THE DEATH OF AMERICAN PUT-ON
by Chris R. Morgan
1990 stands in history as the last time the English were well and truly mad at us. True enough, there may have been moments since when we as a nation had perturbed them for one reason or another. But in such occurrences there is something trifling, they are like misunderstandings in comic error, careless blunders that inevitably extend from countries being countries. What I’m thinking of is altogether more momentous, nigh on unforgivable. It is an instance of trust betrayed, boundaries callously breached, an affair’s bliss wholly upended into cruel tragedy. Between the two nations it may not, on the surface, bear any lasting effects, but I find no event more revealing of their respective characters and ultimately their irreconcilability.
“Mudhoney are not the pig-fucking sulphate-rotten greasy biker Viking stormtroopers with one foot in the grave and the other in a nun’s entrails their music suggests,” wrote NME’s Steve Wells. “If Mudhoney had been sent to Vietnam,” he goes on, “they would have all been Radar from M*A*S*H. Mudhoney are geeky motherlovers, all matchstick arms and legs and horn-rimmed glasses and small bottoms and boyish fun. They are far too intelligent as individuals to believe in the rock ’n’ roll woah, they seem to be making a career out of one huge elongated piss-take.”
That probably needs some context.
In 1989, American media was an unfriendly place for independent music. If an underground act wanted any substantial exposure, it was much more likely to be gotten in the United Kingdom. Understanding this arrangement, Sub Pop founders Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman wanted to maximize coverage for its roster in the burgeoning grunge scene. And they were willing to stake their precarious solvency on it, flying Melody Maker’s Everett True to Seattle, wining and dining him and giving him full access to bands like Mudhoney, Tad, and Nirvana. It was perhaps the first indie rock presser, and it was a complete success. According to Michael Azerrad, True wrote “a glowing, if slightly condescending, roundup of Sub Pop’s roster.” Pavitt suspected that Seattle’s “white trash” garage lumberjack aesthetic would only sweeten the appeal. The rugged Americans, like the raccoon-skin cap pioneers of yore, were authentic representations of the colonial spirit: beer-sodden, half-crazed forest dwellers who perhaps confused their guitars for chainsaws. Things worked out well for Nirvana in short order, but Tad and Mudhoney did not fare so well. As soon as it was discovered that Tad Doyle was a university-trained musician and Mudhoney’s Mark Arm and Steve Turner also had college degrees, the mystique had been lifted, revealing, as any Irish writer had done in so many centuries past, the prime defect of Englishness: the mood that sours on finding a joke they are not in on.
Though it can’t be said that Arm, Turner, or Doyle suffered at the hands of English turnaround, the drubbing they took must connote some measure of sacrifice meriting even modest declamation of heroism. For this was not a simple matter of executing a flawless troll but also, by some measure, a stance of principle in defense of the most enduring American ideal: tastelessness.
Perhaps on the part of the English press there was some wishful thinking in its discovery of grunge. But in defense to them it was thinking rooted in safe assumption rather than in wrongheadedness. America’s culture is flat even while its geography and its society are not. There are no heights anyone may climb so that one may see farther out than anyone else or breathe more rarified air. As such, vulgarity of so authentic a type as to border on spiritual is often assumed to be every American’s default setting. Refinement in America is a kind of put-on, a commentary; Jay Gatsby staring at his stupid green light.
But if there are no cultural peaks there are also no cultural valleys. We accept that Dwight Macdonald had failed in his crusade against “Midcult,” but I don’t believe we ever understood quite in what way he failed. Macdonald typified middlebrow as the leveler of the refined high culture and folksy low culture. But his trifecta rests on the assumption that American culture can comfortably accommodate it, and keep its components at arm’s length at all times. It rests moreover on the assumption that Americans have the wherewithal—indeed the moral obligation—to resign themselves to this imposed boredom. This is not so simple. Susan Sontag wrote as much four years after Macdonald with “Notes on Camp”:
Aristocracy is a position vis-á-vis culture (as well as vis-á-vis power), and the history of Camp taste is the history of snob taste. But since no authentic aristocrats in the old sense exist today to sponsor special tastes, who is the bearer of this taste? Answer: an improvised self-elected class … who constitute themselves as aristocrats of taste.
She goes on:
The experiences of Camp are based on the great discovery that the sensibility of high culture has no monopoly upon refinement. Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste.
Sontag had initially singled out homosexuals as the primary “self-elected class,” but real estate on the American flatland is rather limitless, and people of all stripes have as much opportunity to refine and play with the contents of their culture, and to do so as slyly and subtly as they wish, free of airs and agitprop. The English see Americans as being tone deaf to irony, and are shocked when they see us practicing it like a natural, if not fully aware, rhythm. Jay Gatsby is putting us on, ball culture is putting us on, the Kennedys were putting us on, Sub Pop was putting us on. Put another way, there will never, and should never, be an American Roger Scruton.
