The Death of the Artist, Excellent Sheep:

An Interview with William Deresiewicz


Robert Boyers

Interviewer: Robert Boyers

Robert Boyers: About a decade ago you were writing a blog for The American Scholar, and when you gave that up you noted that you’d become habituated to thinking in blog-sized units. Clearly that seemed to you a problem for someone wanting to write the important books and essays that you’ve given us in recent years. So what exactly is it like to develop such a habit and thus to think primarily in blog-sized units? Would you say that thinking “short” and coming directly to the point without much in the way of elaboration is a habit to which more and more of us have increasingly adapted? I can recall some years ago an essay by Michael Kinsley in which he deplored the tendency to elaborate and develop a leisurely argument in the kinds of essays that seemed to him to belong to another time. I wrote him a letter then, which he never answered, and I suppose he had some reason to be unhappy with what I said about the tendencies he was eager to promote. But there you have a prompt you might wish to respond to.

William Deresiewicz: The truth is that I enjoyed writing that blog, though I insisted on thinking of it as an “online column” (it ran weekly) to differentiate it in my mind from the kinds of hot takes or thoughts-of-the-day that the word “blog” generally denotes. Nor did it prevent me from writing at greater length; in fact, the columns pretty much coincided with the composition of Excellent Sheep. What matters, I believe, is not how long a piece of writing is, but how long you think about it. Some of the ideas that I had the opportunity to articulate in that column were things that I had been thinking about for years, only I knew they couldn’t support a full-length essay without a lot of padding (the column generally ran about 500-600 words), so I never bothered to pitch them. That’s why I jumped at the chance to write the column in the first place: because I knew that the constraints would enable me to say things that I couldn’t in a longer form. In fact, more than any other writing I’ve done, the column made me conscious of form. Composing a tight, shapely argument in the space of a couple of pages, something I could turn out in a single gesture, a single morning, was exhilarating. It energized the writing, too. A friend referred to the pieces (or at least, some of the better ones) as “idea bullets.” That’s pretty much what I was going for.

My remark, upon taking leave of the column, about having become habituated to thinking in blog-sized units reflected, more than anything, my exhaustion with the column itself. As long as I was drawing on the stock of ideas that had been accumulating in my notebooks for the previous 10 or 20 years, the work was joyful. Once I started having to dredge my brain to come up with material to fill the weekly quota, it became a chore. But the larger point is that there’s nothing wrong with writing short, per se; short can be pithy and powerful. The problem that the Internet has given us is that it is increasingly difficult to write at any other length. That, and the fact that the frequency and velocity with which the bloggers and posters are turning out material leaves no room for thinking of any kind—one of the reasons, I believe, that so much writing now involves fitting the news of the day, or the cultural products of the day, to pre-existing intellectual-ideological templates.

RB: One of the things you say in Excellent Sheep, your book on elite schools and colleges, is that it took you a while to learn that often smart people—including highly educated people—aren’t smart. That’s a painful thing to discover, it seems to me, and I hope you’ll speak here to what brought you to that conclusion. In what ways are these smart people not smart?

WD: It was a painful thing to discover. I grew up in an Ivy League bubble and stayed there well into adulthood. My father was a professor at Columbia. My older siblings went to college at Columbia or Barnard. In the frame of reference that my family inhabited, if you didn’t go to an Ivy League school, you weren’t worth talking about. Then I went to college at Columbia myself, did my doctorate at the same institution, and went off to teach at Yale. I was well into my thirties before it started to penetrate my consciousness that academic ability wasn’t the only or at least the supreme standard of human worth, which only happened because a series of fortunate accidents brought me into contact with people who were smart or gifted in other ways without having (or giving a damn about) blue-chip academic credentials. Creative people, socially and psychologically insightful people, people who were competent in the physical world.

At the same time, the ordinary abrasions of adult life were teaching me how deeply dumb I was in those and many other ways—dumb especially precisely because I had lived my life inside an academic bubble and knew almost nothing about the world and the varieties of people in it, the ways they see the world and the ways they saw me. Slowly I began to grasp the depths of my provincialism (which was also the provincialism of a New Yorker and a Northeasterner). Once I did, I began to notice the provincialism of those around me: my family, my colleagues at Yale, the liberal elite more generally. Meritocratic training as it’s currently conducted (and this is one of the themes of Excellent Sheep) does not equip you with anything but technocratic expertise, while at the same time teaching you that technocratic expertise is all you need to navigate the world and feel extremely happy with yourself. So you have all these high-GPA individuals who are humanly very stupid, which means that they’re incapable of seeing the world from the point of view of people who aren’t exactly like them. In the words of Saul Bellow, high-IQ morons.

