can take you entirely by surprise.

Smith grew up in Grundy, Virginia. “I had a sweet, middle-class upbringin’,” she says, “but lots of the kids I was in school with came from the mountains and the hollers.” In high school she was a cheerleader, was elected Miss Grundy High, and traveled the state participating in potato-salad competitions until “I was disqualified in Richmond because I didn’t wear a hair net.”

A few years later she was a go-go dancer, alongside her Hollins College schoolmate Annie Dillard, for an all-girl rock band called the Virginia Woolfs. The summer between her junior and senior years, she and a dozen girlfriends drifted down the Mississippi from Kentucky to New Orleans on a raft they’d built from two-by-fours and oil drums (“We were readin’ Mark Twain,” she explains). Two marriages, two sons, several journalism jobs, and a series of novels have followed.

“I’m always writin’,” Smith says, “but usually it’s not for a particular book. It’s like I’m wanderin’ around all the time, writin’ stuff down and thinkin’ about it, and eventually I’ll write a book and all that stuff will go into it. It sort of grows on you. It’s like havin’ a baby.” She’s fascinated by UFO sightings, the National Enquirer, mountain lore, soap operas, and ornamental cakes. On trips back to Grundy, dismayed that the town’s character was vanishing behind fast-food signs, she set out to preserve what she could of the region’s culture: “I had a closetful of this wonderful material.” Much of it wound up in her novel “Oral History.” At a garage sale a few years ago she spent seventy-five cents on a bundle of letters. Captivated by the woman who wrote them, Smith wrote “Fair and Tender Ladies.”

Smith makes the kind of contact with readers that some movie stars and country singers do; she makes you feel as if you’re sharing a common life. “People who write me after readin’ my books don’t want me to guru them,” she says. “They don’t even write me about my books. They just tell me stories about their own lives.”

©1990 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Interview magazine.

Pauline Kael in 1994


By Ray Sawhill

Ray Sawhill: If you were starting off now, would you write about films?

Pauline Kael: In this period of movies, in terms of what’s being done now, I doubt it….I’m not sure.

People don’t talk about movies the way they used to.

How can you talk about special effects for more than a minute? You say, how was that done? And somebody explains how it was done, and you think, why did I ask?

Is it because movies so thoroughly take over your consciousness that, even when they stink, people are still fascinated by them?

I think so. Even a dumb movie often has a lot going on in it.

I know in San Francisco you worked on experimental films.

It interested me a lot at the time, but my talents, such as they were, probably tied in more with entertainment movies than with experimental movies.

How do you explain this?

Because of my interests, which were primarily in films reaching large numbers of people. There is something rather closeted about experimental films. They seem like part of the foundation world, or the art gallery bureaucracies. And I love the idea of the democratic medium of the motion picture. Whitman’s poetry reached out to people in a way that early movies did too.

Have movies lost that?

Well, now they’re made for subliterate cultures. American action films travel so well all over the world. Whereas the films that try to do something unusual are trapped.

Doesn’t that make the action film even more democratic?

It’s democratic in the worst way. It degrades the mass audience. If there’s nothing else in movies but action it’s just one special effect thrill after another. And people learn to settle for that.

What do you make of critics’ eternal search for the great new B movie?

A mystique has been built up that B movies were really the all-American goods, and if you can bring that quality to bigger movies you’ve got something. But the trouble with B movies is the B conception of character. You don’t have characters with many sides. The characters are really a function of the plot.

Do A movies today offer anything more than B movies used to?

They still have more interesting performances, particularly in the smaller roles. A bum actor in the leading role will be surrounded by whiz-bang players to keep the picture going.

What direction might your life have taken if William Shawn hadn’t been a fan?

I don’t really know, because I was at the point of giving up. I had just quit the New Republic because the publisher had dumped some reviews of mine, and chopped up another while I was out of town. And I was in bed with the flu, and I thought, well, it’s really hopeless. Shawn phoned when I was at my sickest and offered me to start the following Monday. He had printed the pieces that the New Republic had rejected — “Movies on Television” and “Bonnie and Clyde.” Shawn liked movies, he cared about them. Most editors are just not that interested.

There’s a roomful of editors waiting for you to speak to them. What do you say?

I’d say, stop assigning so many stories, and listen to what the writers want to write about. The worst thing that’s happening in magazines and newspapers is that people get trained to write on assignment, and they cook up fake stories about whatever the editors have heard a little buzz about. If it was a story they really cared about, they could do some independent research, and they might have some background in it, and it might be something they believed in.

Where does “the buzz” come from?

The publicists, often. They take their cue from the executives in the movie companies. It starts with what the executives think is going to be the hot picture. And goes all the way up to what’s featured on magazine covers and TV talkfests.

Why do editors trust what they’re told?

Because they don’t trust themselves. They go out with important people at dinner parties or at openings. They trust what they hear or overhear more than they trust their own critics.

Was the magazine world at the time you were getting going similar to the magazine world today?

No, but it was terrible in its own way. Things were chopped up and hacked, but I wasn’t told in advance what to write about. After I wrote about something, then the editors would get their fists in it. One way or another they get you.

It’s an editor’s world.

In many ways The New Yorker wasn’t a dream, either. There were movies I couldn’t review because the thought of them upset Shawn so much. For example, I didn’t publish a review of “Deep Throat.” He simply wouldn’t allow it.

If you had been Paul Kael, how might things have been different?

(laughs) I don’t know who can say, because I very specifically took a woman’s point of view. And I used bitchery as a tool. So I can’t say I wasn’t putting myself ready up there for it.

Why did you so deliberately take a woman’s point of view?

Because so many movies were being judged in what I thought were absurdly masculine terms. Cowboy movies and war movies, and everything else, too.

Would a woman critic starting off now be badgered as you were?

I think she might have it easier than a man. Where before editors wouldn’t consider women critics, now they’re looking for them, because they think there is some kind of political advantage in having them.

What is it success does to entertainers?

They begin to view themselves as having a responsibility to the public. And that generally means a responsibility to present themselves as ideal characters. They’ll no longer do the things they did earlier on.

Some people go to pieces.

Often they start on drugs or high living or new marriages or new sex lives. They just can’t handle it. But often it’s a matter of wanting important pictures with important themes. I think there are directors who have more talent than brains — Spielberg, Demme, maybe Scorsese. Streisand. Some of them are technically and emotionally incredibly gifted, but they don’t know what they should be doing with their gifts. They pick terrible material. It’s almost incredible that a man of Spielberg’s gifts should have made “Always.” And when you hear him making speeches about how everybody should see “Schindler’s List” — as if it were a duty — you lose heart.

Is Coppola an example of someone who couldn’t handle success?

I think it was overpowering for him. It was really at the peak of the counterculture, and of the drug culture, and I think he got swept up in it. Certainly the people he worked with got swept up in it. By the time he was going to Cuba and being feted by Castro, and was announcing he was going to buy Belize, he’d really become a savior. And I think he still has something of that grandiloquence.

Did you ever feel bad panning someone?

You can’t help knowing that you’re hurting a person. I’ve sometimes had accounts of how so-and-so went to bed for three days after reading my review. It’s a comedy, but it’s also awful. You realize that months out of their lives had gone into this role, and suddenly they feel they’re subjected to public ridicule. But it’s part of working in the arts that you have to accept esthetic criticism, and lord knows I’ve been panned, so I know how it feels.

People often don’t realize that as a critic you’re a public performer. They think all you’re doing is —

— attacking other people. They don’t realize you’re on the line too. And as a critic you get attacked with a particular hostility that people reserve for critics, because they think of them as parasites.

Are they parasites?

The subject a movie critic writes about is movies. It seems to me as legitimate an object of contemplation as any other. (laughs) I think it’s a great subject, especially how movies interact in our lives. It’s difficult to be a good critic. There are very few great ones. A handful — Hazlitt and Shaw. Virginia Woolf with the “Common Readers,” D.H. Lawrence in “Studies in Classical American Literature.” Tynan early on in “Curtains” wrote stunningly on actors.

Before flowers
Photo by Don Hannah.

How important is it for a movie critic to be right?

There’s no standard to judge right or wrong by in any of the arts. You have to go on whether other people see something different in the work because of what you’ve written. In movies, judgment is often not so important in a critic as responsiveness to what a movie feels like, and where it’s heading and what its vision is.

There’s a roomful of Pauline Kael imitators waiting for you to speak to them. What do you say?

“Cut it out!” (laughs) I don’t see how you can develop your own responsiveness if you keep using somebody else’s vocabulary or attitudes. It’s the attitudes that they take over, which are sort of tough-girl attitudes, and seem aberrant in male critics.

Are there works or artists you find yourself unable to respond to?

Yeah. Fassbinder I never got with. I just didn’t see what all the fuss was about. A lot of later Bresson didn’t interest me. There are big names I don’t care for very much. For me, Zhang Yimou joins Ozu and Tarkovsky. I find Zhang Yimou’s pictures mostly very tiresome. They seem like a reprise of what was done in the ’20s and early ’30s, and slower and more pictorial.

What do you think of the British movie critics?

Graham Greene could summarize a movie in two or three sentences that were just about unforgettable. He could do it with a phrase. And he had a strong point of view about what kinds of movies he believed in. There are some remarkably smart critics now, but you feel they could be writing about almost anything. It wouldn’t have to be movies.

Is that a failing?

It’s a failing in terms of a strong movie sense. They don’t have a strong feeling of what they want movies to be, besides better entertainment.

The Modern Review gang seem to be the first Brits who don’t condescend to American pop culture.

They’re still on a high from it. They haven’t yet had too much of that high. We’re overdosed on American pop culture. We could stand a little something else.

Some of us Americans get tired of having our nervous systems raped.


Why does pop culture take over everywhere it’s introduced?

Because it’s so basic, and charged with energy. Why does rock music or country music take over? Because everybody can take part in it, everybody can feel it. You don’t need an education for it. It gets to you instantly. And American pop movies have the same instant accessibility to people. The emotions and drives are so simple.

It’s like sugar. In every culture where sugar was introduced —

It swept the country. Sure.

The ’60s exhilaration about pop culture left a lot of people thinking there was liberation of some sort to be found in pop.

It was fun bombarding people with pop culture and getting them to agree that they really enjoyed it. Because academic people had been talking about it as if it wasn’t worth discussion. And the fact is it has basic qualities that often have gone out of serious fiction and movies. But it’s not all we want. Pop culture in its most extreme form is what you get in the action film.

Well, now that pop culture has been admitted into polite society —

There is no polite society.

So has the fight for pop culture been won?

It’s been won in a terribly distorted way. I don’t think anybody who wanted a recognition of it wanted it to be recognized as the sole art of America.

So where in the ’60s you were arguing for people to recognize the virtues of pop, you would now be responding to people who have become addicts of pop?

That’s right. Those who resent anything that requires more attention than the simplest forms of pop do.

How do you explain that resentment?

If people grow up on pop music, how do they respond to more complex music? Are they willing to make the effort, or do they scorn it because it doesn’t have the immediate pleasures for them?

What might be ideal?

What you get in Renoir or Satyajit Ray, or Preston Sturges at his best. You get it in “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” in dozens of films. “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Wild Bunch.” Not just action. A vision.

A vision that at the same time doesn’t deny the popular aspect?

That’s right.

On the sofa
Pauline and Polly Frost

Bonus: Remarks Pauline made about various movie figures

Kathryn Bigelow. She’s the only woman director I know of who’s really gifted at action yet not particularly gifted at character, story or emotions. There’s an exuberance in the way she approaches action. It’s not the usual approach. Her action is visually a little off-center, yet it’s central to her movies — it’s what brings them to life.

Oliver Stone. The fake energy of his movies gives me the feeling that they’re made by a speed freak. They’re druggy movies. They’re portentous and self-important. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have some talent, but it’s a crude, heavy-handed talent. A number of people who saw “Natural Born Killers” — and these are bright people — tell me they find it exhilarating. The fast cutting and the horrors — that kind of attack on American history and American life — get to some of them. There’s still a residue of the ’60s in a number of people who see a movie like that and get excited. They still think this is hot stuff.

