Commonly Denominated – The Dire State of Political Discourse

Celeste Marcus, University of Pennsylvania

This is an article about politics that begins in an art museum.

I spent a morning at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art with a brilliant young German man I barely knew. His name, appropriately, was Gabriel. We skipped the contemporary art exhibits. I explained that I detest Jeff Koons and his cronies. Gabriel confessed that he did as well, though he had a sneaking suspicion that he simply didn’t understand them. He was wrong: there is nothing to understand. It is perfectly honorable to recognize and detest thinness. You can’t have a gut-deep reaction to a Koons work – the work itself is gutless. People who go to galleries to look at Koons are the same people who go to Bloomingdales to buy Prada. The cut or texture doesn’t matter. The name does. This is just groupthink in a gallery.

It was our first of many disagreements. We started with modern art. We spoke English, which provided a common language but no common culture. Everything we said required justification – there were no social, political or cultural platitudes that we shared, no common contexts into which we could retreat. Why do you like this artist? Why this body? Why not that one? Our analyses, first of art and then of family, and politics, and religion, had to begin at the beginning, and were spoken carefully. We were both genuinely interested in what the other had to say. The atmosphere of respect and fascination required that we do nothing quickly – neither agree or disagree. So we listened, and we demanded coherence, and reasons, from ourselves and one another. We had to understand our own opinions well enough to verbalize them. If we could not explain what we believed, then we might have been forced to recognize that we did not believe what we said at all — that we had copy pasted, that we had stocked our belief systems the way consumers stock their closets.

Good art strips a person of everything except the tools with which she is equipped to appreciate it. I read and respond to a painting on my own: just my mind and heart, and the artist’s work. This is so of everything true and difficult. No one can feel and analyze art for you the same way no one can tell you how to fall in love or how to smile to yourself while reading Joyce. But then the conversation turned to politics.

Gabriel and I talked about politics fast and fluidly. Both of us noted aloud that the conversation we shared was nothing like the familiar stream of politics that we rehearse with our friends ritualistically and constantly. Our friends and we have scripts; we don’t think through things on our own. We don’t stand alone, we stand together. We don’t craft beliefs, we participate in  belief systems – the same way people join youth groups or baseball teams.

We noted that the tone and the treatment of our political conversation was higher and more serious than our customary experience of political discussion. We were incapable of shorthand or mere signaling. For us, “Well, Trump’s still president” was not a rote remark like “Fine, how are you?”. Talking to Gabriel, I realized that the perpetual stream of could-it-possibly-be-worse political banter in which I found myself at home meant only that hardly anyone ever thinks critically about the substance of their criticism. The questions to which we have devoted so much of our time and around which we craft our identities are central but not critically analyzed.

As I found myself in the middle of a real political conversation, in which nothing could be taken for granted and reasons had to be given, I felt dejected about the actual political conversations that surround me. We have converted the most pressing and perplexing questions into thin labels. We don’t discuss – we common denominate. How quickly can I cause the person to whom I am speaking to identify what team I’m on and, if they are on my team, to allow us to revel together in our privileged commonality, in our communal outrage?

Yet political conversations should be like good art. We should stand alone in front of them and be armed with nothing but an ardent desire to understand. And only then should we turn to our interlocutor and begin a genuine exchange of well-considered views and ideas. Instead we deflate the conversation to platitudes that allow us to skip authentic conversation altogether. We need our interlocutor only so that we can nod in unison.

In a brilliant essay entitled Laissez Faire Aesthetics, the art critic Jed Perl observed: “When I am with art world friends and we are happily, exuberantly complaining about any number of aspects of the current scene, there frequently comes a moment when we hear our own words all too clearly, and a terrible gloom settles over the group. In the silence everybody is wondering: Is it really this bad?” Perl and his friends are people who care deeply about the devolution and decline of their world. They engage in serious study and feeling in order to understand their experience, aesthetic and otherwise. When contemporary art was coopted by brand names and thinness, these critics lost the occasions for this blessed inwardness. And so they became sorrowful and discouraged.  

That is the moment that never comes in the political conversations in which I participate generally. There is never a sudden intuition of what is missing, of what has been lost; never an outbreak of genuine, justified horror. That’s because the politics in which we engage are as thin as the art in the contemporary exhibits. We have diluted them to such a shocking degree that we cannot possibly have a gut-deep response to them. There is no gut. There is only a label. Where principles belong there are only brands.  

In our media, in our cafes, in our living rooms, we are bequeathing thoughtlessness. We are conditioning ourselves and the people around us to common denominate instead of to think. All of us have a responsibility to go to the ballot box having thought through our choices. Everyone with whom we discuss those choices should have a sense of the careful reflection by means of which we came to them. It should never be as easy as reciting a script. If we fail to do this, we are perpetuating  a shameful addiction to credulity and gullibility, and championing thoughtlessness.

Gabriel told me that he had two brilliant best friends. Two years before our Tel Aviv encounter, one of them hanged himself alone in his room. Gabriel had spent the last two years holding steady his remaining friend – also brilliant, also deeply unstable. I asked if he regretted loving the friend he lost, if it had been worth it to love someone and then have them ripped from him. He told me it was the greatest honor of his life to be loved by someone so smart and so beautiful, and that even now it shocked him that such a gorgeous soul could have loved him. I said, “You have to be brilliant to love brilliant things. And, since you take your own intellectual honesty as seriously as you do, you must take seriously the task of analyzing yourself honestly. It will be the greatest intellectual challenge of your life to teach yourself to treat your own soul with the integrity and honesty with which you treat art and politics. For many reasons, it is easier for you to dislike yourself. It is a sloppy analysis. You should demand better.”  It was the right thing to say. It was a response fitted to his soul, which I had studied quickly but closely while it opened itself over the course of our day together. Souls are like paintings, you see.

He knew I was right, his eyes filled with tears, and he nodded. If I had reverted to platitudes at that moment, he would have known the difference – he would have known that true conversation was over. His heart would have further hardened against himself and likely against me as well. Gabriel and I will never see each other again. I don’t know his last name, or where he lives in Germany, or what school he attends. We were able to burrow into one another because we rose above platitudes and assumptions; because we treated each other not just as talkers but also as thinkers; because our lack of familiarity with each other enabled us to be honest about what we saw in art, philosophy, beauty and each other.  It was, by the standards of how we live now, a genuine epiphany: we were not commonly denominated.