The Misunderstood Protest of Bret Easton Ellis
[The following is a monologue I wrote for my latest appearance on the Bret Easton Ellis Podcast. Due to time restrictions, it was not included in the podcast. Here it is in full: A criticism of the criticism of his book, ‘White.’]
After reading the reviews of Bret Easton Ellis’s White, I was astounded by the attention so many critics paid to the public relations of the book: The provocative title; the writer’s lack of appetite for the resistance to Trump, and Mr. Ellis’s “brand,” a word I find as inspiring today as erectile dysfunction and Aziz Ansari’s sex life.
Mr. Ellis’s public image, tragically, is now informed entirely by the media’s prejudice towards his Trump-era contrarianism, which they’ve deduced to a form of invisible bigotry that’s a result of the vanilla pallor of his skin and his silver hair. His involuntary whiteness makes his reported apathy, the DNA of every essay found in White, seem practically criminal to the overly-imaginative minds of his critics: Limousine liberals in the arts, for the most part. Tonight, at interbred media cocktail parties in Manhattan, Bret Easton Ellis will be unfairly framed into what Salman Rushdie was for the Ayatollah: An Infidel.
Rather than thoroughly investigating the crime scene that White attempts to sketch out, so many reporters seem blinded by a journalistic form of Charles Bonnet syndrome, where they’ve lost the ability see anything except that which they imagine: That Bret Easton Ellis is a misogynist. He is not. That Bret Easton Ellis is a Trump apologist. He is not. That Bret Easton Ellis is a racist. He is nothing of the sort, though one could argue he’s written characters that are all those things. I suppose this makes the writer complicit in the crimes found in his amoral fiction? This is, of course, ridiculous. But when Mr. Ellis tells us he finds the aesthetic of Black Panther to be banal or too heavy-handed, he is, of course, a preprogrammed white supremacist who has no control over his white privilege. Nonsense.
Being insensitive should be a prerequisite for the art critic, not a hindrance.
For me, the more interesting question raised by a punkish protest like White is one the critics will never address publicly; a hypothetical that I believe illuminates our current condition where the left-wing of the media has become Victorian in their view of contrarianism that defies their orthodoxy.
So here’s my question: If Oscar Wilde was lecturing across America today, would he be condemned for writing an immoral book and refusing to apologize for it, and then, while being badgered on the witness stand, would he be cancelled simply for arguing that the beauty of a piece of art is more important than the message that’s buried beneath its brushstrokes?
Is being amoral in the arts even allowed anymore? It should be. This is partially what White is arguing.
When I read the recent New Yorker interview with Mr. Ellis, I felt a kind of melancholy sweep over me, not because a publicist had forgotten to use Google search, but because the New Yorker, for heaven’s sake, the New Yorker, had empowered a professional troll to conduct an interview not in order to illuminate the prose or the thesis of the book, but to force the writer to submit to a kind of 19th century inquisition where he was to either admit he was immoral — to bend the knee, if you will— or be shamed to death, in plain sight, precisely the way Wilde was cross-examined by the Queensberry defense attorney, Edward Carson, where the intent was to get Wilde to confess to immorality, based entirely on circumstantial evidence, rather than to even bother exploring his aesthetic (this is, by the way, the foundation of White: Bret Easton Ellis’s ruthlessly cold aesthetic).
How did we get to a point in culture where an artist cannot be like Oscar Wilde or share his aesthetic philosophy? How Victorian! White is one writer trying to explain that, not as a sociologist or a political journalist, but as an unapologetically male culture critic — which makes it even more incendiary. White, as a media study, is such a delicious expose of the media’s need to control discourse, rather than study it or unleash it. Even if you don’t read White, you will eventually find a review of White that reminds you of exactly of why Mr. Ellis is lobbing a protest in the first place.
This is why White gets under the skin of so many of those who’ve reviewed it. It also does something more devastating: It accuses them, rather nonchalantly, of being ideologically-driven philistines, rather than intellectuals or artists. It accuses them of being political and cybernetic in their taste, rather than artistic and free. In doing so, Mr. Ellis has stretched the First Amendment like a pair of Calvins being slipped on by a body-positive sumo wrestler.
