Art Works Blog

Taking Note: Part Two of an Interview with Leon Wieseltier

In the latest issue of NEA Arts magazine, there appears an interview I did with Leon Wieseltier, the current Isaiah Berlin Senior Fellow of Culture and Policy at the Brookings Institution, and former literary editor of The New Republic.

The title of that interview—On (Not) Measuring Arts and Culture—could be taken as apostasy, coming from an office pledged to evaluate the arts’ value and impact. And yet, it was Wieseltier’s lyrical scorn of hyper-quantification that led me to press him on the subject, and I’m glad I did. For one thing, despite his warnings about overreaching with data, some of the benefits he attributes to the arts, near the end of the NEA Arts piece, lend themselves surprisingly well to measurement. For another, the interview produced this statement:

“Cultural policy has got to live with a greater degree of uncertainty and a greater degree of risk than social policy, because in the realm of culture we cannot have a completely lucid, arithmetically clarified environment with perfectly confident predictions about the outcome of the actions we take based on various types of data.”  

Sobering, that. But liberating as well.

Here are some “outtakes” from the interview for NEA Arts. Given his defense of the sheer subjectivity governing how art affects people, I thought it appropriate to ask Wieseltier how he managed to be so certain, so precise and unequivocal, in rendering literary judgments.


SUNIL IYENGAR: You have a well-deserved reputation for purveying what we might consider literary excellence but also being able to deflate reputations that you feel are unjust. This is no cut-and-dried matter either, right? There’s a lot of subjectivity involved, and emotional force.

LEON WIESELTIER: A democracy that lacks controversy is an inert democracy, especially when the issues are difficult and the stakes are high. That’s the first thing to be said: that contentiousness is the exercise of the freedom that we have been granted by our political order.

Second, civility in my view was never a primary intellectual virtue. I think that when the issues are difficult and the stakes are high, the conversation can get a little rough and I think everyone should thicken their skin. I much prefer a society of free-speaking thick-skinned citizens to a society of thin-skinned inhibited citizens. There must be limits to the nastiness of course, but they are not quite as strict as many people would have them. Niceness doesn’t get you very far in a serious discussion. Some notions do not deserve to be received politely.

Thirdly, I regard negative criticism—certainly as I’ve practiced it—not as a form of attack, but as a form of defense. When I have ferociously attacked a book or an idea or an essay, it has been because I felt that something genuinely valuable, an idea or principle that I cherish, has been traduced and so I rose to its defense. My practice of negative criticism usually is retaliatory. It’s not the first strike, it’s the second strike. I think that’s the way in which intellectual discussion should conduct itself. I was raised on a conception of intellectual life according to which intellectuals are engaged in a war of ideas. I like these battles, because the ideas are about something significant. The more significant the subject is, the more intense will be the conversation about it. That’s how it should be.

IYENGAR: What are you doing these days? Are you planning something?

WIESELTIER: I’m planning a journal, a serious journal of ideas about politics and culture. Something so classical that people will think it’s original, because no one remembers anything. The model for it is Partisan Review, circa 1955. I have a brilliant partner in Laurene Powell [Jobs].  We understand each other and our venture perfectly. She makes me feel that the wind is truly at my back. So the building has begun. It will be nice to get back to some editing. Six times a year: essays, review-essays, book reviews, poems, shorter pieces, reports from abroad (though not “reporting” of a certain kind). Hopefully we’ll be ready by 2017.

IYENGAR: Was there a formative experience or two that led you to realize the grandeur of art?

WIESELTIER: I owe my sense of beauty to two rose bushes on East 8th Street, between Avenue O and Avenue P, in Brooklyn. We lived in a semi-detached house. In the little front garden we had two rose bushes that bloomed brilliantly red every spring. And I remember as a little boy being dazzled by the loveliness of those flowers. They also turned me into a lifelong flower maniac. That was my first experience of beauty.

My first experience of art? When I was nine or ten, my parents took me to a big fancy store in Brooklyn called Fortunoff. It was on Livonia Avenue; it later moved to Manhattan, to Fifth Avenue. On one of our visits to that emporium, I stumbled upon the von Karajan recording of Otello. The one with Mario del Monaco and Renata Tebaldi and a perfectly mediocre baritone as Iago. For some reason I asked my parents to buy it for me and they did. I went home, we had this big hi-fi. I put the records in, I opened the libretto, I lay on the living room floor and I started following along. I was completely smitten. To this day I can sing long passages of that opera. There followed Risë Stevens’ Carmen, same procedure; Leontyne Price’s Aida, same procedure.

In Miami once, we went for a holiday. Naturally, we went shopping. I found a big coffee-table book about Michelangelo that I coveted, and once again my sweet parents said, “Of course.” I remember tingling as I turned the pages of the book. I don’t believe there was any text at all. It was just page after page of color reproductions of his works. I still remember the fragrance of those pages. I wouldn’t have said it this way at the time, but I felt elevated, as if I’d been extracted from my surroundings and lifted up to something higher and better. I really felt raised. The boardwalk of Miami Beach is not the best place to discover Michelangelo, but that’s where it happened.

IYENGAR: Do you feel that technology, on balance, has had a benign or negative effect on arts and culture?

WIESELTIER: It’s a wash. Technology has allowed art to be more widely disseminated than ever before: the pedagogical power of this technology is beyond belief. It has also inspired new forms of artistic production. On the other hand, it’s launched a very successful war on human attention, and a successful war on time.

One of the things we know about genuine art is that it takes time. There’s nothing you can do about a Bruckner symphony. If it’s too slow for your taste, you can walk out, you can leave, but you cannot speed it up and you cannot go straight to its “takeaways.” A serious painting also takes time. Many years ago at The New Republic, I published a piece by John Updike about Andy Warhol. There was some retrospective at MoMA, and John wrote a piece that I thought was much too kind to Warhol, but it included a characterization of Warhol’s paintings that I thought was correct. He said it was art for busy people, since you could take it in at a glance. He may have meant it as a mordant compliment, but I thought that he perfectly captured what was wrong with it!

A good painting, a good piece of music, a good novel, a good poem, is premised on time and patience and attention, and insofar as the technology has destroyed the prestige of waiting, and the prestige of patience, it has performed a great disservice to aesthetic experience and to cultural life.

IYENGAR: Can you say something about the distinction between high art and low art in your value system?

WIESELTIER: Anything that comes neatly packaged or quickly grasped—meaning either middlebrow or kitsch—can’t cast too much light or give too much pleasure. But I think there are human truths at all the levels. Frank O’Hara has a poem [called “My Heart”] and there’s a line in it that I’ve always adored. The poet prays, “I want to be at least as alive as the vulgar.” I’ve always loved that line because it recognizes the vitality in popular art, in popular culture. The vitality of the ordinary human heart.


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