Sharon Stone. I like her. She has humor, and she’s lovely to watch. She moves her arms and her body beautifully. There are so many actresses who are stiff and awkward. And she knows how to move with the role. On TV appearances there’s a genuine humor there. It strikes me she might have something of Carole Lombard in her if she were given the chance.

Tim Burton. It’s hard to know where Burton is heading. Nobody else I can think of could have directed “Beetlejuice.” Nobody else would have thought of doing some of those scenes that way. And even his early shorts have “Tim Burton” written all over them. But he also has a self-pitying side and a self-justifying side, which came out in “Edward Scissorhands.” And he has difficulty with structure and narrative which showed in parts of “Batman.” In general it was an amazing movie for him to have brought off. He could be a major, flukey moviemaker.

Madonna. I thought she was going to be great fun when I first saw her in “Desperately Seeking Susan,” but she hasn’t been great fun since. And somehow she’s blown it by now. She’s never really scored in front of the camera the way she gave promise of doing. There’s something iron-plated in the way she meets the camera.

Camille Paglia. She’s a lot more fun to read than the people who blast her. And there are genuine insights there. She’s smart, but why does she so often seem to be itching for a catfight? She certainly can stir things up. The women writers who refuse to debate her are kind of amazing. The self-righteousness that can go into putting yourself beyond argument!

Quentin Tarantino. He’s certainly talented, but it’s too early to say if there’s any depth to the talent. I laughed a lot at “Pulp Fiction.” It tickled me the way Paul Morrissey’s 1970 porno-absurd “Trash” did, and Stuart Gordon’s “Re-Animator.” There’s nothing under “Pulp Fiction,” no serious undercurrents. And I didn’t find any of the important “statements” I had read about in the reviews, but it’s got a crazy good humor. Tarantino has a flair for pop dialogue, and a flair for casting. He used wonderful people.

© 1994 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.

Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks in leather jacket
By Ray Sawhill

The neurologist and author Oliver Sacks grew up in a house full of medical stories. Both of his parents were physicians, and his two brothers also became physicians. “Guests were frequently horrified, although sometimes enthralled,” he remembers. His latest work in the family tradition is “Seeing Voices: A Journey Into the World of the Deaf” (University of California Press). Like his earlier books, it can spark an adult’s imagination the way fairy tales ignite a child’s.

Sacks has a voluminous and eccentric nature that suggests a Victorian reference book. London-born and Oxford-educated, he decided to move to the States when, on a visit in 1960, he became entranced by California’s vegetation. He has been a passionate motorcyclist as well as a weight lifter capable of squatting while holding up six hundred pounds (“It seemed like the right sport for slow, strong, solitary, clumsy people like myself”), and he once “kidnapped” a “devastatingly ill” woman from the Los Angeles hospital where he was doing his residency. She’d expressed a desire to take a ride on a motorcycle before dying, so Sacks put her on the back of his BMW and gave her a whirl. When he came to New York in 1965 he had fellowships to work in a lab, but “I was always having accidents. I would screw the microscope lens through slides. Finally they said, ‘Get out. You’ll do less harm with people’.”

Something clicked. “I loved the clinical life,” he says. “It called equally to the scientific and the emotional.” Some of his first patients in New York were survivors of an epidemic of sleeping sickness that dated back to the decade following World War I. Sacks administered a new drug and attended to them as, for the first time in nearly fifty years, they roused from a state of suspended animation; he called the book he wrote about them “Awakenings.” “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” a copy of which made an appearance as a token of publishing-world intellectualism on Glenn Close’s bedside table in “Fatal Attraction,” is a collection of other, diverse case histories, and was a surprise best-seller in 1986.

Sacks lives in a house on City Island with a Bechstein piano and a huge stag’s-horn fern, looks forward to buying another motorcycle, and practices neurology at various hospitals and homes around New York. He’s wary of specifying the subject of his next book: “I can’t promise anything, because I don’t know whether anything will happen or what form it will take. I don’t even take book advances. I love the feeling of organic growth, of something happening almost outside my will.” Readers who know his work won’t be surprised to learn that he often finds composing the lengthy footnotes that can take up as much as a third of the length of his books to be the most pleasurable part of writing. “Sometimes I want to write footnotes to footnotes,” he confesses. “A friend once told me that I had ‘commentarrhea’.”

©1989 Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Interview magazine.

Lynne Munson


By Ray Sawhill

Lynne Munson’s “Exhibitionism: Art in an Era of Intolerance” (Ivan R. Dee) is unusual in its use of the word “intolerance,” which refers not, as one might expect, to Rudy Giuliani and Jesse Helms, but to the atmosphere of political correctness that prevails in the art world itself. It’s unusual too in not being polemical, scholarly or comprehensive. Munson’s goal is clearly to avoid scattershot opinionating. She wants instead to focus on describing what has become of the art world — and to explain how it got that way.

To do this, Munson has put together a collection of journalistic portraits of some of the institutions — the National Endowment for the Arts, museum bureaucracies, art history at Harvard — that characterize the contemporary art world. The result is a small book of surprising weight and substance, provocative in the best sense. You might draw different conclusions than Munson does from her reporting, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a swifter, more fact-chunky short treatment of the framework within which the contemporary arts operate.

Munson herself is only 32, but she has deep-dyed conservative credentials. Bred in the Chicago suburbs, she spent a few teenage moments supporting Gary Hart, then found her path. At Northwestern, she majored first in political science, got bored with the lefty bent of the department’s faculty and switched to art history. (While at Northwestern, she met and became friendly with Joseph Epstein, then editing the American Scholar, whom she describes as an “informal mentor.”) She also edited the Northwestern Review, a conservative newspaper. That led to a stint in Washington doing research assistance for Lynne Cheney at the National Endowment for the Humanities. When the Bush years ended, she moved with Cheney over to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

The idea for “Exhibitionism” came to her when she looked into pursuing her art history studies at a graduate level — despite being a Washington policy wonk, she’d maintained friendships with artists and art scholars. She quickly realized that what she was looking for didn’t exist. “A connoisseurial, object-centered education in art history is not to be had anymore,” she says categorically. So she decided to write a book about how this came to be. (She says that when she’s bugged by something, her impulse is to “get on the horn, get into the primary sources and find out who the best sources are.”) She spent three years in New York researching and writing “Exhibitionism.” I spoke with Munson during her book tour.

Munson trad museum
Trad museum

Ray Sawhill: How would you describe the story you’re telling?

Lynne Munson: My goal was to put forward hard evidence as to what may have sparked the art wars — and to chart very carefully the kinds of changes that have taken place during the postmodern era that fundamentally altered the focus and mission of our arts institutions.

Pretend you’re on “Crossfire.” What two or three points do you want to be sure to get across?

That shock art is the safest kind of art that an artist can go into the business of making today. That the real mavericks of our time have been working quietly and carefully for years in their studios producing wonderful work few people have seen. And that even though the NEA is not the cause of the various ills we’ve seen, it is to a great degree an embodiment of the problem.

What is the “new museology”?

It’s a set of theories postulated by a group of art historians that suggest that museums should no longer operate as objective storehouses for great objects, openly accessible to whomever would like to come see them. The museum should instead be an institution with more activist goals that looks at society, and looks at the objects in its collection, and says: How do we want to change society, and how do we want to use these things to create this change?

But doesn’t the traditional museum impose a political agenda of its own? That of the status quo, for example?

This is the core argument of the new museology. I find it funny. Traditionally, museums used to organize their collections according to the region in which they were made, and often according to the chronology in which they were made. It’s hard to see where politics could have entered into it. Museums and curators organized their objects that way in order to clearly and objectively present their collections, so that viewers who were not well-versed in art history could just come and browse the collection. New museologists have tried to make that approach seem political.

Chronology and geography — I wonder if the new museologists see politics infusing those categories, or the people and institutions that would make use of such categories.

Their primary argument really is that connoisseurship, or the methods through which art historians have assessed and compared works, is some kind of “dead white male,” mystical method, through which European painting always ended up on top. Today curators are spending an enormous amount of their time concocting theories and revising how their collections are presented.

Is this why, when I go to a museum these days, I’m so often more struck by themes and curatorial gambits than I am by the art?

Indeed. And you’re often overwhelmed by wall labels that are larger than the artworks themselves.

Aren’t the new museologists, though, just making the curatorial point of view explicit? And isn’t that a good thing?

But what can the curator’s point of view be when you’re putting all the paintings made in Italy during a certain century in a certain room? I don’t understand how the argument can be made that that’s a politicized approach. To me, so much of this is common sense — the idea that one painting can be better than another, for instance. You go to the Louvre, and there are so many people in front of the “Mona Lisa” you can barely see it. Some of that has to do with fame, of course. But ultimately that fame is the result of people over centuries of time finding something of value in that work. The new museologists and the new art historians like to make all sorts of complicated arguments about how Leonardo only came out on top because of some political strategy that’s been perpetuated. But you go to the Louvre and you see those people standing there, and you see the painting yourself, and you just say no.

No one’s holding a gun to the heads of the people looking at that painting. I’ve always found that people who make the argument that everything is at base political are people for whom that’s true. What I quarrel with is their insistence that that’s true for me, let alone in a cosmic sense. In your view, is that what these new approaches represent — people for whom politics is always paramount?

These are people for whom politics is an end in itself. They often seem to be people who just can’t enjoy a thing in itself.

Harold Bloom identifies himself as a lefty, but he makes a similar argument — that the deconstructionists who have taken over literary studies are people who really don’t like literature or art. What they really like is power and politics.

I would agree with Bloom. I think similar thoughts when I see collectors who spend tons of money on work that’s simply no fun to look at. There are people who fill their houses with work — some of which is little more than propaganda — work that’s meant simply to make a statement that you can understand almost instantly. It’s like filling your house with posters. It doesn’t have anything to do with the enjoyment of looking at something. It seems to have to do with the desire to feel as though you’re supporting the points of view embodied in the work. I have no trouble with people enjoying politics. I’m very engaged in politics myself. But politics and art are two very different things and to confuse them is very dangerous for both.

How many American museums have adopted the new museology?

Probably the majority. And many in places where people would be surprised to see such changes: in Baltimore, for instance, and at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

You point out that something so banal as museum entrances have been affected by this.

Museum entrances used to force you to walk up a lengthy staircase under, say, a grand colonnade, or under a portico. It was a grandiose experience that took a minute or two to proceed through. It helped you focus your attention on transitioning from day-to-day things — cars going by — and focus instead on an experience of high seriousness. It helped you experience the museum as a place for contemplation.

It set a mood.

Today’s entrances make no attempt to set that kind of mood. Now, it’s a more continuous experience. The experience you’re involved in before you enter continues on the inside. You often see a gift shop, a cafe. You don’t have a sense of preparing for a higher experience than you were having before.

What does this reflect?

The argument that art is just another object in one’s regular experience. The new museology says, Listen, don’t hold this object up in any higher esteem than anything else — which makes it easier to make art objects part of everyday debates.

It demystifies the object, which can help you see it more directly. But it can also make you wonder why you’re bothering to look at it at all.

Is it so bad to be ever so slightly intimidated as you approach a wonderful Botticelli at the National Gallery? And to be quiet, and to look at it carefully and really take it in?

When you were thinking about pursuing grad studies in art history, you couldn’t find what you were looking for. What was missing? And what did you finally learn has happened?

Art history graduate programs used to be centered on helping students actively engage art objects and understand them, and to cultivate a level of fluency in approaching and understanding art objects. Art history is more focused now on theorizing. Many students, especially at Harvard, spend years studying art history without really being forced into an encounter with art objects. I’m afraid of the effects this is going to have on museums. Harvard, particularly, is a place that trained decades and decades of wonderful museum directors.

munson new style museum
New-style museum

Is Harvard especially bad?

It’s one of the worst. But any program that used to have connoisseurship as a hallmark of its curriculum is either fully gone or considerably on the wane. When you trade away important values that have guided artistic creation and scholarship for centuries, you trade away your ability to pass any reasonable judgment on the quality of things, and to trust scholars and scholarship. It cedes to politics. It cedes to power, really, to use a word that’s particularly treasured by the left. For example: If you no longer teach connoisseurship in school, who fills the void? Galleries. Dealers.

So the administrators are taking over, and the emphasis on social critique is getting greater. How are these facts related?

