9 questions for Gary Susman, arts journalist, editor

March 3rd, 2009 by Menachem Wecker

Gary Susman (LinkedIn page, Twitter handle, and Facebook page) is an editor, writer, and critic, who served most recently as senior writer at Entertainment Weekly. He has contributed to the Village Voice, The Guardian (UK), MSNBC Online, College Music Journal, Rough Cut Online, Mr. Showbiz, and People Magazine, and he has interviewed more than 500 of the “top names in the arts and entertainment” for some of his thousands of articles, both print and online. Somehow, he also finds the time to blog at Pop Culture Warrior. I noticed on Gary’s LinkedIn page that he is a member of a group for Harvard Jewish alumni, which inspired me to reach out to him for this interview. I had also seen his byline many times before, as I’m sure many of you have as well. We talked about the future of art journalism, censorship, and what the secular arts community thinks about religious art.

MW: You have 20 years of experience writing on the arts, and are a member of the LinkedIn group for Harvard Jewish alumni group. To what extent do you put the two together and write about Jewish art?

GS: It’s not something I go out of my way to do, but when an assignment comes my way, I’m happy to take it on. For a few years, when I was living in Boston, I regularly covered the Boston Jewish Film Festival as part of my film beat at the Boston Phoenix.

MW: Do you think there is any such thing as Jewish art? If so, what does it entail?

GS: Certainly, there’s Jewish art, if you’re talking about content of specific interest to Jews. If you’re asking if there’s a Jewish aesthetic, well, that’s a lot harder to say. If there is, it’s easier to identify in literature (drawing on, say, Talmudic inspiration) or comedy writing/ performance (a stylistic line that can be drawn back through Catskill comics to wedding tummlers) or music (such as klezmer) than in visual arts.

Movies present an especially difficult case. Neal Gabler’s book about how the Jews invented Hollywood suggests an auteurist aesthetic that belongs not to the writers or directors but to the studio moguls, but that aesthetic is one of self-negation, as the Jewish moguls went out of their way most of the time to avoid specifically Jewish content (lest they call attention to themselves as Jews) and foster instead an ideology of assimilation into what they perceived as white/Christian-American virtues and aspirations. (Even an early movie as overtly Jewish as “The Jazz Singer” is more about assimilation, show business, and the general immigrant experience than about the particulars of Jewish life in America.) J. Hoberman wrote a fine book about Yiddish-language cinema, which, as produced in America before WWII, followed similar tropes as Hollywood movies despite a different cultural context (much as African-American independent film, made by such filmmakers as Oscar Micheaux, did in those same years). Today in Hollywood, Jewish filmmakers are free to wear their Jewishness on their sleeves as a cultural badge, but does that make, say, Judd Apatow’s “Knocked Up” any more of a Jewish film than “The Jazz Singer”? As I said, a lot to explore here, much of it murky.

MW: Many have noted that Jews seem to be over-represented in the arts. Do you think there is anything to that claim?

GS: What do you mean by “over-represented”? Too many? Who’s to say how many is too many? Certainly, Jews are represented out of proportion to their numbers in the populace as a whole, much as they are in law, accounting, medicine, and other professions whose prerequisites of advanced education mesh with the Jewish cultural emphasis on learning. I imagine art’s potential to allow the artist self-reinvention (or self-concealment) also appeals to Jews navigating the perils and benefits of assimilation.

MW: To what extent is contemporary religious art taken seriously in the arts journalism community?

GS: I think religious art is taken very seriously, though that agenda has been set largely by people outside the arts community. In particular, the flaps over Andres Serrano and Chris Ofili forced many critics to ask “What is religious art?” and “Who gets to define it?” Do artists making deliberately provocative art that nonetheless seems to spring from a place of genuine devotion get to be included, or does only art safe enough for greeting cards count? Similar questions in arise in movies. Does Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” a movie that offended many Christians but seems nonetheless to draw on Scorsese’s sincere Catholicism, count? What about Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” with its similarly free and non-literal and controversy-courting interpretation of Christian scripture and its action-movie violence? What about Scorsese’s “Kundun,” a reverent look at Tibetan Buddhism that comes from a filmmaker who is not himself a believer? Is Steven Spielberg a religious artist only when he’s making movies about Jews and not when he’s making movies about dinosaurs and aliens?

