Jed Perl has long seemed to many of us the most vital, informed and original art critic in the country. John Ashbery wrote some years ago of his “tremendous empathy and unsparing accuracy,” and noted that “his ability to recognize the traditional forms of art behind their continual transmutation has made his an almost solitary, essential voice.” His new book, Authority and Freedom, is a defense of the arts at a time when they need defending. Though he was for some time the art columnist for Salmagundi, this is the first time he has agreed to participate in an interview.
Robert Boyers: Perhaps we should begin with one of the two principal terms in the title of your book, both of them often misunderstood or misused, “freedom” by far the more frequently deployed in our culture, “authority” by now rarely invoked, even by conservatives, and thus perhaps the more problematic of the two. You say, right at the front of your new book, that freedom and authority compete with one another, and that both are “the lifeblood of the arts.” You also say that authority is “the ordering impulse,” and has to do with the commanding presence of certain “conventions,” or “traditions.” You add that a major issue for artists must inevitably be “How do I find freedom within authority?” Persuasive, all of these formulations, or so I believe. And yet you move beyond them by suggesting that there is now a special kind of ordering impulse in the arts, a demand for an order associated with “relevance.” In fact, you say that you have written your book “to release art from the stranglehold of relevance,” to challenge the notion that works of art can be “validated (or invalidated) by the extent to which they line up with (or fail to line up with) our current social and political concerns.” In setting yourself that challenge, you aim to challenge the authority of a certain established, entrenched idea of relevance. This seems to me a noble and difficult enterprise. Difficult because, as you well know, that “notion” has enormous authority in creative precincts and among large portions of the intelligentsia. And so my opening question is this: What evidence is there to support the idea that in the domain of the arts we are now largely governed by “the mistaken belief that artists who fail to respond to their social, economic, or political circumstances are turning their backs on the world”?
Jed Perl: It’s natural to want to understand artistic experience as part of a wider world, which includes our social, economic, and political experience. But explaining how the various parts of our lives and our world fit together isn’t easy. As I worked on Authority and Freedom I found it enormously helpful to look at some of Trotsky’s ideas about the place of art in society. He had a rather subtle theory about the relevance of art. And his ideas, so I believe, have had an impact not only on Leftists but also on liberals – an impact that I find troubling to say the least. In writings produced between the 1920s, when he was still in Russia, and his murder in Mexico in 1940, Trotsky spoke up for the freedom of the artist – an idea that although already highly controversial in the Soviet Union in the 1920s was immensely attractive to progressive intellectuals in Western Europe and the United States and remains so today.
But Trotsky had an ulterior motive when he celebrated the freedom of the artist. And this is what I find worrisome and ultimately wrongheaded. Trotsky believed that the artist who acted freely was almost inevitably commenting on society, revealing aspects of our social, economic, and political situation that would in turn contribute to a deeper understanding of the world we live in – and thereby further the revolutionary struggle. According to Trotsky, that’s why artistic freedom is worth defending. In other words, artistic freedom comes with conditions. You might say that for Trotsky the act of creation is a utilitarian act. That utilitarian attitude toward the arts – whether inspired by Trotsky or not – has remained enormously appealing, even for many artists and intellectuals who regard themselves not as radicals like Trotsky but as liberals and even conservatives. To elaborate on the line that you quote from my book about the stranglehold of relevance, I would argue that there has come to be an assumption that the artist who isn’t offering a response to our social, economic, and political circumstances is somehow failing to act as an artist, or at least acting irresponsibly. For evidence I don’t think we need to look beyond the culture pages of the New York Times and The New Yorker, where the political, social, and even sexual orientations of creative people are time and again foregrounded, while the particulars of their work – a prose style, a way of handling paint, the sounds a conductor coaxes from an orchestra – are seen as afterthoughts when they’re discussed at all.
What I’m calling a utilitarian – or maybe a mechanistic – approach to the arts tends to thrust artists and audiences alike into a kind of circular reasoning. If the artist’s essential obligation – or at least one of the artist’s essential obligations — is to hold up a mirror to the state of the world, then we almost inevitably find ourselves trying to reconcile the artist’s work with our view of the world. The next step is to begin to imagine that the artist who fails to corroborate our view of the world is somehow failing as an artist. Or is at least not an artist worth considering, at least not in a time of social, economic, political, and ecological emergency such as we live in today. It’s easy to blame some of this on the Left. The neoconservatives also have much to answer for, because what in some cases began as their critique of the Left’s tendency to subject art to a political test has all too often ended up with a whitewashed or deracinated view of art; they may fear any work that seems to represent the world as it is.
But in my view liberals have themselves all too often, sometimes almost unconsciously, looked to the arts and even judged the arts in terms of their relevance. In the postwar years, liberals in academic and critical circles were all too willing to allow a split to develop, with the so-called formalists on one side and those who were interested in the social, psychological, and political dimensions on the other side. I would argue that neither side had enough faith in the freestanding value of the arts. The formalists (Clement Greenberg comes to mind) seemed to feel that art had to be purified and isolated, when the truth is that the very act of writing a novel, painting a painting, or composing a sonata – at least when exercised with skill and imagination — will set the artist’s subject matter, no matter how urgent or contemporary it may be, in a place apart. Even the most scrupulous among the scholars and critics who took a more variegated approach, mixing formal, philosophical, and sociological interpretations (think of Meyer Schapiro and Lionel Trilling) had a way of leaving their readers and their disciples with a feeling that art’s meaning ultimately involved its function as a Trotskyan mirror of the world. I’m a great admirer of the sociological, psychological, and philosophical insights in Trilling’s essay about Henry James’s The Princess Casamassima and Schapiro’s essays on Cézanne’s still lifes and an altarpiece by the Master of Flémalle, but there is a danger in focusing on what the world can tell us about the art or the art can tell us about the world, when none of this matters if the art isn’t telling its own story. Trilling and Schapiro certainly understood this. (I’m not so sure about some of the scholars who’ve been inspired by Schapiro’s work.) The fascination – I would almost say the obsession – that developed among liberals in the last quarter of the twentieth century with associating the triumphs and failures of various creative spirits with their political, social, and sexual views and orientations reflects, so I believe, a refusal to see art in its own terms. The idea that certain literary styles or artistic structures might be inherently fascist or leftist – and this has certainly been suggested – does serious damage to our understanding of the arts. (Some eighty years ago George Orwell argued that Yeats’s fascist views could be discovered “even in the smallest detail of his work,” a view later brilliantly debunked by Conor Cruise O'Brien.)