To a certain extent, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, what art should be came to be redefined as: Art needs to have a social message; artists need to be social advocates; artists need to be using their work as a vehicle for something else. It became a very lucrative track for many artists to pursue, and it came to overshadow many other ways of working.

How much blame does the NEA deserve for the current state of the arts?

A lot of people blame the NEA for a lot of things, because it has lent credibility to trends that don’t deserve to have it. I don’t think the NEA is at the heart of the problem. But I do think it epitomizes the problem.

The “art wars” that you refer to seem to replay the same argument over and over. What is it?

We have one side that lines up along the battle line of censorship and the other side that lines up along the battle line of blasphemy. And they face each other and blast away. The rest of us get bored silly, learn nothing and get confused about what the state of things really is. The artists who provoke the battles become famous, and the people who participate in the battles send out a lot of direct mail and start new organizations.

I suspect that most lefties are convinced that the real reason for conservative attacks on outfits like the NEA is that conservatives just don’t like culture, and never have. Do conservatives in fact care about art?

I don’t really like talking about the arts in these terms. To me the arts are apolitical. I don’t think that someone with conservative eyes would see art any differently than anyone else. The arts deserve to be depoliticized. That’s the wonderful thing about the arts that so many people are trying to rob them of. The arts really do float above those kinds of debates.

Your history of the NEA is especially fascinating. I was surprised to learn that it was under Richard Nixon that its budget expanded dramatically.

That’s right. The agency essentially started in 1967. In 1969 the budget was $8.5 million. By 1974 it was more than $64 million.

I take it that the agency hasn’t grown more efficient over time in its use of its money.

In 1967, they were giving away $16 in grant money for every administrative dollar they spent. By 1996, they were giving away $4 in grants for every administrative dollar. You plant a bureaucracy, you water it, it’s well fed and it blooms. But it doesn’t bloom in a way that serves your mission; it blooms in a way that serves itself.

How much favoritism is there at the NEA?

There is a lot of garden-variety favoritism. But the more pernicious form of favoritism is a stylistic bias. Philip Pearlstein, a figurative painter, tells a terrific story. He was on a panel, and he sat there watching slides with his fellow panelists. At lunch, he was thinking over what he’d seen, and he realized that he hadn’t seen one representational work. In fact, he hadn’t even seen one work that was a four-sided canvas with paint on it. He remarked on this to some NEA staffers, and they explained that the NEA had asked a few of the panelists to come in the previous day and cull out all of the applicants they felt were not competitive. So he spent some hours going through the works that had been culled out. And he found among the rejects far and away the best artists in the whole lot. Many were painters, and not all of them were representational.

Meaning that, despite all the progressive talk, the kind of art the endowment supports has become more and more restricted?

The NEA when it first started was funding work in every stylistic category one can imagine. And then, even as the budget was getting larger and the number of grants was mushrooming, the kind of art that was being funded became of a narrower and narrower variety. When I looked at what was funded in 1995, almost every single artist was making art that was primarily geared toward social critique. If you’re a painter and you go about your task, and your work is about paint, or space, or process, or whatever, but it isn’t also driven by a desire to critique society in some manner, don’t bother applying to the NEA.

To what extent is the NEA guiding and dictating this? And to what extent is it simply responding to what artists are doing?

There are excellent artists out there who don’t do this kind of work and who have not received any of these grants. Perceptual painting, for example, has persisted through the postmodern period, and none of those artists have received any NEA grants. And many of them have applied for many years.

Americans can get terribly worked up about arts funding even though many of them don’t interact with the fine arts at all. How to explain this, especially when it’s a matter of mere pennies and when there are so many other flagrant examples of government waste and stupidity?

I think in part it’s the fact that the formula for being a successful artist today has come to include learning how to critique the American public itself. When you have a whole generation of artists who have cultivated careers bent on this task, on critiquing the public — in making fun of religion or patriotism, or of the expectation that the arts will be beautiful — shockingly, the public reacts. Well, if you poke an animal with a sharp stick long enough, it’s going to turn around and bite your hand. The fact that censorship is always the first argument raised in the art wars strikes me as amazingly hypocritical. It’s not only artists in this country who have free speech, it’s everybody else too.

What’s wrong with a little government welfare for the arts?

We have no proof, except for the very beginning of the endowment’s existence, that the government has actually helped the arts. I think the best situation is where well-run private foundations give grants that do not discriminate on a stylistic basis but on the basis of quality.

England, France and Germany have enormous cultural programs.

The Netherlands does too. And it has warehouses full of the work artists have produced that it can’t do anything with.

Doesn’t it seem a little barbaric that a major country shouldn’t have a sizable cultural program?

I never assume the European example is a great one to follow.

Is there any reason to think that the NEA might one day be terminated?

Realistically, abolishing the NEA is a nonissue. If the Gingrich Congress couldn’t do it, it’s not going to be done. No one running for office is even talking about it.

What’s likely to happen to it?

I think until someone can determine whether we can achieve a considerable shift in the way the NEA goes about its fundamental business, and until we’ve determined whether many of the corrupting influences that have undermined the NEA can be reversed, it’s best to keep the NEA small, run it well and hope for the best.

© 2000 Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.

Silvia Sanza


By Ray Sawhill

I’m a huge fan of the novelist Silvia Sanza’s book “Alex Wants to Call It Love.” It’s funny, smart, perceptive, entertaining, daring — just like Silvia herself.

I met Silvia a couple of years ago at a poetry reading. I immediately liked her and have been struck since by how generous she is towards other writers. It’s all too unusual to meet artists or writers who are, God knows.

But Silvia is that rarity: a genuine bohemian, someone who was born to live the arts life, not someone who aspires to it, or who wants to use it just for a career. So it was a pleasure to read “Alex Wants to Call It Love” and love it.

Well, how could I not love a book that’s deliciously raunchy and beautifully written? Here’s a passage from “Alex Wants to Call It Love”:

Sex is important only when it’s great. Otherwise, it’s an inconvenience. If it doesn’t make you high as a mountain, why bother? If it’s too tentative, who needs it? And with Alex sex had become something to do, like eating junk food. It passed the time, wiped up the excess passion, and hid the twisting and groaning emotions, it was as easy as shaking hands and that made it too easy. She was after untamed pounding.

Ray Sawhill: As a fan of your book “Alex Wants to Call It Love,” I’d like to ask if your new book is similar in tone?

Silvia Sanza: Tone. I have to think about that word for a minute. Tone can mean quality, attitude, atmosphere, ambiance, mood. My new book is much the same in that it is contemporary New York characters but my characters, like me, are older — their needs are singular, their experience speckled. Still struggling but with valiant strides.

What’s your writing process?

I am always writing bits and pieces. I sit on stoops, in parks, on curbs and listen to the sounds of the city. I sketch words. Scraps of paper are tossed into file folders and plucked out for inspiration. Characters often write themselves. The shirred yellow empire dress I see in a Soho window becomes the dress that catches the eye of a man walking down Prince Street looking for a lover.

I write a first draft longhand on yellow legal pads with #2 pencils; a second draft goes on the computer. I like to write sitting down on the rug in my tiny living room. If I get distracted for too long a time by my own four walls, I escape to the Jefferson Market Library and sit at one of the round tables upstairs where I can defer the temptation to check my e-mail twenty times a day.

How much do your own experience and your own circle of friends enter into your work?

Very much except I inject it all with a exceedingly healthy dose of fiction. I save everything: letters, postcards, notes, diaries from when I was 12 years old, shopping lists people leave in their baskets at D’Agostino’s. At family thanksgiving dinners I listen hard so I can write about the whole thing when I get home. I listen for the things that remain unsaid. I listen for what’s going on beneath the surface. I’ve always done that.

Then I mix the characters up: one from Column A, one from Column B, two from Column C. A man from one of those family dinners gets matched with a woman (or man) from a completely different social occasion. Characters meld and blend and set and bond in that marvelous world of fiction. I let them tell me what comes next.

What role do eroticism and sex play in your writing?

It would be impossible not to have sex in my writing. Sex is an emotion, painfully addictive, powerfully soothing, wildly absurd, blessedly hilarious and validly and vividly alive in everyone, even those who choose to deny it. I myself am driven by a bundle of sexual tension but sometimes pull back for my own safety. I use that part of me in my writing, too — that calculated disentanglement allows me to create a new dimension of character . . . a new way to measure.

What’s the title of your new book?

My new novel is called “Negative Space.” It is an analogy between the bleak aftermath of 9/11 and the death of my husband who I adored. He was an environmental sculptor and often talked about “negative space”. I was bulldozed by the harsh loneliness of negative space after his death, then came the sweeping far-reaching negative space of 9/11 and the collapse of the twin towers, and then a nose-dive into the negative space of the internet in a grisly chase for love. Let’s say it starts out based on a true story and goes from there.

©2005 by Ray Sawhill

Geoff Murphy

geoff murphy
By Ray Sawhill
“Young Guns II” isn’t to be confused with the original “Young Guns,” a mixture of fake cowboy style and celebrity worship. The new picture, the first directed in America by the New Zealander Geoff Murphy, may have more glamorizing flourishes than it needs, but it also has obstreperousness and fervor. Within the limits of the commercial Western, it’s a stunning piece of filmmaking.
The movie takes another look at the story of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. In this version, Billy’s ego is swelling even as his fortunes wane; he has begun to believe in his legend. But the big landowners want to crush Billy and his gang. They hire Billy’s old comrade in arms Pat Garrett (William Petersen) to track him down.
The actors — including Emilio Estevez, Lou Diamond Phillips and Kiefer Sutherland from the original film’s cast — bring wit and gravity to their roles. John Fusco’s script conveys something of the historical Billy — a small man who was a charismatic sociopath.
young guns II poster
But it’s the director’s work that puts the movie across. Murphy refreshes the Western by channeling back into it the intensity that filmmakers set loose in the ’60s and ’70s. Played out against vast, totemic landscapes, “Young Guns II” is the first Western in years to have the ritualistic quality of the classics of the genre. (It isn’t a surprise to learn that Murphy’s wife is a Maori.)
A former trumpet player who spent years touring with a rock band, Murphy, now 51, has a musician’s love of irreverence and shifts in tempo and mood. It wasn’t until 1980 that he made his first feature film, “Goodbye Pork Pie,” a lickety-split road movie that was as popular in New Zealand as “E.T.” His second film, “Utu,” about colonial rule in New Zealand, was a great hip epic. (It’s available on videocassette.) In it, Murphy fused elements of costume drama, Westerns, and samurai films: “In New Zealand we borrow genres and try to put our experience into them, and hope our own genres will develop over time.”
“Geoff’s a real mad-conductor type,” Fusco says. “He’d stay up all night working out the next day’s shooting in detailed computer drawings and plans, pass them out, then fall asleep until the assistant director would tell him it was time to roll. Then he’d shake himself, throw himself into the work and make it look effortless.”

Murphy says he’s still suffering from culture shock. “In New Zealand the movies are something you might go to on Saturday night. Here, the average 15-year-old has seen every movie. I’ve never experienced that level of fierceness about films.” A fan of Westerns, he says that “television did a lot of harm. Also, Sergio Leone had an effect. I love his films, but he did to the Western what Einstein did to physics — he finished the book. And he did it with such panache that he dehumanized it. If the Western wants to revive, it has to give the audience a chance to feel something.”
  • Some of the people involved recall the making of Young Guns II.”
  • Jenny Wright, who played a spunky madame in the movie, is an interesting case. A ravishing beauty who enjoyed quite a career in the ’80s, she vanished for many years and has only recently begun making public appearances again. Here’s an interview with her.
  • Buy a copy of Geoff Murphy’s New Zealand epic “Utu.” It’s a great, and much underknown, movie.
  • Here’s a 2005 interview with Geoff Murphy.
  • A good obituary of Murphy, who died in 2018.
©1990 by Newsweek Inc. Reproduced by permission.

Morton Subotnick


By Ray Sawhill

Writers have by now been comfortable on word processors for years, and a designer without a knowledge of Quark and Photoshop would have a hard time finding a job. Still, there seems to be a basic antagonism between the world of computer technology and the world of the humanities. Techies find liberal-arts values squishy and indefinite. (You get the impression that one reason they love the electronic universe so much is that they feel set free of any concern for such values there.) Liberal arts people turn their nose up at any contemplation of what the machines imply for their art and lives. They seem delighted to take any excuse not to give electronics serious thought.

