The Stranglehold of Relevance02-05-2023
Robert Boyers interviews Jed Perl about the place of freedom and authority in art. Perl writes that his new book is written, in part, “to release art from the stranglehold of relevance,” to challenge the notion that works of art can be “validated (or invalidated) by the extent to which they line up with (or fail to line up with) our current social and political concerns.” Perl explains:
It’s natural to want to understand artistic experience as part of a wider world, which includes our social, economic, and political experience. But explaining how the various parts of our lives and our world fit together isn’t easy. As I worked on Authority and Freedom I found it enormously helpful to look at some of Trotsky’s ideas about the place of art in society. He had a rather subtle theory about the relevance of art. And his ideas, so I believe, have had an impact not only on Leftists but also on liberals – an impact that I find troubling to say the least. In writings produced between the 1920s, when he was still in Russia, and his murder in Mexico in 1940, Trotsky spoke up for the freedom of the artist – an idea that although already highly controversial in the Soviet Union in the 1920s was immensely attractive to progressive intellectuals in Western Europe and the United States and remains so today.
But Trotsky had an ulterior motive when he celebrated the freedom of the artist. And this is what I find worrisome and ultimately wrongheaded. Trotsky believed that the artist who acted freely was almost inevitably commenting on society, revealing aspects of our social, economic, and political situation that would in turn contribute to a deeper understanding of the world we live in – and thereby further the revolutionary struggle. According to Trotsky, that’s why artistic freedom is worth defending. In other words, artistic freedom comes with conditions. You might say that for Trotsky the act of creation is a utilitarian act. That utilitarian attitude toward the arts – whether inspired by Trotsky or not – has remained enormously appealing, even for many artists and intellectuals who regard themselves not as radicals like Trotsky but as liberals and even conservatives. To elaborate on the line that you quote from my book about the stranglehold of relevance, I would argue that there has come to be an assumption that the artist who isn’t offering a response to our social, economic, and political circumstances is somehow failing to act as an artist, or at least acting irresponsibly. For evidence I don’t think we need to look beyond the culture pages of the New York Times and The New Yorker, where the political, social, and even sexual orientations of creative people are time and again foregrounded, while the particulars of their work – a prose style, a way of handling paint, the sounds a conductor coaxes from an orchestra – are seen as afterthoughts when they’re discussed at all.
What I’m calling a utilitarian – or maybe a mechanistic – approach to the arts tends to thrust artists and audiences alike into a kind of circular reasoning. If the artist’s essential obligation – or at least one of the artist’s essential obligations — is to hold up a mirror to the state of the world, then we almost inevitably find ourselves trying to reconcile the artist’s work with our view of the world. The next step is to begin to imagine that the artist who fails to corroborate our view of the world is somehow failing as an artist. Or is at least not an artist worth considering, at least not in a time of social, economic, political, and ecological emergency such as we live in today. It’s easy to blame some of this on the Left. The neoconservatives also have much to answer for, because what in some cases began as their critique of the Left’s tendency to subject art to a political test has all too often ended up with a whitewashed or deracinated view of art; they may fear any work that seems to represent the world as it is.