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Liberals Are Killing Art

How the Left became obsessed with ideology over beauty

Whitney Museum

Do more and more liberals find the emotions unleashed by the arts—I mean all of the arts, from poetry to painting to dance—something of an embarrassment? Are the liberal-spirited people who support a rational public policy—a social safety net, consistency and efficiency in foreign affairs, steps to reverse global warming—reluctant to embrace art’s celebration of unfettered metaphor and mystery and magic? If you had asked me ten years ago, I would have said the answer was no. Now I am inclined to say the opposite. What is certain is that in our data- and metrics-obsessed era the imaginative ground without which art cannot exist is losing ground. Instead of art-as-art we have art as a comrade-in-arms to some more supposedly stable or substantial or readily comprehensible aspect of our world. Now art is always hyphenated. We have art-and-society, art-and-money, art-and-education, art-and-tourism, art-and-politics, art-and-fun. Art itself, with its ardor, its emotionalism, and its unabashed assertion of the imagination, has become an outlier, its tendency to celebrate a purposeful purposelessness found to be intimidating, if not downright frightening.

The erosion of art’s imaginative ground, often blamed on demagogues of the left and the right, is taking place in the very heart of the liberal, educated, cultivated audience—the audience that arts professionals always imagined they could count on. The whole question is so painful and so difficult that I have frankly hesitated to tackle it. It is relatively easy to point to the deformations of art at the hands of politically correct left-wingers and cheap-shot moralists on the right, as the late Robert Hughes did in the fast-paced, witty series of lectures that he published as Culture of Complaint in 1993. It is far more difficult to explain why people who pride themselves on their carefully reasoned view of the world want to argue that art is not a value in and of itself, but rather a vehicle or a medium or a vessel through which some other human value or values are expressed. That these thoughts are often voiced indirectly makes them no less significant. Indeed, such thoughts may be all the more significant because they are being expressed by critics and scholars who would deny that they are in any way discomfited by the unique powers of the arts. An illiberal view of art is gaining ground, even among the liberal audience. This is one of the essential if largely hidden factors that is undermining faith in our museums, our libraries, our publishing houses, our concert halls, symphony orchestras, and theater and dance troupes.

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Lionel Trilling, 1952

The problem is by no means a new one. Back in 1950, in the preface to The Liberal Imagination, Lionel Trilling worried that liberalism’s “vision of a general enlargement and freedom and rational direction of human life . . . drifts toward a denial of the emotions and the imagination.” Liberalism, he argued, “in the very interest of affirming its confidence in the power of the mind . . . inclines to constrict and make mechanical its conception of the nature of the mind.” In the sixty-four years since Trilling published those words the process of constriction and mechanization has only become more pronounced. This process is reflected in the ever-growing obsession with polls, surveys, and sundry forms of bureaucratic analysis, which threaten to reduce all art’s unruly richness to a set of data points. Instead of viewing life’s unquantifiable artistic experiences as a check on quantification, the well-intended impulse among many liberal commentators is to try and quantify the unquantifiable. But the power of art, which is so personal and so particular, is finally unquantifiable—and therefore a source of embarrassment to the rationalizing mind. What is at stake is art’s freestanding power.

I suppose it is the casualness with which that freestanding power can now be dismissed that struck me in what was on the face of it a fairly off-the-cuff observation in a review that Alex Ross published in The New Yorker not too long ago. Ross is a winningly fluid writer, and he knows how to report on the musical performances that mean the most to him in such a way that his readers become as excited as he is; we share his avidity, his intentness, his keen pleasure. He is a friend of the arts, and he obviously cares passionately about the musical arts. This is why a passing remark in a piece about the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev has held my attention. In the midst of a discussion of Gergiev—who was conducting the opening night of Eugene Onegin at the Metropolitan Opera, and had voiced his strong support for Putin in spite of the Putin regime’s abhorrent support of homophobic legislation in Russia—Ross complained that Gergiev “dabbles in politics, yet insists that politics stops at the doors of art.” And then—and this is the remark that pulled me up short—Ross announced, referring to the idea that politics stops at the doors of art: “This is an old illusion.” There was something in the mingled broadness and offhandedness of Ross’s comment—the sense that this was not just an illusion but an old illusion—that set me to wondering and worrying.