What I believe is difficult for many tastemakers and intellectuals to accept is that the arts have their own life and logic, ideas and ideals. The arts are a vital part of our world, but they take part in our world in their own way. We’re drawn to the confounding independence of the arts — to their freestanding value. But some – including some very wise people – won’t leave it at that. They want the arts to do something – at the very least to tell us something about our social, economic, and political lives. But aren’t the arts when left on their own – left to their own devices, to work their own magic – doing enough?
RB: Your book doesn’t have the feel of a polemic. It isn’t an angry book, and though it reflects your sense that we are “in the midst of a dramatic change,” and that—as your subtitle has it— “a defense of the arts” is now required, you don’t seem much inclined to name names or to identify the forces that move you to launch “a defense.” With another writer I’d account for the character, or tenor, of such a book by citing the author’s disposition, a characteristic habit of mind and temperament. But over the three or four decades when you’ve been the best art critic in the country you’ve earned a reputation as a sometimes fierce polemicist, often making a forceful case against inflated reputations and egregious misreadings, taking on influential artists (Anselm Kiefer, Robert Mapplethorpe, Gerhard Richter, John Currin) and powerful cultural institutions. And so I begin with a question about what may perhaps be called the strategy informing the new book. Did you feel that you could not effectively say what you wished to say in this book if you had adopted a more polemical or adversarial stance? You do, after all, refer in your book to “ideological forces [that] have put art and artists in the crosshairs,” and you say quite clearly that “authoritarianism has been anathema to the arts.” But you don’t identify specific authoritarian tendencies in our present culture, and don’t speak of artists who have found themselves not only “in the crosshairs” but effectively cancelled or threatened by “ideological forces.”
If this new book was by design a historical study of tendencies associated with obviously authoritarian regimes in the past I’d not be asking such a question. But clearly you believe that something momentous has come round again, something that makes such issues compelling today. So that my question is: Why not name names? Why not speak—for example—of the role of the New York Times, or the universities, or particular influential thinkers or artists in provoking you to feel that “a defense of the arts” is necessary? Are there critics of the past who were moved to provide a defense of the arts?
JP: Although it’s hard for me to believe, I’ve been writing criticism for something like fifty years, at least if I go all the way back to the work I did for the Columbia Daily Spectator when I was an undergraduate. I still have a yellowed copy of a fairly long piece I wrote for the Spectator, bemoaning Duchamp’s impact on contemporary art. I pretty much agree with what I said there, although I know I could say it better now. Which is a roundabout way of beginning to answer your question about the different approach – tone? temper? – that you quite rightly see in Authority and Freedom. As much as criticism is involved with figuring out what you think, it’s at least as much a matter of figuring out how to say what you think. A significant part of what keeps me engaged as a critic is the literary challenge: deciding how to say certain things; changing the approach as my response to what I’m seeing changes; determining the best way to address readers, which depends on what they’re thinking and feeling as well as what I’m thinking and feeling. I can’t help but add that you’re being very generous about my work. Thank you! I only hope that from time to time it’s as good as you say it is.
There’s no question that dramatic takedowns have a place in criticism. For a writer, going on the attack can be cathartic. It’s a way of taking a stand, clearing the air. Readers enjoy the fireworks. Sometimes the attacks are the part of a critic’s work that’s best remembered. But they’re only effective when they’re part of a broader approach. The opinions I’ve let fly in my frontal attacks (mostly recently on Jeff Koons and Robert Rauschenberg, both for The New York Review of Books) are supported, at least I hope they’re supported, by the dozens and dozens of pieces I’ve written about the work that means the most to me, both in classic and contemporary art. I stand by my takedowns. But I don’t think my dislikes would mean very much if they weren’t set in the wider context of my likes and enthusiasms.
You’re absolutely right that there’s a change of tone in Authority and Freedom. John Banville noticed it in his review of the book in The New York Review of Books. I think he’s right when he says that it reflects my sense that I’m on the losing end of a long battle within the cultural world – and that I now believe that the best way forward involves some sweet persuasion. Or maybe it’s just that having figured out how to raise the temperature in an essay – yelling and screaming, even cursing – I’m now more interested in figuring out how to speak equally firmly, but in a quieter voice. I guess what I’m saying is that the challenge is as much literary as anything else. I would say the same for my decision not to go on the attack against specific people, publications, or institutions. I have nothing against a he-said-she-said kind of polemic. But I’ve come to believe that in our already overheated cultural atmosphere I can make more of a contribution by explaining exactly what I think about the nature of art than by once again voicing my dismay at what other people are thinking or saying.
Another thing. I’ve always written from the heart. And the fact is that my heart is no longer in armed intellectual combat, at least not most of the time. After a couple of decades of hearing and reading politically correct nonsense I’m finding that the startlingly and frankly dangerous pc excesses of some of our most admired critics – Holland Cotter’s appalling review of Titian’s mythological paintings in the Times or Alex Ross’s explorations of the whiteness of classical music in The New Yorker – are just too absurdly formulaic to get under my skin. With Authority and Freedom I’m less interested in demonstrating what’s wrong with their thinking than in exploring what’s (hopefully) right about mine. My hope is to give readers who already believe that there’s something amiss in our cultural world a different direction – a way to think or rethink the place of the arts in society.
RB: Your defense of the arts is in part predicated on the idea that the domain of art is “a world apart,” that “nothing matters to the artist … except the perfect object.” Of course you make that case in a powerful and credible way, looking closely at artists and works of art that would seem to support this view of things. And yet there are many artists and writers for whom their own work is by no means aptly describable in precisely that way, for whom making art is something other than the effort to make a “perfect object.” Was that effort what principally drove Thomas Mann, or Lucian Freud, or Sylvia Plath, or Ingmar Bergman, or Robert Lowell? Were those artists mainly invested in creating “a world apart”? I don’t think so, and I wonder whether I adequately understand what you intend when you use terms like “world apart.”
