BY Ronald Jones in Opinion | 08 APR 08

Best Before 1995

9/11, Susan Sontag and relativism; Ronald Jones begins a new column for with the first in a two-part essay on language

BY Ronald Jones in Opinion | 08 APR 08

The idea of cultural relativism is nothing but an excuse to violate human rights.
Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Laureate

The language of relativism projects power by raising doubt or casting uncertainty where none existed before. Its favoured targets are declarations of objective truth and ethical judgment. Relativism peaked when Susan Sontag granted the merit of fearlessness to the hijackers who brought down the World Trade Center in 2001. ‘Where is the acknowledgement,’ she asked in The New Yorker less than two weeks after the attack, ‘that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed super-power, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? […] In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards.’

Using the forte of postmodern and post-colonial arguments, Sontag skewered American imperialism as if it were original sin, infiltrating her language with ambiguities that left western distinctions between good and evil out of focus. She denounced the ‘slaughter’ without objectifying evil, making it possible to watch United Airlines flight 175 crash into the second tower and witness two different – even contradictory – events at the same time. Sontag’s language marshaled a persuasive symmetrical argument that Mohamed Atta and the 18 other hijackers were victims of the victim.

To the far side of Sontag stood Ann Coulter, who wrote, with a certain alacrity and conviction, in her syndicated column (for the National Review Online) the day after the attacks that, in responding to the 9/11 terrorists, ‘We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.’

Allergic to absolutism of any stripe, the art world overwhelmingly identifies with Sontag’s relativism, usually with good reason, and always with an open hand towards tolerance and inclusion. Just how tolerant and inclusive the art world has become – while eschewing objective certainties – can be measured by the howls over reviews or essays that draw fire as expressions of aesthetic imperialism.

One such example of this was New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce’s infamous 1994 essay in which she declared her refusal to see choreographer Bill T. Jones’ Still/Here. Many of Jones’ dancers were dying of AIDS – that was his point – but Croce felt her critical judgment had been preempted; she reasonably believed that death trumps art. Croce immediately fell under suspicion: was she concealing racism or homophobia, or both, behind her high-minded conviction that there are objective differences between the reality of death and the artifice of art?

Written two years later, Marcia Siegel’s essay ‘Virtual Criticism and the Dance of Death’, published in The Drama Review, was typical of the disapproving fallout that blanketed Croce. In the face of Croce’s perceived intolerance, Siegel admonished a catholic acceptance of all artistic expressions. While we might have been taught that classical ballet is the highest order of the art, she cautions, it is no more pleasing, ‘than the dance of Native Americans, Yoruban orishas, Korean shamans, or Vodun priestesses, than Balinese legong, Indian odissi, Javanese bedoyo.’

This seems a good principle, but how relevant is it as critical judgment? To say that all of these dances are equally beautiful (and by which measure of beauty?) is to say what? Is Siegel prepared, or even capable of judging between the artistry of Malavika Sarukkai and Ileana Citaristi when it comes to Indian Odissi? Or what does she make of Rajika Puri’s interpretations? I wonder. Siegel handles her case for relativism as if it were the curtain-closer at Disney World’s ‘It’s A Small World After All’, where international dolls sing and dance to the famous medley. With the entire cast high-kicking on stage, Siegel treats us to a showy number about tolerance and inclusion, when in reality it’s a gratuitous version of ‘up-is-downism’. In striking a balance between inclusion, tolerance and critique, relativism – in Siegel’s hands – is a blank virtue.

Nevertheless, such uncritical relativism is the reigning lingua franca manufactured in universities, and art and design schools, where puréed ideas can be recycled for decades at a time. Once institutionalized, relativism became an acquirable skill like typing or riding a bicycle – transferable knowledge reproduced at will. Tolerance? Check. Inclusion? Check. Diversity? Check. And so it goes. These days it is possible to train someone at university in relativism or Abstract Expressionism, and to virtuoso levels, without critical judgment ever having to be engaged. But empty of critical judgment the fundamental condition of historical amnesia becomes epidemic.

This is hardly new; I remember Robert Pincus-Witten, at the end of a studio visit, puckishly telling my fellow student, ‘If you had made that sculpture in 1912 you would be in all the history books.’ It’s one thing for relativism to languish in the art department, in the final stages of atrophy, but quite another to see it migrate into hands capable of turning it into a tool of persuasion for the purpose of ending up on the winning side. The second part of ‘Best Before 1995’

Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine.