Guest Columns

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Art


William Deresiewicz

Art is useless, said Wilde. Art is for art’s sake—that is, for beauty’s sake. But why do we possess a sense of beauty to begin with? A question we will never answer. Perhaps it’s just a kind of superfluity of sexual attraction. Nature needs us to feel drawn to other human bodies, but evolution is imprecise. In order to go far enough, to make that feeling strong enough, it went too far. Others are powerfully lovely to us, but so, in a strangely different, strangely similar way, are flowers and sunsets. Art, in turn, this line of thought might go, is a response to natural beauty. Stunned by it, we seek to rival it, to reproduce it, to prolong it. Flowers fade, sunsets melt from moment to moment; the love of bodies brings us grief. Art abides. “When old age shall this generational waste, / Thou shalt remain.”

Art is for truth. Even Wilde suggests as much, though he, and we, don’t call it truth but meaning. Art points beyond itself. At what? At us. The role of art is to compile the endless atlas of human experience. It’s often not a pretty picture for, as Solzhenitsyn said, the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. Except it’s not a line; it’s a tangle. The gurus want to solve human nature; so do the utopians, the ideologues and revolutionaries. The artist, wiser, observes it, above all in herself. One answer to a question of the moment, is it ethical to engage with art by bad people, is: what other kind of people are there? If artists are heroic, it’s in this: that they are willing to confess the dirty human secrets that the rest of us can’t even bear to look at.

Art is for justice. Excuse me, “social justice.” So today’s ideologues and revolutionaries claim. They seek to yoke the artist to their plow. But the artist and the revolutionary, Baldwin said, “seem doomed to stand forever at an odd and rather uncomfortable angle to each other.” Both are visionaries, he continued, but their vision differs. Art may sometimes serve the cause of justice, but only ever indirectly. To improve the world (I will not say perfect or save, for these are illusions), you first have to know it. Art comes before politics, because truth comes before justice.

Art is good for us. That’s the institutional line: the NEA line, the PBS line, the foundation and museum line. Art is meant to “educate” us, to “enlighten” us—at most, to “challenge” us or challenge “the status quo,” but always within the four corners of consensus values. It’s always repelled me, this way of thinking: its mealy-mouthed, Victorian, Unitarian-church-lady lukewarm bath of civic good intentions. Art is good for us, like exercise and vitamins and having lots of fiber in your diet, a kind of spiritual tonic for the body politic. It is exactly such earnest importance that Wilde was thumbing his nose at. Yet aren’t I guilty of it, in my own way, too?

Art, I have preached, is for bildung, self-development, especially within the context of an undergraduate education. Art helps you to become a deeper, freer version of yourself, etc., etc., blah blah blah, you’ve heard the song a thousand times. So what’s the difference between that and “art is good for us”? If there is one, it is this. The whole modern idea—the liberal idea—is that the group isn’t all. The state, the clan, the tribe: that within these we carve out space for the individual (think of the Bill of Rights, as it dwells within the Constitution); that carving out space for the individual (“to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men”) is indeed the whole point of the thing. But that space is always under siege, mainly by people who think they know what’s good for us: by the church ladies or, now, the progressive commissars, who are really just militant church ladies. The point of art-for-bildung, as I understand it, is to help you to become an individual—a cussed, wayward, stubborn individual, with your own ideas and purposes—not to fit you to the group. Is it contradictory to try to use the setting of an institution, a university, to teach young people to be individuals? It is. It would be better not to have to. But that is what we have.

Art is for constituting the tribe, especially in modernity. We’ve seen no better instance of this recently than the all-conquering Swifties, a group so large and mighty it could plausibly demand a seat on the Security Council. Art unites us across existing groups; it creates new groups where none existed. Hence the salience of “fandom” —the costumes, the Cons, the devotional art—for the rootless children of the internet age.

