U.S. Intellectual History Blog

When did the cultural left become the "Cultural Left"?

Recently, Andrew Hartman asked in a facebook post about the historiography of the cultural left and its relationship to movies and television. I mentioned there that I had done some writing on this topic and as I sifted through other comments I was reminded how difficult I found identifying this body of work. Nonetheless, in a book I wrote entitled Freedom to Offend, I argued that there seemed to be a moment of transition between what had been a cultural left represented by Underground artists, filmmakers, critics, and even audiences, and a more self-consciously Cultural Left, who sought to create a movement out of a critical position. That position, it seemed to me, was best reflected in the work of New York critic Parker Tyler, who had done pioneering work on underground film, including gay film.

Tyler was one of handful of people in New York City who, like others involved in the Underground art world in other big cities, believed that the post-1945 period offered an opening for a genuine alternative aesthetic to mainstream culture. In New York City movie culture, one could find that world in Amos Vogel’s revolutionary film society, Cinema 16; in Dan and Toby Talbot’s vital New Yorker Theater; in the work of filmmakers who gathered around the energetic Jonas Mekas and his New American Cinema group; and in the writing of critics such as
Tyler, Manny Farber, Susan Sontag, Andrew Sarris, and eventually P. Adams Sitney.

But a rift opened among this group in the late 1960s and Parker Tyler took the breach personally. Near the end his 1969 book Underground Film: A Critical History (with an emphasis on “critical’) Tyler unleashed the fury of his polemic on “fetish footage” a trend that came to define Andy Warhol’s films (especially The Chelsea Girls) and infected the Underground in general. Censors regarded the Undergound as little more than peep show hucksters masquerading as avant-garde. For his part, Tyler had stood against such policing authority in print and as an expert witness in cases such as the one that sought to ban Andy Warhol’s Blue Film. But at the same time, Tyler did appear to wonder what he had come to defend. He contended: “To insist on responsibility, from the widest Underground standpoint, is to betray the very life blood of the avant-garde, whose prevalent aim is to exist without being measured or weighed by anything but its own self-approval. Underground film and Pop Art represent the only elites in human history without any visible means of earning or sustaining those privileges; that is, without any values that can be measured, or even, properly speaking, named except by its own labels” (175).

I understood Tyler’s argument as one that covered a spectrum of decidedly “cool” movies and movements in the arts. Tyler felt disconnected from an aesthetic community because his cultural left had itself become the kind of ideological authority that, like the Victorians of old, could not be questioned without falling afoul of what simply was true and right. J. Hoberman wrote in a very good introduction to Tyler’s Underground Film that Tyler had brought “modernism full circle” with his critique because he described how a cultural left had gone from “anti-illusionism to a narcissistic fantasy world that [produced a] celebritizing virus which, incubated in the Warhol factory, would infect the entire media system.”

Some of the writers who have grappled with this moment in modernism were mentioned in response to Andrew’s post. Among those I continue to find most interesting are J. Hoberman whose The Dream Life stands in significant contrast to Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution because Hoberman argues persuasively that if cinema was truly “revolutionary,” its radicalism existed in an imaginary world–a world of myth–as much as in any kind of social politics. The illusion of radicalism in popular culture and the arts was something that gave me fits when trying to write about it. I often thought I sounded reactionary when trying to parse what seemed like a genuinely radical critical stance from that which was not. Grey Taylor’s book, Artists in the Audience took on the development of the term camp as a way to demonstrate the dilemma at the heart of Tyler’s criticism. “In its extreme catholicism,” Taylor writes, “[Jonas] Mekas’s critical attitude epitomized the Underground’s new vanguard camp. Borrowing and exploding traditional cultism’s careful aesthetic selection of conventionally nonaesthetic material while merging it with camp’s aesthetic transmutation of nondescript moviemaking, the new stance flaunted a critical perspective that would see any and all films as potentially aesthetic, exciting, and beautiful to anyone” (112).

Tyler’s dilemma echoed throughout the culture of the late 1960s and could be seen in the criticism of Susan Sontag, Arthur Danto, and (a bit later) David Hickey. Craig Seligman’s book, Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me, takes up the tension between a radical aesthetic forged by Sontag and an aesthetic radically reimagined by the intellectually slippery, and incredibly influential film critic Pauline Kael.

In the end, this period continues to fascinate me in the way it seemed to squeeze a great deal self-conscious change through wildly popular medium like movies. It still seems to me a rare treat to read so many good critics who write about the intellectual ground moving beneath their feet. This was the moment at which at least idea of culture became accessible and broad enough to imagine people going to war over it.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Fascinating post, Ray! Can the prehistory of all this be found in the anti-Stalinist Left of the 1930s? Folks like Clement Greenberg and Dwight Macdonald were, in effect, imagining a self-conscious Cultural Left as early as 1937 or 1938, though it was a pretty lonely effort at the time. And Greenberg’s aesthetic project would more or less slough off its political dimensions by the late 1940s. Still there are very direct connections between the early post-CP PR of the late 1930s, the New York Intellectuals of the late 1940s (which included many of the same people), and the Cultural Left you’re writing about here.

  2. In a different context, Gramsci (or a misreading of Gramsci) would be blamed for the notion that the left, today, *ought* to be above all cultural. I wonder if this sort of reading has any relevance here?

  3. Ray (if I may),

    Are you familiar with Richard (Dick) Flacks’ argument to the effect that the “left has had more meaning in the United States as a cultural than as a political force”? He cites at least three kinds of historical effect in this regard:

    “It has provided the ideological frameworks and the spiritual/emotional resources that have sustained democratic activism. [….]

    It has provided the ideological and symbolic materials that have enabled oppressed, disadvantaged, and excluded communities and strata to achieve shared identification, justify demands for rights, identity shared sources of oppression and targets of opposition, formulate proposals for reform. [….]

    It has provided a continuing ‘adversarial’ thread in our culture that has counterbalanced cultural themes that promote conformity to the logics of capitalism and the nation-state. [….]

    [In sum, the traditions of American radicalism on the Left, while not serving as an agency of socialism, have functioned as a vehicle for] “socialization–that is, of nurturing, among individuals, in disadvantaged communities, and in mainstream popular consciousness, of perspectives, aspirations, and values that permit popular protest and grassroots organization to emerge and grow. As a force for socialization the American Left has been a crucial element in the evolution of the American social charter, the bargains and understandings about rights and obligations made and remade between elites and masses. That evolution has provided each of us with rights and opportunities for personal development and fulfillment that were previously undreamt of.” From his book, Making History: The Radical Tradition in American Life (1988).

  4. Thanks to you all for your intelligent comments and sorry it took me so long to respond.

    I think there is an interesting conflict between what Ben points to in his comment and what Eric and Patrick identify about the force of a cultural left. Macdonald clearly believed the kind of cultural left that annoyed Parker Tyler so much was a great distraction from the political left that Macdonald, and to a lesser extent the Greenberg and others in the PR crowd, hoped to forge. As many of you who do European intellectual history recognize better than I, the American left of the late 1960s existed oddly apart from the political-cutlural movements of their European counterparts. There are some telling exchanges between Mekas’s crowd and their compatriots in Europe at the New York Film Festival and at European film festivals. The European cultural left were sort of amused by Warhol’s films but not entirely sure why the Americans seemed to find Warhol and New American Cinema operating as almost a movement by themselves.

    I am curious what those working on the American culture wars (Andrew) will found out when they put this early history into a comparative context.

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