Guest Columns

On Not Drinking the Kool-Aid


William Deresiewicz

  I recently spoke at a gathering of artists and arts administrators. During the discussion, one of the administrators said, “Art enables us to have difficult conversations with each other.” That struck me as perfectly capturing the going understanding of the role of art these days. Art is now viewed as a pretext for collective discourse, raising “issues” that provide the raw material for op-eds, Twitter threads, college seminars, and conference panels, not to mention (dreaded word) post-performance “talkbacks.”
  But not just any kind of collective discourse. For we all know what “difficult conversations” means: what they are about, and on what terms they are meant to proceed. A “difficult conversation” is not a conversation about the tragic nature of choice or the inevitability of death. Nor is it one in which participants debate whether trans women are women or affirmative action is a good idea. When I hear the phrase “difficult conversations,” I think of something David Mamet said: “When people say, ‘we need to have a conversation about race,’ what they really mean is, ‘shut the fuck up.’”
  In the age of wokeness, aka political correctness, art must be political and art must be correct. The point is familiar, but a few examples might revivify it:

Meghan Daum, who teaches in the writing program at Columbia, has said that what her students fear the most is not that they won’t be able to make a living after they graduate, as terrifying as that question is, but that they’ll accidentally write about something that they aren’t supposed to, or in a way they aren’t supposed to, and thus destroy their career before it’s even properly begun.

A young Brooklyn poet has written me as follows: “In the poetry world, things are on a hair trigger. If you don’t apologize swiftly enough for something someone else did at a poetry reading you hosted, you can get ostracized for years (& that’s not a hypothetical).”

A sculptor living in a coastal city, a member of an artist-owned gallery, had this to say: “The entire art world has completely drunk the kool-aid of the progressive left. Artists used to be champions of free speech! No more. All art is required to speak about and advocate for left-wing political or environmental issues.”

In the fall of 2020, the Brooklyn Rail, a journal of arts and culture, hosted a Zoom event on the life and work of Philip Guston. It opened with both a land acknowledgment and a statement of solidarity with the racial-justice protests then in progress, one that included a litany of the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and ten other individuals. Aside from reminding me of a worship service, not least because of the practiced way the host read through his formulas, the gestures framed the whole occasion in an unmistakable way. We are gathered as a faith community, they said, but that faith is not art. Art is a value, but one that is subordinate to others.

In the journal Liberties, Jonathan Baskin wrote not long ago about a recent run of literary fiction, novels by Ben Lerner (The Topeka School), Sally Rooney (Beautiful World Where Are You), Christine Smallwood (The Life of the Mind), and Rumaam Alam (Leave the World Behind). “It is not quite right to call these novels propagandistic: to the extent they advance a political program, it is taken to be so obvious and obligatory as to render any attempt at persuasion superfluous,” Baskin wrote. “But their predominant weather pattern is…ambivalence…about the rightness of their decision to go on writing fiction in light of those beliefs.…In interviews, the writers…were…careful to deny that art should ever aspire to be above politics.”

