Art, Mystery, Magic, Liberalism
Jed Perl, The New Republic‘s art critic, has a dense but rewarding essay criticizing illiberal liberalism regarding art. He’s not really talking about crude political correctness, but rather a more rarefied, philosophical sort of p.c., the kind that refuses to separate the art from the artist. Excerpt:
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.
They murder to dissect. It seems to me, continuing the Wordsworth reference, that Perl is saying that liberals should fight back against the temptation to dissect a work of art according to what they perceive to be its ideological content or foundations, to filter out what is unacceptable in human existence, and rather cultivate an inner vision “that watches and receives.”
Perl is addressing liberals in a liberal magazine, but his point is universal. True art cannot be reduced to the sum of its creator’s parts. It comes from somewhere particular, but it will have achieved the quality of universality that allows it to stand alone from its creator. Your understanding of Dante’s verse is far richer if you understand the historical, theological, and philosophical sources of his vision. But his lines are no less beautiful and true absent that understanding.