The Culture Wars

By far the most sensational moment of the Brooklyn Museum of Art's "Sensation" exhibit--more exciting than the shark in a tank, the mutant mannequin girls with penises coming out of their foreheads, or the stinky, bloody, maggot-infested cow's head; more thrilling than Mayor Giuliani's scripted obscenity attack or the museum's scripted First Amendment defense--was provided by Dennis Heiner, a 72-year-old retired teacher and devout Catholic. Heiner smuggled white latex paint into the museum in an empty hand-lotion container, slipped behind the plexiglass protecting Chris Ofili's elephant-dung-adorned The Holy Virgin Mary, squirted the painting, and smeared the paint around with his hands. Never mind that I actually found the piece quite beautiful, or that I mostly disapprove of defacing other people's creations; I found the act itself more stirring, disturbing, and passionate than either the exhibit or the choreographed battle of self-righteousness that spun around it. Dennis Heiner was hurt by that art, and he wanted to hurt it back.

It is that put-up-your-dukes attitude toward culture that the four-part PBS documentary series Culture Shock (which aired January 26 and February 2 ) wants to understand, recreate, and to some degree celebrate. The series looks at works, in four different media, that generated controversy in their time and went on to be embraced as high art: Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Edouard Manet's painting Olympia, the entire genre of Hollywood films under the production code of the 1930s and 1940s, and jazz in the 1920s.

Of course, similar controversies abound today--fights about the dangers of gangsta rap or violent movies or irreverent art or children's books--and the series makes the connections without banging you over the head with them. The Huck Finn program, for instance, moves back and forth between biographical details, the history of slavery and Reconstruction, a recent Fourth of July celebration in Twain's hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, readings and illustrations from the novel, and scenes from a present-day controversy over the use of the book in a public high school in Tempe, Arizona. The jazz episode features not just early red-light-district jazz, Louis Armstrong, and Paul Whiteman, but also rapper Chuck D, Reverend Calvin Butts, and even conservative activist C. Delores Tucker spelling out, in disgust, the word "p-u-s-s-y." The controversies it documents, the program rightly suggests, are of both their time and our own.

As cultural history, Culture Shock is mostly terrific stuff. Despite an awkward asymmetry--programs about a single book and a single painting, and then ones about a whole industry and a whole musical form--the stories are intriguing. Twain (Samuel Clemens) starts off as a child of slave owners and becomes the author of what many believe is one of the great antiracist American novels--those, that is, who don't read it as one of the most demeaning accounts of black people they've ever encountered. Joseph Breen manages to impose a strict, traditional Catholic moral code on an extremely rich and powerful movie industry, prohibiting suggestive dances, miscegenation, nudity, illegal drug use, and ridicule of religion, among other depictions; bullet-ridden mobster movies, racy fallen-woman flicks, and Mae West are gone overnight, replaced by perky musicals, screwball comedies, and Shirley Temple. A painting now considered a masterpiece so upset Paris Salon visitors that the gallery moved it almost to the ceiling and hired two policemen to protect it. Jazz music, condemned for "stimulating half-crazed barbarians to the vilest of deeds," swung its way from New Orleans honky-tonks to the Cotton Club and worldwide respectability and popularity.

We get the commotions in their complicated social and historical contexts: how unease over class blurring in Second Empire Paris got attached to Manet's irreverent portrait of an unapologetic, naked courtesan; how white Americans' anxieties over a changing racial structure, and middle-class African Americans' anxieties over their own shaky status, were expressed in condemnations of early jazz. This is no small achievement, successful partly because the documentary gives great talking head, from writer David Bradley ("Huck Finn was an in-your-face, funky novel--he's white trash") to art historian Eunice Lipton ("It's an infuriating painting--the picture won't allow you to possess her!") to cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson ("Upper-class Negroes were, you know, inveighing against the vicious nature of that gutter, ghetto Negro music").

