Should Art Always Serve The Present Moment?

February 22, 2023 [culture] #critique

Jed Perl is an American art critic, whose writing I have read in NYRB and The New Republic. He has an interview in Salmangundi that I find very little to disagree with. Criticism of art - movies, music, writing - today is reduced to a very stark utilitarianism. Does it address the perceived problems of the present? Does it improve one's liberal understanding of the world? Jed Perl offers a note of dissent. His latest book is a challenge to the notion that works of art need to be “validated (or invalidated) by the extent to which they line up with (or fail to line up with) our current social and political concerns.”

I would argue that there has come to be an assumption that the artist who isn’t offering a response to our social, economic, and political circumstances is somehow failing to act as an artist, or at least acting irresponsibly. For evidence I don’t think we need to look beyond the culture pages of the New York Times and The New Yorker, where the political, social, and even sexual orientations of creative people are time and again foregrounded, while the particulars of their work – a prose style, a way of handling paint, the sounds a conductor coaxes from an orchestra – are seen as afterthoughts when they’re discussed at all.

The fascination – I would almost say the obsession – that developed among liberals in the last quarter of the twentieth century with associating the triumphs and failures of various creative spirits with their political, social, and sexual views and orientations reflects, so I believe, a refusal to see art in its own terms. The idea that certain literary styles or artistic structures might be inherently fascist or leftist – and this has certainly been suggested – does serious damage to our understanding of the arts. (Some eighty years ago George Orwell argued that Yeats’s fascist views could be discovered “even in the smallest detail of his work,” a view later brilliantly debunked by Conor Cruise O'Brien.)

After a couple of decades of hearing and reading politically correct nonsense I’m finding that the startlingly and frankly dangerous pc excesses of some of our most admired critics – Holland Cotter’s appalling review of Titian’s mythological paintings in the Times or Alex Ross’s explorations of the whiteness of classical music in The New Yorker – are just too absurdly formulaic to get under my skin. With Authority and Freedom I’m less interested in demonstrating what’s wrong with their thinking than in exploring what’s (hopefully) right about mine.

A work of art can begin with a powerfully personal feeling or impression, but feelings and impressions aren’t works of art, at least not until they’ve been put under the pressure of an artistic language. An artist will only be able to use that language freely – use it to cry or scream – when they’ve mastered its subtleties and complexities.

...every work of art is the result of a debate or dynamic interaction between the authority of a tradition and the individual creator’s effort to find his or her own sense of that tradition and respond to it and renew it. All art is about the search for freedom within authority – even in premodern periods, when what I would call freedom was expressed through the mastery of a craft – and I think we in the audience respond to that dynamic. It’s an infinitely rich and variable dynamic.

These views seem similar to that of Barry Lopez, the acclaimed essayist. In his posthumously published book, Embrace Fearlessly The Burning World, I have this passage highlighted:

Perhaps it’s necessary to emphasize that works of art are not generally intended to function as political or social statements. Many artists, however, are reacting to social and political realities when they’re creating, so their work often informs us though it sets out no agenda. During the time I spent interviewing artists at the Penland community, I found deeply affecting the degree to which artistic excellence, not political or social comment, was the primary focus. How a particular work might later be interpreted seemed not to be much on anyone’s mind.

Jed Perl's point is that art has its own significance, something that he took as self-evident when growing up in mid-century America. He laments the loss of this perspective, with art and its criticism now forced to satisfy social requirements. That some piece of art doesn't engage with the social, political, and ecological crises of the present moment can make it seem parochial. "But if so, it’s the narrowness that makes it possible for artists to dig deep – very deep."

Update: 03-11-2023. This review of Kochi-Muziris Biennale by Pratyush Parasuraman, shows a similar reticence about the heavy-handedness of art that wants to mean something.

I do not make an argument for the utility of art because one cannot reduce everything’s value and importance to its utility. In the same breath, I do not want to make an argument for the utility of biennales. Where I chafed against a lot of the descriptions—and this was more acute in Durbar Hall, where local, greener artists were being exhibited, who loved to express their art in the first person, autobiographically—was this overriding sense of purpose. That their art needed to mean something. And in order for it to mean something, it needed to be “about” something, it had to linger on “themes”, it had to speak to the moment, it had to “juxtapose” this with that. The most powerful art I saw refused these simple grunts...

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