Jed Perl asks the right question, sort of: Are liberals killing art?
At a time when the art world—the vast majority of whose players are liberal-- is agog over a Jeff Koons you have to ask whether art is still art? Or whether it only serves as a critique of commodity fetishism.
On the other hand, if liberals were really liberal they would respect art. They would embrace its complexities.
Unfortunately, today’s liberals are anything but liberal. They are radical, seeing all human activities and all human enterprise as a function of their ideology. And that, naturally, includes art.
Since they see their relationships in political terms, it is not surprising that they see art as politics too.
Illiberal radicals see all human activities as ways to express ideas. Better yet, to indoctrinate people in one or another ideology.
Some of these ideologies are politically correct. Some are politically incorrect.
Illiberal radicals want art to serve as thought reform. If a work of art shows a racist character, and if this character does not end up hanging from a lamppost, the work itself is corrupt and corrupting. It must be suppressed.
At times, if it shows a racist or homophobic character at all, it has to be suppressed.
As Perl points out, today’s thought police also cannot distinguish the artist from his art. If the artists has fascist leanings, his work must be ignored because art is, to their minds, a product of ideology, a vehicle to express ideology and an effort to persuade others to follow it.
To which Perl responds by saying that such a definition undermines the reality and integrity of art.
You cannot and should not judge art by rummaging through the artist’s dirty laundry. If art does not surpass ideology, if it does not give up on the idea of telling you what to think… then it is not art. It is propaganda.
Art presents moral issues in their complexity, not as problems yielding simple solutions.
The same is not true of philosophy, especially philosophy that conjoins itself to a political program. Philosophy teaches what to think, and more importantly, how to think.
We might believe that Ezra Pound’s fascist sympathies made him a reprehensible human being, all the while enjoying his poetry.
And yet, if Martin Heidegger’s philosophy was a stealth, and at times not so stealth effort to undermine Western civilization and to promote Nazi thinking or totalitarian habits of thought, his beliefs are certainly germane to our acceptance or rejection of his philosophy.
Art dramatizes issues. It offers possible resolutions. It does not tell you what to think or what to do. As the old philosophers had it, the emotion provoked by art is static, not kinetic. Art does not tell you to go out and join a cause or to do something.
Art shows; it doesn’t tell. It is not simply an object to look at, but it must look back at you. It must concern you. It must speak to you.
But that is not at all the same as telling you how or what to think or do. It will show you what this or that character did or did not do. It will show you the narrative consequences of the action or inaction. It is for you to judge whether the lesson is worth following or ignoring, and how.