For Art To Be Possible
Post #1895 • June 18, 2021, 6:13 PM
1. This is our world now
Oppenheimer makes a moving case for Hickey’s democratic politics of art. But he begins Far From Respectable with a warning about the limitations of Hickey’s perspective in our increasingly illiberal era. For several years in the late 2000s and early 2010s, Hickey described himself as being at work on a manuscript for a “grand synthesis” of his thoughts on American art, culture and politics, Pagan America, a book that he abandoned in 2015 after losing his faith in its foundational claims.
Pagan America was to offer a vision of the United States as a “polytheistic” society whose citizens passionately devote themselves to “objects, people and performances … buying and selling images of them.” Collectors, hobbyists, dilettantes, and cranks of every kind create what are in effect denominations of taste, whose members gather to venerate such varied idols as classic cars, Italo-disco, or football prodigies. Anyone who has ever heard two fans debate the relative merits of their favorite players, bands, etc., or gotten an earful from a frustrated amateur who knows exactly how the play should have been run, or of what better, less famous album the one you were just enjoying is a pale derivation, knows that they have a religious flavor, with the same lively, erudite, argumentative quality as the wrangles of theology students. In either case, we tolerate the obvious annoyances of such conversations, in which interlocutors aggrandize themselves and aggress each other through their mastery of niceties that escape the attention of novices, because we know, whatever their ostensible topic, that they concern the most important things. Across such talk, our traditions teach us how to experience, and share experiences of, beauty, incorporating us into a community of fellow worshippers and—in the most intense moments of aesthetic pleasure—dislocating us from our familiar self and social set, opening us to a potentially transformative encounter with something transcendent....
Hickey abandoned his book in 2015, a year that saw “cancel culture” pass from fandoms, via social media, into the mainstream of our civic life. What Oppenheimer calls the “blob,” the set of cultural institutions that Hickey denounced, appears ever more indifferent to beauty and ever more willing to submit art to demands for censorship, which often issue from just the sort of communities of shared enjoyment that Hickey imagined as the “pagan” basis of our democratic politics. It is regrettably no longer the case—if it ever was—that the democratic potential of our ordinary life of private and social enjoyments is primarily menaced from the outside by moralizing institutions and the persecutions of the state. Rather, the affordances of private life seem to be increasingly eroded from within, thinned out into intolerant, pleasureless resentments. It will be for a new generation of critics and creators to imagine, if it can still be imagined, how to restore a capacity for intense but tolerant pursuits of pleasure, and make America pagan again.
Johnny Best, “Artistic freedom is at death’s door”:
The policing of artistic free expression has traditionally been carried out by external actors; self-styled morality campaigners, politicians and religious organisations. But today it is just as likely to be arts professionals themselves who self-censor, and, what is worse, attempt to censor or silence each other....
When pressure is brought to bear on artistic free expression, arts organisations and artistic leaders have a vital role to play as a bulwark against those who seek to tighten restrictions. But this responsibility exists in tension with the conviction of many arts professionals that their rightful role is as progressive social actors, at the forefront of current activist movements. The tendency towards intolerance and literalism within these movements coexists uneasily with the principle of universal artistic free expression, and, increasingly, artists, writers and cultural leaders are dealing with the resulting dissonance by seeking to restrict free expression.
Habi Zhang, “The People’s Republic of Campus”:
As a teenager, I saw old-stone American university buildings on TV, and was enthralled by their dignified appearance. Later, I came across a book in my hometown that explained that the American university was a special place, unlike its Chinese counterpart, as devoted to the cultivation of the enduring longings of the human soul. To assist in man’s hunger to know, to understand, and to seek truth, is its highest mission....
Two decades later, I sit in one of those buildings, having claimed my spot only to find that thinking is discouraged, dissent suppressed, and ideological loyalty is the prerequisite for flourishing in the institution of higher learning.
Last week, I was sitting in yet another equity meeting, listening to a reiteration of the principle that we must discriminate against some people in order to achieve equality of outcome. The instructor and attendants regurgitated phrases on educating oneself to promote diversity. “What are you doing to educate yourself on becoming an anti-racist?” has become a recurring question parroted in faculty meetings, job interviews, and graduate seminars.
