Titian, Assumption of the Virgin. Image credit: Public Domain / Shutterstock

A century ago, Guillaume Apollinaire saluted the “long quarrel between tradition and invention/Order and Adventure.” That quarrel, which had been going on for hundreds if not thousands of years when Apollinaire wrote these words, continues today. Authority and freedom are still the lifeblood of the arts. Whether reading a novel, looking at a painting, or listening to music, we are feeling the push and pull of these two forces as they shape the creator’s work. Authority is the ordering impulse. Freedom is the love of experiment and play. They coexist. They compete. Even a child, setting out to write a story, recognizes the authority of certain conventions, if only the need for a beginning, a middle, and an end. But why not feel free to do something different? One way of acknowledging authority is by opposing it—by writing, for instance, a story that ends inconclusively, open-endedly. The authority of art functions almost simultaneously as an inhibition and an incitement. The limitations sharpen the fantasy, clarify the feeling—they precipitate freedom.

In our own day, the rival claims of authority and freedom kick off passionate responses and principled stands, both with artists and audiences—which is as it should be. But these passions and principles, which are never easy to reconcile or disentangle, can all too easily leave people at loggerheads. Somebody says, “I’ll stick with the classics.” Another person wonders, “How about something really new?” Conservatives argue for continuity. Radicals demand relevance. Soon a third person announces, “All art is political.” Everybody knows we’re navigating perilous waters. 

While there have been many periods when the arts inspired some sort of controversy, different times have different troubles. In our data- and metrics-obsessed era, the central problem is that the imaginative ground without which art cannot exist is under threat. The idea of the work of art as an imaginative achievement to which the audience freely responds is now too often replaced by the assumption that a work of art should promote a particular idea or ideology or perform some clearly defined civic or community service. Instead of art-as-art we have art as a comrade-in-arms to some supposedly more stable or socially significant aspect of the world. Now, art is all too often hyphenated. We have art-and-society, art-and-money, art-and-education, art-and-tourism, art-and-politics, art-and-protest, art-and-fun. Race, gender, and sexual orientation become decisive factors, often as a way of providing some readily comprehensible coordinates to the inherently uncategorizable nature of the artistic imagination. Given all the uncertainties that surround any creative endeavor, I can see why so many people want to link art to something else—something that can be more dependably defined. But all such efforts, however honorable, are stop-gap measures, ultimately bound to fail, unless they are grounded in an insistence that the products of the imagination have their own laws and logic. 

All too often, we assume that the artistic act is essentially centrifugal—a statement beamed out to the world. I think it would be closer to the truth to describe the artistic act as centripetal—a dialogue between the artist and the tools of a particular trade. Such a dialogue has shaped everything from the anonymous Egyptian craftsman’s carving in a Pharaoh’s tomb to Mozart’s operatic account of the Don Juan story, Wordsworth’s reimagining of the poetic possibilities of the English language, and Mondrian’s labors on his final, unfinished painting, Victory Boogie-Woogie. This dialogue is as essential to the popular arts as to any other kind of art. Great performances of popular songs, generally designed to last only a few minutes, communicate soaring emotions with a telegraphic precision that depends on the close coordination of instrumental sound, vocal inflection, and verbal sense. All artists—the good along with the great, the ones who aim for the widest possible audience along with those who expect to speak to very few—know that the imaginative adventure, as profoundly personal as it is, must be set within the context of an ordering imagination which acknowledges the precedents and precepts of a community and a tradition. Private efforts become public experiences that can excite and inspire, but also disquiet and disturb.        

Recent controversies about some of Philip Guston’s paintings, which include hooded Ku Klux Klan figures, and Laurence Olivier’s starring role in the filmed version of Othello, which he performed in blackface, all too often fail to grapple with a fundamental distinction between artistic experience and many other forms of human experience. The act of creation, whether a painter grappling with a rectangle of canvas or an actor performing on a stage, has almost nothing in common with the actions we generally expect from men and women who cut a fine figure in society. That’s what gives the arts their freestanding value. I think it’s worth pointing out that since ancient times, philosophers who have taken an interest in the arts have argued for a distinction between making (which can describe a creative process) and doing (which covers a much wider range of actions and activities). Artists make, politicians do. Of course making things involves dealing with realities and practicalities. But the artist’s realities and practicalities are unreal and impractical, at least by the standards of the workaday world. Even the great achievements that we think of as inextricably linked to the social and political temper of a time—Picasso’s Guernica or Aretha Franklin singing “A Natural Woman”—are grounded in the particularities of artistic practice, which always involves a struggle between authority and freedom. The novelist Flannery O’Connor wrote: “If you do manage to use [a work of art] successfully for social, religious, or other purposes, it is because you make it art first.”             

What generations of artists and critics have described (and sometimes dismissed) as formal concerns are much more than that. To write, to paint, to compose, is to struggle with what is possible and impossible within the constraints of a medium. For the artist, the medium is a world unto itself, but the struggle within the medium is also a way of coming to terms with the struggle between the possible and the impossible that plays out in the wider world. Creative work raises a series of questions. What do I owe to authority? How do I find freedom within authority? Can I regard freedom as a form of authority? An artist brings to these traditions many personal inclinations and dispositions, but the act of painting, writing, composing, music-making, or dancing sets everything that is personal within a larger context. The singularity of an artistic endeavor—the way the individual works out the dynamic between authority and freedom—is set in history. That history is everybody’s history.