This has political implications, by the way. In my view, it’s the reason that the Democratic establishment, including its progressive wing (and woke Twitter, to boot), continues to be incapable of understanding the motives and desires of the vast majority of Americans, not excluding most of the Democratic Party’s own constituents.

RB: There’s a striking passage in one of your essays where you turn to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in order to speak about the idea of “bureaucracy.” It has to do with the commitment to “keep the routine going,” to select or promote leaders who tend to be mediocrities, and to value persons who have a talent for “kissing up” to superiors. What is rewarded in bureaucratic environments, you say, is “conformity.” How does that work? For one thing, it relies upon people knowing best how to answer questions—so long as the questions are framed in the standard ways—but not how to ask questions. All of this seems to me enormously suggestive, and so I thought to ask you to speak further about the way that bureaucracy—in the sense that you define it—has become more and more central to the life of institutions like the contemporary university.

WD: Yes, that’s the passage, in “Solitude and Leadership,” where I explain that it was working at a university that taught me the nature of bureaucracy: specifically, the nature of the kind of personality that thrives in a bureaucracy. Early in my time at Yale, a friend who had been hired the same year as I, and who was already being groomed for higher things, reported that a senior colleague had given him the following advice: “Don’t stick your neck out.” That pretty much sums up the ethos. (My friend is now a vice president, by the way.) Bureaucracies are built on procedures and routines, and beneath those, assumptions and norms, and they do not like to have them questioned. They don’t like bomb throwers, shit-stirrers, or individualists. They don’t like people who take the institution’s professed ideals too seriously, or who don’t take its self-image seriously enough.

All this becomes deeply ironic when the institution in question is a college or university, a place that’s meant to foster skepticism and mental independence. In fact, mental independence, at the contemporary college or university, is something that is best practiced behind closed doors. No doubt this has always been a problem—institutions of higher education have always been bureaucratic—but there is strong reason to believe that it is getting worse, as schools add more and more layers and branches of administration, hem themselves in with more and more protocols and regulations, grow more and more timid and nervous and self-policed.

RB: In Excellent Sheep, you argue that they cultivate liberal attitudes, leaving students feeling that they want to advocate on behalf of the working class, for example, while in fact these students are incapable of communicating with “the wider electorate.” As you play those words over to yourself, do they seem to refer to the way that liberals—not only liberals in school or college settings—have little interest in members of the white working class, the people notoriously referred to by Hillary Clinton as “deplorables”? What is at the bottom of the incapacity or the disinclination you cite? After all, not so very long ago people with liberal attitudes were quite invested in the white working class, in the lives of union members and in people many of whom now tend to be enthusiastic about Donald Trump. Is it elite education itself that changed all of that? How can that be?

WD: I jumped the gun on this in a previous answer, but I think the thing to stress here is that it isn’t just the white working class, though the problem is clearly worst with respect to them. I don’t think the liberal elite is capable of communicating with the non-white working class, either. Or the white or non-white middle-class, for that matter. I’m writing this two days after the election, when we’re asking why so many Latinos voted for Trump. What we really should be pondering is why we need to ask the question in the first place, how we managed to jam ourselves into a position where we don’t have a clue as to how Latinos think, who they are, what motivates the way they act and vote.

The reason we did—and this also explains the wholesale withdrawal of sympathy by the liberal elite for the white working class—has to do with the fact that the meritocracy, over the last couple of generations, has managed to turn itself into a hereditary class (that is, a caste). The system of elite education is the mechanism of this social reproduction. As Mitchell Stevens has said, elite college admissions is the way we launder privilege in this country. The kids who get into the most prestigious colleges overwhelmingly originate within the upper and upper-middle classes. Their communities and high schools are more or less homogenous, and so are their colleges (and so are their post-collegiate professional and social destinations). They don’t know the white working class, or the rest of society below the upper middle class, because they hardly ever have a chance to interact with it, and certainly not on equal terms. It doesn’t matter what they tell themselves about their high ideals, or what they learn in the classroom.

RB: Ever since I read Excellent Sheep I’ve wanted to ask you about the assertion that the last thing such an education will teach you is its own inadequacy. No doubt, as you say, elite schools do encourage students to flatter themselves for being there and to suppose that what they are being given is as much as they could possibly want. And yet is there not, certainly in the classrooms of the better teachers, a sense that there is always more to learn, always ideas that even the best of us find difficult to formulate, always large areas of knowledge that none of us will get to study? Is it your contention that the ideology informing elite education is such as to encourage participants to ignore such considerations, such modesty and misgiving? Or is it that the ideology dominant in such institutions is a liberalism that utterly disparages not only alternative views of the world but the desire to take seriously—to ask questions about—any ideas not officially sanctioned or accredited? Is that the “inadequacy” to which you chiefly refer?