Morton Subotnick, the éminence grise of American electronic music, has been bridging the worlds of technology and art for years. He had a hand in the development of the earliest synthesizers, worked out the music-composition program Interactor, did stints at MIT and IRCAM, and has had a long association with Cal Arts; he’s now chairman of the Composition and New Media program, and co-director of the Center for Experiments in Art, Information and Technology. His compositions include multimedia extravaganzas, a CD-ROM, and the 1967 “Silver Apples of the Moon” — the first electronic work made specifically for “performance” on record. Next up is “The Poetics of Space,” a CD-ROM inspired by Gaston Bachelard’s book on esthetics.

Now he has brought out “Making Music” (Voyager), volume one of a projected four-part music education series for children. It’s a landmark disc. Most music-instruction discs are amazingly short of imagination; they simply provide the electronic equivalent of a conventional music education. Subotnick takes advantage of what the electronic medium makes possible to present a new vision of, and a new approach to, music. His disc for young beginners includes not one mention of staffs, or even of middle C; there isn’t a finger drill to be found. (Notation will be introduced in disc 2.)

What Subotnick, working with programmer Mark Coniglio, presents is sound in its most basic dimensions — pitch, duration, tone, volume — and simple tools that enable a child to manipulate them as easily as she can paint in “KidPix.” Although it’s meant for young kids, and is full of cheerful faces and cartoon animals, “Making Music” is likely to make the head of even an adult with a decent music background buzz. What Subotnick’s program can do for an adult is move you past the jerry-built mess that is, for most of us, what we call our “music knowledge.” “Making Music” is a reminder of the fact that music is first and foremost sound organized in time. Everything else — the whole apparatus of key signatures, counterpoint, the circle of fifths, etc. — is simply tools. Experiencing this from a composer’s point of view — which is what the program enables you to do — is very different than simply reading about it.

All this makes Subotnick one of the few people so far who have used the medium to express and approach a subject, and to do that while bringing a personal point of view to bear. Conceived of in a classically humanistic way, “Making Music” delivers in a new medium the classic humanistic satisfactions.


Ray Sawhill: When did you first start using electronics?

Morton Subotnick: I started with technology back in around ’57-’58. I was writing music for a theater production of “King Lear” in San Francisco. I wanted to develop the storm scene out of Lear’s voice. It seemed reasonable; I knew about the experiments happening in Europe and the U.S. I used one of the early tape recorders, and did recordings of Lear’s voice. And then I recorded instruments. I’d splice a cello pizzicato to the head of a horn note. In those days to make a tape cross-fade, you had to use a steel ruler and make a diagonal and use pieces of tape. It took me months and months, close to a year, to finish the score.

Did you say, This is for me?

That was it. By the time I finished it, I was totally hooked. And I didn’t expect that to happen, because I was playing clarinet with the San Francisco Symphony at the time, and I was composing. But what I discovered was that I had found a way to be both a composer and a performer. So my two worlds, which were very split apart at the time, I could bring together.

So the computer really turns music into a studio art.

That’s right. That’s what we saw in the earliest days, back in the late ’50s — the potential of music being a studio art. That ability to be both a performer and a composer, and then to be able to stand back and listen to the results. I think “Making Music” may be the first instance for children where that happens.

Is that still what attracts you to using the computer?

Basically, yeah. And that’s why, in the early ’60s, I got involved in helping develop the first synthesizers. I had a clear notion of what I wanted from the medium, which was to be able to interact with it. And it was the performer/composer relationship that was why I got involved with all the interactive media from the beginning. It’s also why these four kids’ programs will be about composing and performing. You’re the sole creator of a piece of music.

Did “Making Music” come out of your experience as a teacher?

As a composer, and as a father. A kid can fingerpaint, or play with boxes, building forts. Or draw. Sure, they can’t draw perspective, but they can make an image, and they can know what they don’t know. They can say, How do you do that? And then go and learn it. Music was never that way. You had to learn notation and technique. If you said to a kid who wanted to play with cardboard boxes, you can’t do this until you go to architecture school, it would be insanity.

Have you done any composing or creating in recent years that didn’t involve electronics?

Once, for the Oregon Symphony. But it was so boring for me. Starting from scratch and doing everything is really the instinct of a studio artist. The studio artist in music is composer, performer, and audience. That’s why I got bored writing the orchestra piece, because I was only composing.

Have computers gotten to where you want them to be?

I’m using MIDI and laser discs in conjunction with the computer, and what I’d like to do is be able to do everything on the computer. It’s still a question of needing more storage and more speed.

Some people think computers will just go on changing forever, that we’ll always have to junk our equipment every five years. Do you?

No. The first people who flew airplanes probably knew that at a certain point it would get fast enough to change the whole world. But the Concorde has never really caught on. It seems as though five hours to cross the Atlantic is fast enough for most people. I think computers will get to a point where they’re good enough for most of the things most people want to do with them.

What did you get out of your stays at IRCAM and MIT?

Well, when I went in 1979, I had just sold all my analog equipment. I had used it up. There was nowhere I could go with it. See, I didn’t want to just make computer music, I wanted to explore the interactive aspect I’d already developed with analog. But there was nothing around that could do it at the time. When I got the commission and went in ’79, my main point was to find out if I could actually do it in digital or not, and whether I had the aptitude to do it or not, because I’d worked so long with analog. And it turned out it was just second nature to me. I didn’t have any problems at all. Right after that I went to MIT to see if I could get this program going that eventually became Interactor. And that came real easy to me as well. It was a very important period — from ’79 to ’81 — in terms of turning my stuff around.

What’s “The Poetics of Space” going to be like?

The chapter that’s most worked out is called “Corners.” It starts at a high level of purity. You go down corridors which are geometric and architectural. And let’s say there’s an imperfection in a wall, and you respond to that. So things begin to change subtly. The next time you come on, it could go all the way from the geometric version to people hiding behind a wall during the Holocaust.

It sounds like “Myst” moved into a more abstract realm.

The main difference is that it’s interactive at a different level.

I hope there aren’t any puzzles. I hate puzzles.

There are no puzzles at all. You just experience the thing and respond. I have the idea that in this intimate world — this relationship between the individual and the machine — there’s no reason why the machine can’t mirror your response rather than always being this object that you act on.

I’m so dismayed by programs that insist you solve something in order to move to the next level. Even with a mystery novel, you don’t have to solve a puzzle in order to be able to read the next chapter.

I liken the art experience to surfing. If you have to suddenly stop and think, the next thing you know, you’re drowning. I don’t want to sit there and pick things. To me, that’s contrary to the aesthetic experience — to start making conscious choices. You have to stay unconscious, or preconscious. When you’re dealing with art, and an art experience, you get carried along by it. You ride the crest of a wave, even when you read a mystery novel. You can’t stop and sort of left-brain the thing.


What are the challenges of working in a medium that’s infinite in the possibilities it offers?

But it’s not infinite. I think what we’re really talking about at this point is, To what extent does the medium drive the content, and to what extent does the content drive the medium? If you have content in mind, you find a medium that works for that content — and you also then find out what the medium’s limitations are.

Can you give an example?

A program like Macromedia Director is extremely biased. It was invented as a multimedia presentational too, not as an art tool — and if an artist has a multimedia piece in mind, he’ll find Director terribly binding. It’s just like a vise. But if you don’t have content in mind, you don’t realize you’re being controlled by the bias. It’s as if a mathematician and a scientist invented the English language in six months. Would we have poetry? Yeah, but it wouldn’t be Shakespeare. It’s the content-driven quality of the use of technology that I’m interested in. And in my work with young artists I try to get them to approach it from that standpoint.

You sound like you want more artists to get more involved in the digital world.

Absolutely. Putting demands on it. I think it’s a responsibility on the part of the artists. The bulk of what most people are going to do with a technology will always be technology-driven. But the people who bother me the most are the people who put down the technology and sit around and say, Oh, books are so great. These are the people who should be putting demands on the technology, not saying, let’s get rid of it. They should be saying, Look, if we accept the fact that this is the way the world is going to be, these are the kinds of things that should be included. It would spark the imagination of programmers, and get them going. I think the technology is vital and fabulous. But I think it’s a mistake to think of the computer or the digital world as a driving force. It’s people who have to drive it.

©1995 by Ray Sawhill

James Toback

James Tobackcirca 1990s

By Ray Sawhill

James Toback’s newly released picture, a sunny romantic comedy starring Molly Ringwald and Robert Downey Jr. called “The Pick-Up Artist,” is the first of his movies to stand a chance of becoming a hit. For much of its length, watching the movie is like hanging out with Toback.

In 1982, I spent a day on the location of his previous film, “Exposed,” and was enchanted by the atmosphere around the camera. Toback, who before “Exposed” had written “The Gambler” and had written and directed “Fingers” and “Love and Money,” was in his element. He has had an upper-crust intellectual’s background — Fieldston, Harvard, Columbia, some years teaching literature at City College — but he’s instinctively gregarious, an outgoing charmer with a cheerfully streetwise manner.

As one shot was being readied, a neighborhood store owner bullied his way up to Toback and blustered, “Did you make ‘Fingers’? I hated that movie!” “Yeah? Tell me why?” said Toback. He wasn’t belligerent or defiant; he really wanted to know. And he was delighted that his film had gotten to the guy, even if negatively. The sprawling, social atmosphere of filmmaking seemed to give Toback a keen pleasure, and he demonstrated his gift for bringing other people into his enjoyment. The crew spoke affectionately of Toback when he wasn’t around; the store owner walked away satisfied.

What wound up onscreen had a completely different flavor. “Exposed” turned out to be a privileged man’s fantasy about the limits of existence and the romance of self-destruction. It has a fascinating subtext and Nastassja Kinski’s first forceful performance, but it’s chic, wobbly and overspare. With “The Pick-Up Artist,” Toback has taken care to shape and sustain an illusion, and he has brought some of what I’d found so entertaining behind the cameras onto the screen. In “The Pick-Up Artist,” Toback puts his audience sense to use, and shows some of his bubbling spirit.


“After ‘Exposed,’” he says, “I thought, if I make another movie which in effect is saying to the audience, ‘Stop fooling yourself, you’re going to die,’ then there was nowhere to go except suicide onscreen. I felt I was going to have to go onscreen myself, blow my brains out and have the credits roll.” The fantasy pleases Toback; he smiles happily. “Since — despite whatever my mood might be — I have an ability to take pleasure in the externals of life as they’re happening, I wondered, why not make at least one movie in which that aspect of experience is celebrated in an enjoyable way?”

Some self-censoring mechanism that’s active in most people is entirely absent from Toback’s make-up. His impulses always circumvent wherever it is that mental constriction takes place. So he seems free of anything backed-up, hidden or bitter. For all his transgressions (many of which he goes into in his movies), one thing he could never be justly accused of is holding anything back. Having dinner with him is like having a spare id — and a switched-on, funny one — right across the table from you.

His movies, which are blends of fantasy, autobiography and confession, are based in large part on what he’s lived through. “In my 20s, I tried to be a pick-up artist. I’ve never been afraid of hitting on people, in whatever way,” he says. One of his new movie’s treats is that the Downey character isn’t seen as shallow, as a woman-hater, or as trying to make up for some failing. “This is a guy who really likes women, who enjoys what he’s doing, who feels compelled to come on but who doesn’t think of it as notches in a gun. He thinks of it as pleasure.”

In this, the movie suggests “Shampoo,” which was also about a sweet-natured guy whose girl-chasing was an expression of a basic generosity. The production of “Pick-Up Artist,” in fact, was made possible by the help of Warren Beatty, who played the hero of “Shampoo”; Robert Towne, that film’s co-scriptwriter, appears in “Pick-Up Artist” as Downey’s annoyed boss.


“Picking up girls came out of a desire to get to know people, and a curiosity about the world,” says Toback. “When I was three or four, I’d go up to people in the park and say, ‘I like you.’ The key is not being afraid of rejection, is not feeling the world is caving in on you if someone says, ‘Well, I hate you.’ All it has to be is one in 15 if you’re hitting on fifteen girls a day. And if one says, ‘I hate you,’ there’s always another. Or you can just say, as Voltaire did, Maybe we’re both wrong.”

