Cultural critics who help clarify where we stand

Author: Arts and Letters

In So Many Words: Arguments and Adventures

By Robert Schmuhl

University of Notre Dame Press, 209 pages, $25

La Dolce Musto: Writings by the World’s Most Outrageous Columnist

By Michael Musto

Carroll & Graf, 344 pages, $15.95 paper

The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice

By Greil Marcus

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pages, $25

A costly foreign war, a bitterly divided electorate, a high-decibel public discourse—sound like anyplace you know? There’s a bright side to this, however. Troubled times can mean boom times for cultural critics, and one need only peruse bookstore shelves or read the op-ed pages to know that we are in the midst of a critical big bang.

It isn’t that cultural critics relish social or political crises, but rather that their work becomes increasingly vital when the going gets tough. Cultural critics are a hybrid species. They are commonly found with one foot in academia and another in journalism. Their writings are free-range, blending all sorts of disparate elements—literature, film, history, philosophy, esthetics, even such things as rock ‘n’ roll studies—into surprisingly fresh and unpredictable forms. Their targets are everyone from presidents to pop stars, from political parties to Hollywood parties. They are connected by their focus on culture—be it social manners, political ideology, youth behavior—and the power it exerts over societies.

But why should anyone care what critics think? Because when critics do their job well they can be both mirror and lamp. They can provide a more deeply considered perspective than deadline-crazed newspaper writers, TV pundits or bloggers. They can illuminate an underlying order linking confusing and seemingly unrelated events. They can show the way out of political crises, suggest methods to correct social ills and give us a clearer picture of where we stand in a turbulent world.

Three books by three very different writers offer some of the sharpest and most informative cultural criticism available: Robert Schmuhl’s “In So Many Words,” Michael Musto’s “La Dolce Musto” and Greil Marcus’ “The Shape of Things to Come.”

Schmuhl and Marcus are primarily academics who moonlight as journalists; Musto is a journalist. Each has spent a decade or more surveying various facets of American culture. Their political viewpoints range from leftist to centrist, their prose styles range from the academic to the arch and satirical.

Their perspectives could hardly be more different, but their analyses share some important common ground—that things are not what they seem on the surface. American optimism and smiley-face pop culture conceal destructive forces in our midst—racism and rapacious capitalism to name but two. The message these critics impart is that even though we may not like what we see, a mirror and a lamp are our best friends. Dangers await a society that becomes too lazy or unwilling to look beyond its own platitudes about itself.

Readers who enjoy the works of the great International Herald Tribune columnist William Pfaff and the estimable New York Times reporter and columnist Thomas Friedman will find comparable delight in Schmuhl’s book. A collection of previously published newspaper and magazine articles written over the last decade (including a dozen for the Tribune), the book ranges confidently across presidential politics, foreign policy, history, the celebrity culture and the present crisis of the news business, all with impressively sure footing. Schmuhl, a professor of American studies and journalism at the University of Notre Dame, brings an extensive knowledge of history and literature that gives these critiques an authoritative ring.

In an essay from 2003 he was positively prescient in his analysis of the Bush Doctrine—the U.S.’ post-9/11 policy of pre-emptive attack—which Schmuhl wrote could lead countries that consider themselves possible targets of the U.S. “to seek advanced weaponry, triggering a new arms race.” Pre-emption may actually cause proliferation, an opposite effect than the policy’s intent, he argues. (See Iran and North Korea.)

In the essay “News Without End,” Schmuhl dissects the crisis of the news business and points to a troubling cultural effect created by bloggers, pundits and cable shouters. The proliferation of voices and the rise of explicit partisanship in news creates a tide of “ideologically oriented information” that “tends to deepen political and social divisions—and to stifle more comprehensive inquiry. Instead of fostering fuller understanding, sides are taken, fingers are pointed, and blame is assessed.” And he makes clear that in this sort of environment the peril to the demos is real. The explosive growth of news sources, he writes, “comes at a public price—a continuing fragmentation of audiences and a marked decline in a commonly shared culture.”

