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I’m grateful to Paul Berman for calling attention to my discussion of Leon Trotsky in the later pages of Authority and Freedom. I believe that Trotsky’s ideas about the arts and their place in society and history are immensely important for any discussion of the arts that we find ourselves having today. Trotsky casts a long shadow—and his ideas, so I surmise, may help explain some of the dissatisfaction that Greil Marcus, Katha Pollitt, and Lindsey Scharold have expressed with my exploration of the arts. Intellectuals in the twenty-first century may have shed Trotsky’s revolutionary dreams, but they haven’t shed his reverence for relevance. They embrace it. 

It’s true that Trotsky, especially in his final years in exile in Mexico, was all for the unfettered freedom of the artist. So far so good. But—and it was a big but—he had an ulterior motive. Trotsky advocated artistic freedom because he believed that the free artist was in the best position to hold up a mirror to society—thereby offering insights that would further the revolutionary cause. For Trotsky, artists were part of a larger system. By freely reflecting on the state of the world, he explained, the modern artist “subjectively assimilates its social content” and in doing so “serve[s] the struggle for freedom.” 

I find this argument mechanistic—dangerously, debilitatingly mechanistic. And I find echoes and afterimages of Trotsky’s argument in much of the discussion about the arts today.  

When Katha Pollitt writes that I am “basically a proponent of art for art’s sake” we understand that she’s a proponent of art for something else’s sake—although what that something else might be remains vague. The idea of art for art’s sake, despite its long, complex, and in many respects, glorious history has in recent decades come to suggest a diminished or insular view of art—a feeling that those who care too much about art or care about it in a particular way are turning their backs on the world. Greil Marcus is probably saying more or less the same thing when he writes that my belief in art as “a place apart” is dangerous because, as he puts it, that is a little like “rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”—another version of art for art’s sake, I suppose. But remove the fin-de-siècle frills that give art for art’s sake a retro look, and what you find is a rejection of the reverence for relevance that turns art into agitprop. 

Authority and Freedom is dedicated to the freestanding value of the arts—a value that is absolute but not isolationist. Ingrid Rowland’s beautiful description of Aretha Franklin’s performance of “Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center in 2015 underscores that freestanding value—and how powerfully an artist who is totally in command of her vocation can intersect with the wider world. She suggests how Aretha, working with the more restricted vocal range of an older singer, found what Rowland calls the song’s “Platonic Form” and galvanized the audience at the Kennedy Center and, as clips of her performance spread, much of America. 

I can’t imagine a better demonstration of what Flannery O’Connor was saying when she rejected a badly written novel whose religious message she might well have approved: “You make it art first.” 

Aretha Franklin made it art first. The social implications—the feminism, the populism—of Aretha’s performance of “Natural Woman” would have been impossible without her immaculate artistry. I regard O’Connor’s observation as one of the keystones of my book. John McWhorter’s observations on hip-hop—a genre which many once imagined would have a revolutionary impact but now “lives on,” so he says, as “a form of poetry”—would seem to me to underscore O’Connor’s belief that the artist’s obligation is to “make it art first.” 

There is a different belief—a belief I think Marcus, Pollitt, and Scharold share—that for art to matter it must be part of some larger social political project, the kind of project that earns op-ed attention and therefore the same boldface status as abortion rights, the climate crisis, immigration, and other issues of profound importance in our troubled world. 

No wonder Pollitt and Marcus are disappointed that I haven’t taken on what Marcus calls “the enemies of art” or, as Pollitt puts it, haven’t offered some of the “acerbic, detailed attacks on fashionable artists” that I’ve written from time to time. A similar complaint was voiced by the composer John Adams in a review of my book in The New York Times Book Review. I think Pollitt, Marcus, and Adams risk turning art into a data point in some different—perhaps in their view larger—discussion.

I agree with Scharold that the diminished role of the arts in public education is a catastrophe. But Scharold’s argument, properly understood, is part of a broader discussion about education: the threat that charter schools pose to public education; the widespread disregard for teaching as a profession; the need for universal broadband access. 