Though the flatland is vast, it is also not safe. It is as subject as anything else to development schemes. Even if one, like Macdonald, cannot build upon it, one can dig into it with much greater ease.
Vulgarity is talked about as if it is monolithic, but it is not without its own hues and dimensions. Vulgarity can be crass and ignorant; it can also be impatient and indifferent, clumsy and obvious, or just really dull. These types have gotten beneath our sensitivities in various combinations, though never to the point of suffocation. If at times they seemed on the verge of being totally pervasive there have always been escape hatches if one knew where to look. It’s an arrangement one can appreciate in hindsight, however, as vulgarities now seem to be in active and bitter competition with one another for our space. They are large, lumbering creatures, offensive to the ecosystem but with callused, impenetrable hides.
One is quite well known, serving as our national advocate, an unenviable position that also offers much leeway in how it is carried it out. Donald Trump’s style is one of familiar carelessness and idiosyncratic awkwardness. This had always been singular in his gold-plated personal presentation, which was not so much a natural tackiness as a piling on of clarifications. It has carried over into his propaganda aesthetic, consisting of “poorly-edited digital content in which serious and significant subjects are given bad color treatments, low resolution, and carelessly incorrect accouterments.” And as with anything Trump does, the line separating intention and incompetence is debatable, but the Trump White House’s visual style was picked up on by Tim Heidecker well before Trump even declared his candidacy. Heidecker’s skewering of Trump’s public access populism (rooted as it is in his mockery of Herman Cain) has become an elaborate obsession—his Decker series, itself a spinoff, has produced spinoffs of its own—but is instructive in highlighting the opposing vulgarity, from which it stands refreshingly apart.
Much controversy has been swirling around Oskar Eustis’s production of Julius Caesar for this year’s Shakespeare in the Park. Caesar has been unambiguously modeled on Trump and the play features an assassination that is said to be notably violent. Right wing media has been in a fury over it in the past week and corporate sponsors such as Delta have withdrawn support. I suspect the fallout was an intended, or at least expected, outcome, even if “notably violent” is relative in Shakespeare, let alone in his immediate successors. Nevertheless, critics assure the play’s quality. It is “mind-crushingly good,” according to Jessica Vanasco, “in no small part because it speaks precisely to our times. Images of the Constitution and the American Founding Fathers loom over the set. … Protesters wear pussy hats and ‘Resist’ armbands and wrangle with the police in a ‘Black-Lives-Matter’-style. Those police are clad in riot gear.”
Eustis has defended his production not as an attack on Trump, but as a warning to the public that, if they just so happen to want to unseat someone who is perceivably tyrannical, they must do so wisely. The play may indeed be adequately staged and performed, and certainly this is not the first Shakespeare production to be skewed for contemporary commentary, but Eustis’s didacticism on and offstage is revealing in what little faith this production has in the intelligence of its audience. As Richard Loncraine, Julie Taymor, Ralph Fiennes, Joss Whedon, Andrew Fleming, and Steve Bannon know, there are many levels at which Shakespeare can be modern. This past November, as Noah Millman positively cites, brought a less explicit but still recognizable update of Coriolanus. Eustis’s Trump framing, however, makes this Julius Caesar rather claustrophobic to the imagination. Perhaps that is the point. Trump, having seemingly state-mandated the lowbrow, has put culture in crisis mode, and the Trumpified Julius Caesar amounts to a Patriot Act for the creative class. Subtlety, playfulness, even joy, are suspended to make space for relevance and utility until further notice. As much as we cannot overlook the challenges Trump poses with his day-to-day idiocy, cultural agitprop poses its own, at once overstating culture’s use and undercutting its possibilities. “The ‘universality’ of [The Crucible],” Robert Warshow wrote, “belongs neither to literature nor to history, but to that journalism of limp erudition which assumes that events are to be understood by referring them to categories, and which is therefore never at a loss for comment.”
Eustis is at least correct to place onus on the people for things being as they are and for those things to be righted. But the people, even on a good day, are a confused lot. Politics buckles under confusion; culture is sustained by it. When the latter is made subservient to the former, particularly to a generalized and abstract variation of it, it circles the drain. To be sure, proselytizing that culture remains vibrant, ironic, and porous is far easier than maintaining it, and doing so would not solve political conflict. In fact it may just as easily worsen it. But to determine what does and does not edify a people, to effectively erect a dam in culture’s stream, is tantamount to saying that the people’s personality is its own worst enemy. To my knowledge no one’s life has been given a new lease by having heard “Jack Pepsi,” but a culture, mature and confident, knows that “Jack Pepsi” is a fact of the American situation, and could not be of any other.