James Poulos, “Woke Capital and Fiat Culture”:
At a certain point, as the rules of management approach infinity, their arbitrariness becomes conceptually insupportable.... This void of the unreal has cultural consequences. What we have seen in recent decades is a progressive involution of culture under our ruling class driven by the absurdity and abstraction of arbitrariness taken to a conceptual limit. The nourishing ordinary culture of normal people exchanging fairly-valued tangible goods and services has been dwarfed and now even punished by elite fiat culture, where habits and mores follow goods and services in becoming increasingly arbitrary—unintelligible acts of fiat with decreasing connection to our biological nature and our human soul. The why of value, attention, hype, power, influence, wealth, and control today is increasingly nakedly asserted as “because we said so,” not just at the level of compliance or management or rulemaking but at the level of culture itself—where the most marginal and even bizarre forms of identity are “tyrannizing the kairos” as Nietzsche said, slapping around the culture as if it were an abused woman, ordering her around to celebrate and indeed worship retributive race violence, violence against biological sex, violence against our most primal and fundamental categories of thought, etc., etc.
Alice Gribbin, “The Artist and the Censor”:
Today, in the realms of contemporary arts and letters, self-censorship is the new threat that must be confronted. Of course artists are self-censoring and conforming. The homogeneity of what is published, displayed, promoted, reviewed, taught, and awarded shows it. Those who would say there is not a self-censorship problem were of the opinion that the vapid story “Cat Person” was an important work of literature, and do not know any artists. Because of its dominance, the utilitarian attitude—which says the measure of an artwork is its “message” and on that basis it will be applauded, ignored, or denounced—is increasingly difficult for the ambitious young artist to shield herself from. In addition, the artist today must accept that in great swaths of the culture, she is taken to be more important than what she produces. Often, the art seems beside the point. Think whatever you like about Philip Guston’s paintings, but the emblematic event of our time is when four world-class museums postponed his retrospective because the artist’s political beliefs were not presented to viewers explicitly enough. Not the art but what the artist represents is being judged.
Matt Johnson, “George Orwell, Henry Miller, and the ‘Dirty-Handkerchief Side of Life’”:
There’s a reason Orwell spent a large portion of “Inside the Whale” discussing the groupthink that emerged around communism among writers and intellectuals in the 1930s and 1940s. As he put it: “The atmosphere of orthodoxy is always damaging to prose, and above all it is completely ruinous to the novel, the most anarchical of all forms of literature.”
The atmosphere of orthodoxy in our own time is becoming thicker and more suffocating every day. As polarization continues to surge, so too does tribalism—writers tailor their messages for ferociously partisan outlets, social media allows people to construct vast echo chambers in which a dissenting whisper is nowhere to be heard, and those who wish to silence unpopular opinions can now form a mob of thousands of people at the push of a button.
Brendan O'Neill, “Why Rhodes should not be taken down” (he means the statue):
Old racists promoted the ideology of biological determinism, the foul notion that certain racial groups were born with traits that made them less fit for public life or educational endeavour. The woke set push the politics of historical determinism – the increasingly mainstream belief that Empire, slavery and colonialism continue to cast a long shadow over our societies and over the lives and feelings of ethnic-minority people in particular. And thus these people need the therapeutic assistance of the clerisy – whether in the form of statue removals or slavery reparations or some other form of the politics of recognition – in order to boost their self-worth. Call me old-fashioned but I fail to see how setting up the largely white liberal establishment to be the saviours of allegedly distressed black people constitutes racial progress.
Jed Perl, who was excoriated for writing this is in 2015 but now looks like a prophet:
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....
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.... 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.
2. This is how we must live in that world
Spencer Klavan, “Let Princeton Fall”:
Grieve your dead. Mourn the loss of the old world. But what then? That is the question I am interested in asking—not, how can classics at Princeton be saved? It can’t, and I don’t care to try. Anyway, it’s irrelevant. True scholarship has never lived comfortably in institutions, because sooner or later institutions fall prey to dogma. Socrates drank hemlock, remember. Those who seek truth will find it—but they will find persecution, too....
Luckily the internet has made it possible for new communities to form... where all who want to can still join the great conversation. It takes effort, and a little rebellion, but it was ever thus. Let Princeton collapse—its lifespan and prestige are nothing in the grand scheme of things. One thing alone is eternal, and always under siege—that one thing is truth. Truth, as the Gospel tells us, has no home in this fallen world. But nor can it—or those who pledge their lives to follow and to seek it—ever really die. That, and not a degree, is the real reward. It is more than enough.
