Pythagoras in the Roman Forum. Photo Credit: Szilas / Wikimedia (Public Domain)
Jed’s book is a great and beautiful essay. It is great because it addresses a larger topic even than it claims to do. This is a fallacious doctrine of our moment, which hovers semi-disastrously over several fields of the culture right now, and not just over the arts. The doctrine is a theory of power-relations, and it consists of two stipulations (which everyone understands) and a remarkable conclusion (which is sometimes overlooked).
A) Exploitation and oppression of victims by dominant social classes are not just an aspect of human reality, as everyone has always known, but are pretty much the whole of it, down to the most intimate moments of life.
B) Creations of the human imagination ought to be seen chiefly, as reflections of the domination, or as its mechanisms, without any significant autonomous reality or influence of their own.
Leading to the remarkable conclusion:
C) Enlightened thinkers ought, in the name of social progress, to resurrect the worst and most pathetically reactionary impulses of the past.
OK, my picture is a cartoon, and point C) might seem outrageous. But cartoons are not out of place on the American landscape right now. Take a look at the national debate over anti-Black racism and its significance in the founding of the American republic and its constitutional order. In this debate, the side that calls itself progressive asserts that racism is foundational unto the American Revolution itself. And it asserts that high-minded Revolutionary phrases suggesting an egalitarian alternative mean only what they have been said to mean by racist anti-egalitarians, without autonomous significance of their own. All of which leads to the unavoidable conclusion (which would horrify the proponents of these ideas, and is therefore never stated) that Jefferson Davis had it right in his debate with Lincoln about the nature of America and its founding principles. And Lincoln was naïve or perhaps dishonest and, in any case, was dismissible in supposing the high-minded phrases to mean what they appear to mean.
The art-world version goes as follows: art has always been an instrument of social oppression, except on occasion when it has been an instrument of resistance. Such is art’s meaning. And, in order to resist oppression, we ought to go about judging art on the basis of which side it supports, the side of vice, or the side of virtue (with vice and virtue defined along the political lines of today). Therefore we ought to revert, in the name of an enlightened lucidity and the most progressive of values, to an updated version of the mawkish Christian sentimentalism of the nineteenth century—which was everything against which the modern arts rebelled.
These two versions of the theory of power-relations go together fairly easily, by the way, and have always done so. In the mid-nineteenth century, a large part of America consisted of people who admired Jefferson Davis and swooned over the moral beauty of the treacly Christian arts. Today we have recreated a public of that sort, except in a version that regards itself as progressive and splendidly advanced in thought.
Jed’s notion of “freedom” versus “authority” offers a way of rescuing the autonomy of the arts. It is a version of other dialectical pictures of the arts, e.g., that of the existentialists and their “black ink” versus the “white page,” which likewise affirm the autonomy. It returns the arts to the world of artistic concerns, which exists separately from the world of social structures. It returns the artist to the center of the arts, instead of the pharaohs, bishops, princes, bankers, bourgeoisie, forces of the market, fashion designers, etc., who might otherwise be mistaken as the primary factors in the making of art.
It is a stimulating idea. In my case, it stimulates me to suppose that the artistic dialectic ought to be modestly expanded for certain purposes into a trialectic. In my trialectical idea, the original dialectical tension should be seen as playing out on some kind of conceptual space, perhaps a philosophical space, or a religious one, which constitutes the trialectic’s third element. All great art seems to me to play out on a space of that kind. This is especially true in the case of formalist abstractions that appear to deny the existence of any additional element to the art. For what is a formalist abstraction, if not an assertion of the mathematical quality of the universe? An assertion of the existence of pure forms that exist apart from any of their normally impure manifestations? This is the philosophical space, and it adds up to a Pythagorean mysticism. Isn’t this what makes certain artworks very exciting?
Dear fellow symposiasts, I am sufficiently fond of the lot of you to halt my belaboring of this thought—except that, now that I am enjoying myself, I cannot help adding that, if ever there were a Pythagorean writer, it is Jed Perl. He is, after all, the author of two monographs, on Calder and Watteau, which are in mathematically antithetical relation: a super-massive study of a perfectly mathematical artist, Calder, written as a richly human narrative. And a super-slender study of a richly human narrative artist, Watteau, written as a math-like abstract rumination. And both artists the students of motion, as if the two are one, and motion is the meaning of the cosmos. And there is more to life than the class struggle!
Freedom and Authority is a beautiful essay because it is written with an elegant ease. The book’s reviewer in the Times Book Review, John Adams, the composer, made this inadvertently clear by complaining that Jed fails to identify the targets of his argument. Adams wanted to see a direct confrontation, person to person. But Jed does identify a target. This is Trotsky, the author of Literature and Revolution and other writings on the arts. Adams failed to notice this doubtlessly because Trotsky does not appear to be a figure in the modern arts discussion.
Trotsky, though, is the ideal antagonist, or perhaps interlocutor. Trotsky presented the argument for the political-utilitarian, class-struggle concept of the arts in its most self-assured form, therefore its lasting form. So Freedom and Authority throws Perl up against the classic concept, instead of Perl against some critic or reviewer or manifesto-writer or curator of our own faddish moment.
But the choice of Trotsky as interlocutor displays an elegance also for another reason. Trotsky and his ideas played a major role in the founding moments of modern American intellectual life, certainly the founding moments in regard to the visual arts. This was in the 1930s and 40s among the circles around Partisan Review, who struggled with the tensions between the goal of progressive politics and the excitements of the modernist arts, and found stimulation in those tensions. By taking Trotsky as his interlocutor, Jed draws us back to the origins of our own intellectual situation, and he does so with an argument that is intended to address not just our moment, but the whole of the modern era in the arts. He does it effortlessly, too, and with a conversational air, a man at ease among the millennia, now in conversation with the Egyptian tomb painters, now with Aretha Franklin. Yes, a great and beautiful essay.
Paul Berman is the author of The Flight of the Intellectuals, Power and the Idealists, a couple of essays lately in Liberties, and other works.