A Countercultural Conversation With Noam Chomsky
Posted on Aug 5, 2010
By Mr. Fish
MF: All right, let’s step away from the individual expression of art for a moment and get back to the corporate sort—the sort written in high-rise office buildings by committee and not in lofts by one person. When you consider some of the shows that appeared on network television in the ’60s and ’70s—shows like “All in the Family,” “Free to Be You and Me,” “Laugh-In,” “That Was the Week That Was,” “The Smothers Brothers,” shows that would never appear outside of cable television today because they’d be considered too dangerous—is it not easy to see that there’s been a cultural shift in the wrong direction?
NC: Well, there are commercial pressures within commercial institutions. That’s not a big surprise.
MF: The question is what happens over time? Doesn’t the integrity of the art degrade when no new ideas are allowed to flourish?
NC: I’ll occasionally look at an old movie from the ’40s and it’s kind of fun because I remember them from when I was a kid, but you couldn’t really call them high art. The actors were very wooden, there’s no storyline. It’s fun to watch Cary Grant and Greta Garbo and people like that—Humphrey Bogart was fun, but he wasn’t subversive.
MF: In all fairness, though, the job of cinema back then was different. [Drama] was exaggerated to serve the artistry of the craft more than to mirror reality, which is more subtle—duller even. You don’t go to a ballet and then ridicule the dancers because you don’t see people walking down the street like that.
NC: This is really an area that I really can’t comment on. I really don’t know enough. I don’t watch television, but I’d be surprised if there were major differences between then and now.
MF: There is really a certain amount of sameness [in commercial entertainment], but the differences are glaring and I don’t think I’m over-romanticizing the time period.
NC: When my wife and I were college students we were movie fans and we’d go down to New York and watch movies, but they were foreign movies. We’d watch “The Bicycle Thief” and that sort of thing. We didn’t have much time for American movies.
MF: Well, with the possible exception of Orson Welles and a few others, once you get past the ’40s and early ’50s, there was an attempt from guys like Mike Nichols and even Peter Fonda to sort of Europeanize American cinema, to tinker with different concepts of heroism.
NC: Did it reach mainstream cinema?
MF: Oh, yeah. If you look at “Catch 22,” based on the Heller book, or even “The Graduate”. …
NC: Yeah, I saw it, but only because I had a friend who had a part in it.
NC: Remember at the end when the protagonist stops at a gas station?
MF: He was the gas station guy?
NC: He was the gas station guy. It made his career, one line.
MF: “Need any gas, Father?!”
NC: He was a kid I grew up with. But take that film. Is that what’s regarded as an innovative, exciting film? I mean, Dustin Hoffman is a great actor and I love to watch him, but what was the message of the film?
MF: The message was that the world is plastic. It addressed the tremendous sadness of discovering that right at the moment when you feel as if you’ve suffered through all your obligations to finish school and to fulfill everybody else’s expectations suddenly you find out that your identity has been erased.
NC: And that you’re completely caught up in the commercial world.
MF: And that life is not going to be a great adventure. It’s a different kind of heroism that’s [portrayed] on the screen. Nichols said that [“The Graduate”] was about a guy who tries to save himself through madness.
NC: You don’t have to tell anybody that because they already know it. Don’t forget that there was a tremendous reaction to the—I mean, the ’60s were a democratizing era and that frightened the hell out of people and there was a big reaction to it from the academic world. One of the consequences was to discipline young people and one of the ways you discipline them is to make sure that when they get out of college they have a heavy debt and that was very conscious. So, in the ’60s you could think, I’m going to take off a year or two, be an activist and then come back and pursue my career—can’t do that now. You can say that you’re going to law school to become a public interest lawyer, but by the time you get out of law school you have such a heavy debt that you’re going to have to go into a corporation and that has a tremendous disciplinary effect. You can see it with students, and it’s conscious. Have you read “The Crisis of Democracy”?
NC: Well, you should read it. They advocate it, and this is the liberal internationalist wing of the public intellectuals, the Carter administration. The crisis of democracy that they were worried about was that the ’60s had too much democracy [and] that people were supposed to be passive and apathetic. [In the 1960s] people were actually entering into the political arena and pressing their own demands and that’s no good, they have to be beaten back. And one of the things that they talked about was imposing more discipline within what they called the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young: schools, universities, churches. They should be run like the Marine Corps, that’s what we liberals want. Those are the public intellectuals—we shouldn’t have any illusions. They’re very anti-democratic. The greatest public intellectual of the 20th century was Walter Lippmann, far and away, and he thought the public were just a bunch of rabble. Got to get them out of our hair—we’re the smart guys, we run things. Those are the public intellectuals.
MF: You’re right and that speaks to my own experience of dropping out of art school.
NC: What years?
MF: I started in ’84 and eventually dribbled all the way out in ’86-’87. But many of my friends who continued on had no real expectations that they’d be able to survive as fine artists and talked endlessly about how they were going to join a corporation, advertising usually, and start making changes from the inside out, like a happy cancer.
NC: You think that, but then you absorb the mentality of [the corporation] and it’s pretty hard to break out of.
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