I want to stay for a moment with this comment about “an old illusion.” I am well aware that the relationship between art and politics—or art and society—is an extraordinarily complicated matter, about which people of integrity will have widely differing views. Ross himself says there “is no clear answer” to such questions. I am also aware that Ross was focusing on the protests at the Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall organized to highlight Gergiev’s reactionary political views, and it is surely possible simultaneously to admire Gergiev’s craft as a conductor and use his appearances at the Met and at Carnegie as an opportunity to shed light on Russia’s appalling human rights abuses. But all the more so, after taking into account the considerable complexities of the situation, I am left feeling that there is something if not startling then at least disquieting in Ross’s brusque announcement that politics does not stop at the door of art—and that to think otherwise would be to succumb to “an old illusion.” 

It only made me worry more when, before proceeding to discuss Gergiev’s recent concerts at Carnegie Hall, Ross made a quick detour into Richard Strauss’s unquestionably troubling relations with the Nazis, quoting Strauss in a letter to Stefan Zweig: “For me, there are only two categories of people: those who have talent, and those who have none.” To which Ross added, “Strauss was saying that Nazi anti-Semitism had no bearing on his artistic standards, despite his position in the regime.” And that was the end of it. Could there be no further comment on the subject? Has Ross calculated that The New Yorker readers will accept all this without a murmur? I know these are complex matters, pitting Strauss’s aestheticism against the greatest crimes of the twentieth century. But could one not point out that the exquisite closing scene of Strauss’s Capriccio, which had its premier in Munich in 1942, in the very thick of Hitler’s power, can be embraced as a masterpiece that has nothing whatsoever to do with anything that was going on at the time? Is anybody who says that in the grip of an old illusion?

I believe that we must insist on the unique nature of art—the power of art to trump or confound even the abhorrent ends to which it can be turned. At least I believe we must refuse to allow these powers to be so easily dismissed. While the questions go back to Plato, for our purposes the best place to begin is with the debates that have continued for more than half a century about modernism and its vexed relationship with political and social values. What I want to suggest is that we have come to a point where the irreducible value of art, far from being a controversial value, has come to be regarded as not even worthy of discussion—just “an old illusion.” The work of criticism, so Trilling believed, was “to recall liberalism to its first essential imagination of variousness and possibility, which implies the awareness of complexity and difficulty.” Perhaps one of the reasons that criticism is so embattled today is that the essential message of criticism, the celebration of the variousness and possibility of the imagination, poses a real intellectual threat. Perhaps it is only through arts criticism and its absolute belief in art’s imaginative ground that we will be able to combat an ever-growing lack of faith in art’s autonomy and power. We will never be able to restore our embattled cultural life—reverse the budget cuts, undo the increasingly utilitarian and mechanistic arguments that are made on behalf of the arts—if we do not restore art’s freestanding value as a value worth fighting for.

I am not arguing for the ivory tower. It is beyond dispute that art and the people who make art affect us in a great many ways. Even as we acknowledge the excellence of the artist and the art, we may find it difficult to listen to a singer who had a booming career during the Third Reich, or watch a movie as racist as Birth of a Nation, or listen to passages as anti-Semitic as some in the St. John Passion and The Merchant of Venice. And we may especially cherish an artist whose life and opinions and art seem to comprise an admirable whole, an example for many being George Eliot, who not only produced Middlemarch but was also a philo-Semite and a feminist. (Although both in her own day and in ours there have been quibbles with her feminism.) There is something almost lovable about the case of Nabokov, that most bejeweled and intransigently elitist of aesthetes, who never abandoned his father’s proud liberalism and had no use for the totalizing programs of the left or the right.

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Velásquez, portrait of Philip IV, 1632–1636

It is also, so I believe, a grave mistake to imagine that because art has so often been placed in the service of governments or religions that it is somehow essentially a medium through which political or social or religious beliefs are to be conveyed. By this logic, art has no independent life, and is never much more than a reflection of some particular set of values. But this argument can easily be turned on its head. The very fact that art has so often been embraced by those in positions of power suggests an awareness that art has some unique, autonomous value—some capacity or capability that trumps temporal concerns and lends to time-bound ideas, ideologies, and ideals an enviably timeless aspect. Of course I realize that in saying this I am contesting a vast literature that argues that aesthetic valuing is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of the arts, and itself a product of social forces. But there is an argument that can be made for the timeless nature of aesthetic valuing, an argument that I think may have been implicit in Picasso’s assertion, in 1923, that “we cannot conceive a Philip IV in any other way than the one Velázquez painted.” However Philip IV or the people around him might have explained the choice of Velázquez as court painter—and we can be sure they did not talk about significant form or some other version of the language of modern aesthetics—they understood that Velázquez gave Philip IV a unique kind of value. Compared with a portrait of Philip IV by Rubens—which, Picasso observes, represents the monarch as “quite another person”—we find that “we believe in the one painted by Velázquez, for he convinces us by his right of might.” What makes Velázquez’s Philip IV in some respects more important than Philip IV himself is by no means easy to explain, but the effort must be made.