If you are not a reader of New York City’s alternative weekly newspaper The Village Voice, it is unlikely you are acquainted with the writings of Michael Musto, a funny and caustic satirist who masquerades as a gossip and nightlife columnist. His book of selected columns nicely captures the flavor of Musto’s wit as well as his habitual excesses. His column, “La Dolce Musto,” which has been in the Voice since 1984, aims mostly at the absurdities and foibles of celebrities, the semifamous and all manner of creatures inhabiting Manhattan’s colorful nightlife.

While most of celebrity journalism is more puffery than actual journalism, Musto’s deep cynicism serves him perfectly.

He is masterful at quickly cutting through thickets of hype to get at something true. In a piece on actor Brad Pitt, he writes, “his manner is so evasive but friendly that he can skirt around a million issues with a melting smile that makes him an antihero who’s not really against anything.” That description will ring true to anyone who has watched the strangely empty actor’s TV interviews.

Musto scoffs at Mel Gibson’s claim that it was drink that triggered his recent arrest and anti-Semitic rant: “I had no idea that an open bar is all it takes to turn Mother Teresa into a hair-plugged Hitler.”

In a piece on the 2004 resignation of New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey in a gay sex scandal, Musto weaves seriousness with humor, writing that McGreevey’s coming out was “a momentous event that, sadly, could have only happened out of shame, not pride,” while also cracking that the governor was “wearing a patterned red tie that would have outed him anyway.” And in another column he calls Washington, D.C., “a town of such little sexual ambiguity that the men are definitely men and the women are, too.”

Musto wears thin when his strident gay-pride politics and bawdy banter come through in his column, which is often. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but readers of gentle sensibilities need be forewarned.

In the two decades since he insulted his first celebrity, hundreds of other writers have joined Musto in viewing popular culture as a central feature of America’s daily information diet. The celebutainment complex now spans newspapers, at least five weekly magazines, every corner of the Internet and 24-hour cable TV. Musto’s rapier wit in part helped popularize this culture, but like Schmuhl, he is wary of its effects. Still, few of his peers, if any, write with the same incisiveness and zesty wit as Musto.

“The Shape of Things to Come” is Greil Marcus’ 10th book, and as usual the critic from Berkeley, Calif., had something interesting and surprising in mind when he chose the title. That title also belongs to works by 19th Century science-fiction novelist H.G. Wells and the seminal but obscure late-20th Century rock band Pere Ubu. Marcus is the author of a definitive work of music criticism, “Mystery Train,” which drew parallels between Elvis Presley and Herman Melville, and he cut his teeth as a rock critic at Rolling Stone and Creem magazines in the early 1970s, the heyday of rock and rock criticism.

In the decades since, he has developed a powerful, almost oracular language, and his books use issues raised in culture and the arts to tackle big questions: Does America live up to its creed of freedom and equality, and if not, what are the costs?

He is not altogether happy with what he sees. America, he writes, “is a place and a story, made up of exuberance and suspicion, crime and liberation, lynch mobs and escapes; its greatest testaments are made of portents and warnings, Biblical allusions that lose all their certainties in American air.”

And he goes on for dozens of pages, sometimes at a depth that proves challenging. Marcus swoops across history and popular culture, pausing to analyze things such as film director David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” and “Twin Peaks”—nightmarish but true visions of the rot underlying the myths of small-town life.

The central question Marcus asks is, is America caught in a vise of impending destruction, a vise created by its own historic failures of racism, political cowardice, selfishness and greed? The art of Pere Ubu, Wells and others points to an answer. Pere Ubu envisioned its music as creating a new consciousness in America, an inspiring, humanistic and practical vision that would transform our lives. “Such dreams can’t be reduced to private riches and public fame, to private estates subsisting in the ruin of the public,” Marcus writes.

Is America really a new world, or an old one deluding itself and being stalked by its own failures? Marcus, like Schmuhl and Musto, challenges us to think about ourselves in ways that aren’t always pretty.


David E. Thigpen is a Chicago writer.

Originally published by David E. Thigpen (in the Chicago Tribune) at on December 17, 2006.