JP: Artists who are (to put it bluntly) spilling their guts (Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, or Ingmar Bergman) are every bit as beholden to the imperatives of an art form as any other artists. They may be even more dependent on the authority of a tradition, at least if they want their rage to have any staying power. Whatever fury inspired Plath’s “Daddy,” once she had decided to put that fury into a poem Plath was immediately confronted with the authority of a literary tradition and how to find her own freedom within it. Will there be rhymes? How long should the lines be? What to put in? What to leave out? The power of “Daddy” has everything to do with the discipline of the verse, which heightens the pressure, makes the explosion convincing. Where would the horror of “Daddy” be without the artistry of its nursery rhyme rhythms? There’s a difference – an absolute difference – between a cry of rage and a poem that rages. The difference is that the poem is created – and lives – in that place apart.
No writer I turn to in Authority and Freedom has anything more important to say on this subject than the deeply Catholic Flannery O'Connor. She rejected a novel with a Catholic theme that a friend had given her because she thought it was an artistic failure. What she told her friend was: “You make it art first.” We might expect such an observation from a painter or a poet whom we think of as a formalist, but here is O'Connor, with her visceral and sometimes frankly terrifying vision of modern life, arguing for the novel as an art form and, going further, arguing that “art is wholly concerned with the good of that which is made.” A work of art can begin with a powerfully personal feeling or impression, but feelings and impressions aren’t works of art, at least not until they’ve been put under the pressure of an artistic language. An artist will only be able to use that language freely – use it to cry or scream – when they’ve mastered its subtleties and complexities.
You mention Lucian Freud. I think he was an interesting artist somewhere in the middle of his career but I don’t think he was ever a great painter and I believe that in his later years he became a bombastic painter. The piling up of paint to create mounds of flesh becomes, at least so I feel, a self-indulgence, untethered to any grasp of the imperatives of the painting as a totality. Paint becomes a rhetorical device divorced from a pictorial language.
RB: Several pages of your book are devoted to a deeply illuminating discussion of Picasso’s Guernica. No doubt, as you say, the painting has long been regarded as “a response to the catastrophic bombing of the Basque town in April 1937.” Your account of the painting tells us that before that bombing Picasso had accepted a commission to create “a long horizontal mural for a space on the ground floor of the Spanish Pavilion,” and that at one point he thought the monumental work would be devoted to “the theme of the artist and his model.” But when Picasso was moved to contemplate “the sufferings of the men and women of Guernica,” you write, and abandoned the plan for “the artist and his model,” he didn’t draw upon images of Generalissimo Franco or upon “news photos from Spain.” Instead, he drew upon “images from Hellenistic sculpture and the work of neoclassical painters of the seventeenth and eighteenth century,” and gave us a “meditation on human chaos, confusion, and agony” rather than a political statement built upon “particulars of time and place.” In reading your account I can’t help remembering what Sartre wrote about “that masterpiece” seventy or eighty years ago in What Is Literature?: “Does anyone think,” Sartre asks, “that [Guernica] won over a single heart to the Spanish cause? And yet something is said that can never quite be heard and that would take an infinity of words to express.” And with that I want to put to you my own question: What do you take Sartre to mean when he refers to something that is said? Is something “said” in Guernica, and if so, is that something best understood by saying, as you do, that “Guernica hadn’t emerged from the world but from the artist’s studio—from the exigencies of the artist’s vocation”? Is that the impression an ideal viewer of the painting would take from an encounter with it—that it feels like a work that has not emerged “from the world” but from the studio?
JP: I think that what Sartre was getting at is that Guernica isn’t so much a protest against war as it’s a lamentation or threnody, an immense outpouring of horror and grief, a visual torrent that reshapes our sense of sight in much the way that a mass by Bach, Mozart, or Verdi reshapes our sense of sound. While different viewers will make sense of this experience in different ways, I doubt that anybody who looks at the painting for very long will imagine that it represents either the particulars of the artist’s studio or the particulars of a Basque town in the wake of an aerial bombardment. Every work of art is the product of an artist’s response to something, whether that is the right angles and primary colors that Mondrian believed defined the essence of art or the long tradition of visual representations of war, death, and tragedy that Picasso had in mind as he worked on Guernica. Whatever the artist begins with (a popular tune, a person’s face, a story) there is a process of transformation that takes place in the artist’s work place – whether that’s a painter’s studio, a writer’s desk, or a composer at the piano. That’s axiomatic. My central argument in Authority and Freedom is that this imaginative process, because it involves a debate or competition between authority and freedom, has extraordinarily broad implications and ramifications; that’s because we all struggle with the rival claims of authority and freedom. The artistic vocation is the artist’s world. But it’s a world that contains many worlds – embracing political, social, religious, and erotic experience, but in its own way, in its own time.
To return to Picasso for a moment. In the years after World War II, when his involvement with the Communist party was at its height, he made two or more serious efforts to return to the subject of war, the inhumanity of war, and human cruelty more generally. There is pretty general agreement that the closer he came to illustrating some particular event or subject the less effective the result. Massacre in Korea (1951), a faceoff between naked women and children and heavily armed soldiers, is a shockingly inert work, and he did no better with the huge mural devoted to war in the War and Peace chapel that he created for the Côte d'Azur town of Vallauris a year later. Picasso did pursue themes of human violence and cruelty with great conviction in his later years, but his approach was indirect. With the bullfights, mythological battles, and scenes of seventeenth-century musketeers that appear time and again, he was reimagining and reframing violence, but in the “civilized” forms of murderous play that Johan Huizinga discusses in his great book Homo Ludens. Combat and even mortal combat are reborn as rite and ritual, often filtered through the authority of artistic precursors, especially Goya and Rembrandt.
RB: In “Ecstasy,” your magnificent 1999 essay on Bernini, you begin by noting that “as the greatest paintings and sculptures age, shedding in the process much of the context out of which they were born, they enter the realm of once-upon-a-time, of magic. If the work is naturalistic,” you go on, “the passage of decades and centuries can give a dreaminess to subjects that the artist’s contemporaries knew firsthand, and this underscores the teeter-tottering pressure between verisimilitude and fantasy that is the key to any transcendent realist achievement.” I want to press you a bit on that “teeter-tottering,” insofar as it helps us to think about the way the passage of time affects our reception of and our feeling for works of art. Is it plausible to say that the conception of art as “a world apart” is mainly compelling as an account of artworks that have shed “much of the context out of which they were born,” and that the work of our contemporaries is apt—much of the time at least—not to seem to us to evoke a world apart? Does our alertness to context, our need to bring to bear upon artworks of the present moment concerns we have about society, or politics, or burning issues, not in effect ensure that these contemporary works will rarely seem to us merely “perfect objects”? Examples come to mind. My mind and yours. One will do, or two. A perfect poem by Louise Gluck that delivers not quite a world (wholly) apart?
