By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
As you watch Stewart needlessly complicate every job she undertakes, apparently without ever having asked herself its purpose, it dawns on you that this must be a parable of sorts. But about what? In this case, I suspect, class struggle--which in this country almost invariably means the struggle to get into one, not usurp it. Yet it's also a parable of alienation, since most American strivers are deeply puzzled over why the blue-chip version of the good life that's held up to them seems to involve so much poppycock. Like the latter-day Calvinist she is, Martha promises her viewers that they can achieve gentility if they only work hard enough at the silly but fraught tasks she sets--a conundrum of sorts, since the definition of gentility is not having to work at it. Unless she's dumber than I think, she herself must wake up every morning fully aware that Westport's bluebloods will go to their graves still thinking of her as that Polack chippy with the trowel. Since her value system doesn't permit her to hate them back, she takes out her raging aggressions instead on helpless plants and foodstuffs--wow, the very tools of her trade, and talk about displacement. Marx would understand this, even if Martha doesn't.
According to Oppenheimer, she was never more berserk than in the interlude between her fizzled career as a stockbroker and her launch into the catering business--when cooking and gardening was all she could do. If tranquility had ever interested her, those might have been pleasant times. But for someone whose goal in life is proving herself, this was a claustrophobic arena. Of course, it's also precisely the ambit that Stewart now sells back to her viewers as fulfilling, which must mean she just doesn't think they're as driven as she is. Who could be? In her deliberately frilly way, she also defines her pursuits as purely feminine bailiwicks, to oppressive effect. Keep in mind, at one level her story is stark tragedy--all that braininess and ambition deserved a better object. So did Phyllis Schafly's.
Then again, if Stewart wasn't acting out all this murky stuff for our benefit, she'd be a lot less interesting to think about. To see so many of American life's abiding grotesqueries emerge from such unlikely developing fluid is uncanny; the line from Pilgrims hacking away at the Injun-concealing forest they hated to Martha bashing her garden into perfect order is shorter than you might expect. So's the line between her and Theodore Dreiser's status-hungry Clyde Griffiths. But that's also why the show isn't much fun to watch. It may be the loneliest half hour on television.
The BBC import Sister Wendy's Story of Painting, now airing Sundays on PBS, is certainly charming as all get-out--the camera's alert to the drollness of that molelike figure in its black habit, gamely traipsing through another museum to find the masterpiece our 67-year-old Carmelite tour guide can't wait to burble on about. Well, don't let a low tolerance for whimsy cheat you. Whatever else she is, Sister Wendy may be the most unabashed romantic ever let loose on Western art for our lecture-glazed benefit. When was the last time--if ever--you heard anybody get this excited about Giotto?
Although she's hardly the aesthetic naif you'd gather from the art critics nettled by her trespassing, she seems to have schooled herself so she could articulate her enthusiasms--which gets the horse and cart in the right order, if you ask me. However enraptured and--by jargonaut standards--simplistic, she's always specific, unfazed, and shrewd. If the Mona Lisa is a tribute to "the eternal mystery of womanhood," that's well and good for Leonardo; the sitter, however, "is probably within smelling distance of her kitchen...and she's amused."
Of course, that's just the better to praise a Genius--Sister Wendy's no revisionist. Still, she's got surprises up her capacious sleeves, and one in the September 21 installment is astonishing. If Artemesia Gentileschi isn't a name to you either, we must both have ye olde patriarchy to thank for our ignorance of 17th-century Italy's greatest (only?) woman painter; Gentileschi, whose obsessive subject was the story of Judith and Holofernes, makes Andrea Dworkin look boy-crazy.
Even so, you don't watch this show for its discoveries. You watch it for a way of talking about art that crit-speak rarely leaves room for--agog, delighted, runnething over. The carpers aren't all wrong: the nun's story leaves a lot out. But if you can't respond at this level, well--then all that other stuff doesn't have much point, now does it? --T.C.