“I often behave my way into something I think might be useful,” he laughs. He’s given himself a lot of good material. The only son of a wealthy family, Toback gambled away much of his inheritance. “Monetarily, the craziest bet doesn’t have to do with the amount. It has to do with whether you can cover it. And I made bets without having the money to back it up many, many times.” He speaks fondly of Vegas, of the “lowlifes” he knows, of squaring off against his bookie in a Queens parking lot; he’s now a member of Gamblers Anonymous.

His screenplay “The Gambler” was about a City College literature professor with a bad betting problem; at the end of the film, having lost an all-or-nothing bet, the professor walks into Harlem, gets his face cut in a fight with a hooker and a pimp, and returns to the sunlight, fulfilled. “It was about a guy who wanted to go out to the edge of self-destruction and come back and say, ‘See, I can go right out to where you told me I’d fall off, and I won’t fall off.’ It’s a way of saying to death, I gave you your chance and you missed.”

Toback gives credit to Beatty, who rode herd throughout production, for much of his new movie’s clarity and evenness of tone. “He has no mental inhibitions, which makes him great fun to be with, and until he gets down to work, it’s ‘Let’s be crazy and have fun.’ But once he gets down to work it’s ‘What is the intention? What kind of a movie are we going to make?’ It’s all very logical. The difference in the way this movie was executed and the others is that in the others I didn’t have someone constantly bringing me back to what started the enterprise. Beatty’s always asking questions rather than answering them. He makes you answer them, and if you don’t he waits until you do.”

Molly Ringwald plays — with what in a 30-year-old, let alone a 19-year-old, would be recognized as authority and presence — an obsessive gambler who gets off on risk even more than the title character does. This role may change what audiences think of as a “Molly Ringwald role.”

“One of the things that excited her was how different this was than things she’d done in the past. She liked the way the girl talked, the resistant quality she had. Downey’s a standup performer. He can do fifty things at the same time, and does. Molly says, ‘I can do this or that, and this works and that doesn’t.’ She’s very much in charge of herself, and always gets the point.”

Having his impulsiveness channeled seems to have freed Toback’s work up. “The Pick-Up Artist” is full of things to react to — enjoyable bits of business and amusing turns by character actors. It’s also visually more sprightly and inventive than his other movies. New York is sunny, the trees are green and the girls are beautiful in their short pants and skirts. It’s a world full of irresistible opportunities, and Downey leaps into it, tripping all over himself in his eagerness, with the happy abandon of a baby exposing himself to petting, tickling hands. Like Toback, he just can’t see any reason to contain his excitement.


Part of what makes Toback so likable is that it’s not just his own craziness that turns him on. Toback and his producer David MacLeod invited a street corner doo-wop band to perform in the background of a scene in “The Pick-Up Artist.” “You’ll notice that only three of them are in the scene. The day of shooting, all four showed up, one of them wearing a long coat but clutching his gut. He’d gotten stabbed in the subway on his way to the set. Instead of going to the hospital he came to the set, he wanted to be in the movie so badly. And he made it through three takes with blood running out of him. It’s too bad we couldn’t use one of those takes.”

Toback’s temperament has a lot in common with that of his friend Norman Mailer. Like Mailer he seems to feel an obligation to act out all his compulsions and obsessions, and (again like Mailer) he seems to take enormous pleasure in observing himself doing so. You can’t help thinking that the ultimate Toback movie is the one he’s living. He’s his own best hero.

©1987 by Ray Sawhill

Thomas Sowell


By Ray Sawhill

Mention the words right wing to your typical liberal, and he/she is likely to conjure up a Bosch-like inferno of white sheets, helmet-haired blondes, and pollution-loving industrialists. Far be it from me, a mere arts journalist, to suggest that this image does considerable injustice to a complicated phenomenon. But liberals also do themselves an injustice by contenting themselves with this distorted semi-fantasy. They deprive themselves of the provocations and contributions of some classy thinkers and writers who find a place on the right. Agree or disagree with Richard Pipes, Francis Fukuyama, Milton Friedman, or Roger Scruton, you’re likely to find more stimulation wrestling with their arguments than you are from yet another rehearsal of the lefty credo.

Add to that list the economist Thomas Sowell, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is, let it be said, a black conservative. Take a deep breath, and consider, just for a moment, the possibility that he might not be a charlatan or a sellout, but instead a brilliant man with a searching mind and a remarkable ability to let the facts guide him. There: you’ve already shown yourself to be more open than many reviewers in liberal publications have been. While such reviewers have often dismissed his writing as the biased product of a rigid ideologue, many other readers are likely to find his thinking remarkably reasonable, his arguments surprisingly free of moral arm-twisting, and his tone a model of open-mindedness and respect. (He indulges a more combative side in his newspaper columns.)

Sowell, 69, grew up in North Carolina and Harlem, “messed around” for a few years before entering college at 23, then transferred to Harvard a few years later. Has a PhD in economics from the University of Chicago. Since then he’s been researching and writing, moving between universities and think tanks. He’s an awe-inspiring workhorse with 26 books to his credit. A good place to start exploring his work is “Immigrant America,” a study of a number of America’s ethnic groups — what they came to this country with, and what they’ve done and how they’ve developed since they arrived. Like all the books of his that I’ve read, it’s patient, helpful, and informative. I wish someone had given it to me before I moved to New York; I’d have caught on to the city’s dynamics much faster than I did.

Another gem is “The Vision of the Anointed,” a discussion of America’s liberal élites and the way they picture the world. If, like me, you’re often dismayed by how intolerant, blinkered, and narcissistic liberals can be, you’re likely to be delighted by the book’s insights. It struck me as the most perceptive discussion of the élite-liberal psychology since Michael Oakeshott’s great essay, “Rationalism in Politics.”

Sowell spoke with me on the phone from L.A., where he was beginning a tour promoting his new book, “The Quest for Cosmic Justice” (Free Press), a fleet and pleasing three-essay treatment of how our dreams of fixing everything from the ground up can, and usually will, backfire. On the phone he was as considerate as he is in his books, and humorous too.


Ray Sawhill: You make a provocative distinction in your new book between cosmic justice and traditional justice. Can you spell that out for our readers?

Thomas Sowell: Traditional justice, at least in the American tradition, involves treating people the same, holding them to the same standards, and having them play by the same rules. Cosmic justice tries to make their prospects equal. One example: this brouhaha about people in the third world making running shoes — Kathy Lee and all that. What’s being said is: isn’t it awful these people have to work for such little rewards, while those back here who are selling the shoes are making fabulous amounts of money? And that’s certainly true.

But the question becomes, are you going to have everyone play by the same rules, or are you going to try to rectify the shortcomings, errors, and failures of the entire cosmos? Because those things are wholly incompatible. If you’re going to have people play by the same rules, that can be enforced with a minimum amount of interference with people’s freedom. But if you’re going to try to make the entire cosmos right and just, somebody has got to have an awful lot of power to impose what they think is right on an awful lot of other people. What we’ve seen, particularly in the 20th century, is that putting that much power in anyone’s hands is enormously dangerous. It doesn’t inevitably lead to terrible things. But certainly there is that danger.

There’s something else. I had a teacher when I was growing up as a kid back in Harlem in the ’40s who used to make us write every word we misspelled 50 times and bring it in the next day along with our homework. This is on top of the other homework we had. So if you misspelled two or three words, you were in for a long evening. Now, that was unfair. It was unfair because there were kids on Park Avenue, for instance, who were familiar with newspapers and books that used those words, and who had a much better shot at knowing what those words meant and how they were spelled than we did. But correcting that larger unfairness was never an option. It was never on the table. What was on the table was whether you were going to make these kids — us — meet standards that were going to be a little harder for us to meet. Or were you going to have make-believe fairness instead, and send them out into the world unprepared and foredoomed to failure? It seems to me the latter is infinitely worse.

I gather from your books that liberals often have a different view of what government ought to be doing than you do. What is it they want it to do?

In broad terms, they want to use government to make the world more just in the cosmic sense. They want to counterbalance the unequal starting positions of people. One recent example is the Educational Testing Service, which seemed at least for a time to be gearing towards race-norming the SATs. Now, all that does is conceal what the facts are. And it’s the facts themselves that need to be changed. If you’re serious, you want to enable people to come up to the standards. It would be terrible to pretend that they are meeting standards that they are not meeting. Because somewhere down the road these people are going to run into the real world, and the real world can be extremely unforgiving.

What role would you like to see government play, if not rectifying cosmic injustices?

I see it as making and enforcing the rules in an impartial fashion. I also don’t see the government as the one and only agency for accomplishing things. You go way back to Adam Smith, and he used to give his money and his time to help less fortunate people. That’s true also of Milton Friedman. If private individuals say we’re going to help this or that group do well, I say more power to them. But for the government to do it is a wholly different thing. Now we’re talking about building bureaucratic empires, we’re talking about making things categorically one way rather than the other. And we’re talking about taking the element of individual discretion and incremental change out of the hands of people.

When the government says they’re going to eradicate poverty, for example, it means that people who don’t choose to work will receive the same thing as people who do. Whereas if some private organization or, better yet, some private individual or family says, look, this guy is having a rough patch, let’s slip him a few bucks until he’s back on his feet, that’s a different ballgame. Many people think that if you say the government shouldn’t do something to help this or that group, you think that group shouldn’t be helped. But of course there are any number of ways it can be helped — including changing circumstances so these people don’t get into trouble in the first place.

I notice that many liberals are prone to making a certain leap. Here’s how it goes. Step one: there’s something wrong in the world. Step two: the government ought to be doing something. Have you figured out where the tendency to make that leap comes from?

No, I have not. What they notice is what in economics is called market failure. The market has failed in this or that way. And therefore — the great non sequitur — the government should step in. I like to say, if Mark McGwire strikes out, do we send in a pinch hitter the next time he comes to bat? Or do we ask the question, what if the pinch hitter should strike out? And: is the pinch hitter as likely as McGwire to hit a home run?

Many liberals seem to have great faith in government, and to see it as superior to any other agency. Have you got that puzzled out?

The government that they conceive is the ideal government. And it’s true that the ideal government will do things better than the actual marketplace. It’s also true that the ideal marketplace will do things better than the actual government. I think it should be a question of comparing the two actuals. What is the actual government likely to do, compared with what is the actual marketplace likely to do?

The fact is that it’s much tougher for the government to do many things. It’s not just that you have bad people, although sometimes you do. But even if the government were staffed wholly with honest and dedicated people there would be many things they couldn’t do well. Because the very circumstances in which they’re operating make it almost impossible for them to do those things well.

Because of the incentive structure in government?

Not only because of the incentive structure, but because of the knowledge structure. Take a simple example. You may remember the gasoline lines back in the ’70s. There were people in some places standing in gasoline lines, sometimes for hours. Meanwhile, in other places, there’s plenty of gasoline. You think: this must be bungling. It’s not bungling. What people don’t understand is that in the marketplace there are mechanisms that make the maximum use of knowledge. Texaco doesn’t know how much gasoline and at what time people are going to want it in, say, San Francisco. All they know is that the orders come in, and they just respond to that. They don’t have a clue. The important thing is they don’t have to have a clue.

But when someone is in Washington and has to allocate this gasoline, there’s no way in the world he can match what Texaco can do. First of all, in the case of the marketplace, the people who are initiating the orders are the people who are actually on the scene, in thousands of locations. In the case of the government, the person initiating the orders is someone sitting in Washington. Of course he’s going to make mistakes. The problem of allocating gasoline is enormously complicated. The fact that it’s solved in the marketplace unconsciously through a pricing mechanism doesn’t mean that its not a tough problem.

Many liberals seem to think that if weren’t for the existence of some kind of evil — sometimes racism, sometimes sexism, sometimes greed — life would be an edenic thing. We’d all blend into one uniform color and be born into the exact same circumstances. What’s your quarrel with that vision of things?