JP: More and more I’ve come to believe that scholars involved with the literary, visual, and musical arts have fundamentally misunderstood or at least misconstrued the role of the arts in human history. It’s pretty much taken for granted that before the modern period – however one wants to define the beginning of modernity, whether as Renaissance, Enlightenment, or later – artists, composers, musicians, and writers were by and large servants (if not slaves), passively fulfilling the programs, requirements, and demands of their masters, whether sacred or secular. I realize that subjects and maybe even the treatment of subjects were often (maybe nearly always) prescribed. And creative spirits almost invariably had a low(er) social status. But this begs the question of why princes, kings, popes, and other people with means turned to artists. I think it’s because they understood that what a musician could do with sound, a writer with words, or a painter or sculptor with colors and forms had a value that jumped beyond the particulars of idea and ideology – expanding and enlarging those particulars in unprecedented ways. The medieval princes and bishops who commissioned stained glass windows knew that those windows had a unique value – a value that added immeasurably to the worshipper’s experience. King Philip IV understood that Velázquez – and Maria de’ Medici understood that Rubens — had a way with color and form that expanded, enlarged, and enriched philosophical ideas about the nature of kingship. Of course in ancient Egypt or medieval France what we call inspiration might have been thought of as skill. Such distinctions are significant. The idea of the arts as having what I call a freestanding power may be relatively modern. But the sense of the arts as having their own power is as old as humankind.
You mention the “perfect object” – which comes from a later and frankly rather minor poem of Auden’s, “The Maker.” I take it as a sort of melodramatic recapitulation of the argument of “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” I do like Auden’s insistence in “The Maker” that the creative spirit regards the princes who commission the work as of little consequence, insignificant aside from providing the paycheck that keeps the craftsman or creator going. I would say that the idea of the “perfect object” is a goal – an ideal – for the creative spirit, a goal that almost by definition is unattainable. For Auden there may have even been a certain irony in the phrase; he knew as well as anybody how complex, multi-dimensional, heterogeneous, and downright messy works of art can be. I suppose there are a few lyric poems and a few paintings that are “perfect objects.” Somewhere Lincoln Kirstein comments (if I remember right) that some people believed Balanchine had only really succeeded once, with Agon. Agon was the “perfect object.”
I don’t think there’s any conflict between the effort to create “a world apart” and the need to engage with the world around us. Balzac may not have produced “perfect objects,” but even as he was stuffing his novels with all the rich, wild, chaotic life of nineteenth-century France he was producing something that stands apart from that world. His novels have a pace and a velocity that take them out of our world and into art’s world apart. The same is true of Dickens. I would say that Zola, a great artist but not as great as Balzac, sometimes lets the world get the better of the art, if you get my drift. There’s nothing wrong with addressing sociological, moral, or ethical questions – as Zola does – but I do think that the better a work of art is the more it addresses a whole other set of questions, questions that, as I say in Authority and Freedom, can’t be fit into our standard categories of conservative, liberal, or radical. Doesn’t Michelangelo explode Christian dogma even as he explores it? While I was working on Authority and Freedom I began to understand why there has never been any resolution to all the discussions and debates about the politics of Shakespeare, Mozart, or Austen. I’ve come to believe that scholars and critics are all too often asking the wrong questions. These transcendent artists engage with social and political questions – or maybe it’s better to say that they intersect with them – but they do so as makers, not doers. What they’re after isn’t a politician’s or a political philosopher’s explanation; what they’re after is something entirely different.
RB: No attention is paid to story in Authority and Freedom, and I wonder why not. After all, even artworks that have no narrative element, paintings that seem entirely abstract, dances like Balanchine’s Serenade and other sublimely non-representational works, often put us (some of us?) in mind of stories: repressed, sublimated or implied. The freedom to dispense with story always brings with it some acknowledgment of the pressure to tell stories and to see where they lead. You write that “freedom can only be achieved after certain constraints have been accepted,” and I would add that those “certain constraints” must also be, much of the time, rejected. Story is one such constraint, one such protocol that an artist can either accept or reject. My question here has to do with the aspect of story that writers and artists regard both as a thing of beauty in itself and also as a means to an important end. Which end? What the poet Frank Bidart calls the imperative “to get to the bottom of something.” Do those words, “to get to the bottom of something,” often by means of a story told or suggested, seem to you to make of art a lesser thing, to ascribe to it a utilitarian end?
JP: I agree with you completely that storytelling is one of the essentials of art – at least of much art, especially literary art. I say that right at the outset of Authority and Freedom, when I mention that even a child recognizes the need for a story to have a beginning, middle, and end. And I add that having accepted the authority of the story a writer can choose to play with it – for instance, to write a story that ends inconclusively, open-endedly. William Carlos Williams begins his anti-novel, The Great American Novel, with the observation that “If there is progress then there is a novel.” He then proceeds to confound that observation. If I don’t discuss storytelling at any length in this book, it’s only because I wanted to keep the book relatively brief; frankly, I left out as much as I put in. I don’t at all think that storytelling is “utilitarian.” The yen for a story is a profoundly human desire. Part of Austen’s genius has to do with taking our almost primitive desire for a fairy tale ending – everything wrapped up in a neat package – and carrying it to the heights. Somehow – I don’t know how, but it has a lot to do with her wit and acuity – she turns each happy ending into a critique and an apotheosis of the happy ending. Banality is embraced and transcended – almost etherealized.