Bari Weiss, “10 ways to fight back against woke culture”:
If you can learn to use a power drill, do it. If you’ve always wanted an outdoor solar hot tub, make one. Learn to poach an egg or shoot a gun. Most importantly: Get it in your head that platforms are not neutral. If you don’t believe me, look at Parler and look at Robinhood. To the extent that you can build your life to be self-reliant and not 100 percent reliant on the Web, it’s a good thing. It will make you feel competent and powerful. Which you are....
...do not lose sight of what is essential. Professional prestige is not essential. Being popular is not essential. Getting your child into an elite preschool is not essential. Doing the right thing is essential. Telling the truth is essential....
Use your capital to build original, interesting and generative things right now. This minute. Every day I hear from those with means with children at private schools who are being brainwashed; people who run companies where they are scared of their own employees; people who donate to their alma mater even though it betrays their principles. Enough. You have the ability to build new things. If you don’t have the financial capital, you have the social or political capital. Or the ability to sweat. The work of our lifetimes is the Great Build. Let’s go.
James Lindsay, “The Values of a Post-Woke World”:
The call to center beauty in a post-Woke world... is a call to aspire to excellence for the sake of excellence in everything that can be made excellent. Beauty—excellence—is the opportunity to elevate whatever it is we do to the highest level, and it is what reminds us that the hard slog of life is worth living, if only for the rare glimpse of that which stirs man through its beauty. Beauty is a call to be better in everything we do, build, and aspire to be. It is a cornerstone of a flourishing post-Woke world.
Garth Greenwell, “Making Meaning: Against 'relevance' in art” (this whole essay is magnificent):
Growing up in Kentucky, and later, studying in the academy of the 1990s, I experienced the violence of being told that my life as a queer person, my work as a queer artist, could stand only as an eccentric counterpoint to a central, universal human story. But I don’t want to conserve that violence; I want to disperse or transform it. It seems to me that either we believe that all human experience is valuable, that any life has the potential to reveal something true for every life—a universality achieved not through the effacement of difference but through devotion to it—or we don’t. I want to encourage the proliferation of voices and stories, not their repression....
I can’t bear the thought that art is a zero-sum game, that we have to choose which kinds of stories are relevant, which lives have value; I can’t bear the thought that works of art exist only at the expense of other works of art, that books are locked in some ferocious competition for space.
Alice Gribbin again:
Our period of meekness must be replaced by one of bravery. Unserious, censorious people will tar artists and aesthetes as bigots and fascists.... To the charge that it is selfish or self-indulgent to promote the ideal of art for art’s sake, artists and aesthetes should respond: “It is the opposite of narcissistic to grant art its autonomy. Activist artists—paternalistic and utilitarian—are the narcissists, flattening the possibilities of art as they flatten those who engage it.”
Honest artists understand not only that their intentions will be thwarted by the creative process but that they cannot presume how an audience will be affected by the completed work. Those people incapable of experiencing art on its own terms will scold and glare at whatever does not conform to their dogmatic expectations. They would have our museum visits be like our dental checkups, full of works that promise to x-ray and treat our hard-to-reach parts. Art cannot be made for such people.
An embrace of the art for art’s sake ideal is the greatest defense for artists against self-censorship. Those who defend art from moralizing or censure—who accept the reality of art’s autonomy—are those who see art for what it is.
Jodi Shaw, “Why the 'Other Stuff' Matters”:
Artists and comedians who are self-policing [are telling themselves], you can't do that, you can't say that, you can't even think that. You can't go there. That's debilitating to an artist. Your job is to go there. Your job is to transgress and explore. You are a truth-seeker. You can't say where the truth is. You don't know. Your job is to seek it, and you're going to have to go past the No Trespassing signs.
3. For art to be possible
It has always been true that the only sustaining, substantive reason to make art is because you can, you would, and you must. All three. I recall Jim Woodring's introduction to a volume of Kenneth Patchen:
[Was] there ever a wild and yearning youth who saw the words YOU WILL BE A PLUMBER written in the sky in letters of flame? Was there ever a plumber who plied his or her trade as a compulsive vocation, mad for pipes, desperate to install them even where they were not wanted, making almost no money and enduring the harshest critical attacks for their efforts decade after decade until they tumbled, still brazing, into their grave? Well, perhaps there was. If so, that plumber was an artist, and is to be pitied.