MW: Who are some of your favorite religious artists?

GS: Among visual artists, I like Marc Chagall; his attention to dreams, folklore, childhood fantasy, vivid colors, etc. seem to tap directly into a benign, wondrous font of spirituality that appeals to me personally. Outside the Jewish tradition, I like artists like the ones I mentioned in No. 4 who challenge dogma and orthodoxy while trying to reconcile those challenges with their own apparently devout faith. Would I like them so much if they challenged Jewish tenets the same way? Perhaps not.

MW: You Tweet and publish a blog. Do you have the sense that most art critics are embracing new media as you have?

GS: I think any critic who wants to keep working has to embrace new media and social media in particular. (Tweeting and blogging are also great ways for artists to promote their own work. For instance, check out jotta.com/jotta.) Film and music critics are certainly on the bandwagon; I suspect the rest will not be far behind.

MW: Who are some of the most important arts writers worth following on Twitter and in on blogs?

GS: Obviously, you can’t write any kind of substantive critique in a 140-character tweet, but you can link to your own writing (or someone else’s), and a lot of arts bloggers use Twitter for that purpose. ArtsJournal.com has a lot of great blogs. Other interesting folks on Twitter: E. Goldsher of JDub Records (Twitter handle); O.K. blog (Twitter handle). Some good film blogs: selfstyledsiren.blogspot.com, davidbordwell.net/blog, and somecamerunning.typepad.com.

MW: With so many print publications folding, and given the fact that arts sections (or style sections) are often some of the most vulnerable, do you think art journalism’s future is looking bleak?

GS: Art journalism as a paid profession has a bleak future. Seems no one wants to support financially what they can get on the Internet for free. Thanks to the Web, anyone can be a published critic (even if just self-published), and while democratization and the opening up of the field to multiple fresh perspectives are good, that still leaves the problem of whose opinion to trust. My only hope is that, after the current shakeout, people who still want quality criticism will still pay someone to serve the gatekeeper function that newspapers and magazines have abdicated — not just picking out the good art from the dross, but the good critics from the chaff.

MW: You wrote several pieces for EW (e.g. here and here) on potentially anti-Semitic elements of Gibson’s “Passion.” There have been a lot of stories recently about controversial religious works that upset religious communities. How well do you think journalists are reporting these stories? Are you concerned that there is typically too much censorship of artists, too much license without oversight, or are these sorts of situations generally resolving themselves as they should?

GS: There are always battles over content. Censorship, narrowly defined, is government suppression of content, and that’s not as common a problem, though the recent battles over federal and municipal arts funding (referenced in No. 4 above) make me wonder whether its a good idea for the government to be involved at all in arts funding, lest there be strings attached. More common is self-censorship, corporate censorship, or censorship by market forces. Ideally, the artist should have no responsibility to anyone but his or her own muse, but in practical reality, the sensibilities of the community are something the artist has to recognize. Similarly, the viewer has no right not to be offended, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable for the viewer to refuse to be forced to subsidize or to be confronted with art he or she finds offensive. I think arts journalists, who are a mostly secular bunch, are doing a better job of recognizing the sentiments of religious people who yearn for an art that supports their beliefs and doesn’t denigrate them, but the journalists need to make sure that they are focusing on the total spectrum of believers, not just the narrow slice of vocal Catholic and Protestant and Conservative or Orthodox Jewish believers who seem to get to define what constitutes acceptable religious culture in this country. America is a big place, and there should be a lot of room for a wide diversity of religious and secular expression.

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