A review of Authority and Freedom: A Defense of the Arts by Jed Perl. Knopf, 176 pages. (January, 2022)
Plug “relevance” into the search field of the website for Artforum, and 16 results pop up from 2021 alone. Relevance is the dominant aesthetic criterion of our time, and lack thereof is the lowest damnation, at least according to a prevalent if coarse understanding of art.
But relevance to what? Usually relevance to the moment, conceived of as a state of crisis even by progressive academics and art professionals who, despite their complaints, are some of the most comfortable, privileged people who have ever lived. This is invariably the political moment, according to a narrow idea of politics.
An early passage from Jed Perl’s new book Authority and Freedom: A Defense of the Arts follows the maxim that the best defense is a good offense:
I want us to release art from the stranglehold of relevance—from the insistence that works of art, whether classic or contemporary, are validated (or invalidated) by the extent to which they line up with (or fail to line up with) our current social and political concerns. I want to convince a public inclined to look first for relevance that art’s relevance has everything to do with what many regard as its irrelevance.
Perl, a storied art critic and the author of a magisterial two-volume biography of Alexander Calder among much else, has written an astute analysis of the conditions that make art possible. Having established that, he proceeds to an argument for their preservation. Along the way he reveals that the current vogue for relevance repeats errors that crop up regularly in human history.
Nothing is wrong with relevance in itself. “It goes without saying that we want works of art to have meanings that resonate with us, our friends, and the wider world,” admits Perl. “But what holds together all the disparate elements in any work of art, at least any that endures, are the novelist’s mastery of prose and storytelling, the composer’s or musician’s mastery of harmony and melody, and the painter’s mastery of color and composition. The artistry with which the elements are united is what makes the subject matter really count.”
To some degree this is yet another ode to form at the expense of content, thus restating the conflict between the two that preoccupied visual art of the mid-20th century. That conflict was the result of the ascendancy of American postwar abstraction in the 1940s and its subsequent lapse into mannerism and decline in the following three decades. (Which is not to say that no vital abstraction was made during that period or since.) This conflict is, to a great degree, bogus. Clement Greenberg, the critic commonly but errantly thought to have instigated it, said that “the quality of a work of art inheres in its ‘content,’ and vice versa. Quality is ‘content.’ You know that a work of art has content because of its effect."
Perl is after something else, though. “So far as I am concerned, no artist who has wholeheartedly embraced an artistic tradition and found something personal within that tradition can be condemned to irrelevance.” Perl rightly places artistry, the manipulation of content into various forms, into the realm of the individual, which must be defended against a social world that is prone to excessive demands about how those forms should be shaped.
Relevance, in this conception, is a burden upon an already difficult negotiation between individual artistic freedom and the authority of artistic tradition. The greater portion of the book is given over to an elucidation of how works of art ranging from the Windmill Psalter to Aretha Franklin’s “Wholly Holy” depend on the constraints of authority in order to produce their individuality. The converse is also true, in that the tradition has no authority apart from its regular revision by inspired individuals. These passages provide some of the most readable and impassioned prose of Perl’s oeuvre:
As the choir spins and shouts … Aretha can be almost expressionless, waiting for the moment when she takes up a song. She doesn’t rise to the occasion so much as she sinks deep into the music. The astronomical highs that she achieves along with the choir and the musicians are built on the strongest and most secure foundations. In the moments before and after she sings, as she sits or stands, quiet, concentrated, she’s entirely absorbed in her craft. No singer has ever made the time, the place, the moment more thrilling. But the look on her face is the look of the artist who is focused on the nitty-gritty of her art.
There is also an informative retelling of the story of Picasso’s “Guernica.” The artist had intended to use the enormous canvas for another one of his meditations on the theme of Artist and Model. Five scant weeks before the painting was expected to be delivered to the Spanish Pavilion, the National Socialists wiped out a Basque town of no strategic importance. It was a display of cruelty for cruelty’s sake. Picasso’s imagination was galvanized. He pivoted on the spot, and produced one of the major works of the century in any medium. Perl recounts what the Marxist critics said about the completed painting:
The artist José María Ucelay, who was in charge of the Basque contribution to the pavilion, didn’t like Guernica at all. He said, “It has no sense of composition, or for that matter anything ... it’s just seven by three meters of pornography, shitting on Guernica, on the Basque Country, on everything.” The philosopher Paul Nizan, a man with Communist affiliations, found it bourgeois, a product of the ivory tower. The English art historian Anthony Blunt, also reflecting the official Communist view, complained that Guernica “is not an act of public mourning, but the expression of a private brain-storm which gives no evidence that Picasso has realized the political significance of Guernica.”