RB: In your essay on “Laissez-Faire Aesthetics,” you argue that “the art world has come to resemble a puzzle to which nobody has any solution.” In what sense a puzzle? In the sense that, rich and exciting though our encounters with particular artworks or exhibitions may be, “there is a widespread feeling that nothing really adds up—either for the artists or for the audience.” I would like to ask you about this impression, that nothing really adds up, and that when we are confronted by an array of things that may in fact excite us or move us, we nevertheless yearn for “a solution.” I’m not sure, or not quite, what that solution might be, and not sure that as an inveterate gallery goer I want things to add up. Of course, if your disappointment has principally to do with the sense that there is no foundation for “value judgments” when we look at new works, then I share your disappointment. If your unhappiness has mainly to do with the sense that in the contemporary art scene anything goes, and that no one feels moved, authorized to differentiate a genuinely commanding piece of work from a meretricious or mediocre work, then I share your unhappiness. But I want to better understand your desire for things to add up, your sense that there is a “solution” to help us through our disorientation when we confront the artworks that constitute the present art scene. Is it not the case that a contemporary art scene is bound to be disorienting, that the relation between one exhibition and another is not always apt to be clear, that artists will often seem to be going off on their own line and pursuing a course that has little or nothing to do with the entrenched values—or absence of values—in the scene? I want, in a later question, to come back to “value judgment” and to whether or not there is a foundation we can draw upon in assessing works of art or literature. In essence questions not only about criticism but about authority. But for the moment let me call your attention to those other terms, to “solution” and the failure of what is out there to “add up.” Does it matter, if we love the work of a contemporary Montenegrin surrealist painter (Voislav Stanic, for example), that his work doesn’t fit anywhere in the framework of contemporary painting as we understand it? Does it matter if nothing adds up when there are many artists whose works we admire? Ought we to care that a great writer like Sebald is an anomaly?
JP: I suppose the question is what we mean by adding up. To say that the landscape – the map – of the arts was or at least ought to be legible isn’t to say that everybody has to agree. Not by a long shot. The problem today is that we’re so atomized that it’s not even possible to agree to disagree. We’re not even handling pieces of the same puzzle. That wasn’t always the case. Duchamp spoke about his distaste for the art of painting – he complained about the smell of oil paint – but he was also a subtle appreciator of an art he had abandoned. Jean Arp said of the Dadaists that they liked snow men but they also liked Michelangelo. Mondrian, arguably the greatest of all modern classicists, surprised Peggy Guggenheim by expressing interest in the work of Pollock, that gonzo expressionist. There have always been disagreements, whether between the artists who emphasized the centrality of drawing in Renaissance Florence and the Venetian artists who emphasized the importance of color or between the Classicists and Romantics in nineteenth-century France. The arguments were about what the past meant and how an artist moved forward.
A decade or two ago it may have been difficult for people not immediately involved with the art world – I’m talking about cultivated, sophisticated people — to grasp just how rudderless and corrupt it had become. A few weeks ago I was talking to an editor at 60 Minutes; for a long time they’ve been talking about doing a feature on Jeff Koons. He asked me many questions about Koons’s place in the art world, his critical reputation, and so forth. Finally he wanted to know what I really thought about Koons. I didn’t know what to say – because artistically speaking I don’t think anything of him. But then I said, “To people I know the spectacle of a Koons retrospective taking over the Whitney Museum is as hard to grasp as the spectacle of Trump in the White House.” The 60 Minutes editor got it. Our new Gilded Age – which has now distorted publishing, education, and almost every other aspect of the culture – first attacked the art world, no doubt because the relationship between culture and money is front-and-center there, although by now the corporatization of publishing reveals parallel problems in the literary world. The problem in the art world isn’t with Dadaists or neo-Dadaists or postmodernists or anti-modernists. The problem is that the so-called Dadaists don’t know anything about Dadaism and the anti-modernists don’t know what modernism is or was. My point in “Laissez-Faire Aesthetics” is that there are no longer any arguments about art – because to argue involves there being something that you’re arguing for (or against).
RB: But now let me return to questions about the “laissez-faire” situation you describe in that essay from your 2012 book, Magicians and Charlatans. In some respects, the issues you target in the new book would seem not quite to accord with the picture you drew in that earlier essay, in the sense that the current demand for “relevance” and for politically palatable, unobjectionably correct artworks is not exactly a reflection of a laissez-faire aesthetics. You note that in the age of criticism, when many of the critics we admired a half century ago were debating the old issues – high and low, representation and abstraction, good and bad – much that stirred us could also seem merely academic, or tired, or willfully blind to certain nuances. And yet, as you say, “no matter how maddening [those earlier critics] could become, [they] had a way of sharpening the mind, if only because the weaknesses in the arguments meant that new arguments had to be devised.” But with the disappearance of that earlier generation of critics we had what you call “the eclipse of the dialectical spirit that fueled” those lively intellectual debates. Those old arguments, you go on to say, “no matter how painful and even pointless they could at times appear, were in essence idealistic, an effort to understand better, to see with greater clarity: to penetrate to the essence of art.” But by the time you wrote “Laissez-Faire Aesthetics,” “nobody want[ed] to argue about anything anymore,” and probably “nobody believ[ed] in much of anything. Or at least nobody [was] willing to admit in public that they [were]in fact a believer in some particular idea about art.”
Bizarre, in a way, or so it seems to me, that the words “nobody wanted to argue about anything anymore,” particularly not about any “particular idea about art,” could seem compelling and accurate to many of us when you wrote them in the age of “laissez-faire aesthetics,” whereas at present many artists and writers and academics want very much to argue on behalf of what they take to be irrefutable values. The shift from laissez-faire to censoriousness and cancel culture has been dramatic, wouldn’t you say? The people who mobilized to censor and destroy Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket” when it was shown at the Whitney several years ago definitely believed in something, and they were likewise willing to admit in public what they believed and to signal the “virtue” that brought them to make a scene. Does it seem to you, Jed, that “the age of laissez-faire aesthetics” has in fact given way, more or less entirely, to the age of politicization in the arts?
JP: Laissez-faire aesthetics may turn out to have been the perfect prelude to the rampant ideologization of the cultural world. Now we have something like laissez-faire leftism. Once art-as-art has been tossed out the window those who are so inclined are free to shift the emphasis to critiques and commentaries involving race, gender, sexual preference, and cultural imperialism. There aren’t really many disagreements about these ideologically-charged topics in the art world, at least not in public. My sense is that the Dana Schutz controversy ultimately shut down all (or at least most) debate; in the wake of that brouhaha everybody fell in line. Curators, critics, gallerists, and just about everybody else involved has accepted the politicization of art with astonishing docility. So have many in the literary, musical, and theatrical worlds. Even when there are arguments about the proper ideological position they have so little to do with art-as-art that they become a new form of laissez-faire aesthetics. When politicized, laissez-faire aesthetics become don’t-give-a-damn-about-aesthetics aesthetics. If anything goes, then why be troubled by what some might regard as a lousy painting (or poem or novel or opera) dedicated to an honorable subject? (As I was writing this I noticed an advertisement for an auction featuring a work by the British artist known as Banksy, which consists of a photographic profile of a police officer with a nightstick done in black and the words “FUCK THE POLICE” scrawled in red; the estimate is $500,000 to $700,000.)
