Cultural Criticism

Initially a 1980 guest of the DAAD Kunstlerprogramm, he had in West Berlin the kind of prominent career unavailable to an avant-garde poet in America. He had publishers and exhibitions; he even won the Hannah Hoch Prize for a lifetime of artistic achievement and an honorary doctorate from a Polish art college. Europe's gain was our loss. All palaver to the contrary notwithstanding, the truth of Emmett's experience is America's sorry record in supporting artists regarded by subsequent historians as more advanced. Give ourselves a well-earned B-, just barely.

Just as the measure of a country's economy is the quantity of people who emigrate elsewhere, so a country's culture can be measured by the quality of those who choose to work elsewhere. Just as the number of Mexicans working in the United States reveals a truth about the Mexican economy, so did first-rank Japanese visual artists working in New York during the 1960s reveal a negative truth about Japanese culture at that time, and so have first-rank American artists working mostly in Europe revealed an unfortunate truth about our own cultural economy that is no less true now than during the 1920s, which was, don't forget, nearly a century ago.

“Emmett Williams” (2007)

In Germany, there is something called "good German," also called high German or hoch Deutsch, which is the language of the educated classes; it is the language that radio announcers speak. If an American, by contrast, were told that he or she speaks "good American," there would be a chuckle; there's no such thing in our country.

Another practice distinguishing European radio from American is that most of what you hear over there has been produced expressly for radio. Here very little is produced expressly for radio, aside from commercials, newscasts, talk shows, and a specialized feature program. Most of what you hear on American radio, on public stations as well as commercial ones--most of what you hear--was initially produced for records, which is to say that it is then reproduced on radio. To put it succinctly, radio in Europe is a production medium; here it is a reproduction medium. Even our so-called quality radio stations are mostly reproducers, playing as they do classical music or jazz that is commonly available on your local record store.

Radio Writing (1995)

I first learned about a people's lack of respect for themselves when I did my masters thesis in black history four decades ago. It was said at the time that one reason why African-Americans haven't done well economically is that they would sooner hire a white doctor, say, than a black, sooner patronize a white bank, etc. I first witnessed such lack of self-respect at a university when I was teaching at the University of Texas at Austin in the spring of 1977. My friend the great avant-garde theater artist Robert Wilson was returning to Austin, from which he graduated less than two decades before, to perform not at the university but at a local theater a piece that he would later present in New York. Even though I recommended his forthcoming show to all the faculty I met at parties welcoming me only a few weeks before and even though I told them I was writing about this advance show for the New York Times Sunday Arts and Leisure section, the only professor who came to Bob's show was Paul Schmidt, who had been Bob's favorite professor at Austin, and who later threw up tenure, as the British would say, to move to New York himself. My sense was that the other faculty couldn't believe that someone who had been a student at their school merited their attention. Would they be similarly disdainful, you rightly wonder, if Bob showed up again in Austin now, a quarter-century later, after an incomparably rich forty-year career? Would its Harry Ransom Center, so proud of its collections of major writers' papers, purchase his archive? At any rate, that's when I realized that respecting one's own was not just “not a Brown thing to do.” It could happen elsewhere.

“Brown University, Fifty Years Later” (2010)

One truth that should not be lost on historians is that once the number of American radio stations increased from one in 1920 to a few in 1921 to several hundred in 1922, the broadcasting industry had simply burgeoned beyond the European model of government control. Here, as elsewhere, Americans had successfully mass-merchandized an innovation that Europeans thought would and should belong only to an elite.

The Art of Radio in North America (2010)

Bullchips, usually in the plural, is an epithet I first learned from Edward I. Koch, an exceptionally witty Manhattan politician, to stand for a more familiar American word that cannot be said and printed publicly. So apt is bullchips that I know of no better word to characterize in print certain pretentious assertions that are demonstrably false... Bullchipping depends not only upon self-confidence but ignorance, at times feigned. Only when both reach optimal levels does an explosion occur. The cynical assumption is that the bullchippers can't believe they would ever be caught. How that is possible depends, of course, upon a good deal of self-bullchipping, to introduce another new useful epithet.

“The Great American Bullchippers” (2010)