Ingrid Vardund in Call Me Madam. Image credit: Ragge Strand / Wikimedia Commons

Jed Perl reminds us of Auden’s famous dictum that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Like Auden, Perl wants to argue that art fettered by a concern for “relevance,” art that aims to be politically correct, is shrunken compared to art that is allowed a critical measure of “freedom”—that is, art in its imaginative essence. Perl’s argument is hardly of the “anything goes” variety: the “authority” he refers to includes tenets, assumptions, judgments, and perimeters without which an art form fails to qualify as an achievement. The freedom becomes interesting—and progressive—only when tethered to “authority.”

Perl questions, rather, a particular form of authority often thought crucial to artistic achievement today: that of promoting resistance to power differentials, and especially those affected by systemic racism. Here, I find Auden’s dictum useful when applied not only to artists like Baudelaire or Joyce, Mozart, or Mondrian, but art more demotic and more local to our moment. 

In the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, an idea fervently discussed on the hip-hop vine was that there could be an impending “Hip-Hop Revolution,” as one book title had it. Many fans of the music hoped that its more “conscious” renditions, rapping about current events and societal issues, could arouse a political uprising from below. The usual analogy was with the Freedom songs’ role in the Civil Rights movement of the past, but the new schema was that the music alone would be the pivotal inspiration, rather than a background factor. 

When Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, the Hip-Hop Revolution idea dropped from view with rather stunning alacrity. Compared to the concreteness of Obama’s occupation of the Oval Office, the notion that Jay-Z, Nas, and Kanye West might collectively inspire a radical resurgence of Black Power on the streets suddenly seemed, appropriately, beside the point.

Today, hip-hop lives on without most fans taking seriously the fantasy that it will trigger a revolution or even increase political activism—that conceit now feels as antique as an iPod. Even a form of poetry as viscerally compelling as hip-hop cannot, it would seem, change the world.

An acknowledgment of such limits—along with an appreciation for the autonomy of artistic creativity that Perl beautifully defends in his book—ought to temper the now fashionable idea that meaningful art must promote what is called “social justice.” 

It’s true that some will object that the persistence of intolerable inequalities requires that we all, at least for the time being, focus on alleviating human suffering, rather than defending freedom of artistic expression. But the very assumption that art can and should change the world is flawed, and a mature society is one more comfortable asserting this firmly and in the open.

Yet there will remain temptation not to do so. For one, there remains a sense that rap’s emergence was that of culture and sensibility—a “statement,” as it is often put, with the assumption that the statement is one that America needs on some level. Plus, more recently, those in the arts often labor under a threat of cancellation or at least shaming for failure to signal allegiance to certain “authorities.”

The result is, for example, the demand for political relevance suddenly surfacing in artistic institutions such as Encores!, a long-running concert series in New York City dedicated to reviving faithfully such rarely-heard (and politically incorrect) classical American musicals as Call Me Madam and No, No, Nanette—as if fostering an appreciation for Broadway tradition wasn’t reason enough for Encores! to exist. We might ask just how a revamped version of, for example, The Pajama Game would meaningfully affect the existence of people who need help.  

We are increasingly expected to pretend that ars gratia artis—art for art’s sake—is a mistaken idea, perhaps a veil for white supremacy, rather than an impulse fundamental to our humanity. But it would only make sense to insist on this suspension of artistic freedom if we could be sure that art can meaningfully lend power to those without it, or inspire among them a lasting sense of communal force ready to be wielded against oppression. The fate of the Hip-Hop Revolution suggests little reason for certainty. To be sure, hip-hop became mainstream in the 1990s—but as a style rather than as a political position. It became, as it were, an expression of American artistic freedom.

Yet if music as powerfully entrenched in the national soul as hip-hop has proven, by itself, unable to change the world, we must question just what kind of art ever could.

As Perl notes, the impulse to harness art as agitprop, and to turn artists into propagandists, is cyclical. We must see it not as providential, like the sun peeking periodically from behind the clouds, but as pernicious, like a recurring virus. 

Because art cannot save the world, to dilute our appreciation of its traditions for passing, pragmatic purposes is less humanist than antihuman. Those who insist that battling injustice requires battling the aesthetic impulse are making a strange, narrow, incurious, and unnecessary argument. We heed it at our own peril.

John McWhorter is a contributing writer at The New York Times and professor of linguistics at Columbia University. His latest book is Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America (Portfolio, 2021).

Click here to read “Authority and Freedom: A Defense of the Arts” by Jed Perl.