Authority and Freedom:
A Defense of the Arts
–by jed perl
knopf, 176 pages, $20.
In the slim volume Authority and Freedom: A Defense of the Arts, the longtime New Republic and New York Review of Books art writer Jed Perl assigns himself such a gigantic challenge that I found myself blushing on his behalf at the implied arrogance. In 2022, making some sweeping, categorical statement about art in general that is both interesting and new is about as likely to succeed as finding a new kind of energy, and succeed Perl does not. Trying to outline a system that will provide a useful approach to appreciating everything from Michelangelo’s architecture to “the most important weaver of the twentieth century,” Anni Albers, he flails from one unproven point to the next.
Perl spends much of the book asserting without offering much evidence that, though art can be political or didactic, it’s the art that comes first. Approvingly he quotes Flannery O’Connor as an authority on this: “art is wholly concerned with the good of that which is made; it has no utilitarian end. If you do manage to use it successfully for social, religious, or other purposes, it is because you make it art first.” O’Connor may have been a famous artist, but was she right?
Though I respect the boldness of the claim, and wish Perl could write anything he believes with one-tenth the clarity, I don’t think she was. Note that as O’Connor was issuing a categorical dictum she felt impelled to qualify it: Art can have no utilitarian end, but it can be secondarily utilitarian as long as it is firstly artistic. All of the talented propagandists in the history of creation bristle. Was not Animal Farm the product of, rather than the accidental purveyor of, a sociopolitical impulse? How about Mrs. Warren’s Profession or “Strange Fruit”? What of the Church’s great painters and sculptors, who strove above all to venerate God? Perl finds fault with Leon Trotsky’s theory that all art must be measured by how well it serves the Revolution. Yet do not squadrons of genuinely gifted writers, musicians, and filmmakers climb out of bed every day saying, “It is my calling to be my generation’s greatest voice on racism/socialism/sexism” or whatever else is in the papers today?
Last year’s Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay went to England’s Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman, a work whose purposeful misandry—it’s about a young woman who goes undercover as a slut in order to exact revenge, one by one, on each of the men who gang-raped her friend, but also on men in general—is undisguised and shameless. In the world imagined by Fennell, every one of the dozens of men presented with the opportunity to take sexual advantage of a woman turns out to be a willing rapist. The film is a Womxn’s Studies screed in the form of a drama. Would O’Connor decree that what Fennell has made is not art? I propose rather that it is bad art.
Yet great art can rise from propagandistic impulses as well. John Steinbeck said of The Grapes of Wrath (1939), “the book has a definite job to do…I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [Great Depression].” In his magnificent 1940 film adaptation, John Ford not only makes a rapturous visual case for New Deal camps to support migrant farm workers but also fashions what must be the single most deeply felt defense of the collectivist impulse ever dramatized on screen: In his stirring “I’ll be there” monologue, Tom Joad muses, “And I been wonderin’ if all our folks got together and yelled…Wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad…” By the time Tom is finished, one can hear marchers in their millions lacing up their boots to be there too. As photographed in black and white by Gregg Toland and acted by Henry Fonda, the moment is so delicate, so honest, so beautiful, even so humble that the viewer is likely to overlook that Joad is not only completely wrong but is arrogating to himself a godlike role. The U.S. was then in effect a Christian country, but the scene is a prophetic glimpse of the way FDR-brand political liberalism would, with the enthusiastic encouragement of the Democratic party, come to displace Christianity with a warped parody of the same. Was all of this incidental? Did the beautiful photography and the heartfelt acting come first, or was it the urge to promote workers’ rights?
“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936,” wrote George Orwell in “Why I Write” (1946), “has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” Orwell is frequently misquoted as saying “all art is propaganda,” but in his brief radio essay “The Frontiers of Art and Propaganda” (1941), which contains far more insight in eight paragraphs than Perl can deliver in 150 pages, he was speaking disapprovingly of a recent unfortunate tendency to create “literature that has almost ceased to be aesthetic.” Between 1890 and 1930, Orwell wrote, the consensus was rather that art was for art’s sake, an approach that in turn derived from relative socioeconomic stability that (at least in the West) was not significantly undone even by the Great War.
A 2022 successor to Orwell’s 1941 essay would be compelling; is art trending back in the direction of utilitarianism and propaganda, and if so, why? The answer seems obvious to everyone but Perl. Consider some powerful incentives: the awards-granting bodies. The two leading National Book Awards in 2021 went to books about black experience; in 2020, one winner was a biography of Malcolm X and the other was a novel about racism as perceived by an Asian-American in Chinatown. Last year, all seven Pulitzer Prizes in the arts were awarded to books about the plight of racial minorities, racism, and white supremacy. In 2020, when eight Pulitzers were awarded in the arts, six went to books about those same subjects. Congratulations, cancer and Susan Sontag: You are the only subjects other than race dynamics that interested the Pulitzer arts board in the last two years. Museums and galleries are now in their fourth decade of race obsession. The body that hands out the Academy Awards instituted major changes meant to yield more black honorees, then demanded that all films submitted for consideration meet diversity quotas. “Opera can no longer ignore its race problem,” thunders the New York Times.
Trotsky had it, in 1938, that “the artist cannot serve the struggle for freedom unless he subjectively assimilates its social content, unless he feels in his very nerves its meaning and drama and freely seeks to give his own inner world incarnation in his art.” Think of “freedom” as mainly denoting “racial justice,” and today’s artists vigorously agree to serve that struggle by internalizing it, or at least pretend to agree if they wish to keep the grants and gongs coming. It’s Trotskyism, not Perlism, that rules. Freedom bows to the new authority, if it knows what’s good for it.
Kyle Smith is critic-at-large at National Review.
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