The trouble with the reasonableness of the liberal imagination is that it threatens to explain away what it cannot explain. Nowhere in the past seventy-five years has this tendency to bring art’s unruly power into line with some more general system of social, political, and moral values been more pronounced than in the efforts of scholars, critics, and the public to reconcile their admiration for the experimental adventures of twentieth-century literature with the authoritarian, fascist, and anti-Semitic views of some of the greatest modern writers. Let me again emphasize that I believe there is no question that many of the views of W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound are repugnant and ought to be regarded as repugnant; and in the case of Pound, his actions during World War II, when he broadcast on behalf of Mussolini, surely rise to the level of treason. What interests me here is the insistence, when treating these admittedly extreme cases, on some fundamental link between artistic and political or social expression. I know why that link is emphasized. The rational mind, with its desire for logical equations, is upset by the idea that a great artist can be a bad person, and would perhaps prefer that the art also look bad, or at least be tainted. And behind this desire for a logical equation is the liberal imagination’s refusal to believe that art can lay claim to some irreducible mystery and magic.

The problem is by no means a new one. Writing about Yeats’s poetry in the magazine Horizon in 1943, Orwell was abundant in his praise of Yeats’s art, rightly troubled by his authoritarian and perhaps even fascist politics, but could not resist, in closing, observing that “a writer’s political and religious beliefs are not excrescences to be laughed away, but something that will leave their mark even on the smallest detail of his work.” Here we have what I would call the classic example of the liberal attack on the freestanding value of art. For while avatars of the left and the right are glad to impose upon the arts a relatively crude ideological test—are the characters the sort of people we regard as good? are the opinions stated ones with which we agree?—the liberal wants to tease out of the very texture of the work of art some ideological stance. The liberal imagination all too often yearns for an art that is logical, responsible, well-behaved. And so formal values—“the smallest detail of the work,” as Orwell puts it—are dissected to see if they accord with some social or political stance.

This urge to reconcile what I think are more properly defined as ultimately irreconcilable aspects of human experience can be found in some of the most admired recent books devoted to literary modernism. Certainly no exploration of the moral and political dilemmas of modernism has received more attention than Anthony Julius’s T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form. It is an immensely interesting and scrupulous book, and the problem of Eliot’s anti-Semitism is surely one that many of Eliot’s admirers have too easily swept aside. But in Julius’s insistence on contradicting those who have minimized or made artistic excuses for Eliot’s anti-Semitism, he seems to me to raise a different kind of danger by suggesting that art has no language or mode of expression that it can call its own. In his chapter on “The Poetics of Anti-Semitism,” in the midst of an elegant and intricate critique of various defenses of Eliot’s poetry, Julius launches into what I can only regard as a direct attack on Symbolism and the idea of a private imaginary world that is at the very core of modern artistic expression. “Like Symbolism,” Julius writes, “anti-Semitism also posits arrangements that do not correspond to any that obtain in the real world.” I am stunned by this equation.

While Julius proceeds to say that he is not contending “that Symbolism is potentially anti-Semitic,” he asserts that there is nevertheless “sufficient congruence between the two to make for the possibility of anti-Semitic, Symbolist poetry.” The deeper ideological damage, I believe, has already been done. Anti-Semitism is a lie about the real world that is propounded in the real world—with real consequences. Symbolism is an artistic invention or order that lays claim to our attention precisely because it has no obligations in the real world. To even begin to conflate the two is to deny art’s fundamental nature. Something that Mary McCarthy says in her beautiful review of Orwell’s collected essays may be relevant to Julius’s thinking. McCarthy observes that Orwell was interested “in whatever could be measured, counted, surveyed, in the mechanics of work, in cost,” and that although he was aware that there was no final way to determine the quality of a work of art, “he would have liked to find some acid test to subject works of art to which would tell the scientific investigator whether they were good or bad.” One senses that same desire in Julius, when he pushes harder than he ought to on the Symbolist strategies of Eliot’s poetry.

