Sunday, November 20, 2016

Are Liberals Killing Art?

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.


Trigger Warning said...

Welcome to the era that celebrates smearing oneself with chocolate (simulating feces), painting with menstrual blood, inchoate ramblings by New-Age poseurs like Ares' Starhawk, and violent, sexualized doggerel recited to a synthesized drumbeat as "art".

In truth, it's not produced for the audience that claims to appreciate it, but specifically to "disturb" the larger lumpenproletariat. That's why an "artist" can pee in a jar, put in a commercially-produced crucifix, and get a showing, while a well-rendered drawing of Mohammed is attacked and censored as rank heresy in a secular society. It's the avant-garde expression of hate speech, cloaked in the mantle of "art" to render it immune to censorship and to feed off the taxpaying lumpenproletariat via National Endowment for the Arts grants.

Anonymous said...

Libs may be killing art, but Cons are not making any.

Anonymous said...

The problem isn't always ideology but money and cynicism.

There are tons of over-valued 'art' that aren't ideological but garnering excessive attention and investment because of their hipper-than-thou value.

It goes back to Warholism. Art as campy stunt for billionaire investors to toy with and use for laundering money.

Jeff Koons and Hirst are diseases of this kind.

Anonymous said...

Beauty can be a component of art, but art is about much more.

Nazi Art was obsessed with beauty and waged war on ugly degeneracy, but it was kitsch. And Nazi obsession with physical beauty didn't make Nazi souls any prettier.

And a lot of Socialist Realist Art featured handsome men and women doing noble labor. It hid the truth about gulags and mass executions.

Art can be beautiful, but it is also about truth, which is often ugly, dark, and disturbing. The film M by Fritz Lang and Dostoevsky's CRIME AND PUNISHMENT are not about beautiful peoples and things but about certain ugly truths.

So, truth can trump mere beauty in art.

What bothers me about cultural decadence is it goes beyond addressing and exploring the dark, diseased and ugly side of man. It wallows and exults in ugliness and filth as the new Virtue. We see this in the gross monster of Lena Dunham. She sees her problems as something to celebrate and brag about. She is shameless in her wanton degeneracy. She is the demon-possessed child in THE EXORCIST puking all over.

A doctor has to deal with germs and disease. He cannot focus only on healthy people(who don't need him, btw).
But a doctor who celebrates and encourages disease would be a foul creature.
Social Scientists and Media people are quacks peddling snake oil.

Take the issue of homosexuality.
I accept the truth that some people are born as sexual deviants and that we should let them be. But we should also address the problems of 'anal sex' where male genitals penetrate fecal organs.

But we go way beyond that. We praise homos as angels, we hang homo symbols in churches and synagogues, and we pretend that out-of-control homo behavior had nothing to do with the AIDS epidemic that is conveniently blamed entirely on "Reagan's Indifference."

There lies the disease of radical ugliness.

Anonymous said...

Science uses laboratory models to understand how nature, time, and space work.

Artists use fictional models to test out their ideas of how humans feel and behave.

Trigger Warning said...

I assume you're joking, right?

Trigger Warning said...

Well, if what you mean is conservatives are not generally attracted to feces like, for example, Mr Ofili or Ms Finley, that's quite true.

David Foster said...

"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"

Aldous Huxley: "In the field of politics the equivalent of a theorem is a perfectly disciplined army; of a sonnet or picture, a police state under a dictatorship. The Marxist calls himself scientific and to this claim the Fascist adds another: he is the poet--the scientific poet--of a new mythology. Both are justified in their pretensions; for each applies to human situations the procedures which have proved effective in the laboratory and the ivory tower. They simplify, they abstract, they eliminate all that, for their purposes, is irrelevant and ignore whatever they choose to regard an inessential; they impose a style, they compel the facts to verify a favorite hypothesis, they consign to the waste paper basket all that, to their mind, falls short of perfection...the dream of Order begets tyranny, the dream of Beauty, monsters and violence."

--from Ape and Essence

Anonymous said...

"Whatever pisses off the squares."

Beauty be damned.

- shoe

Dennis said...

One of the reasons one does not see conservative art is that most art councils, critics, federal programs for the arts, et al are on the Left. One cannot get recognition if one cannot get recognition. Also in many cases the audience is overwhelmingly to the Left.
One cannot complain if one does nothing to support the Arts.

Anonymous said...

Dennis -

Your 4:17 post is describing the work, career and website of

Stuart's readers following this thread might enjoy this paper on the deliberate destruction of art.

The Cultural Cold War. A closer look at Frances Stonor Saunders' book of the same name:

Mathis elaborates in other papers on how the modern gallery system is one large (closed loop) money laundering operation.

Saathci/Damon Hurst anyone?

- shoe

PS - a Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

Anonymous said...

Re: Mathis

He fits some of my description of him,
with the exception of his politics being 'conservative'.

He doesn't refer to 'Cultural Marxism',but does direct his white-hot anger at the destruction and destroyers of art.