Robert Mapplethorpe photographs exhibited at Musèe Rodin. Image credit: Fernanda Peruzzo for Ministério da Cultura / Wikimedia Commons
The more I read Jed Perl’s manifesto, the more uncomfortable I get. The placing of, let’s say, in a construction I hate, but which seems called to being here, the politics of art in a field ruled by the authority of form and convention and by freedom and invention, the one side moving up, the other pushing it down, back and forth, back and forth, seems to mirror the conflicts between freedom and authority in politics as such. That seems to me simplistic—think of the Surrealist slogan, “Poetry in the service of revolution,” and a situationist flip, “Revolution in the service of poetry”: you can’t untangle this in an instant. You have to think about what that would mean, and you may never quite get a fix on it. But with Perl’s conclusion, art as “a place apart” from “the world,” “paradoxically, triumphantly apart”—it also seems dangerous. Dangerously close to rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, render unto God—with art as its replacement—to art. The problem, as has been a good part of the history of civilization since, is that Caesar turns itself into God.
It’s worth thinking about who the enemies of art—of thinking, of speaking, of thinking and speaking in public, writing a book, singing a song, staging a play, displaying a painting—actually are, and what they want. It’s absolutely to be expected that when government, whether totalitarian or democratic, supports art in any manner, the government will want to be paid back, in kind. The censorship controversy and public trial over Robert Mapplethorpe’s sex photos was the most obvious thing in the world, and the speech of expert witnesses testifying that despite what a philistine public might think, the works were really exercises in the formal study of light and shadow, the purest hypocrisy, or just blatant perjury. Everyone on the art side got to feel noble, and everyone on the other side was made to feel stupid.
But that episode doesn’t begin to approach the drama over Dana Schutz’s Open Casket—which, as part of the 2017 Whitney Biennale, drew not only the argument that as a white artist Schutz had no right—and you have to stop there and ask what “right” means, what a right is, what is the right, what the phrase “the philosophy of right” describes, if it describes anything translatable from Hegel to now at all—to render on canvas Emmett Till in his coffin as his mother demanded that the whole world look at his face that was no longer there, and think about it. You may think it’s a great painting, as I do, and you can also dismiss it as a fifth-grade essay on “What Emmett Till Means to Me.” But that’s people speaking the language of art: Where does this take me? Somewhere or nowhere. But it wasn’t the government—the New York City Council, for one—that demanded the picture be taken down. The Justice Department didn’t investigate it as a hate crime and stipulate that Schutz be put on trial, sent to jail, and her work publicly burned. Rather it was an artist and critic who demanded, in a letter signed by more than 40 other artists and critics, “that the painting be destroyed.” And it was nowhere so simple, with people talking about the “white gaze” as directed on, and thus taking possession of, the so-called “Black body” (and when did body replace person, which is to say a being with a body, a mind, and a soul, too complex to be named simply in reference to its mere corporeality?), as black and white. People thinking along the same lines as those who signed Hannah Black’s letter against Dana Schutz demanded the same of Kara Walker’s My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love.
What I mean is that Perl is too vague. Call them out. Say who you mean. There are would-be fascists on the right and would-be commissars on the left. All they need is institutional power, and they will speak as art, against art: Caesar will become God, and God will tell Caesar it is right.
By the way, when I first saw Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin, as with many times since, I absolutely had a religious experience. The longer I looked—and for an hour I couldn’t turn away, couldn’t leave the building—it became an artistic, a philosophical, and a political experience as well: How can a painting dissolve everything I believe, about religion, form, content, authority, and freedom? I still don’t know. I’ve looked at collages that so unbuild the world that my instant reaction has been, “This is evil”—not meaning how great, how challenging, how revolutionary, or how good, but, “Is this right?”
In 2022 Yale will publish Greil Marcus’s More Real Life Rock: The Wilderness Years, 2014-2021 (May) and Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs (Fall).
Author photo credit: Ida Lodemel Tvedt