It seems that for the liberal-spirited critic it is never enough to point to the human failings of the artist; they must be linked to artistic failings, and the human must explain the artistic, the two becoming one. Barbara Will, in her widely admired book Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma, has cast a cold eye on Stein’s admiration for Hitler and Pétain. Stein’s beliefs and behavior are to say the very least deeply disturbing, and the arguments that Will makes are certainly complex, but when Will equates Stein’s avowed affinity for eighteenth-century prose with Stein’s sympathy for the pre-industrial agrarian peace that she believed Pétain restored to parts of France with the armistice, and wraps the equation up with the label “reactionary modernism,” I again find myself worrying. Do we really want to equate fascist politics and eighteenth-century prose? It would seem that Stein did not quite make the equation, for what Will says is that Stein’s observations in an essay about Pétain “recalls the subtext of [her] commentary on her own writing during the 1930s.” Over and over again in writing about artists and art we are told that the artistic act is not free. Even Alison Light, in her altogether engrossing study Mrs. Woolf and the Servants, cannot resist announcing at the outset that although her “purpose is not to debunk or devalue Virginia Woolf or her writing,” she is going to argue “that the figure of the servant and of the working woman haunts Woolf’s experiments in literary modernism and sets a limit to what she can achieve.” But is Mrs. Dalloway not a limitless assertion of the powers of the artistic imagination? Would it be a deeper or greater book if it were an account of a day in the life of a servant? It seems to be very difficult to believe that the better person will not produce the better art, all other things being equal, no matter what evidence there is to the contrary.

Almost fifty years ago, in the pages of this magazine, Irving Howe reviewed one of the first books to deal with the whole question of right-wing politics and literary modernism, John Harrison’s The Reactionaries. Howe’s review was as wise and temperate as one would expect it to be, except that at the end he could not resist bringing up the case of James Joyce, who had no interest in authoritarian politics, and concluding that because Joyce “never lost his connection, however complicated and ironic, with ordinary human existence . . . he now seems the most humane and the most durable” of the modernist writers. There is surely an argument to be made for Joyce’s preeminence. But if Joyce had been a man of authoritarian or fascist views, couldn’t one have very easily argued that the obscurantism of certain chapters of Ulysses and the outright hermeticism of most of Finnegans Wake reflected the imperiousness of an authoritarian personality? And isn’t it a fact that no trace of anti-Semitism or fascism—to flip the argument for a moment—can be discerned in the exquisite humanity of Pound’s “What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross,” from The Cantos?

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Ezra Pound in Venice, 1963

Pound is nowadays much less admired than he was a generation or two ago, and it is perhaps difficult to grasp the intensity of the controversy that erupted in 1949 when this man who had done radio broadcasts for the fascists during World War II was awarded the Bollingen Prize by the Library of Congress for The Pisan Cantos, published the year before. Arrested by American troops at the end of the war and charged with treason for the broadcasts he did for Radio Rome, Pound never actually stood trial, but was pronounced insane by government psychiatrists and locked up in St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, where he remained until 1958. That ten of the fourteen Library of Congress Fellows in American Literature voted to give the first Bollingen Prize to a man who had worked for the enemy and was unabashedly anti-Semitic was bound to cause trouble, and the debate raged for some time. It raged in a more or less philistine form in Saturday Review of Literature and on a far subtler level in Partisan Review, where the philosopher William Barrett covered the controversy, John Berryman reviewed the book, and there were responses by half-a-dozen writers, with admiration for the artist and revulsion for the man frankly in competition. The complex evaluations of the situation may have reached a paradoxical peak with Auden, who had been one of the judges, and argued that The Pisan Cantos ought to have received the award but also could be censored, as containing views that might inflame a public in which anti-Semitic attitudes were already deeply ingrained.

To look back on that controversy is to see a fascinating example of a liberal society’s altogether unsatisfactory efforts to reconcile its own communal values with the values of art. Perhaps the Library of Congress, representing the U.S. government, had no business giving a prize to a fascist collaborator, however magnificent his poetry might be. In doing so the committee could not but shine a spotlight on the impossibility of ever reconciling art with the rest of life—and in the process push liberal spirits into some potentially illiberal sentiments. When Clement Greenberg, in 1949, wrote in Partisan Review about Pound’s Bollingen Prize, this scrupulous student of formal values made a few comments that sound as if they could come from a philistine. “I am sick of the art-adoration that prevails among cultured people,” he announced, and condemned “that art silliness which condones almost any moral or intellectual failing on the artist’s part as long as he is or seems a successful artist.” Greenberg’s generation was proud to have put behind it the aestheticism of an earlier modern era—the bejeweled religion of art that characterized the fin-de-siècle. That was no doubt why Greenberg felt it was important to assert that “life includes and is more important than art.” Greenberg worried that the Bollingen judges, although surely entitled to their opinions, had made too much “of the autonomy not only of art but of every separate field of human activity. Does no hierarchy of value obtain among them?” Perhaps in 1949, when Greenberg wrote about the Bollingen Prize, the autonomy of art was still secure enough to withstand his doubts. Half a century later, however, Greenberg’s doubts have become dogma.