And that's under normal circumstances. In this atmosphere of repression and hostility? All the more so.
I testify from private conversations that I am not the only one who hears the message coming out of both the art establishment and its activist class that as a Jew, I am merely the worst kind of white person. If the Guston cancellation didn't already make that clear, the progressive allyship with Hamas in its recent assault on Israel should have. How nice it would have been if any of the arts organizations who issued statements against racism against blacks or Asians in the last year had done likewise regarding the explosion of violent attacks, verbal abuse, marauding, and desecration of houses of worship that was directed at Jews in the last eight weeks. (Here's a roundup for you subtitled, “Take a good look at who is speaking out against Jew-hate. And who is staying silent.” I'll tell you who's staying silent: every arts organization in America, so far as I know.) Plug “Hamas” into the search field of the website of the art publication of your choosing—not just patently bigoted projects like Hyperallergic, but any art magazine you can name—and see if you can find the least expression of sympathy for Israel or the loss of Israeli life, or the barest mention of the hostilities unleashed on American and European Jews.
I testify further that lots of other kinds of artists, including those of different faiths or none, self-described liberals, and people of color—can detect that the creative atmosphere has been poisoned. A friend of mine, a dancer, and because this is relevant, a black man, was conversing with a white choreographer early this year. She opined that the election of Biden was going to sweep the evils of Trump from the White House and put the country back in order. He demurred, on account that Biden was obviously compromised intellectually, philosophically, and morally, and in any case the problems of the country run much deeper than the presidency. Now she won't work with him. If I thought that the ascendant woke ideology in the arts was accomplishing, or even was meant to accomplish, racial justice and diverse representation, then I would be in favor of it. It is not. It's entirely about self-validation—primarily white self-validation—and control.
In fact the problem is even bigger than woke ideology. You can't even question, for instance, the official technocratic narrative of what we should be calling WIV-19, in honor of its apparent creator, the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Eric Clapton, who penned an anti-lockdown anthem with Van Morrison in 2020, and who went public about his adverse reaction to the Astra-Zeneca vaccine this year, now reports of being ostracized by friends and family: “I’ve tried to reach out to fellow musicians. I just don’t hear from them anymore. My phone doesn’t ring very often. I don’t get that many texts and emails anymore. It’s quite noticeable.” We are in the midst of a large-scale war on dissent from a cluster of disparate but related ideological stances that advocates for the least nuanced versions of Critical Race Theory, medicine as a subset of the Executive Branch and its equivalent bodies abroad, interventionist economics, propagandistic journalism, the policing of speech, the replacement of society with systems of social credit, an Iran-centric vision for the Middle East that looks lovingly upon Hamas, and anti-individualism. I call it Woke Fascism because it employs indoctrination and intimidation to establish an order of totalized bureaucracy whose main organizing principle is race.
What art can make headway in this environment? This kind of high-school-level twaddle by Lauren Hasley. Apparently Helen Molesworth, the high priestess of Institutional Postmodernism, is a big Hasley fan. That makes perfect sense. See what I said above about white self-validation. Hasley's work, or rather its reception by the establishment, is just as much about white self-validation as the art of Adolf Ziegler, the Meister des Deutschen Schamhaares himself. Point in fact, self-validation (white or otherwise) via Woke Fascism tracks more closely with historical Aryanism than contemporary white supremacy. Richard Spencer wants a separatist ethnostate. It falls to be people like Damon Young to flirt openly with genocide.
There are reasonable people all over the current system who are keeping their heads down in hopes that this authoritarian, extremist nonsense will blow over and they can go back to making and pondering art in the ways to which they're normally inclined. Purveyors of said authoritarian, extremist nonsense are depending on their keeping their heads down, rather than organizing a resistance effort before the ideologues permanently entrench themselves. We can't wait this out. For art to be possible, we must have the freedom to think what we will. The cluster ideology is attempting to make us surrender it, one painful chunk at a time. Allow me to point out something that is easy to lose track of in the midst of the mundanities of life: ultimately we don't have anything else.