The strength of the series is the delicate balance it achieves between a focus on the cultural artifacts themselves--Olympia's direct, imperious gaze, the mysteries of jazzy "swing," the change in Huck's perspective on Jim over the course of Twain's book--and the politics of art. In each program, we meet the various parties standing at culture's gates, trying to get something through or to keep something out. Often, their agenda has to do both with moral conviction and with protecting or promoting their own status. Twain's book was condemned when it was first published not because of its racial content, but because some moral arbiters worried that children would think it was okay to do as Huck did, breaking the law, blaspheming, talking bad; their concern, like that of the outraged antijazz or anti-Hollywood or anti-"Sensation" crowds, was probably a heartfelt one, but also was geared toward demonstrating that they were rightly in charge of "civilization." We're higher on the status ladder, the gatekeepers' actions say, because we know what culture is, and this devil's music, these smutty movies, this shameless painting proves we belong here. These are not simple race and class conflicts, either: African Americans are found on both sides of the debate over Huckleberry Finn's racism, the Paris Salon was not unified in the traditionalist approach to French national culture, and many black Americans were invested in protecting the ascendancy of European culture. Culture Shock offers timely, concrete reminders that when culture pisses people off, that's because not only religious and moral assumptions, but also social hierarchies, are threatened.

It is no surprise to find, in a program about gate shaking, that the artists and, even more so, provocative art itself are Culture Shock's heroes. The stories are filled with ambiguities, but the series's own moral view is relatively unambiguous. "Manet has given us this incredible gift," says Mark Bidlo, an artist who is shown preparing a photographic recreation of Olympia, "this idea that art is something which kind of rattles your cage or takes you to another area of intellectual understanding." David Bradley, in the end of the Huck Finn program, argues that great writers try "to be troubling," to "ask questions that people don't want to ask." The end of the jazz program, working the parallels to hip-hop, gives the screen to Chuck D. "Something that's different is coming in," he says, "to upset the status quo."

How ironic and disappointing then--especially if you agree about the value of messed-up status quos--that your own cage is left so very unrattled. There is, sadly, hardly a jolt to be found in Culture Shock, nothing that might make you want to whip out your own smuggled tube of white paint. The series is standard-issue documentary, and its tone is, well, gatekeeperish. Expert analyses form the backbone. Narrators tell you how things were, and they are properly distanced (John Lithgow) or vaguely outraged (Ellen Barkin) in describing the moral and political wrangling. You get the familiar PBS sensation of sitting in a history class with excellent visual aids--a very good class, meaty and intelligent and complex, but offering lessons almost exclusively for the head. Enlightenment is lovely, but only rarely do you feel the art and its provocations. Somehow, Culture Shock seems to miss its own boat.

There are telling moments in the series, too few and far between, that are a bit tricky to assimilate, especially in the opening program, on Huck Finn, when feeling cracks through the teacherly format. At the center of that program are Raquel Panton, an African-American high school student in Tempe, and her mother Kathy Monteiro. Voicing objections first publicized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1957, mother and daughter object to the portrayal of Jim, and even more so to the repeated use of the word "nigger"--which, as clips of Mark Fuhrman on the witness stand, white supremacist speakers, a racist nursery rhyme, and a satiric Bill Cosby routine make clear, is still in brutal currency. These are no censoring, moralizing ignoramuses, but articulate and angry women, and the film makers make the wise choice not to back away. In one tense scene, Panton confronts one of the film's experts, a literary scholar named Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua (who is, like three of the four experts in this program, African American), who has come to the school to "teach the teachers" how to deal with Huckleberry Finn. Near tears, Panton explains that the book "is bringing down my culture and my people, and insecure black people feel the effects" and "people around this school feel so free to just call people what they want." Later, Monteiro, who is calling not for book banning but for education free of "racial hostility, degradation, and humiliation," describes her recent experience of being kept out of a school meeting, since her earlier behavior had been deemed disruptive. She did not want to leave, so police were called, and they led her away in handcuffs. "No piece of literature," she says through tears, "is worth the pain that we have gone through." For a moment, you might get a sense of how art can hurt, how a person, maybe even you, could be angry about culture, and before the documentary snaps back into itself and some smart folks come on to make it make sense, your own ground might jerk a little, and you might not quite know what to think. ยค