The circumstances in which people grow up are radically different. They even want different things — so even if they had equal abilities, they still wouldn’t achieve quite the same things. Everywhere I have looked around the world I have found great inequalities in performance. And yet everywhere it’s regarded as a strange thing that there are these inequalities. In Sri Lanka, they think it’s strange that Tamils have dominated commerce. It’s found strange in northern Nigeria that the Ibos have dominated many occupations. The vision is an a priori one of equality. But everywhere you look empirically you see gross differences. A classic example is basketball. Basketball does not look like America.

It’s full of really tall people, for one thing.

[Laughs] And the people who sponsor basketball games don’t look like America either. The people who own the beer companies are disproportionately of German ancestry. But when you realize that the Germans were brewing beer at the time of the Roman Empire, there’s nothing strange about it.

We think about abilities in the abstract. If you mean ability in the abstract, you’re asking: at the moment of conception, do these people have the same potentialities? Well, nobody does anything at the moment of conception. By the time they do something, years have elapsed. There’s not the slightest reason to expect that they’re going to be the same.


Egalitarianism is a word that has almost a holy aura as far as many liberals are concerned, though its meaning often isn’t explored much. Do you find egalitarianism a good thing or a bad thing?

I would be happier if the world were more equal than it is. I think most people would be. But the prerequisites just aren’t there. I also fear that in treating inequalities as grievances rather than challenges, you’re freezing many people who are less fortunate into their position. You’re giving them a bogeyman picture of the world, which can only reduce their effectiveness in moving on up the ladder.

The liberal view of the world sometimes reminds me of a religion. It has its saints and demons, and its articles of faith. When did liberalism become a kind of theology?

Well, it’s hard to say. For one thing, as a number of people have pointed out, classical liberalism was quite different than what we call liberalism today in the United States. And what we call liberalism today in the States is also different than what’s called liberal in Australia or New Zealand.

I know that Milton Friedman calls himself a classical liberal.

Hayek did too. I suspect that one of the crucial things that happened is that there were certain things that were expected to happen as a result of putting liberal ideas into operation. And when those things didn’t happen, it created a great problem for liberals. One example: the Civil Rights Act of ’64. At the time, I remember writing to a friend saying I hoped it would pass without any serious amendments. Not because I expected the act to achieve what many people expected it to achieve. I thought its failure to achieve these goals would make people reconsider, and think, no, all our problems are not caused by the things they’re thought to be caused by. They’re caused by a great number of other things. I was completely wrong in thinking this would happen. When the results didn’t follow, what liberals said instead was, we need more civil rights. It’s like in “Alice in Wonderland,” where one of the characters is trying to repair one of the watches with butter. And he’s just astonished that it isn’t working, because he’s using the finest butter.

It sometimes seems that whenever liberals spot a problem they always conclude that what’s needed is an application of further liberalism.

The problem with government programs is that no one ever says, this isn’t working, therefore we ought not to do it. It becomes instead a reason for another government program — to deal with the failure of the previous one.

What’s the allure of liberalism?

Hard to say. It means different things to different people. I suspect at least half the people at the Hoover Institution were on the left — liberals and in some case radicals — in their early 20s. I include myself. One reason is that you simply want to save people who haven’t received cosmic justice. You would like to see that rectified. And it’s only with the passage of years that many people finally understand that life doesn’t work that way. But there are other people, I think, who get a personal sense of worth and sometimes superiority from their liberal vision of the world. And they’re not going to give that vision up easily.

So you were a lefty once.

Through the decade of my 20s, I was a Marxist.

What made you turn around?

What began to change my mind was working in the summer of 1960 as an intern in the federal government, studying minimum wage laws in Puerto Rico. It was painfully clear that as they pushed up minimum wage levels, which they did at the time industry by industry, the employment levels were falling. I was studying the sugar industry. There were two explanations of what was happening. One was the conventional economic explanation: that as you pushed up the minimum wage level, you were pricing people out of their jobs. The other one was that there were a series of hurricanes that had come through Puerto Rico, destroying sugar cane in the field, and therefore employment was lower. The unions preferred that explanation, and some of the liberals did too.

I spent the summer trying to figure out how to tell empirically which explanation was true. And one day I figured it out. I came to the office and announced that what we needed was data on the amount of sugar cane standing in the field before the hurricane moved through. I expected to be congratulated. And I saw these looks of shock on peoples faces. As if: this idiot has stumbled on something that’s going to blow the whole game.

To me the question was: is this law making poor people better off or worse off? That was not the question the Labor Department was looking at. About one third of their budget at that time came from administering the wages and hours laws. They may have chosen to believe that the law was benign, but they certainly weren’t going to engage in any scrutiny of the law. What that said to me was that the incentives of government agencies are different than what the laws they were set up to administer were intended to accomplish. That may not sound very original in the James Buchanan era, when we know about Public Choice theory. But it was a revelation for me. You start thinking in those terms, and you no longer ask, what is the goal of that law, and do I agree with that goal? You start to ask instead: what are the incentives, what are the consequences of those incentives, and do I agree with those?

I notice that in New York media circles, people often prefer arguing over ideals rather than discussing what might work, or what might make incremental improvements.

Ah, being on the side of the angels. Being for affordable housing, for instance. But I don’t know of anybody who wants housing to be unaffordable. Liberals tend to describe what they want in terms of goals rather than process, and not to be overly concerned with the observable consequences. The observable consequences in New York are just scary.

You aren’t a fan of rent control?

No, I’m not. A figure I ran across recently that struck me as illustrating the moral bankruptcy of rent control is this: the number of boarded-up housing units in New York City is four times the number of homeless people on the streets. To think of that! On winter nights there are people sleeping on the cold pavement and dying of exposure, when there are these buildings that are boarded-up as a consequence of economic protectionism.

I know you’re usually referred to as a conservative. Do you refer to yourself that way?

I wouldn’t. Because if by conservative you mean trying to preserve something from the past, I have no particular reason to do that. Right now, the public schools as they exist I would not want to conserve. There are other things I would want to conserve. But conserving something just because it’s there has no appeal for me.

What would your preferred label be?

I prefer not to have labels. I suspect that libertarian would suit me better than many other labels, although I disagree with the libertarian movement on a number of things — military preparedness, for instance.

Is being a black libertarian tough? What are the assumptions people most often make about you?

Being a liberal or a conservative or a Marxist has never made that much difference in my life. But I’ve never been someone who was courting popularity. I was a Marxist during the height of the McCarthy era.

You do have a knack.

[Laughs] I missed the trend.

What’s it like for you on the right? I certainly have met racist Republicans. I ask this question for the Salon readership, many of whom are probably convinced that the Republican party is made up entirely of racists.

That’s not true, of course. Its amazing how many people on the right have for years been up in Harlem spending their money and their time trying to help the kids, including one whose name would be very familiar to you. But he hasn’t chosen to say it publicly, so I won’t either.

What are the biggest mistakes liberals make when they think about problems that afflict the black community?

One of the mistakes is to confuse moral issues with causal issues. People often attribute things to the legacy of slavery, for instance. But many of the things that are attributed to the legacy of slavery really were not as bad a hundred years ago as they are today. In the book I mention marriage rates and rates of labor force participation rate, which were higher a hundred years ago than they are today. Another example is from Washington D.C. A hundred years ago, there were only four academic high schools in Washington D.C., three white and one black. There were some standardized tests administered, and the black high school came in ahead of two of the three white high schools. It was certainly true at that time and for a long time after that Washington was a racially segregated and racially discriminatory town. But those clearly weren’t the only controlling factors. I happen to have followed that particular school on into the 20th century. From the late 30s into the mid 50s, the student body of that school ranked as good as or above the national average on IQ tests.

The passage of the ’64 Civil Rights Act is usually viewed as one of the great events of the century. Not by you?

Of course there were things that needed to be gotten rid of — the Jim Crow system in the south. My point is that people expected social and economic results which were not to be expected from that source. There’s a sweeping under the rug of black success which does not fit the ideological vision. Just recently I learned about a black man named Paul Williams. This man became an architect back in the 1920s. He was told, your people don’t have enough money to buy houses and build buildings, so you’re going to have to depend upon white people for a living, and white people are not anxious to have a black architect. But he dealt with it, and in the ’20s he began to make a name for himself. As the years went by he built homes for various celebrities and wealthy people — Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, Cary Grant. He was part of a team that designed a building at the Los Angeles airport. For decades he was successful. Now, no one wants to talk about him. Why wouldn’t they want to? Because if you talk about him it knocks the props out from under the vision of why blacks are where they are. If it’s all due to racism, how was this man able to succeed? Was it really just dumb luck?

Similarly, when I studied that high school, which became known as Dunbar High School in later years, I was naive enough to think that — because everyone was talking about the problems of black education, what can the government do to bring good education to black kids, etc. — people would be eager to hear about it. I was saying, here’s a place where there has already been outstanding education for blacks for 85 years. Well, I was totally wrong. I published my study, and it received very little attention. What attention it did receive was largely hostile attention from the black leadership community. Why hostile? Because it was of no use to them. It didn’t justify new government programs, it didn’t show how the evils of white people were fatal to blacks. You just can’t show people succeeding in ways that undermine the vision.

I’ve met black people with positions that can only be described as libertarian or conservative, caring very much about crime control and school vouchers, for instance. Any idea how many share those outlooks?

It’s hard to say. There have been some polls taken. Certainly in the case of school vouchers, blacks are the group with the strongest support for them in the whole society. And the black leadership is almost a hundred per cent opposed to school vouchers. But it helps to look at the incentives: the success or failure of the black leadership is largely in the hands of the white liberals. They have to go along to get along.

Was there at one point more of a mesh between the black leadership and blacks in general?

Well, there’s no particular reason to think that the leadership of any ethnic group is going to be in synch with the actual desires of that group. It may be in that in certain time periods things mesh better. In the ’50s, for instance, there was a unanimity among blacks against Jim Crow that was not achieved before or since.

But time went on, Jim Crow was defeated, and you got something you see in insurgency movements of all sorts, from early Christianity to the movement to create the Interstate Commerce Commission. The initial leaders of such insurgencies go in with very little to gain and a lot to lose. But once the insurgency succeeds, the people who were concerned about the problem tend to begin to lose interest, whereas for the people who are opportunists, now is the time to move in. You attract an entirely different type of person, and there’s a change of leadership. When people complain about the decline in the quality of the civil rights leadership these days, I say, you know, if there were still 150 black people lynched every year, you’d have a higher quality leadership in the civil rights movement.


If you could knock a little something into the heads of young liberals, what would it be?

I’d like to get them to think in terms of incentives and empirical evidence, and not in terms of goals and hopes. Over the years, I’ve reached the point where I can barely bear to read the preamble of proposed legislation. I don’t care what you think this thing is going to do. What I care about is: what are you rewarding and what are you punishing? Because you’re going to get more of what you’re rewarding and less of what you’re punishing.

Many of the people on the left discuss things in terms of what they hope will be. They frame their discussions in terms of what they hope will be. Like affordable housing. We’re all for affordable housing. But when someone says affordable housing, I like to mention the words “builders” and “landlords” and see them cringe. They hate those people. But how are you going to have affordable housing if someone doesn’t build it, and someone doesn’t rent it?

Someone somewhere is standing up at this instant and saying, rising inequality — something must be done!

But inequality between whom? Between income brackets? Or between flesh and blood human beings?

You write in the new book that only three per cent of Americans spend eight years in the bottom-fifth income bracket.

That study has now been extended to 15 years. And when you stretch it out to 15 years, you find that less than one per cent of the American population is in the bottom income quintile for that duration. Add to that the fact that most of our millionaires have made their money themselves, and you realize that it’s a tremendously fluid system.

People have a hard time getting used to the fact that there will always be a bottom fifth.

Some people can’t deal with it. In New Zealand, where I was giving a talk, I remember some leftist proclaiming, we just aren’t going to accept that people have to be in the bottom fifth! [Laughs] We’re going to have to become like Lake Wobegone, where every child is above average.

If you could snap your fingers and make one big change in the world, what would give you the most satisfaction? What would really make a difference?

Do away with schools of education and departments of education. Close them down. There are fewer than 40,000 professors of education in this country, and 40 million students. That means we are ruining the education of over a thousand students in order to protect the job of each professor of education. I would think it would be one of the greatest bargains in history for us to give each professor of education a million dollars to retire.