4. This is where the world is going
Charles Murray, from his new book Facing Reality: Two Truths About Race In America, quoted by Rod Dreher:
Purely on grounds of expediency, the rhetoric about White privilege and systemic racism coming from Black opinion leaders has always seemed self-defeating. Blacks, constituting 13 percent of the population, are telling Whites, 60 percent of the population, that they are racist, bad people, the cause of Blacks’ problems, and they had better change their ways or else. Right or wrong, that rhetoric has been guaranteed to produce backlash by some portion of the 60 percent against the 13 percent. So far, this effect has been masked because the strategy has worked so well with White elites. Ordinarily, you can’t insult people into agreeing with you, but White guilt is a real thing. In the summer of 2020, many White college students and young adults agreed that they had sinned, even though they hadn’t realized it until now, and joined in Black Lives Matter marches. The New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, PBS, CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, and MSNBC gave sympathetic coverage to the protests and, to varying degrees, downplayed the riots and looting.
Meanwhile, many middle-class and working-class Whites have not been insulted into agreement. They’re just insulted, and to their minds unfairly insulted. I’m not talking about White nationalists and White supremacists – their numbers are relatively small. My concern is the extremely large majority of middle-class and working-class Whites who don’t think of themselves as racists and have not behaved as racists.... They believe that everyone has a God-given right to be treated equally. Now all of them are being told that they are privileged and racist, and they are asking on what grounds. They are living ordinary lives, with average incomes, working hard to make ends meet. They can’t see what “White privilege” they have ever enjoyed. Some are fed up and ready to push back.
How widespread might the backlash be? ...it seems beyond dispute that a growing number of Whites are disposed to adopt identity politics – to become a racial interest group in the same way that Blacks and Latinos are racial interest groups.... The prospect of legal secession may be remote, but the prospect of reduced governability from Washington is not.
... Donald Trump’s election and the lessons of his term in office changed the parameters of what is politically possible in America.... Those lessons have not been lost on the politically ambitious of either the left or the right. All over the country, people at the outset of their political careers see a new set of possibilities. They include many who are as indifferent to precedent and self-restraint as Donald Trump was and who are more serious students of the uses of power than Trump was. It is increasingly possible that, the next time around, someone who is far more adept than Donald Trump can govern by ignoring inconvenient portions of the Constitution.
Rod Dreher comments, “In Spain, I spoke to a professor — a conservative — who said that if the broad middle class adopts hardcore nationalism as a reaction to militant wokeness, ‘we will get fascism.’”
Of course, that fascism too will be some kind of cluster ideology that dismisses accusations of autocracy and claims only to be working for just outcomes, having tired of the usual, slow way of bettering the world in an orderly liberal society. Like the woke fascists, they too will claim that their opponents are endemically unable to do anything except protect their own benighted interests, and can only be convinced to change through intimidation and force. They will likewise, though conversely, conclude that as a Jew, I'm merely the worst kind of black person.
For hundreds of years in Europe there were horribly influential strands of belief that insisted that Jews were somatically as well as metaphorically Black. The discovery of actual Black Jews during the period of the Enlightenment confirmed the association Jews were thought to have with Blacks. Racist anthropology throughout the 19th century and early 20th centuries and during the period of Nazi domination of Europe sought to demonstrate that Jews had Black skin, Black blood, and Black origins.
I think that the only way that we're going to avoid a calamity in this country is to massively contract the scope of government in advance of an even more massive, involuntary, willy-nilly contraction that's bound to happen anyway, because the economy is obviously fake and the institutions, including the institutions of governance, are widely seen as untrustworthy and corrupted. Corrupted by what depends on who you ask. It could be racism and capitalism, or it could be people who hate America and want to turn your kids trans. There's evidence to support either view, both of which are broadly wrong.
So as an artist I argue for a radical politics, nearly an anti-politics: a nonviolent and incremental but finally total elimination of state power, and in its place, a decentralized system of private orders based on mutual respect, markets, competition, and most of all, an ethos of existential equality—the notion that every human is equally real to himself or herself, and ought to be treated accordingly. (That reality is ultimately an illusion but with that we've left the realm of politics, and entered the realm of religion, where politics must not follow.) I advocate for peace, freedom, and prosperity for all the peoples of the earth. This view is called Libertarian Anarchism.
That is a world in which art is possible. These impending flavors of fascism? Not so much.