As for the censorship of the arts (and widespread censoriousness about various kinds of art) that Pollitt and Marcus refer to, that’s part of a much larger discussion about the place of speech and individual rights in our society. The threat of censorship falls on artists and non-artists alike. If you have any doubt about that, consult John Milton’s Areopagitica, a great artist’s defense of freedom of speech in which little or no distinction is made between artistic and political speech. So why single out artists as the victims or victors in the debates about censorship? The fact that Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned tells you absolutely nothing about its character or quality as a work of art. 

If I were to explain where my views fundamentally diverge from those of Pollitt, Marcus, and Scharold, I would say that they take art itself too much for granted. 

I don’t doubt their passion for the arts. But I wonder how much of a distinction they make between an interest in art and an interest in politics, activism, or any number of other human activities. I am in complete agreement with Scharold’s dismay at the marginal role that the arts play in education today, but I can’t see that the solution lies in engaging in what she refers to as a “more dynamic account of the arts as they actually exist within society.” 

Why look to society to tell us what art is or isn’t or can or cannot do? Why not look directly at art? What’s wrong with simply insisting that young people learn to play an instrument? Or read Shakespeare? 

Pollitt and Marcus seem to want me to plunge into the debates about censorship, cancel culture, and political correctness that have kept so many commentators on their toes. They seem to imagine that only by engaging in those debates will we be able to demonstrate the importance or significance of the arts. 

There is a very telling passage in Pollitt’s comments, where she describes the “subversive” thought that “Philip Roth sure knew how to tell a story, didn’t he?” In saying that, isn’t Pollitt advocating something like art for art’s sake—or at least storytelling for storytelling’s sake? But whatever she may think about Roth as a storyteller—in other words, as an artist—is somehow subsumed in her interest in the debates about Roth’s treatment of women and his sexism or lack thereof. Why should Roth’s misogyny (if in fact that’s the case) be more interesting than Roth’s relationship with the art of storytelling? 

Marcus, in relating his experience of Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin writes of a religious experience—and also of an artistic, philosophical, and political experience. I would assume that when he regards Titian’s Diana and Actaeon, with its mythological theme, he has a pagan experience. So is he telling us that Titian is a Christian, a pagan, a philosopher, and a politician? 

What Marcus seems to refuse to understand is that those thoughts are occurring to him because—to go back again to Flannery O’Connor—Titian knew how to make art first. He was a master of his vocation. Everything else flows from that. 

In my book, I spend a good deal of time exploring an ancient philosophic distinction between making and doing. Artists make. Politicians do. The collapse of that distinction leads to Trotsky’s reverence for relevance. It also leads—so I believe—to the impoverishment of the arts. 

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.

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

2 thoughts on ““You Make it Art First”

  1. I mostly agree with you. You had me until your comments on Roth. The evidence of his misogyny is overwhelming. His craft, which can be evaluated separately as you correctly pointed out, is just a bit better than average. I do not understand why folks don’t understand that, over time, Roth will recede from view due to his lack of universality (a necessary quality for becoming a classic). Will he remain relevant on some register or another? Perhaps. The power of art for art’s sake lies exactly in not being didactic. Art and literature are the only means we have for coming even remotely close to understanding the experience and thoughts of another human being outside of our own egocentric predicaments. The conversation that takes place between an individual and a piece of art determines its agency in the real world.

  2. One last thought. In your book you wrote: “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 (9).” This is a very important point and one that the reviewers appear to misunderstand. Art was a lifeboat for me while trying to surf the waves of poverty while growing up. I am not sure what I would’ve done had I not had this “place apart” to dwell in my imagination. I shudder to think of what I might have done if I had had only the “realism” of my situation reflected back at me. As I look back through my current window of privilege, I see not only the irony in my taking refuge in a world that ignored my existence, but also the degree to which classical art saved my life. Here is where the proponents of “relevant” get things wrong — especially Adams. Relevance is not a destination — it is a phenomenon that cannot be predetermined. While everyone is talking past each other on the term “relevant,” I believe the real problem is didacticism. I enjoyed reading your work.

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