Are departments of education a complete write-off?

They’re worse than that. They filter out highly intelligent people from the whole profession, because highly intelligent people are not going to put up with the Mickey Mouse courses that you have to take to enter the field. And once you filter these people out you’re not going to get them back in again. People talk about how we ought to raise the salaries of teachers. To me, this is like buying expensive equipment to fish for ocean fish in an inland pond. If they’re not there, nothing you do is going to bring them there.

Are you in favor of school vouchers?

I’m for any form of choice, whether it’s vouchers or tax credits or charter schools. It’s interesting, by the way, that the most childish letters I receive in response to my newspaper column come from teachers.

What do they complain about?

Any coherent answer I give you will misrepresent them because they’re so incoherent. They seem to think that they can simply make up their facts, and that they can psychoanalyze me. They like to tell me, for instance: you must have had a bad experience of teachers.

Isn’t that one unfortunate characteristic of some liberals, to go after motives rather than actually respond to the substance of an argument?

There is that. With the education people it reaches a zenith, or nadir, whatever it may be.

What’s most disappointing for you about the current right wing?

If you think about the Republican party, it’s the complete failure to articulate their position. I think the government shutdown was their greatest fiasco. Republican congressmen would come on the air and they’d start talking about OMB figures and CBO figures. Good heavens, man! Republicans complain that the media don’t get them, and so on. To me, what that says is that when you do get a chance on the media, you prepare yourself so you can really deliver a big punch. Instead, there was Dole floundering around and congressmen talking about OMB figures. They really don’t know how to communicate. In one of my columns I asked readers to name two articulate Republicans besides Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln. And I don’t recall anyone naming them.

Do you credit Clinton with anything?

I credit him with being the most consummate politician in perhaps the history of the United States. I can’t think of another politician who could have survived what he’s survived. That’s nothing to celebrate, though, because what he has done has permanently harmed the image of this country. But in terms of political craftsmanship, he has all the things that the Republicans lack.

©1999 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared, in shorter form, in Salon magazine.

Roger Scruton

scruton portrait

By Ray Sawhill

While America’s political arena is still dominated by those two tiresome creatures, the “liberal” and the “conservative,” Roger Scruton gives you reason to envy the Brits. He’s a plain-talking philosopher and writer who confounds attempts at categorization. A man of culture and sophistication, he argues convincingly for the death penalty. His views of sex have a Taoist tenderness, yet he’s an avid defender of fox hunting. He’s a conservative who is at his best making clear-cut distinctions, yet his thinking and language are nuanced and open. He enters enthusiastically into discussions on such old-fashioned topics as beauty, goodness and religion, yet there’s nothing tweedy about his work. He looks on the conditions that markets create as warily as the most jaundiced lefty.

Scruton is a protean and many-sided figure. He was a co-founder of the Conservative Action Group, which helped lead to the election of Margaret Thatcher. His thinking about architecture was the basis of the Prince of Wales’ famous disputes with modern building practices and has inspired dozens of young architects in the United States and Britain. Scruton has written fiction; he edits a political journal called the Salisbury Review; and he’s a stinging polemicist in the Times of London. In his work as a philosopher and aesthetician he’s an exhaustive reducer to first principles, while in his books for the interested nonspecialist he’s as first-rate a popularizer as David Attenborough and John Keegan. If he’s largely unknown in the U.S., it may simply be because our national database of stars and sources has no way of accommodating someone who ranges so freely.

This season brings two new Scruton books. “The Aesthetics of Music” (Oxford) is an awe-inspiring chunk of heavythink for specialists on the theme of “when, how and why does sound become music?” It’s a closely reasoned ode to the resilience and greatness of tonality, and is likely to make rock ’n’ roll revolutionaries, professional multiculturalists and academic radicals rage and sputter. “An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy” (Penguin) is, despite its awful title, a trim, alert joy — an idiosyncratic introduction not to the history of philosophy but to some of the field’s topics and methods. (Chapter titles include “God,” “Sex,” “Subject and Object” and “Why?”) Scruton has an unusual gift for giving abstractions body and presence. “Descartes shut the self in its inner prison,” he writes, “and Fichte made the place so comfortable that the self decided to stay there.” The book is as well-paced and full of surprises as a good mystery novel. Readers short on time but curious about Scruton’s arguments on music will find here a chapter summarizing those views.

After years of teaching at many universities, including a stint at Boston University, Scruton, 55, now lives in the British countryside with his wife, Sophie. There he reads, writes, hunts, plays the piano, tools about on his motorcycle and writes some more. In a telephone interview, he kicked around ideas ranging from the arrested development of radicals to why second-rate academics hide behind deconstructive gobbledygook to why the Web will keep seekers after pornography “at their desks, getting more and more chronically lame and blind and obsessed.”

scruton_by_stoddartScruton by the Scottish sculptor Alexander Stoddart

Ray Sawhill: The American conservatives we run into often seem bludgeoning and bigoted.

Roger Scruton: But you have some really significant conservatives, Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb and so forth. I admit they are neo-conservatives and they were social democrats originally, weren’t they? But I have a respect for them. Maybe they are dogmatic, but older people tend to be dogmatic. And they’re not as dogmatic as people on the left, let’s face it. The dogmatism of the politically correct takes some beating, in my experience.

How does American conservatism seem to you?

It’s more convinced than British conservatism. You have a movement there. People really believe in it and really fight for it. Here it’s much more half-hearted and exhausted.

Was that true during the Thatcher years?

Thatcher was a little blip in all that. She revitalized things, but she was surrounded by pretty second-rate people, really. If you look at American conservatism, you do find, however much you think dogmatism prevails, that there are all kinds of debates going on. You have lots of journals — Commentary and First Things and National Review and American Spectator — which have wide circulation and are constantly engaged in carrying the fight forward. So there is an intellectual ferment, even if it is based on a lot of unquestioning assumptions. But here there’s almost nothing like that. The Salisbury Review is about the only conservative journal.

What sort of impact did you have on Thatcher?

I’ve always been regarded by the Conservative Party with some suspicion, I think, so far as they have any consciousness of me at all. Traditionally, conservatism is rightly suspicious of thinking, because thinking on the whole leads to wrong conclusions, unless you think very, very hard and you get back to the point you started at. Since she’s left office I’m on good terms with her. I’ve never been part of her circle or her entourage.

Philosopher Michael Oakeshott wrote that conservatism is largely a matter of temperament. Do you agree?

A certain kind of conservatism is a matter of temperament, yeah. But I think it’s much more true to say that radicalism is a matter of temperament. It’s people who are arrested in the state of adolescent rebellion. Those are the people who make the great radicals, trying to affirm themselves against daddy, like Lenin. Was it Robert Conquest or Kingsley Amis who said that everybody is right wing about the things he knows about? Even if you look at left-wing people, if they really know about something — if they’re experts on ceramics or something — the more they’ll be respectful of traditions and authorities and settled things, and the less disposed to radicalize everything.

How do you explain the persistence of the radical temperament?

I think it’s a stage through which people go. I take a Hegelian approach to it all. We are at home or should be at home with our experience as we begin in life, we grow away from it, and radical temperament is an attempt to repudiate things, to cast them off, which is necessary in order to shape our own identities. But true maturity consists in the process of slowly coming home again, coming to see that the thing we grew away from is what we truly are, to come back to it in a state of understanding. I see the radical temperament as arrested in that middle stage.

Popular culture seems to do its best to heat up and sustain that adolescent temperament.

Absolutely. I think this is the most tragic thing about the modern or postmodern world — this exploitation of the adolescent, making adolescence look like something not only normal but sacrosanct.

Some people tweak conservatives by pointing at Hollywood and saying, see, it’s big business that is promoting this continued adolescence and irresponsibility.

Of course it is partly responsible, and MTV is big business. But big business is ideologically neutral. Big business always moves where the money is. If the money is in left-wing propaganda, that’s where big business will be. If you look at much popular culture, its message is one of rebellion and rejection. It’s still a very ‘60s message, but people have come to realize there’s money in it. My view is that conservatism has nothing intrinsically to do with big business but with moral and political values. And if business is antipathetic to those values, you have to fight it, with all the methods that are available.

scruton with wife sophieWith his wife Sophie

Is there one aspect of it that makes it impossible for you to be a liberal?

Well, liberal means something rather different in Britain than in America.

Would you explain the difference?

In Britain, if you mean by liberalism what is sometimes called classical liberalism — John Stuart Mill and all that — then a liberal is somebody who believes in allowing other people the maximum freedom compatible with social order. And to some extent I am a liberal. Part of our conservative tradition in Britain is that we do allow people as much freedom as is compatible with an orderly and decent society. That’s not what Americans mean by liberal. They’re people who see the state as looking after the interests of society and redistributing property and creating the welfare society — essentially a kind of institutionalized compassion. I’m a great believer in private charity, but not in the institutionalization of charity in the state and its offices, because then it becomes the source of enormous corruption.

In America the assumption is usually that the conservative is an apologist for the rich, or a religious fanatic, if not an abortion clinic bomber. Where liberals are seen as, at worst, well-intentioned but wrong.

That’s a very parochial view, of course. Obviously, one element in conservatism must be that to be successful is not a sin, and I think conservatives on the whole have more patience with the idea of human success, and more desire to create a world where success is rewarded. Whereas it’s true that what you call liberals — our left — is much more interested in supporting the underdog and usually believes some philosophy to the effect that the sufferings of the underdog are caused by the wealth and privilege of the successful, Marxism being the archetype of all such philosophies. And I think that’s all nonsense — that the sufferings of the underdog are not caused by the fact that some people have managed to rescue themselves from this predicament. On the contrary, the more people who rescue themselves, the better. They create opportunities in their wake.

That’s not the way liberals see it. If you are a purely materialistic person who sees everything human in terms of how much money is involved, then all you will see about conservatives is that they favor the rich, because you don’t see any other difference between people than the amount of wealth they have. I take the view that conservatism has nothing fundamentally to do with wealth. It has to do with social order. Of course if you’re in favor of the forces that create social order, you’re in favor of the forces which make it possible for people to become wealthy. But that’s a byproduct. I do agree that liberals have this reputation for being nice and conservatives for being nasty.

Isn’t that a terrible PR problem? The liberals own the good intentions.

The fact is if you really want to think in terms of good intentions, Lenin and Hitler and Mao had thousands of them. But of what relevance are intentions? Intentions imposed in this belligerent and self-righteous way on the rest of us are actually deeply offensive, I think. It’s true that liberals find liberals to be very nice and conservatives very nasty. But that’s part of the narrow-mindedness of liberals. Conservatives in my experience are much more able to find moral value in liberals than liberals are in conservatives, because liberals, while believing themselves to be the most open-minded of people, are unable to see conservatism, or any opposition, as anything more than a moral failing.

Couldn’t they excuse that by saying, yes, we’re bigoted against conservatives, but that’s all?

They could, but since conservatives are actually representative of the mass of mankind, that’s a heavy bigotry to have. If you look at the writing of liberal activists like Ronald Dworkin, you see that what he’s targeting throughout are ordinary, decent Americans. It’s their feelings he finds repulsive. In the name of liberty, he’s trying to raze their worldview, usually by caricaturing what they say. If that’s not bigotry, I don’t know what is. And it’s directed against a far wider range of mankind than the average conservative sentiment

Were you born a conservative?

No, I was brought up in a Labor Party atmosphere. I suspect that I was moving in a conservative direction at school, largely through literary interests, in particular getting involved in [F.R.] Leavis and Eliot and Henry James. George Eliot as well. All those things have a tremendous impact at that age. It gives you a sense of the national culture as something irreplaceable and threatened, and this makes you defensive toward the modern age. At Cambridge, I was pretty apolitical, I suspect. I was awoken to politics in Paris in 1968 by all the students and so on. I was the only one of my contemporaries who spontaneously found himself on the other side.

Weren’t you thrilled by the energy? The idealism?

[Laughs] I came to see De Gaulle as something really important, who was a representative of his national culture of a kind I felt we needed in Britain. It was far more important than this self-indulgent, childish nonsense at the barricades on the streets. In particular I was appalled by the things that my student colleagues read — Foucault and Althusser. I thought it was all charlatanical nonsense, and I still think that too. Certainly I think that of Foucault. Very clever, but a sort of Mephistophelean-like clown.

