In a long and not very clear essay for The New Republic Jed Perl asks whether liberals ares killing art. In his subtitle he says that he will explain how leftists became so obsessed with ideology that they made it more important than beauty.
When Perl closes his essay by remarking that he has updated his essay for “clarity,” one quickly notes, in one’s mind, that the essay has been anything but clear.
The point in the subtitle is well taken. When was the last time anyone bothered to suggest that art needed to be beautiful? If that is what you think, you are hopelessly retrograde. Today’s art is more concerned with telling you what to think and it providing you a sense that you belong to an elite group of cultural revolutionaries. To be more precise, it is offering a critique of the consumerist materialism of Western civilization. It fails to notice that the non-consumerist totalitarian dictatorships it admires have been incapable of producing enough for people to consume. They have notably practiced starvationism.
Perl’s idea is worth examining. If liberalism is killing art the reason must lie in the fact that it has been corrupted to the point where it is no longer liberal. Surely, art that prefers ideology to beauty is more at home in totalitarian dictatorships—of the left and the right. Liberalism is a respectable member of Western civilization, and the new culture warriors do not want to have anything to with Western civ.
We can best understand the issues by asking what art does and does not do for you. Way back when, Aristotle argued that Greek tragedy produces an emotional catharsis. It provokes sentiments of terror and pity in the spectator and then allows them to cancel each other out. It makes the spectator feel cleansed and uplifted. Which means, no longer prey to emotion.(For more on this, see my book, The Last Psychoanalyst.) Aristotle and later Thomas Aquinas believed that art elevates the human spirit, that it produces an emotional stasis, not an emotional kinesis.
If I had to offer a definition I would argue that art dramatizes moral dilemmas. It shows you one way of dealing with them but does not say that you need do the same. Because sometimes the way a character deals with a dilemma does not work out very well. In art, that does not mean that the character has done the right or the wrong thing. Art plays on the edge of such ambiguities. If you draw life lessons from art, you are responsible for them. You cannot say that you are conducting yourself in this or that way because Shakespeare told you to do so.
In modern terms, art does not tell you want to do. It does not try to stir up your emotions to the point that you feel a need to go out and do this or that. If it does it is called agitprop, or agitation propaganda. Such works use artistic techniques to incite people to take political action.
In addition, art creates alternative worlds, worlds which run by their own rules and which represent what might happen or what might have happened. It might not be the artist’s purpose, but we all, when making decisions, consider a number of different alternatives. When we consider said alternatives, we consider the possible consequences that might happen. It’s like playing chess and considering the possible moves you can make along with your opponent’s countermoves. You cannot deal with a real world situation without considering alternatives.
For example, a popular Broadway musical represents the founders of the American republic, our founding fathers, as non-white hip hop stars. It’s called playing a game of let’s pretend. It’s a possibility like other possibilities. It’s something that we might entertain. That is why it’s called entertainment.
But, is it art? If the show is suggesting that the work of founding father Alexander Hamilton is roughly analogous to the work of Tupac Shakur, it is being ridiculous. We can charitably call it a MacGuffin-- in the Hitchcockian sense-- but, if so, it is a MacGuffin that falls flat.
If the play is saying that the people who created the American Republic do not deserve credit for their achievement, because anyone else could have done the same thing, it is asking us to believe something that does not correspond to reality. For someone who has not seen the show, it feels like a rap against white privilege.
On the one hand it is presenting an alternative reality. But, if you are supposed to embrace the message and to believe what the play wants you to believe, you are taking the alternative to be real. To be more real than reality. If you do so you will become a member of what I have called the Church of the Liberal Pieties, where the diversity dogma reigns supreme. As I mentioned yesterday, following Mark Lilla, the Democratic Party has ridden the diversity dogma into oblivion. After all, not that many people want to live in a bubble where everyone is forced to believe that an alternative reality is more real than reality.
When the cast of said musical decides to upbraid the vice president elect of the United States from the stage—it’s called having a captive audience-- it is telling the world that the show is not art. It is saying that the show does not want to allow people to entertain the possibility of an alternative reality, but that it wants to tell them what to think.
At that point, we are in the realm of an alternative religion, existing within the virtual community formed by the Church of the Liberal Pieties. And we are seeing that being a member in good standing of that Church requires you to denounce and even harass those who do not agree with you.
One notes, in passing, that today’s college campuses have often managed to turn themselves into redoubts for this alternative religion. Professors have taken to writing atrociously badly written obscure and obscurantist prose, filled with jargon, for the purpose of showing themselves to be the guardian class of philosopher kings who control access to this new religion.
As George Will wrote recently:
Only the highly educated write so badly. Indeed, the point of such ludicrous prose is to signal membership in a closed clerisy that possesses a private language.
This tells us that the barrier between religion and art has been breached. After all, art is the bastard child of religion. Art criticism and literary criticism are offshoots of the critical exegesis of religious texts. Before literary criticism became a respectable discipline, exegetes spent their time trying to suss out the meaning of sacred texts. What was God trying to tell us? What was God asking us to do? How did God want us to conduct our lives?
While sacred texts are designed to provide spiritual sustenance they are also a form of teaching. They teach the rules and laws that make you a member in good standing of a community. And they try to persuade everyone in the community to follow the same rules. If different people follow different rules you arrive at polytheism, which today is called multiculturalism. The result is confusion and social anomie.
If today’s art is less concerned with providing an aesthetic experience, it has chosen to compete with sacred texts. Artists and critics are setting down the predicates to form a new religion, a new church and a new culture. Thus, art has become an instrument in the ongoing culture war against Western--that would be Judeo-Christian-- civilization, the better to replace it with a totalitarian system that was conjured up by great philosophers.
Those who embrace this project now adhere to the Marxist fairy tales of the anti-fascist Frankfort School and practice the pogroms prescribed by the Nazi practice of deconstruction. They are not concerned with your ability to appreciate art. They are not interested in dramatizing moral dilemmas and in leaving it to you to make your own decisions on the basis of your own free will. They want to produce a culture, a bubble, if you like, where everyone thinks the same thoughts.
After all, wasn’t Hitler a failed artist who tried to make Europe into his canvas. So argued Modris Eksteins in his seminal work: Rites of Spring.
In the new culture created by artists-- not by religious teachers—you do not need to follow the same rules, speak the same language, use the same table manners and observe the same proprieties. Most importantly, as I suggested in my book, proponents of the new culture want to correct what they see as the singular error in Western civilization: granting human beings free will.
The practitioners of illiberal art and art criticism do not want you to think freely. They do not want you to act freely. If you accept their advice they will happily relieve you of all responsibility for your actions. Your task is to think the way they want you to think. They want to remove the constraint imposed by cultural norms and replace it with the straightjacket of ideological conformity.
At times, of course, different religions have themselves demanded ideological conformity. Who else invented inquisitions and witch hunts? Today, strangely enough, religions are often more tolerant of diverse opinions than art critics and deconstructionist thinkers.
Interestingly, as Perl documents, today’s culture warriors believe that a great artist who has held some unsavory and frankly repugnant positions or who has behaved badly does not deserve to be respected as an artist. Goodbye, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. An artist who works for an organization that is now considered to be sexist and homophobic cannot have produced great art. So long, Giotto and Duccio.
Ideologically driven thinkers want to expel such artists from the company of the saints and angels who are worthy of inhabiting the Heavenly City they are constructing on earth. They must be denounced because incorrect thinking is the only thing that matters. They must be denounced because they can never serve as role models of ideological conformity in the new secular religion.