I don’t know whether it’s politics that pushes the arts out of the way or a weakening feeling for the arts that allows politics to fill a void. Maybe it’s some of each. Toward the end of Authority and Freedom I discuss the shifting relationship between art and politics in the twentieth century. The early twentieth century was a time of astonishing freedom and free exploration in the arts. That was to a significant degree pushed aside in the 1930s, when ideologies on the Left and the Right challenged artistic freedom, only to see a return to more open explorations in the postwar years. There is no question that the political and social optimism of the pre-World War I period had something to do with the flourishing of the arts. And the economic, social, and political desperation of the 1930s certainly created a sense of emergency that persuaded many artists that art had to be relevant. We are now once more confronted by social, economic, and political (and now ecological) emergencies. And – understandably – many are again willing to sacrifice the freestanding value of the arts in their search for relevance.
My feeling is that in nearly all times and places the making of the perfect object, whether conceived as a matter of art or craft, has been a priority to be balanced against other priorities. I know there’s been a lot of enthusiasm about the show of portraits by Hans Holbein the Younger that came to the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, but I have to say that to my eye these dryly realistic portraits, whatever their virtuosity, seem mostly an exercise in celebrating the rising materialistic values of the Renaissance. To go back to my response to something you asked earlier, they strike me as utilitarian, representations of some sort of temporal power. They’re excessively literal. For all the slick perfection of the work, Holbein has failed, so I believe, to do what Flannery O'Connor says you must do – make it a work of art first. Titian would never have made that mistake; his portraits of power are also portraits of a place apart. As for the current crop of political artists, most of them wouldn’t know what to do with the injunction to make it a work of art first.
“‘Beauty is difficult, Yeats,’ said Aubrey Beardsley/when Yeats asked why he drew horrors.” That’s from Pound’s Cantos – a half-mad poem by a man with horrific political ideas – but it’s from a ravishingly beautiful passage and it’s absolutely true. It’s more or less what the twelve-tone composers must have been feeling in the 1930s, when there was hardly anybody who wanted to hear from them. But I digress.
RB: In Authority and Freedom you suggest that “an argument can be made that what characterized the arts of the twentieth century was a search for new forms of authority or new sources of authority.” I like very much that way of putting the case, but wonder if the word “new” doesn’t somehow avoid or obscure the reality of the situation. What reality? The reality that is really very old, not at all new. The reality that in the arts authority, such as it is, will always reside in some accredited tradition, or convention, or touchstone, which a real artist will acknowledge and yet refuse completely to accede to. You quote T.S. Eliot, to the effect that when we seek to value or assess an artist, “you cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast, among the dead.” Maybe also among his most accomplished and ambitious contemporaries. In that sense—so I would suggest—the new forms and new sources of authority will inevitably resemble the old, in that they will be accredited, and will seem to genuinely original artists a standing challenge to their own wayward ambitions. Does that seem to you a plausible way to think about authority in this precinct? After all, what would a new source of authority conceivably look like, even or especially in a revolutionary period in the arts? I think here of the black painter Kerry James Marshall, whose enormous Met Breuer Museum retrospective some years ago included a large room given over to an exhibition of diverse artworks from the Met collection that the painter himself had selected to indicate his own sources and touchstones. I thought this an entirely appropriate and moving way of acknowledging that there are always “sources,” but that “authority” is apt always to remain a slippery and potentially misleading notion.
JP: I think we need to insist on a distinction between authority and authoritarianism. In Authority and Freedom I say – gently, I think – that there’s a hint of authoritarianism in Eliot’s dazzling vision of tradition and the individual artist. I’ve come to feel that Eliot sees tradition as much too singular, a unified whole that admits only the very greatest additions – which somehow get dissolved in the whole. (Can you really see Dante and Shakespeare dissolving into a single tradition?) As I see the authority of tradition, it’s a much broader and more heterogeneous phenomenon. I see it in somewhat the way Hannah Arendt defines it, not as a law that’s laid down but as a general agreement about ideas and ideals that evolves over time and that individuals choose to accept. Artistic authority, as I conceive it, is broad as well as deep and anything but monolithic. An artist can approach it and respond to it in any number of ways. It has many doors, rooms, vistas.
I’m uncomfortable with the word “accredited.” Accredited by whom? By what? Artistic and imaginative conventions, like conventions of speech or behavior, have authority because they are generally agreed upon. We know to say “Hello” and “Thank you” in much the way that we know that a painting is on a rectangle and a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s natural that these conventions change over time. (A friend who’s in her mid-nineties and grew up in bohemian Paris says that kissing on both cheeks is relatively new; she can’t remember it maybe before the 1960s.) I think that like all forms of authority artistic authority evolves – sometimes gradually, sometimes relatively quickly. Michelangelo’s inversions of the architectural authority of Vitruvius shocked many of his contemporaries but suggested new aspects of authority that Borromini embraced a century later.
There’s a danger in thinking of authority as something canonical. Canon and canonical are terms I’ve come to dislike intensely. The neoconservatives (at least a couple of decades ago, before Trump, when more of them were serious people) were promoting an idea of the canon as something fixed, armored, impervious. At the same time the Left turned the canon into an existential threat, to be attacked from every side. But people who are passionate about culture don’t think in terms of a canon, at least not by and large. To love the arts is to experience feelings and thoughts that defy any fixed definition or fixed list of greatest hits. David Daniel, a brilliant interpreter of music and dance who never managed to make his mark as a critic, once said to me, “Nobody really likes Beethoven.” I think he said it in the context of a discussion of Mozart. It’s in some ways an absurd comment, but I can also see what he was getting at, that the grandiosity and gravitas of Beethoven can be too much to bear. The idea of the canon leaves no room for such thinking. For the neoconservatives Beethoven was accredited. End of story. Authority – again, as I see it – is firm but open, forceful but changeable.
