Tiled wall after Picasso in Guernica, Spain. Image Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons
Art, writes Jed Perl, is a dance between authority and freedom—order and play, tradition and individuality. “Make it new,” as Ezra Pound famously wrote—but to change the rules, you have to have absorbed them first.
It’s hard to disagree with that, and I’m not sure anyone does.
Yet Perl seems to think he is flinging his platitudes in the face of an angry mob.
Who exactly is this mob and who are the poets and painters and filmmakers and choreographers who do not wrestle with the forms and history of their art?
He writes that he wants to “release art from the stranglehold of relevance,” but whose hands are around art’s neck? It’s all rather vague. His book has the structure of a polemic—it’s short, declarative, confidently marshaling examples from medieval sculptors to Aretha Franklin—but where is the polem?
This is really too bad. As an art critic, Perl is known for acerbic, detailed attacks on fashionable artists, from Jeff Koons to Alice Neel. I would have loved to read a no-holds-barred response from an erudite dissenter to our highly left-politicized moment in the arts if only to admire the suicidal boldness of it. Where’s Hilton Kramer when you need him?
There’s certainly a lot to criticize in today’s political talk around the arts—the demand to stay in one’s lane, the casting of the once-revered into outer darkness because of biographical sins, the cowardice of too many of our cultural curators, the microscopic scrutiny of everyone and everything for sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, colonialism and insufficient opposition to capitalism.
It’s so repetitive and mechanical and I’m so tired of it I start to have subversive thoughts like, Philip Roth sure knew how to tell a story, didn’t he? And you know what? Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half got fabulous reviews and made all the Best Books lists, but really it was just okay.
There’s a lot of performative allyship going on, a lot of things you can’t say, and if you don’t believe me, try tweeting “I Heart JK Rowling.” Certainly, it’s strange that this iteration of the left is based in the elite world—private liberal arts colleges, foundations, book publishing, and high-end media, the art world. If that left is all that radical, why do these pillars of the establishment support it?
No sooner had these reflections occurred to me, though, that I think, don’t be so gloomy! We’re living through an exciting historical moment—don’t sleep through it. Old racial and sexual hierarchies are tumbling, and it’s wonderful that this is shaking up the arts. Bliss is it in this dawn to be alive!
Sure, there’s plenty of overpraise and plenty of guilty white liberal gatekeepers making up for past neglect—400 years of it—but the end will be a bigger cultural space for artists and writers of color and other marginalized creators and a broader exploration of history and human experience. That would never have happened without what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the fierce urgency of now.”
The same thing happened in the 1970s and eighties with art and writing by women thanks to the women’s liberation movement. Sure, there were plenty of terrible poems about menstruation and so-so novels about leaving your dickish husband, and I’m pretty sure there were complaints about the damage those rigid terrifying women were doing to artistic standards and our common humanity and all that. But over time feminism, broadly understood, has transformed every field. For the better! Why not attend with generosity to the new perspectives previously marginalized creators are bringing in today?
Perl writes of the need to relate deeply to tradition and the past—he’s basically a proponent of art for art’s sake—but there are different traditions and different pasts. Maybe the problem is that our supposedly universal traditions have left out too much.
If a writer is more interested in the Harlem Renaissance than the Renaissance, if she wrestles with the ghost of Toni Morrison and not Virginia Woolf, if she writes half of a poem in Spanish or Lakota to remind us that English is not the only American language, what’s wrong with that? Isn’t that what a living tradition means? What does not change is the will to change, in the words of Charles Olson, that once admired, now mostly forgotten, cis-white-hetero-patriarchal poet.
I’m sorry to scold because although I found Perl’s magisterial pronouncements pompous and annoying, and found bewildering his tendency to dismiss political import in works he admires—I mean, come on, Guernica?—I’m with him when he argues against reducing a work of art to ideology or demanding that an artist toe a line. We shouldn’t have to agree with an artist’s politics, in art or life, to appreciate his work.
Are there limits? Sure. Even the cleverest critic can’t redeem for me the misogynist brutality of The Taming of the Shrew, the racism of Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, the sexual preoccupation with young girls in several of Woody Allen’s movies. I suppose everyone has their own list of irredeemables.
But we’re all better off if the list is very short, and these days it does seem to be getting longer and longer. This is a terrible mistake. Because if we can’t figure out how to hold in mind both our pleasure in the work and our disappointment in its “message” and, too often, its creator, there won’t be much art left to enjoy.
Katha Pollitt is a poet, essayist, and columnist for The Nation. Her most recent book is Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights.