The art of the impenetrable

November 16, 2007

The mere thought of academic writing is enough to send most readers packing. It summons memories of agonisingly dull, jargon-laden, elitist mumbo jumbo that is too pedantic and specialised to matter, or too convoluted and clever to make sense. Left to our own devices, most scholars would rather reach for the latest novel than the latest scholarly journal. But what if the very difficulty of academic writing were useful to all of us, even to non-academics? What if the strange challenges of academic style performed a crucial service in a democratic society?

A few years ago, when the journal Philosophy and Literature announced that it was awarding its "Bad Writing" prize to a sentence written by Judith Butler, a philosopher and gender theorist, a heated debate erupted. Denis Dutton, the editor of Philosophy and Literature , argued that the sentence beats readers "into submission" and instructed them that they were "in the presence of a great and deep mind". "Actual communication has nothing to do with it," he said. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum accused Butler of deliberately spinning mystifications to build up her own authority and abandoning "real" politics in the process. Butler herself responded that scholars were "obliged to question common sense, interrogate its tacit assumptions and provoke new ways of looking at a familiar world". And her defenders consistently praised her for rejecting "the culture of the soundbite" and for spurning "moralisms and banalities".

Difficult writing seems, on the one hand, to serve the authoritarian, self-indulgent writer and exclude the rest of us while, on the other hand, it claims to challenge the cliches of mass culture by provoking us to look at the world in a radically new way. These two opposing arguments get to the heart of a question that has haunted democracies for more than a hundred years: is popular culture really the best, most beneficial culture for a democracy? Many would claim that the transparent, easily accessible language and styles of popular media have the potential to engage a genuinely democraticised citizenry, but others counter that a corporate and consumer-driven mass culture homogenises public discourse so effectively that it ultimately poses a threat to democracy itself. In the 1950s sociologist Bernard Rosenberg warned: "At its worst, mass culture threatens not merely to cretinise our taste but to brutalise our senses while paving the way to totalitarianism."

I have always striven for clarity and accessibility in my own writing, and so it came very much as a surprise to me, as I was working on my new book, Provoking Democracy , to find myself increasingly persuaded that democracies need the very kind of difficulty represented by academic writing, and that they fail badly when they do not welcome these sorts of challenge.

The book is about the provocations unleashed by artists working in the tradition of the avant-garde. Radical artists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries typically rejected mass culture in favour of difficulty and inscrutability. Like contemporary academics, avant-garde artists were often accused of insider exclusivity, speaking in codes intelligible only to those admitted to the inner circle. And, like academics, many artists were proud of the challenging nature of their work, their capacity to unsettle settled habits and assumptions, to trigger new ways of thinking and living. Yet such deliberate difficulty is more often associated with elitism than with democracy. So why do democracies need the challenges of the avant-garde?

One sobering story made the point, to my mind, particularly powerfully. In London in 1925, Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister, unveiled a new sculpture by the Jewish-American artist Jacob Epstein in a quiet corner of Hyde Park. It was a frieze depicting Rima , a mythological character from W. H. Hudson's famous novel Green Mansions (1904). Such a hue and cry followed the unveiling that more than 200 articles and letters about Rima appeared in national newspapers. The Daily Mail led the onslaught, but there were also caricatures of the work in magazines, spoofs on stage in one London theatre, petitions to remove the sculpture, two debates in the House of Commons and even a fight between Epstein and one of his detractors in a London restaurant. All over the British Isles reporters were outraged by the intrusion of Epstein's work into the public sphere: "That isn't Rima," exclaimed the Yorkshire Evening Post . "That's the soul of a ... poulterer's wife being conducted to hell by two frozen hen turkeys."

Epstein's crime was not obscenity or offence on the grounds of religion or politics. The problem was that his work was not sufficiently English. One letter to The Times complained that Rima was "grotesquely out of harmony" with a "typically English public park", while The Morning Post called the work "hideous, unnatural, un-English and essentially unhealthy". The Independent Fascist League repeatedly scrawled epithets on it in green paint.

This story suggests two striking conclusions. The first is the fact that popular opinion in a democracy can take its place on a continuum with fascism: majority rule can quite easily come to share the characteristically fascist impulse to quell dissidence. The second is that Epstein's aesthetic itself posed a threat: the sculptor did not actively attack English values or traditions, break sexual taboos or affront religious sensibilities, but the merely unfamiliar style of his art was disconcerting enough to act as a lightning rod for nationalism and jingoism.

The avant-garde's persistent role as a disrupter of national unity brought with it some surprising consequences in the past century. It explains the odd fate of artists such as Emil Nolde, a fervent German nationalist painter and voluntary Nazi Party member favoured by Goebbels in the 1930s. By 1937, the Nazis were including Nolde's work in the infamous Degenerate Art show , calling it a symptom of the sickness and impurity they claimed was undermining the strength of the nation. Despite his own protests of loyalty, his willingness to test established conventions of painting with lurid colours and exaggerated forms seemed like a rejection of the kind of heroic and traditional beauty favoured by the Nazis, and on the grounds of style alone they cast Nolde as a danger to their purist nationalism.

A strikingly similar logic held at the other end of the political spectrum, where avant-garde Russian artists, such as the theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold, committed themselves to the cause of the Bolshevik revolution, imagining that their experimental and forward-looking art would pave the way to a wholly new revolutionary society. Meyerhold eagerly joined the Communist Party and saw his theatre as rejecting the illusions offered by realistic, bourgeois modes of theatrical representation. He rose fast in the immediate aftermath of the revolution to become head of the theatre division of the People's Commissariat for Education in 1920. But Meyerhold's thought-provoking innovations soon came to seem threatening to the consolidation of Stalin's monolithic regime. He was tortured and executed in prison in 1940.

The avant-garde unsettled both extremes in the 20th century, but it was not only a question for the extremes. Rima proves that the avant-garde plays its disconcerting role in democratic contexts as well. In fact, by tirelessly setting itself against the currents of mainstream opinion, the avant-garde is the force that, for more than a century, has insistently tested democracy's boundaries, probing its exclusions, its willingness to shut out people who refuse to sign up to majority tastes and values - among them, socialists and Jews, agnostics and anti-nationalists, intellectuals and African-Americans, sexual outsiders and experimental visionaries, those who speak in strange languages or in unfamiliar, disorienting ways.

Epstein, Nolde and Meyerhold might seem a far cry from Judith Butler and academic writing, but some scholars have argued that challenging writing in the humanities arose as part of the struggle to account for the strangeness of Modernist artistic expression. And whether or not they share a common heritage, cutting-edge, pioneering and groundbreaking scholarly writing shares the avant-garde artist's impulse to unsettle the mainstream assumptions of the status quo in favour of startling unfamiliarity. And this impulse always threatens to disturb appeals to nationalist and traditionalist politics. Literary critic Jonathan Culler points out that scientists rarely come under attack for using a technical language that is impenetrable to non-specialists, but scholars in the humanities are vilified because they are supposed to be reaching everyone - "transmitting a cultural heritage".

Democracies face the ever-present threat that the advocacy of unanimity and a common culture will lead to the suppression of marginal and minority voices. And so democratic societies may in fact be better served by academic and artistic difficulty than we might at first like to think. It is the avant-garde, in all its uncomfortable strangeness, that helps protect democracy from one of its own worst enemies - itself.

Caroline Levine is professor of English at the University of Wisconsin- Madison and author of Provoking Democracy: Why We Need the Arts , published by Blackwell, £50 and £19.99.

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Reader's comments (1)

Iconoclasts are cultural purgatives. The inscrutable prolix of narcissistic pseuds are emetics.

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