RB: Late in your book you quote four famous words from W.H. Auden, who wrote that “poetry makes nothing happen,” and who believed that nonetheless, as you put it, “a beautifully wrought poem might still exert an independent power.” As I read these words I find myself moved to applaud and agree and yet to wonder what exactly such words imply. If all they mean is that we must not expect a poem to drive people out into the streets to join a protest or risk their lives then they don’t seem to me to say anything that most of us don’t already know. If they imply that only bad poems, works of propaganda set in superficially “poetic” form, can conceivably move people to action, then again the distinction entailed would seem obvious. And yet there is that suggestion about exerting “an independent power,” which you quote—so I presume—because you take those words to be true. And so what, I ask, is that independent power? Do we take the words simply to suggest that a poem by Auden, or Louise Gluck, or a painting by Morandi, can shake us in some way that seems new and surprising to us? Again, that would seem obvious, though probably it is never a bad idea to remind one another that great works of art “exert an independent power,” even in a culture not designed to promote careful looking or slow, patient reading. And of course there is the other question that the words “poetry makes nothing happen” might now call to mind: If that is so, why is it that so many educated people in the culture—in the nation’s colleges and universities especially— are routinely sniffing around to discover in the lines of a poem, in the marks on a canvas, in the language of a literary novel signs of malfeasance, traces of some objectionable implication or intent which are felt to be a danger with some very real prospect of making something happen?
JP: The question you’re asking here is the one that got me started writing this book. As I explain in the closing chapter of Authority and Freedom, for many years I never questioned why the arts mattered. Their importance was self-evident. I’ve felt that way since I was a child, because I was lucky enough to grow up in a household where the arts and their importance were taken for granted. My parents never doubted the significance of Mozart, Austen, Picasso, or Stravinsky. So why should I?
It’s the trajectory of my writing career that has pushed me to really try to articulate what I mean when I refer to the “freestanding value of the arts” – a phrase I’ve used a good deal over the years. Although I began in the 1970s writing for art magazines, my most consistent work has been done for magazines that cover both political and social subjects, beginning with The New Criterion in the 1980s and early 1990s, The New Republicfrom 1994 to 2004, and The New York Review of Books more recently; for some years I also wrote a column for Salmagundi. Writing as I have for magazines that are perceived to have – and indeed do have – a particular (if always evolving) political or ideological viewpoint, I’ve found that whatever I’ve written has tended to be associated with that viewpoint. Thus – although my views have basically been consistent over the years – I’ve found that the same ideas, when published in The New Criterion, could be labelled neoconservative, when published in The New Republiccould be criticized as neoliberal, and when presented in The New York Review of Books suddenly became liberal or even leftish liberal. There is an international association of art critics (AICA) which is pretty politically correct, and after ignoring my work for decades they suddenly decided to give me an award when my critical essay about Jeff Koons appeared in The New York Review of Books. I could have easily written the same essay for The New Criterion or The New Republic – but if it had appeared there the AICA membership would have been unlikely to honor it, as it would have struck them as illiberal or downright rightwing. (I should add that I’m myself a longtime AICA member.)
Seeing my views about art forced into these ideological categories and straightjackets pushed me, beginning with some lectures maybe fifteen years ago, to try to articulate what I really mean by the freestanding value of art. How can paintings, poems, novels, songs, and sonatas that I believe have no ideological orientation have such a strong and important place in our world? What I came to believe – and have tried to explain in this book – is that every work of art is the result of a debate or dynamic interaction between the authority of a tradition and the individual creator’s effort to find his or her own sense of that tradition and respond to it and renew it. All art is about the search for freedom within authority – even in premodern periods, when what I would call freedom was expressed through the mastery of a craft – and I think we in the audience respond to that dynamic. It’s an infinitely rich and variable dynamic.
This struggle between authority and freedom, in the hands of great but also very good artists, yields its own pleasures, visions, and even revelations. We may be hard put to describe them, even as we respond to the dynamics, dimensions, colors, textures, sights, sounds, personalities, situations, and stories that creative spirits have made their own. A work of art is a unique time, place, atmosphere, ambience. I recently read Virginia Woolf’s The Years for the first time and was astonished by the greatness of the book. You feel Woolf in The Years grappling with the exigencies of the novel even as she’s aiming for something that has the openness of lyric poetry. What does The Years give me? It gives me some sense of the anti-heroic nature of life, of rhythms, interactions that change and evolve but also fall into a constantly recurring pattern. When I think about the book I don’t sense anything specific so much as a more general feeling, an atmosphere, a kind of world. Of course we can analyze the book, the relationships between the characters, the brilliance with which Woolf delineates the devoted housekeeper (a description that gives the lie to recent accusations of Woolf’s lack of sensitivity to servants). But after all is said and done the beauty of the book – and this is true of all great works of art – is that it goes its own way, touching many points in our world but resolving them into a literary and artistic logic. One could interpret The Years as liberal or conservative – but to do so would be to deny its freestanding power, a power that simply can’t be fit into those categories. Great works of art explain themselves; they’re their own justification.
Auden knew that people wanted poetry to make something happen. He knew that at first hand, as somebody who in 1939, when he wrote “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” was shaking himself free of the Marxism of the 1930s with its very specific ideas about the obligations of the artist. Those were desperate times. People wanted to help the world heal – in whatever way they could. And naturally they were troubled (if not repelled) by an artist – Yeats in this case – who romanticized and eventually embraced authoritarian and fascist impulses and principles. Why do people want to, as you say, “sniff around” the arts for “signs of malfeasance?” I don’t think there’s one answer to that question. Some honorable people – people who like things to be cut and dried — may find that they’re uncomfortable when confronted with the ineffable, untethered nature of art. Some who are seriously committed to certain social or political ideas may be genuinely ambivalent about art’s anarchic power. And then there’s the urge to see everything in black and white – or to accept some authority’s view of what’s black and what’s white. It’s human nature to follow the leader, whether the dictates of Stalin or Mao (knowing you’ll perish if you don’t) or, in our time and place (generally without questions of life-and-death hanging over you), the orders of the department chair, the faculty committee, or the editor-in-chief.
