At Ford Motor Co., we're told by its television commercials, "Quality is job one," which is an appealing notion if, some auto owners might say, a dubious claim. Ditto for the United Automobile Workers, a few members of which star in a commercial along with their president, Owen Bieber: "A total commitment to quality" is, they say, what the UAW has to offer. Ditto in fact for just about everybody else: "Quality," in one form or another, is what all the ads preach these days.
Evidently "quality" has become the new American buzzword, seizing the honor from "excellence." For nearly a decade, since the rise of Japan stirred American fears of second-class status in the world economy, we've gone on a binge "In Search of Excellence," trying to regain respect abroad and at home for the products we manufacture, the services we provide, the inventions and ideas we conjure up. So far our words have been better than our deeds, but say this for us: We're trying.
But say the same for our literary and artistic culture, and you'll get little but laughs. Quality may be job one on the assembly line, but in the English departments and the ateliers, quality isn't merely unfashionable, it's downright undesirable. Riding behind the banner of racial and sexual egalitarianism, many among the academic literary critics and the standard-setters of the art world have repudiated "quality" as an inherently offensive notion because it places aesthetic judgments above political and social ones.
In the English departments, these critics have focused their attention on the so-called "canon," those works that have commonly been accepted as the finest literature and have been taught as the benchmark against which all others must be measured. The canon, these critics say, is the instrument through which the literary establishment perpetuates itself and excludes others: i.e., it is a country club all members of which are white, Anglo-Saxon males, which denies membership to those who are female, homosexual, black, Hispanic or otherwise, in the club's view, undesirable.
In reaction against this imagined injustice, the new critics insist on shredding the canon: rejecting literature that is admired because of its "quality" and replacing it with writing that is socially and ideologically correct. This is why it is now possible to get a degree in English from many ostensibly respectable universities without having more than a nodding acquaintance with Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare or Melville; they of course are WASP authors, and their work merely perpetuates the WASP hegemony, so they and their work are contemptible.
A similar outlook now holds sway in the art world. In the New York Times last week a headline asked, "Is 'Quality' an Idea Whose Time Has Gone?" The answer, provided in a lengthy analysis by Michael Brenson, was pretty much in the affirmative. "There may be no more divisive word in the art world just now," Brenson wrote. "Perhaps no word inspires more devotion among its supporters and more anger among its detractors. ... What is in question is the way the word is used to compare, select and sort out art and artists. Some people in the art world claim that the word is simply a pretext for preserving the authority of the heterosexual white male."
Brenson went on to present a reasonably balanced account of the two warring sides: on one the defenders of "quality," who "typically believe that the great tradition of Western art depends upon the notion of form -- and on ideas of balance, coherence, order and beauty to which form is attached," on the other those who see quality "not as a symbol of standards but as a symbol of exclusion." He made the point -- which is just about irrefutable -- that "quality" is "impossible to define in broad, general terms," and argued that if the word "is used negatively, to criticize an artist or a body of work, it should be with extreme care," which is to say that the word should "probably not" be used.
This was a delicate balancing act, indeed an admirable performance, but in the end Brenson -- like so many of us in an age when saying the right thing is more important than doing it -- aligned himself with the aggrieved "victims" of "quality." After citing the indisputable influence of non-Western cultures on Western art, he concluded: "Judgment always matters, but this may be a time when curiosity matters more."
Which is to say: It's all to the good if a work of art (or of literature) has artistic merit, but in today's climate what matters most is what that work has to say. Content first, form second -- and, more to the point, content that expresses the grievances and experiences of non-establishmentarian groups. Thus, for example, what should draw us to the "art" of Jenny Holzer is not its form, which resembles a Las Vegas neon display, but the bromides -- "Lack of charisma can be fatal," "Private property created crime" -- it trumpets. It's beside the point that, as Robert Hughes noted last week in Time, Holzer's work "is thin and complacent, tarted up with costly materials for the audience of consumers it affects to despise"; what is supposed to draw us is its anti-elitism, because, again to quote Hughes, "elitism is an extremely dirty word in art circles these days."
"Elitism" is a synonym in this new language of art and literature for "quality." If one insists that a painting or book must have artistic merit in order to be judged as a work of art, then one is automatically an elitist: life sentence, no appeal, no parole. Not merely is this a repudiation of the established, it is a rationale for mediocrity: If quality is objectionable and message is all, then "art" can be whatever the ideologically correct "artist" says it is, which is to say the doors of the museums and galleries must be opened to the work of anyone who says the right things, regardless of the form this expression assumes.
Thus in the art world we have the neon displays of Holzer as the official American entry at the Venice Biennale. As Hughes wrote: "For America to represent itself with a woman at the world's oldest festival of new art was a long-overdue gesture. But alas, the best thing to be said about it is that Holzer is a woman." Thus too we have the academic literary critics herding students away from the male-chauvinist-approved "classics" and toward innumerable authors whose work is of dubious literary merit at best but passes all the ideological tests that radical-chic lit-crit now imposes.
The reason to read "Invisible Man" isn't that it's probably the only postwar American novel that can be called "great" without fear of embarrassment, which is after all a WASP judgment (mine, among others'); the reason to read it is that Ralph Ellison, its author, is black and is critical of white society and culture. The reason to admire the paintings of Mary Cassatt isn't that they're among the finest American works in the impressionist school; the reason is that Cassatt was a woman and, into the bargain, often used women as her subjects.
Et cetera. The relativist school of art and literary criticism reduces all art, great or good or bad, to its message and circumstances. If this legitimizes the mediocre, it also trivializes the consequential. As it brings everything down to the same level, it proudly proclaims: In art, quality is job zero.