WD: Your last couple of sentences here gesture at a real problem, but not the problem I was talking about. I was not talking about intellectual inadequacy or incompleteness. I wasn’t talking about the classroom at all. And that’s a key point here and throughout my analysis of elite education. The values and messages that shape a student’s experience within the system, that shape the student, are not instilled primarily within the classroom. They are instilled in families, communities, peer groups. They are instilled by everything that happens on campus outside of the classroom. Yes, a good teacher will lead students to understand that knowledge is always provisional, hedged by doubt and ignorance, that there is always more to learn and more to think. But then they leave the classroom and plunge back into the warm bath of moral and social affirmation that they’ve been floating in since daycare. They’ve been told they’re the best and the brightest. They’ve been told they’re going to save the world. They’ve been told that their education is equipping them with everything they need for success in life. The last thing such an education will teach them is its own inadequacy.

RB: You write that “a constellation of values” is being constantly inculcated in elite schools, and I would suppose that such values are inculcated as well even in institutions that are not ordinarily regarded as elite. Those values, you say, are mobilized to help students in the scramble to the limited space at the top of the ladder. But are those in fact the values most emphatically inculcated in the day to day reading and classroom conversation to which students are assigned? Is not elite education—outside of what is sometimes (often?) taught in business departments and business schools—rather geared to inculcating skepticism or disdain about human beings who devote themselves largely or exclusively to a scramble for places at the top? A naïve question, perhaps, but one that you are perfectly equipped to help me with.

WD: It’s not primarily about the classroom, as I said before. But even insofar as it is about the classroom, I doubt very much that there are many professors left who seek to inculcate skepticism or disdain for the careerist pursuit of worldly success. Maybe 50 years ago; not now. I think the vast majority of professors, whatever their political beliefs, have long ago made peace with the fact (or more likely, learned to ignore the fact) that they work within an environment that is set up to lubricate the careerist pursuit of worldly success. (And after all, they got there themselves through the careerist pursuit of worldly success, even if that career does not take the form of finance or consulting, and even if that success does not take the form of wealth.) I’m reminded of something that Stephen Greenblatt, Harvard professor extraordinaire, wrote some years ago: “It is vitally important to remind people that the humanities carry the experience, the life-forms of those who came before us, into the present and into the future…Besides—as many studies have shown—cultural knowledge turns out to be good for your career.” That says it all.

RB: In your most recent book, The Death of the Artist, you write that artists create from compulsion, that being an artist is not a “lifestyle” choice, and that artists tend to be unsuited for anything else. I’m not at all sure that most of the artists and writers I know are unsuited for anything else, or that many of them aren’t in fact doing other things quite well even as they find the time and compulsion to make art. But that isn’t for me the interesting part of the question I want to ask. What I want to ask is whether present conditions in the US, conditions that make it quite dangerous for artists and writers to write or paint what they want deeply to express, has already begun to affect how artists relate to their work. How can writers create from compulsion when alert to the thought that anything they say may well be found “offensive,” even when there is nothing remotely offensive about it, and when the consequence of a campaign to call out their mis-steps or so-called offenses may well lead to the cancellation of their work and their careers? Have we entered a moment when artists and writers will create more or less entirely not from compulsion but from calculation, when the desire to be “liked” by the multitudes of online overseers primed to cancel will give us work safe, inoffensive, unambiguously “correct”?

WD: Just to clarify the first part, I didn’t mean to suggest that artists tend to be unsuited for anything else, only that many of the artists I interviewed for the book told me that they feel that way. Though I think they meant this more spiritually than literally. It was a way of expressing their compulsion, their sense that they were born to do it, that this is who they are.

As for your question, in a word, yes. Woke orthodoxy may succeed in doing what even the market has not: destroy the freedom of the artist. I was speaking the other day with a writer who teaches in the MFA program at Columbia. The thing her students fret about to her in private, she told me, is not whether they’re going to make a living after they graduate, but whether they are going to accidentally write about something that they aren’t “supposed” to, or in a way they aren’t supposed to. And a young poet recently wrote me this: “In the poetry world, things are on a hair trigger. If you don’t apologize swiftly enough for something someone else did to someone at a poetry reading you hosted, you can get ostracized for years (and that’s not a hypothetical).” We are back to the Thirties, the decade when modernism, with all of its marvelous possibilities, was drowned by political orthodoxy, when the world was divided into teams, Left and Right, and art and literature became cowed, obedient, and dull. The only thing I’d add to what you said is that the affliction is hardly confined to the United States. I picked up signs of it the other week when I was talking to a group of playwrights in South Africa, and it’s obviously already at pandemic levels in the UK. So it seems to be a global phenomenon.