  The image of the revolutionary artist is a fixture of modernity. Its tenacity is witnessed by the fact that it has now outlived the age of revolution in the West, which began in 1775 at Lexington Green and ended in 1945 with the defeat of the revolutionary regimes of fascist Germany and Italy, by three quarters of a century. As last year’s protests in Cuba reminded me, artists do indeed have important political roles to play, but only in situations where politics in the ordinary sense is unavailable—that is, where the legitimate competition for power has been suppressed. In liberal democracies—with their parties and politicians; journalists and broadcasters; NGOs and donors; consultants, organizers, petty pundits, and policy professionals—artists struggle to be more than an irrelevance, largely visible to no one but themselves.
  Perhaps to assuage their egos, as well as those of the members of other progressive classes (academics, the nonprofit and activist sets), the term “revolution” has expanded to encompass transformations that fall short of fundamental changes to the basic forms of government. Such upheavals abounded in the 1960s, a time when politics in the ordinary sense was, if not unavailable, then manifestly failing to confront demands that couldn’t any longer be deferred. Artists, accordingly, came to the fore—one reason that the decade has persisted as an object of cultural nostalgia, another being that it hasn’t happened since.
  Are we in another 1960s now? Perhaps, perhaps not; the wheel’s still in spin. But it is well to keep in mind that artists then were most politically effective when they acted as artists, not mouthpieces: when they functioned as the vanguard of political imagination rather than tagging along in the rear. That is what distinguished a protest song by Bob Dylan (if something like “Hard Rain” or even “Blowin’ in the Wind” can be said to fit the term) from one by Pete Seeger. It is what Nina Simone presumably had in mind when she replied to Vernon Jordan, who had asked her why she wasn’t more active in civil rights, “Motherfucker, I am civil rights.”
  But wokeness is a jealous god. It stomachs no second creator. Leftist politics today resembles not the 1960s but the 1930s. As Harold Rosenberg, who witnessed the decade, remarked, “It soon became obvious that an alliance between artists, no matter how far to the left…and the self-designated avant-garde of the proletariat meant subservience of the artist to the commissar and the end to independent thought.” The Russian Revolution, he explained, had destroyed the century-old alliance “between radical art and revolutionary politics,” for “totalitarians cannot tolerate the presence of any rival intellectual elite.” The result was an art that was radical in content but crushingly conservative in form.
  So it is today. Wokeness may not be totalitarian (though it tends that way), but it is totalizing, which amounts, in this connection, to the same thing. Woke aesthetics are brutally literalistic, a kind of socialist realism for the 21st century. They leave no room for irony or ambiguity (as Kara Walker learned). They make an enemy of the imagination (as Dana Schutz discovered). They reject the notion of artistic freedom. Guston ran afoul, of course, if only posthumously, of the same strictures. As Robert Storr explained at the event I mentioned earlier, “tragicomedy” (the characteristic note, he said, of Guston’s late, figurative work) “jams the system.” So, Storr added, does the grotesque, which likewise fuses elements that are understood as antithetical. It was John Cage, a number of participants agreed, who had helped teach Guston and others to go beyond the dualisms of the 1930s. But Cage would not fare well today. “To totalitarians and social progressives,” said Rosenberg, art created in freedom—art that insists on its independent value —“represent[s] individualist self-indulgence.”
  Passed to the limit—and the limit might well be exactly where we’re headed—wokeness may prove hostile to the image altogether. It wouldn’t be the first religion to do so, and we’ve already witnessed its iconoclastic predilections. But the issue isn’t just that any single image might be someday judged as bad. All images are bad, insofar as they possess a tendency to misbehave (I mean images in every sense, of course, not only visual ones). Images do not speak their own meanings; in that sense, they are never literal. As a result, as Dave Hickey has noted, they escape their creators’ intentions, becoming subject to the endless play of interpretation—which is to say, of misinterpretation. Christian art is secularized; solemn art is satirized; the Mona Lisa gets a mustache. No art, however dull or dumb or plain or sane, is safe from the imagination. Which means no art is ever safe.
  Wokeness flattens art, and it seeks to flatten our response to art. It wants us all to have the same response to any given work: outrage or disgust or solidarity or revolutionary fervor, as the case may be. Woke art (any art, under the aegis of wokeness) is not, in that sense, art at all. For it is a decent working definition of the difference between art and entertainment that the latter seeks (like propaganda, advertising, or pornography) a uniform, predictable response—a laugh, a scream, a throb, a thrill—while the former inspires a different response in each of us, and different responses at different times, and complex, unpredictable responses always. Which is part of what is meant when people say that art enables us to be more fully human.
  In that same fateful year of 2020, Peter Schjeldahl (who, like many, seemed to think that the correct response to what was going on was intellectual collapse) wrote a piece in which he posited that times of heightened sensitivity to injustice are not the times for art. I’m not sure what he thinks art is, if he is capable of thinking that. It is always the time for art, just as it is always the time for sensitivity to injustice. One does not replace the other or preclude the other, nor is either enhanced by negating the other. I have no doubt that narratives can change the world, in the concrete political sense, just not the ones produced by artists: not literary fiction, or serious drama, or art-house cinema, or opera or ballet or modern dance. The narratives that change the world are the ones that actually have some reach, some money and muscle behind them: the narratives of journalists and demagogues and propagandists. Rather than making delusional bids for political significance, artists might consider that their proper role—not even now but especially now—consists of being un-political, anti-political, trans-political. Of reminding us that there is something more than politics, this politics that has our spirits wrapped in chains. That there is a larger thing that politics is for: life, happiness, human flourishing.
  Saul Bellow remarked in a letter that he was “tired of all the talk about what matters,” that we needed to talk about “what really matters.” For many years, I puzzled over that. “What matters” I understood: the kinds of issues that get talked about by Serious People. But what about “what really matters”? I hazily assumed that Bellow was referring to the soul and its affairs, and being Bellow, he may well have been. But lately I have come to interpret it, or misinterpret it, like this. “What really matters” is, precisely, an open and ongoing question—one we count on artists to address, each differently and each in their own way, to explore and not cease from exploring. But they can do so only if they first resist the tyranny of “what matters,” and of those who enforce it.
  As for “difficult conversations,” what bothers me as much as anything is “conversations.” I love talking about art, but even more, I love not talking about it. For me, the perfect portrait of the true response to art, certainly the first and the deepest response, is given in Lord Jim:

With these words Marlow had ended his narrative, and his audience had broken up forthwith, under his abstract, pensive gaze. Men drifted off the verandah in pairs or alone without loss of time, without offering a remark….Each of them seemed to carry away his own impression, to carry it away with him like a secret.