RB: Often when I read you, and feel that you have taught me how to look more intelligently at work I’ve not adequately understood, or enjoyed too uncritically, I wonder about the degree to which certain kinds of insight into works of art may seem elusive or willful. Now and then one of my own students, responding to something I myself have written about a novel or a film, will ask how ever I came to see that, or that, in a particular work. How did I arrive at the observation that the voice in a given poem was “false”? How did I come to say that the verbiage in the novels of the late Henry James is exaggerated, excessive? I can well imagine that your own students might have similar questions to put to you about many things you write, especially about artists who are much favored, even revered, in our culture. How ever did you come to speak of Gerhard Richter’s “tepid, tamped-down vision”? What precisely is a tamped-down vision? That is what I imagine a student saying to you. What makes a vision tepid and tamped-down? What brings you to say that in Richter “where an image begins or ends feels utterly arbitrary”? How can you be so sure that the mood in Richter is “deprivation chic” and that the grays in his paintings are “just a logo—an advertisement for the tedium of postwar existence”? You see, of course, what I’m getting at here. At observations rooted in judgments not usually supportable in the way we support judgments about a poorly drawn hand in a portrait, or a flaw in the perspective of a landscape painting apparently concerned with perspective. Your own writing comes to us with a conviction, learning and authority we are hard put to challenge. It is often brashly and robustly judgmental—judgmental in the best and most bracing sense. Is it reasonable to say, in fact, that first-rate criticism, in the arts, must be brashly robust and judgmental, and that it must deal in observations that are bound to seem to some readers unaccountable, out of reach? Perhaps problematic but not quite disputable?
JP: Criticism is a basic human activity. The beginning of criticism is something as simple as the question we ask when we leave the movie theater (when we used to go): “So what did you think?” It’s funny that you mention your problems with the late Henry James. Because I adore the late James, even the late essays and reviews. I find what you call the exaggeration and excess totally justified, a way of defining hairsbreadth distinctions and shades of apprehension and feeling. But I know exactly what you’re talking about. I see why you find it exaggerated and excessive – and of course you’re far from the only one. Which is a way of saying that our critical differences can be a way of refining out understanding of a work of art – or of better understanding one another and how our friends think and feel. I’ve come more and more to believe that Clement Greenberg is wrong about just about everything, and yet I admire his writing tremendously, in part for the almost Hemingwayesque directness and beauty of the prose, but also for the clarity with which he articulates a vision of the artist not as an autonomous actor but as a participant in an evolutionary, world-historical process. His view of Picasso or Pollock as bending to some historical imperative – although Greenberg would have denied that that’s what he was saying – helps me clarify my own very different view of creative independence.
A critic’s likes and dislikes can’t be just thumbs up and thumbs down, at least not if the criticism is going to have any weight or staying power. The likes and dislikes need to have depth, reach, and range; they need to help us understand something about the critic’s way of seeing the world and the way the work of art operates. When that happens criticism becomes a kind of ideal exchange among friends and colleagues, complete with heated arguments and moments of joyful agreement. The critic needs space and a relatively consistent audience – and that, of course, isn’t easy to find. Ideally, you need to be able to communicate with your readers time and again, sometimes going into things meticulously, at other times just letting your feelings explode. Hopefully over time your readers get a sense of who you are and what you think and feel. A certain level of trust develops. That doesn’t mean that the writer and the reader will always agree – hopefully you will get to a point with certain readers where you can agree to disagree. One of the nicest things that somebody can say to me about something I’ve written is that they disagree but see where I’m coming from and where I’m going and feel that we’re seeing things together, although differently. Criticism is about human experience. It’s not necessarily a question of right or wrong. Though of course I very much hope that what I’ve written has some lasting value – some lasting truth.
RB: There are pages in your new book where you make a brilliant case for the “pictorial weavings” of the textile artist Anni Albers. Reading your account, I find it impossible not to take seriously Albers’ statement that “it is form—whatever form may be—that is, I feel, our salvation.” And of course there is a sense in which Albers speaks for a whole range of artists whose work in no way resembles hers, work that would never be mistaken for “craft,” as hers was for a long time. Moreover, the emphasis on form is present as well in the reflections of many other artists, including writers like the Henry James who, as you say, exhibited “extraordinary deliberateness” in the construction of his fictions. And yet I can’t help asking whether it is really a good idea to think of the arts in anything like a unitary or comprehensive way, to think of Albers’ emphasis on form as “our salvation” as an expression of the sentiment informing the perspective of widely disparate artists. I’ve just reread James’s Portrait of a Lady, since my undergraduate years one of my favorite books, and though I’ve also been studying the difference between the 1882 text of the novel and the 1907 text James substantially revised for the New York Edition of his works, and thus thought a great deal about James’s absorption in formal matters, I can’t help feeling that even a work so meticulously constructed is more of a loose baggy monster than anything we can see or feel when we look at an Albers weaving. Albers said that “limitlessness leads to nothing but formlessness, a melting into nowhere,” and there is a sense in which she is surely right. And yet I’m not sure that the sensation of something like “limitlessness” we feel in a long novel by James, or Tolstoy, or Dostoyevski, has anything to do with “formlessness” or the risk of going “nowhere.” Can you help me think through this just a bit? Can Anni Albers’ commitment to formal scruple as a “salvation” be extended to artists of a fully different disposition?
JP: Anni Albers’s weavings are obviously closer in spirit to a lyric poem than a panoramic novel. But it’s in the very nature of art that limited means are what artists have to work with as they explore the limitlessness of experience. I suppose the genius of Tolstoy has something to do with the way that sentences, paragraphs, and chapters are joined and juxtaposed to create an illusion of expansiveness – temporal, psychological, emotional – that counfounds the inherently limited nature of words, sentences, and paragraphs. What for lack of a better word I’ll call the magic of art has everything to do with the dynamic relationship between the particulars of the work (whether words, shapes, sounds, colors, plots, characters) and what the artist makes of all that. Toward the beginning of Authority and Freedom I write this: “Artists, however much they are shaped by their time and place and by the ideas and ideals that animate their age, must reshape experience. That’s their mandate. The reshaping, which turns experiences into art, is both artisanal (a matter of mastering the tools of the trade, whether words, colors, shapes, sounds, or movements) and metaphysical (a never-ending competition between the rival claims of authority and freedom). The metaphysical is embedded in the artisanal.” Considering the social, political, and ecological crises that we’re confronting today art’s concerns can seem parochial. There may be a sense in which the arts are narrow. But if so, it’s the narrowness that makes it possible for artists to dig deep – very deep.