Anyway, I took a literary/critical attitude to it. Just judged from that point of view — as drama and literary inspiration — it was unseemly and vulgar, and there ought to be something better than this. And when they started burning cars — the cars that belonged to the very working class they pretended to be championing — it then dawned on me that this was the self-intoxicated middle-class youth letting their hair down, and why should one think of that as the goal of politics? And that the police were quite right to hit them on the head and take them off.

You don’t admire anything about what the ‘60s generation attempted to do?

Not really. I think it was all a wave of self-indulgence built on a materialistic and very over-pampered way of life. I came to think that everything these people were against must have something good in it.

The bourgeoisie was not the enemy.

Exactly — the bourgeoisie, marriage, fidelity. All these old-fashioned things suddenly acquired an enormous charm.

It’s taken for granted among many American liberals that the bourgeoisie is the enemy of good art and good politics.

I don’t accept the Marxist typography of history, which tells us that the bourgeois have been in power since the 1790s. That’s all nonsense, in my view. If you mean by bourgeois the life of the town, the people that make the town work, then who could be more bourgeois than Chaucer? And if you take this seriously, you’ll see that our culture has been from the very beginning a bourgeois culture — one that’s been made possible by trade and by Christianity, which is a religion of traders, a world religion which settled in towns and propagates its message through learning.

All you’re describing in the end is the best efforts our civilization has made to have a culture of its own. To say it’s the enemy of art is ridiculous. The only thing it can be contrasted with is the aristocracy — the aristocracy as a sort of flowering, lying above the bourgeois world but parasitical upon it. And it’s ridiculous for Americans to be anti-bourgeois when they haven’t ever had an aristocracy.

I wonder if there’s a residual yearning here for aristocracy.

Perhaps. In France that’s certainly true. The anti-bourgeois vehemence there is directly inherited from Molière, this contempt for the people who haven’t quite made it. That’s what you get really in people like Flaubert and Baudelaire, an affectation of aristocratic disdain.

scruton gentle regrets

How did you find American students when you taught in Boston?

American students are always very refreshing to us, the enthusiasm and all that. But they’re not well-prepared. With basic things like foreign languages and a knowledge of history, they’re hopeless. But they’re more than willing to make up for it. American students mature much later because of this. When they’re graduating from college they reach a level of education we have on leaving school. On the other hand, when they’ve got there, they’ve really taken an interest. They’re certainly more willing to learn and more convinced of the value of learning things.

The English often seem terribly well-educated and articulate, and disdainful of that at the same time.

That’s right. There’s a cynicism here, a kind of false sophistication, pretending that your own accomplishments are of no great merit.

I have the impression that British academics haven’t fallen as hard for chic French theory in the humanities as Americans have.

Yeah, that’s true. But feminism is the major ideological force on American campuses in my experience, although it has its fierce opponents. And it’s not quite such a force here. It’s still permitted to laugh at it here. On the whole, British academics in the humanities have managed to maintain some hold on the literary-critical tradition, and have been skeptical toward deconstruction and all that. Not entirely, though, because gobbledygook of the kind the French are very good at producing is a very useful shield for a second-rate academic. It enables him to produce more gobbledygook of his own and pretend he’s at the forefront of scholarly research.

How do you explain the allure of French gobbledygook?

I think you have to see it not just in terms of the nonsense factor but also in terms of the underlying political agenda. All French intellectuals who grew up after the war inherited the Sartrean agenda, the anti-bourgeois, crypto-Marxist agenda. And in the back of their minds the barricade with the glowing banner is still there. That’s true of Foucault, and it’s true of Derrida as well. Ultimately, they’re looking for forms of subversion, new ways of hollowing out the concepts of the bourgeois worldview so finally it collapses on itself. People don’t necessarily understand that when they read it, but they do sense it and are drawn to it. It conscripts these adolescent radical feelings. Universities are places where adolescence can be made permanent, because you’re surrounded by young people. And second-rate academics take refuge in that too. It’s sort of inevitable, really, that this crap will take hold.

What do you make of the American cult of self-expression and authenticity?

Self-expression is fine if you’ve got an interesting self to express. But what makes a self interesting is precisely that it’s gone through a rigorous process of discipline and order and self-understanding of a kind that, for instance, Milton went through. Self-expression that hasn’t done that is just embarrassing.

Americans seem to have moved into a culture that’s more about being media-hip and flashily cynical.

Well, the media is producing ever-accelerated forms of glamour to be achieved just like that, by looking right or saying the right thing, or having a tic or mannerism that appeals to people on television. Of course that’s not going to produce a valuable art or literature, that kind of attitude.

So irony is not a good thing?

Irony is, but that’s just a desire for instant attention. It’s self-advertisement rather than self-expression.

You wrote once that the postwar era was the greatest catastrophe in all architecture. What did you mean by that?

The triumph of the inhuman style, or lack of style — the concrete bunker, the box method of constructing buildings. The lack of all sense of the street, of a public space that should be ornamented and dressed in correct and modulated ways.

Isn’t postmodernism a response to those problems?

It’s an attempt, yes, to rediscover the decencies of scale and details. But it’s a sort of play version. It’s not a real rediscovery of anything, it just plays with the details of the classical tradition. It’s the same spirit of modernism, of facetiousness toward the past. I think people are awakening to the need to rediscover the traditional decencies, and the nature of architecture as a public art, rather than just a functional exercise.

poundburyLeon Krier’s New Traditionalist town Poundbury

What you’ve written about the importance of façades runs counter to everything I was taught, and to almost everything I have read: structure, reveal that essential structure.

Oh, I know. That was all ideological nonsense. I agree with Oscar Wilde: In matters of the greatest importance, it’s style and not sincerity that counts. One must think of the people who really use a building, who are those who pass it by. They don’t know anything about the structure. But they do jolly well know the impact of that façade. Just think of what’s involved in going through a doorway, and the difference between a sheet of glass which you can’t actually identify the handle of, and something which arches over you and guides you in.

These elementary experiences are part of the difference between a building which welcomes and a building which creates anxiety. Nobody can deny that modern cities are increasingly places of great anxiety. And if you don’t think architecture is one reason for this, it’s because you don’t have any eyes.

But now that modernism and postmodernism have happened, how can we go back to something like classicism? Isn’t that like asking someone who has slept around to become a virgin again?

People will say that. There are two views. One is that we require the great genius who will break through all this, re-create the links with the past while not denying that we’ve gone beyond them. Who will do something which Schönberg wanted to do with music, and Eliot with poetry. And they sort of did it. But those are private art forms. You don’t have to listen to Schönberg, and most people are quite grateful for that. And you don’t have to read T.S. Eliot. But you do have to live with the buildings people put up. So you can’t take quite this same attitude, that there is no going back. It may be that one has to go back. After all, if we’ve made a mistake going down this line, it’s very odd to say you can’t go back. Because what was reason given to us for if it weren’t to reflect on our mistakes and correct them? So I’m skeptical of this approach when it comes to architecture. I can see its point when it comes to music and poetry. They’re of no interest if they are not original expressions which add something to the repertoire of musical and poetic experience. But I don’t think that’s the case with architecture, or ought to be the case.

Peter Eisenman also talks about how this is an age of anxiety. But he believes that, since that’s so, buildings should express that anxiety.

That shows such contempt for your fellow human beings.

Peter Eisenman would call you an élitist.

Well, I am. My view is that élites are necessary provided that they go through the business of understanding what people feel and perhaps doing what is right by them. Eisenman would say this is an age of anxiety because he has been brought up on all this existentialist literature which enables him to identify his own position in those terms. But by making buildings into expressions of anxiety, he relays that anxiety — which is, after all, an élite product — to the mass of mankind. It’s a kind of snobbery to build in that way. I am self-consciously an élitist. But I do believe that when other people are concerned, one is under an obligation not to impose one’s anxieties and glooms upon them, but to fortify them in the difficult business of living.

You’ve written about what you see as the evils of pornography. In your view, is there no such thing as a harmless indulgence in fantasy?

There’s a conservative tradition which I think I’m part of which is hostile to fantasy as such — fantasy as a flight from reality, “fancy” in Coleridge’s term as opposed to imagination. It’s the difference between the escape from things into a world where you control everything — which is essentially what pornography is, even if it’s only with a switch — and the imaginative re-creation of things, which enables you to confront again the real human being. The point about pornography is that it depersonalizes the human being and therefore impoverishes one’s ability to confront human beings as they are.

Do you think this is true of other fantasy material — comic books and movies?

Yes, and much television too. Children brought up on comic strips are noticeably less able to relate to adults and to the human world generally than children brought up on traditional children’s literature. “Alice in Wonderland” is a wonderful example of something which is not fantasy but imagination, where real human types and possibilities are glimpsed through this wonderful frame of fantasy. Some comic strips have got that. “Calvin and Hobbes” has got that. I wouldn’t dismiss the genre.

Are you in favor of censorship?

Yes, I am in favor of censorship, but it has to be conducted by people like me. And that’s the difficulty. [laughs] I’m in favor of encouraging every possible form of self-restraint and parental control. And I certainly don’t think that pornography should be protected under the American Constitution. It’s an absurd liberal misreading of the Constitution to say that the First Amendment, which guarantees the right of free speech, guarantees this. I’m in favor of severe measures. If something really does threaten the ability of society to reproduce itself in an ordinary way, then what’s the point of permitting it? You can only permit it for one generation. Then the whole possibility of forbidding or permitting anything has gone.

What’s your view of computers and electronics in all this?

It’s going to make it difficult to control pornography, definitely. But the World Wide Web will have one very useful aspect, which is that it’ll keep all these troublesome people at their desks, getting more and more chronically lame and blind and obsessed. I think it might clear up some open space for a bit and enable civilized beings to establish new little ventures.

Would you like to see cultured people moving into the electronic media and establishing some standards?

One has to try and do that, yes. I suppose I feel a bit depressed about this, because these are huge spaces, and into these spaces the things which flow most easily will flow. And those of course are the second-rate things.

Is there something that makes it impossible for you to be a libertarian?

Yes, because a libertarian is someone who thinks that the mere fact that someone desires something is enough to give him a right to pursue it, provided he isn’t interfering with other people’s rights. And I don’t agree with that. I think that, about most things that matter, our desires are fundamentally in need of emendation.

For example?

Sex is an obvious example. I’m a believer in fidelity and marriage and all those things. My life hasn’t been exemplary in that respect any more than anyone else’s. But I certainly don’t think the libertarian approach — that whatever people want they should have — is right. Drugs likewise. I do agree there’s a huge difficulty in how you control these things, and whether you should control them by law.

What’s your main disagreement with the way sex is discussed and thought about today?

I think the main thing wrong with the way sex is discussed is what I call Kinseyism. It’s regarded as an affair of the sexual organs. It’s all discussed in measurable terms, in terms of sensations and orgasms and things like that. And as a result it is emancipated from the great project of human love.

Isn’t this desirable?

It’s a form of liberation, yeah. But to liberate people from love is a liberation scarcely to be desired. People have been liberated, but liberated into a kind of emptiness.

Sex toys, porn videos, sexual orientation as a lifestyle decision — you don’t approve of this?

I don’t think anybody who’s thought seriously about sex can approve of this. It is emancipating people not just from this project of love, but also child-rearing and responsibility and all the difficult sacrifices which are necessary if one generation is to inherit the social capital of the previous one.

Salon is based in San Francisco, so I should ask for your views about homosexuality.

I’m all in favor of the old-fashioned approach, that you don’t talk about this, decency forbids, and you don’t proselytize this as an alternative on a par with marriage and child-rearing and all the rest. Apart from that, I think it would be a total mistake to think that homosexual desire is the same kind of thing as heterosexual desire.

How so?

First of all it’s your own sex, which you know inwardly from your own intimations and desires. There’s no venture outwards into the unknown. It all can become very easily a matter of contractual negotiations, and we know that’s what it tends to become.

So how should homosexuals conduct their lives?

As I conduct mine, namely in private. Of course Americans are tremendously squeamish about this now. They don’t ever say anything to offend anyone. But, you know, you only live once. Why not offend as many people as possible?

©1998 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.