The other morning on MSNBC, Fox News Sexperts discussed the pressing issues of students having sex in college and why Bill Clinton showed his calves in the now-infamous Chris Wallace Fox News interview.
The former consisted of two older women debating the nature and future of 18-year-old women deciding to sleep with men. Essentially, Sex: Pro or Con. The whole thing was entirely irrelevant. I laughed.
Next, the pretty female anchor somewhat hesitantly proceeded with what the teleprompter told her to say, and I listened with disbelief as she spilled out some words that tried to be current and fashionable while obliquely criticizing Bill Clinton. They quoted Nora Ephron’s blog: “What surprised me most about the Clinton meltdown yesterday was that no one told him to pull up his socks. This is a man who never goes anywhere without staff, lots of staff. Was there no one there to see that his pants were hiked up too high and his socks were pulled down too low and the flesh on his legs was showing?”
At this point, I shut up the TV, and resigned myself to flipping through the on- and off-campus publications lying around my apartment in search of column fodder. I grew dissatisfied. Everything in front of my eyes and hands looked like a comment on something else; everything became secondary and full of useless critiques that did nothing to enlighten or to enliven. Irrelevance reigned. Calves? Converse? Someone else’s blow job?
This is not an uncommon source of personal intellectual instability. Because my two academic fields (art history and literature) are often rife with inconsequential banter, somehow everything seems to become secondary when over-thought: Life becomes a comment on living. And I buy into it: A writer doesn’t simply write. A writer thinks about things first, and then writes about them: Writing is intrinsically second-hand, a repeat, or re-iteration of things that exists outside the linguistic world. Here’s my recent crisis: What, exactly, is the original iteration — what are these first-hand things?
Art galleries and museums keep “curatorial files” that list everything the curators know or have communicated about each work of art. Entire reception studies surround the act of looking at and further communicating each image in the collection: messages (direct or indirect) from one curator to another, from the conservator to the curator, the curator to the artist (What is lost? What is here? What is its provenance? What does it mean? What has the artist said? Details relating to the artist’s personal life, etc.).
I used to be really into these reception studies, thinking that a thing is only a thing when it is perceived by a public, and the record of that perception, then, became incredibly valuable to me. Reactions, criticisms, comments: These became a part of the actual work of art, because they marked its entrance into culture. There is no “Citizen Kane” without people seeing it. No Jackson Pollock without his Clement Greenberg.
But the extreme (yet logical) continuation of this argument leads me into despair. Art history is this: I look at and think about art, and then write about it. Art history (any history, theory, criticism) services art. Art, itself, is a secondary interpretation of life. Helpless that everything I do is secondary, I surveyed: What is primary?
A close confidante suggested that social activism is primary. It’s not. Really.
Another said that sharing ideas is the core of human existence. This is a nice idea. Not for this column, though.
I, myself, meditated on the notion of the Food Network as primary.
And yet another friend suggested that perception itself is primary. Yes. Too often, I lift my head and think: “Why are you complaining? Who and why are you advising? What are you critiquing?” I love reviews. I believe in cultural criticism. But more than that, I believe in perception: in seeing for yourself. There’s simply too much to look at to waste time communicating about communicating about communication. In our ridiculous Age of the Blog, everyone has an opinion — but do they even know what they have an opinion about?
A couple of weeks ago, between browsing advice columns and recounts of sexual exploits, I discovered that one of my older articles had been called a “sex column” somewhere on the Internet. No more.
What is new: I want to seek out the firsthand and digest it. I want to resuscitate Sontag. I want to be a Russian Formalist.
And no more blow jobs.
S. Zelda Roland is an Art History major who couldn’t care less about Bill Clinton’s calves — unless she’s experiencing them firsthand.