We understand why Anna, the protagonist of Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook, as she sits in her room in London trying to write, finds herself imagining a Chinese peasant or a Third World freedom fighter asking her, “Why aren’t you doing something about us, instead of wasting your time scribbling?” In the face of the social, economic, and political challenges that we see all around us, we may find it hard to justify the intensely intimate experience that we have with a novel, a concerto, or a painting. 

We may fear that the arts are a distraction—a problem. That fear isn’t new. Time and again poetry, painting, music, dance, and theater have been viewed as a threat, precisely because there’s so much that’s unruly and uncategorizable in their power to beguile, enchant, educate, elevate, transport, and transform. More than two thousand years ago, Plato worried that a great poet posed a danger to an ideal society; in Renaissance Florence, the Dominican friar Savonarola excoriated what he described as the profanity of the art of his day; and Tolstoy, in What Is Art?, the book he published in the late 1890s, called into question his own naturalistic novels along with the work of Dante and Shakespeare (he characterized their work as “brain-spun”). In our time of social, economic, environmental, and political anxiety and unrest, many are asking whom the arts speak for. Do they speak for some particular group? Do they speak truth to power? Picasso, reacting to demands that the arts make some simple kind of sense, responded with a riddle: “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” The question that many people are asking right now—not entirely different from the questions that Plato, Savonarola, and Tolstoy were asking centuries ago—is whose lies and whose truths art is meant to reveal. 

Whether encountered in a church, a museum, a jazz club, a movie theater, or a city square, the arts have always been part of the fabric of life. Before it is anything else, an artistic experience is often a critical element in a communal or social experience. So there is certainly something to be said for the argument that the same moral and ethical values and assumptions that we bring to our everyday lives should apply to the life of art. What’s missing in this neat equation, though, is any consideration of the capacity that the arts have to take us out of the workaday world—isn’t that a big part of what has always attracted people to the arts? Most sixteenth-century Venetians who gathered in the presence of Titian’s immense altarpiece of the Assumption of the Virgin in the Church of the Frari surely felt that they were having a religious experience, and not an artistic one; but Titian’s masterpiece was there precisely because it had the capacity to heighten and intensify that experience. For much of the twentieth century, the audiences that crowded into movie houses were as interested in escaping from their daily cares—or sneaking some intimate moments in the dark—as they were in what was actually being projected on the big screen; but without the on-screen presence of Clark Gable, Judy Garland, and other great stars, moviegoing would never have exerted such a fascination. 

At the heart of every encounter with a work of art—whether sacred or secular, public or private, mass-market or avant-garde—there’s the enigma of the work itself, which, even when designed to serve some apparently cut-and-dried purpose, only really succeeds when the artist/s involved are driven by an imaginative imperative. 

Instead of offering an escape from the world, the arts present one of the most difficult and hard-fought ways to enter into the life of our time, or any other time. What the artist must first accept is the authority of an art form—the immersion in what others have done and achieved. Once the artist has begun to take all that in—it’s a process that never really ends—there comes the even greater challenge of asserting one’s freedom. It’s the limits imposed by a vocation that make it possible to turn away from the pressures of the moment, to think and feel freely—and, sometimes, lend to the most private emotions an extraordinary public hearing. If art is the ordering of disorderly experience—I don’t know how else to describe it—then the artist must be true both to the order and the disorder. These are the trials of the artist and the artistic vocation. Although they need not be of primary concern to those who visit a museum or a concert hall, they shape the experience of anybody who reads a novel, looks at a painting, or listens to a piece of music.

Contemporary life promises unlimited options—and sometimes delivers them. If you’re able to avail yourself of a never-ending supply of digital information, you can connect with your family, friends, and colleagues, binge watch or listen to anything that strikes your fancy, and buy stuff so effortlessly that you’re in danger of imagining that there’s no price attached. You can do so much with what seems like so little effort that doing itself becomes disembodied, wonderfully in some instances, and bewilderingly or disturbingly in others. 

Some will say that the situation is new—of course, our lives in cyberspace are unprecedented—but the desire to inhabit a time and place outside of time and place isn’t new at all. 

This is where the arts come in. They’ve always been a time out of time and a place out of place. But they’re also right here, right now. They’re both adamantine and ethereal, physical and metaphysical. This complexity is what thrills us in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library, Aretha Franklin’s “Amazing Grace,” Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat Major, Yeats’s “Among School Children,” Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie, and Shakespeare’s King Lear. We thrill to patterns of authority and freedom—patterns of limitedness and limitlessness. We engage with these patterns through the ordering of words on a page, the sounds of instruments and voices in the air, and the shaping of stone, paint, or thread. Authority sometimes registers as palimpsests and pentimenti. Freedom sometimes registers as a break in the pattern that generates a new pattern. The patterns are fixed and fluid, peremptory and evolutionary.

Because the arts are the products of a process that stands apart from so much of our social, economic, and political life, they move us and excite us unlike anything else in our lives. When we rush to label them as radical, conservative, imperialist, colonialist, liberal, gay, straight, feminist, Black, or white, we may describe a part of what they are, but we’ve failed to account for their freestanding value. And without that, the arts are nothing. The artist in the act of creation—working through particular words, sounds, colors, shapes, and their infinite combinations—almost inevitably risks irrelevance. But the artistic act, which many have described as a retreat into self-absorption and narcissism, is in fact an act of courage. Artists reenter the world by sending the work that they’ve made back into the world, where it lives on as a place apart—paradoxically, triumphantly apart.

Jed Perl is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and the author of many books, among them Antoine’s Alphabet, Magicians and Charlatans, a two-volume biography of the sculptor Alexander Calder and, most recently, Authority and Freedom: A Defense of the Arts.

Author photo credit: Duane Michals.