The questions that Greenberg raises are by no means unreasonable. Then again, as Greenberg was perfectly well aware, almost nobody was saying that the quality of Pound’s art somehow outweighed his moral or intellectual failings. The essential question, a very different one, was whether it was possible to weigh the artist’s art and the artist’s life in the same set of scales. The question that ought to preoccupy us now, I think, is how to maintain a set of scales in which the artist’s art can be weighed without making a judgment about the life of the artist or the world in which the artist happens to live. Of course Pound, by threading his poems with anti-Semitic comments, was refusing to make it easy for his readers. But the fin-de-siècle world of which Pound had glimpsed the end when he was young and about which he was writing in The Pisan Cantos was a world that had nothing to do with official prizes and did not look to public opinion to ratify its values. Indeed, in the wake of the Oscar Wilde trial, controversy was something one might not necessarily invite. Pound could have been writing his riposte to his critics in these haunting lines from Canto LXXX:  

La beauté, “Beauty is difficult, Yeats” said Aubrey Beardsley

     when Yeats asked why he drew horrors

     or at least not Burne-Jones

     and Beardsley knew he was dying and had to

     make his hit quickly

hence no more B-J in his product. 

     So very difficult, Yeats, beauty so difficult.

The challenge that confronts us now, it seems to me, is to preserve the difficulty of beauty in a world dominated by the liberal love of reason, which is all too often reduced to a set of measurements and statistics. The difficulty of beauty matters so much because art—and again I mean all the arts, from poetry to painting to dance—is the essential way in which human beings give shape to their imaginings. It is a shape freely evolved, the imagination interacting with the world. In his beautiful memoir Venices, Paul Morand—alas, a collaborator during World War II—put it this way: “What is art, if it is not that which constitutes each age?” And Paul Goodman, in his “Reflections on Literature as a Minor Art,” argues for the essential imaginative role of the arts, writing that “literature cannot become a minor art, for it is the art of language. In every generation, the art of letters renovates and codifies the style of speech, assimilating what has sprung up new, inventing new things itself.” Goodman goes on to argue that “the plastic arts, drawing and painting and sculpture, cannot become minor arts for they demonstrate perception, how people can see and are to see; and so a people’s music is its kind of feelings.” The point is that the arts have their own kind of authority. As an artist grapples with the problems particular to a medium, the world is reshaped, life is perceived anew.

The challenge for everybody who is involved with the arts—with opera, dance, and theater companies, museums, symphony orchestras, newspapers, magazines, and publishing houses—is how to make the case for the arts without condemning the arts to the hyphenated existence that violates their freestanding significance. There are surely reasons to link art to education, to tourism, to urban renewal, but all such efforts will be stop-gap measures, bound ultimately to fail, unless they are grounded in an insistence on the products of the imagination as having their own laws and logic. The friends of the arts are used to doing battle with budget cuts in the public and private sectors, with the audience’s ever shortening attention span, with the shrinkage of arts coverage in newspapers and magazines. But among the greatest enemies of the arts are the enemies that lie within, in the arts community’s seemingly liberal demand that all discourse be reasonable, disciplined, purposeful, useful. In his essay on Henry James’s The Princess Casamassima, Lionel Trilling argues that James—much like the novel’s radical hero, Hyacinth Robinson—came to accept the troubling fact that despotic, cruel, rapacious societies have produced some of humankind’s “richest and noblest expression.” While James surely does not believe that despotic societies are the only ones that have produced truly great art, I do think he wants to suggest that the artistic imagination is characterized by its own kinds of despotism and rapacity—what he famously called “the madness of art.” This is something from which liberal sensibilities all too easily recoil. It is all well and good to say that cool heads should prevail. Art, however, is by its very nature overheated, hot-headed, unreasonable—and, dare we say it, sometimes illiberal. Without ardor there is no art.

This piece has been updated for clarity.