Perl summarizes on behalf of everyone who understood better, “The grandeur of ‘Guernica’ has everything to do with Picasso’s detachment from the particulars of time and place. ‘Guernica’ hadn’t emerged from the world but from the artist’s studio—from the exigencies of the artist’s vocation.”
Thus, relevance does not stand in opposition to freedom or authority, which are engaged with one another in a separate dialectic, but to vocation. “Even an artist as determinedly secular as Picasso saw echoes of religious vocation in his experience as an artist,” observes Perl, who quotes the painter: “While I work I leave my body outside the door, the way Moslems take off their shoes before entering the mosque.” Perl argues for a sanctity of private experience at which relevance must not declare ultimatums, lest art be reduced to an illustration of the issues of its time.
Perl does not liken the comments of Ucelay, Nizan, and Blunt to the remarks heard in contemporary criticism, but one could. A few years ago a woman who described herself as “a New York-based writer and art historian specializing in queer art and culture, with a particular focus on lesbian visibility” wrote an entire article about her decision not to see a Picasso exhibition at the Tate Modern:
In the year 1932, Picasso made a compulsive number of portraits of his lover Marie-Thérèse Walter, whom he met in 1927 when she was only seventeen. In his review for the New York Times, Jason Farago states that “Picasso 1932 is as much her show as his, and the young Frenchwoman, lithe, athletic, untroubled, appears again and again in uncanny states of bodily deliquescence.” I find this statement to be ludicrous. How could it be “as much her show as his” when she only functions as the object and has no agency of her own? Reducing her to four adjectives—young, lithe, athletic, and untroubled—Farago re-objectifies Marie-Thérèse, implying and thereby perpetuating the longstanding notion that being objectified is women’s only contribution to art.
The last straw for the writer was when she discovered that tickets to the Picasso show were £25, while entry to the museum’s Joan Jonas exhibition was £15. “[Giving] something a higher price implies that it has higher value,” she snorted. One gets the impression that ever since socialism first seduced the intellectuals, progressive criticism has merely retold the same tale of disappointment.
The final section of Authority and Freedom describes how Perl was never moved to write about why art has value, as its value had always appeared self-evident. Alas: “It now seems to me that the attitude toward the arts that I took for granted when I was growing up—the belief that the arts have their own, independent significance—has prevailed during only a couple of periods in the United States and Western Europe in the past 150 years.” Social upheavals tended to create demand for art that satisfies social requirements. “What seems inarguable to me,” Perl writes, “looking at cultural attitudes and institutions during the past decade and more, is that we are once again in the midst of a dramatic change.” This leads him to a striking point:
Much of the discussion that we’re hearing echoes ideas presented by Leon Trotsky nearly a century ago. “The effort to set art free from life, to declare it a craft self-sufficient to itself, devitalizes and kills art.” Trotsky wrote this in 1924 in his book Literature and Revolution. “The very need of such an operation,” he pursued, “is an unmistakable symptom of intellectual decline.” He saw the “megalomania of aesthetics [as] turning our hard reality on its head.” The effort to separate artistic life or experience from social or economic experience was, so Trotsky argued, bound to fail.
Having identified the pattern, Perl is moved to argue with ever-greater conviction on behalf of art’s autonomy. Even in the case of an avowed fascist sympathizer like W.B. Yeats, he says, one ought to distinguish the artist’s vocation from his politics. This is a bold proposition that will be impossible for many to accept. But in an eloquent conclusion, Perl takes us along with W.H. Auden as he struggles to do exactly that, and succeeds. Perl leaves the reader with the sense that any art worth having calls us to greater acts of moral imagination and intellectual nuance than are permitted by the simple emotions of tumultuous times.
Pugilistic types like myself might have hoped for Perl to tear down some contemporary art darlings, or mock the veritable clown show that is curatorship in the age of pandemic and critical theory. This is not Perl’s way. He has instead produced a volume with value that promises to outlast the contemporary heirs of aesthetic Trotskyism. That is a greater achievement—one that will maintain art’s defenses even as the next coarse understandings of art replace the current ones.