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The withering wit of Fran Lebowitz

Fran Lebowitz in the Martin Scorsese documentary "Public Speaking"
Courtesy of HBO
Fran Lebowitz in the Martin Scorsese documentary “Public Speaking”

Fran Lebowitz will be in town tonight. According to the ever undependable Wikipedia, she’s a second cousin to actor Judd Hirsch, which was quite a surprise to me, as I am a second cousin to actor Judd Hirsch, so I suppose there is some remote chance that I am related to one of the greater wits of the past 50 years.

Lebowitz was the subject of a documentary recently called “Public Speaking,” directed by no less than Martin Scorsese, with whom she has had a long friendship. It’s an uncluttered thing, consisting almost entirely of Lebowitz speaking in a variety of contexts: in interview, in a booth at a restaurant that looks to be Sardi’s, at speaking engagements, in archival footage.

In whatever context, she’s always the same, at once droll and razor sharp. There are three topics that particularly interest  her in the documentary. There is the subject of New York, which she speaks of as though the town had turned into a parody of itself to please tourists. There is the subject of her own career, which flourished in the ’70s and ’80s with her having a column in Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine and the publication of her bestselling “Metropolitan Life” and “Social Studies,” and then faltered as she became mired in a decades-long writer’s block. And then there is the subject of art, which deserves its own paragraph.

Lebowitz seems to be of the opinion that democracy may be good for politics, but the arts benefits from, and I’ll paraphrase her here, a natural aristocracy of talent. She pines for the New York art scene of the ’70s, and points out that the AIDS epidemic didn’t merely wipe out an entire generation of New York artists, but also an entire generation of audience members. She argues that the arts benefit from an extremely high degree of connoisseurship from their audience members, as it holds art to an extremely high standard.

In general, I tend to agree with her here. It’s easy for the arts to fall prey to the classic middlebrow trap — that people attend out of a sense that there is some necessary salutary quality to highbrow arts. There will always be a percentage of audience members for high art who attend for reasons of status, or out of a sense of social responsibility. This is the way of things, and there’s not much point complaining about it. Middlebrow audiences have their own experience of the arts, and they are welcome to it, and, without them, most art institutions would probably wither and die.

But it also helps to have a certain percentage of audience members who are aesthetic fanatics, and who come to an art event with an intricate, detailed understanding of what is being presented. And it helps to have the arts organization feel they must somehow live up to the standard demanded by these fanatics, or at least disappoint them in interesting ways. This is one of the necessary mechanisms of encouraging greatness, and occasionally genius. An arts town is only ever as good as its arts audience.

It’s good for criticism, too. We live in an unfortunate world in which our publications simultaneously recognize the value of offering arts criticism but can’t really be bothered to hire arts editors or critics who know what they’re talking about — there is an unhappy phenomenon in publishing, in which newspapers and the like making arts writers out of sports columnists or interns or the sorts of people whose job is usually to rewrite wire stories. And, when you’re writing to a middlebrow audience, those sorts of critics probably do the trick, as they share their audience’s ignorance.

But when you have a dedicated audience of vocal fanatics, and your sportswriter-cum-art critic tries to tackle, say, the New York City Ballet under George Balanchine — well, quality criticism either flourished or evaporates under the tutelage of hundreds of scornful letters demanding the critic actually know their business or don’t bother to write at all.

And if there is a fourth topic Lebowitz returns to, again and again, in the Scorsese documentary, it is that people should only write if they have something of value to say. This viewpoint isn’t as carefully detailed as the others, but it crops up, again and again, a sense that there are too many writers writing too many books, none of which have anything to offer but a superficial sense of style and the monotony of the young American autobiography being passed off as meaningful storytelling. And when Fran Lebowitz, an inarguably great writer who hasn’t published in decades, tells you not to write until you have something of worth to offer — well, she’s in a unique position to make that sort of demand.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/14/2011 - 12:37 pm.

    I love Fran Lebowitz and I loved that documentary so much I watched it several times.

    Every time she opens her mouth something Hi-larious comes out.

  2. Submitted by Jackson Cage on 10/24/2011 - 11:54 am.

    Maybe it’s because I’m middlebrow, but I preferred Fawn Lebowitz.

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