Some of the heat directed at his work has been Mr. Ellis’s own fault, who rolls his eyes in a long-form essay, a kind of book-length subtweet of leftist arts and culture critics; a troll, frankly, as he’s holding his nose while telling those consumed by Trump Derangement to “calm down.” Imagine telling Britney Spears to try breathing exercises as she swings her mint-colored umbrella at your SUV? This a criticism that Mr. Ellis deserves: He is toying with people with the mental structural integrity of Chernobyl.
He is toying with people who view a negative review of Black Panther as a downvote on Civil Rights. He is trolling the left.
White is also practically humorless in its delivery, as Mr. Ellis is very clinically using a knife cut through the meat to analyze what’s inside, for example, how we got to the point in America where criticism of Moonlight or an insensitive tweet about a female filmmaker could lead to accusations as serious as racism and misogyny. The lack of comedy in his voice makes it even more offensive to those who disagree with him.
What I also found interesting were the topics Mr. Ellis decided to exclude from White, such as the message-driven films of Jordan Peele, or the media’s unified advertising of Black Panther as the Godfather of superhero films; though he’s said that he’s saving these for his next nonfiction book, which he says will focus on film theory based on his aesthetic — which is teased in White, which puts style ahead of social justice.
So maybe he is an immoral man, but what are we to do about it? When Christina Applegate was asked by a reporter in 1989 how she felt about “Married with Children” being attacked by the press for being vulgar and sexist, she responded: ‘Change the channel or go rent Sleeping Beauty.’”
This is the unofficial thesis of White, sort of, which offers both a film theory and cultural criticism that seems to be arguing that “art for art’s sake” is vanishing from our collective consciousness. Mr. Ellis is protesting, not for representation of Asian-American actors or to reward Black Panther a sympathetic and underserving Oscar, no, he’s protesting for the freedom to not care about those things. He’s pamphleteering for apathy.
He’s a fundamentalist when it comes to style. He’s defiantly solipsistic and an emotionally disconnected man who prefers to talk about costume and cinematography, rather than offering phony sympathy. He is Patrick Bateman being written into an Oscar Wilde play. If you don’t like it, change the channel.
It is no coincidence that one of the only reporters to provide a fair treatment of Mr. Ellis’s work is Laurie Christensen of The New York Times, who is an enthusiastic reader of Wilde, and once again demonstrates the importance of an education in the classics, rather than the grotesqueries of historical revisionism. But even she has to wrestle with the responsibility to be “on brand,” which requires her to softly accuse Mr. Ellis of being privileged to the point of delusion or containing within him the repressed gene of misogyny (though she never says that; I’m providing only my interpretation). Others simply implicate Mr. Ellis of cultural treason, which is attributed to his view that the resistance to Donald Trump is a culprit in driving the art critic towards propaganda. It is. So why, I ask, are we protesting such an obvious fact?
Shall we also protest the fact that former First Lady Michelle Obama assisted in turning Beyoncé into an unassailable monarch?
Christensen, like many of her peers, seems to believe that art and politics are in a monogamous relationship, and that art should be used to advance the cause of social justice, and thus, the reviews of White seem to narrowly focus on the unsophisticated political arguments found in the book that reject this, rather than what I believe is the more seductive ingredient of the book, which is Mr. Ellis’s snooty contempt for the current state of art, where taste has become so centralized within the mainstream media, that art criticism seems to be operating within the confines of a kind of unofficial ministry of information — where a minority of activists can decide what is “bad taste,” and then quietly ban it from cultural acceptance because it doesn’t “advance the discourse.”
Mr. Ellis is basically tossing his glass of wine in the face of such performative activism. The only discourse he’s advancing is his own — which is refreshing. The only thing he’s raising awareness for is his aesthetic. Cheers.
“Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness,” wrote Orwell in his proposed preface for “Animal Farm.” “A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.”
White, in essence, is a very unfashionable protest as a series of essays that seem to want to defend the right to have an unfashionable opinion! Anyone who doesn’t find this even a little exciting has been turned into a cultural prude by the election of Donald Trump.
Four decades ago, conservative-leaning writer Tom Wolfe walked into the Louvre and drew a mustache on the Mona Lisa with “The Painted Word” (a criticism of art theory), today, Bret Easton Ellis, who is mostly apolitical, has savaged Hollywood’s preoccupation with politics — which he views as being unstylish. White is a protest of Hollywood’s lack of style during the Presidency of a curmudgeon with bad taste, which makes it a very fashionable treatment, indeed.