RB: You write that the vices of institutionalization for artists and writers working in the academy are substantial: You become, thus, the “docile, obedient subject of psychological aggression. Working at a university, you learn to be an academic, to get along by going along….Talent isn’t necessarily rewarded any more than in the market.” How can this be? For one thing, “People seek to please the committees.” Itself a problem, to be sure. So that, as you go on to say, the figure of the bohemian is cast out, and the “insurgent energies of modernism” are co-opted by “good-for-society” art. A terrible expression, as you intend it to be. So that, please, would you speak further to this good-for-society art? What does it look like? What must it not be if it is not to bring down the rage to destroy of the cancellers?

WD: To clarify, “docile, obedient subject of psychological aggression” is my characterization of the student in art school—to be precise, my paraphrase of Dave Hickey’s characterization. That, along with what you quote about what it means for artists and writers to teach at universities (that is, to become academics), is part of my description of the age of the artist as professional, which dates, roughly, from the end of World War II. The age of MFAs, NEA, foundations, arts councils, et al.: the age when art was institutionalized. Institutionalization has its benefits insofar as it shields artists from market forces, but, as I point out, it also has its vices. Remember what I said before about bureaucracies. They like to play it safe. And people, including artists, who want to prosper in bureaucratic environments, in institutional environments, also need to play it safe. Instead of pleasing the consumer, you have to please the bureaucrats, the boards, the deans.

And yes, the figure of the bohemian, the artist who lives on the margins, who refuses to be socialized, domesticated, or institutionalized, was explicitly cast out by the cultural establishment. If artists were going to be employed by universities, they needed to present themselves as solid citizens. If art was going to be funded by governments, foundations, and corporations, it could no longer be revolutionary in any meaningful sense. Now it was said to “enrich” us or “enlighten” us. It was drafted for programs of cultural education. It became something that was “good for you” as well as “good for society” or “good for democracy.”

So this did not begin with cancel culture. But cancel culture, woke orthodoxy, has colonized the existing structures of support and therefore of coercion. Woke-ism now defines what kind of art is good for you and for society. It furnishes the criteria by which art is judged—by the funding boards, the prize committees, the hiring committees. Ironically, it may be the market that can save artists from this. Because while cancel culture can damage or destroy your reputation, at least among the enlightened, it can’t stop anyone from buying or otherwise supporting your art: purchasing your books, going to your shows, etc. (That’s why independent-minded writers, for example, are setting themselves up on Substack.) But this makes sense to me. It was the market that freed artists and writers from the support, and therefore the coercion, of church and crown. Maybe it can also free them from the new cultural commissars.

RB: In what seems to me the most compelling passage in your new book you note that the new self, the digital self, defines itself through affinity with the group. It is networked, not solitary, you say. Public not inward. It wants to know who it’s like and who likes it. It has virtually nothing to do with the older inclination on the part of artists and independent thinkers, in the words of the critic Harold Rosenberg, to break up the crowd. Where the modern self was predicated on separateness and uniqueness and defined itself against the group, the new self is a group self and often trumpets its sense of self by buying into identity group labels. All of this, as you suggest, has an impact on the way we think and write, on our growing inability to conceive of criticism as a counterweight to market forces. Much to dwell on here, and much that I’d like you to elaborate. Is the situation you describe as terrible as you suggest it is? My own inclination is to say YES, as terrible as you suggest. But have we no recourse? Each of us? All of us together?

WD: I don’t like to make prognostications and I don’t like to offer solutions (which are a form of prognostication). I also don’t like to trade in hope (which can be a form of magical thinking). I really don’t think there’s any way of getting this genie back in the bottle. The invention of printing ultimately led to a radical transformation of the self, to the invention, as I put it, of the modern self, a self defined by the privacy and inwardness and separateness that are embodied in reading. Now we have a new technology, and it seems to me incontrovertible that it will ultimately lead to a comparably radical transformation. It’s already doing so. Just think of this, which I’ve been pondering lately: “identity” used to signify something that belonged to us as individuals, something you had to achieve; now it signifies membership within a demographic niche, something you’re assigned at birth.

So I don’t think there is any collective recourse. As for individual recourse, we can each keep insisting on our selfhood, our modern selfhood. We can continue to think, write, teach, speak, and act as individuals. We can refuse to be bullied into following the herd. And yes, I suppose, we can help support one another in this endeavor, and we can try to show the young what it means to live such a life, and why it’s worth doing.