Art is for connecting us, as individuals, outside the borders of the group. In a previous piece for these pages, I said that artists’ proper role, not even now but especially now, is to be un-political, trans-political, to remind us of everything in our experience that can’t be captured by the categories of the moment. Three weeks after sending in the piece, I came across a perfect example of what I was talking about. It was an essay by Meghan Daum, called “The Broken-In World,” about life after divorce, life in middle age, life in the wake of life’s inevitable fuck-ups and regrets. “[A]s your story joins the chorus of stories being told and listened to in as many versions as there are broken people to tell and hear them,” she writes, “you slide into a new kind of world.…It’s a world built on scar tissue, which turns out to be a surprisingly solid foundation. And at some point, without quite realizing it, your life goes from broken to broken in.” It is a piece about the beauty that lies on the other side of disfigurement, the honesty that lies on the other side of forty. And those are human things, two among a million, that don’t have anything to do with where you stand on the identity grid or the political spectrum.

Art is for cultural capital. As much as I hate “art is good for us,” I hate this notion even more. That is, no doubt, because it’s personal. My father didn’t have the term, but that is what he modeled for us. Art was something “one ought to know about” (not know, know about): Renaissance painting, “The Three Bs” of classical music. Well, he was an immigrant, came of age in the 40s and 50s, had upward aspirations. I should go easy on the guy. Less forgivable are those who do have the term, and wave it around, and tell us that’s all that it is: that professing a taste for Michelangelo or Beethoven, or Succession or The Talking Heads, is only a way of signaling one’s class. The idea is the province of academic careerists, people who would never let themselves be led astray by a genuine response. But there are those who truly do not give a shit what others think about their tastes. Art is bread and meat for them, or rather, bread and wine.

Art is for equipping us for modern life. Art became modern when artists ceased to work within traditions and embraced the imperative to invent their own. Art became difficult. Reading a poem, standing before a canvas, we no longer know what to think, because we have lost the conventions that would once have done our thinking for us. New demands are placed on us for comprehension and judgment. But such is modern life in all its aspects: a ceaseless cognitive and moral challenge, an attempt to keep our feet, and heads, on ever-shifting ground. Art tunes us for the task.

Art is for civilizing us. So says Dave Hickey in “A World Like Santa Barbara,” an essay every word and punctuation mark of which is relevant to our unhappy moment. Art, for him, lines up with urban life: with commerce, with difference. Uncivilized itself, a realm of turbulent energies, it is a way that we— “a diverse populace” living in a “tumultuous, heterogeneous” world—can negotiate difference and the anxieties it arouses. Art, we might say in his spirit—which welcomed art’s entanglement with the commercial—is itself like commerce, even like money, an instrument of mediation and negotiation. But “a culture that proposes the instantaneous alleviation of anxiety as its primary goal,” he says, is inimical to art and its civilizing function, which is not to eliminate anxiety but to teach us to enjoy and exploit it. His target here is “safety,” as a desideratum for children and others. His target is the church ladies: the normative, the therapeutic, the calmers and shushers. For with art, he says, we civilize each other, careless of authorities and institutions. One of Hickey’s favorite words was “pagan,” and another was “democracy.” We worship many gods in this republic—Barbie, Warhol, Taxi Driver, Taylor Swift—and we do so in freedom, pursuing our happiness, as equals. Cultural objects, he insisted, are occasions of “contentious civility,” a peaceful, ongoing, unsupervised debate about the terms of our collective life. What we have loved, others will love—or hate, or be left cold by, or just sort of like, but it is the argument that matters.

Art is for artists. Making art is its own reward—what it teaches you, where it brings you, how it changes you—which is just as well, because that is often its only reward. In a survey by the Urban Institute, 96% of respondents agreed that art has a great deal of value; only 27%, that artists contribute a lot to society. No, the numbers make no sense, except to remind us that Americans hate artists. They hate them with a passion.

Is art for one thing only? Do we need—why do I feel the need?—to formulate a Grand Unified Theory of art, one that would reconcile its various and sometimes contradictory purposes, that would proclaim, finally, that art may be for this or that, but this is what it’s really for? Food is for many things, and so is education, and government, and marriage, so why not art? And why do we need to say what art is for at all (those of us who do)? Because we feel we have to justify its existence: because it is so often accused, in this country, of being frivolous, merely ornamental, a luxury good; even more, because we want to see it funded and supported—by universities, philanthropies, the public. In other words, to look the matter in the face, we want other people to support the art we like, the art that can’t support itself because not enough people do like it: poetry; orchestral music; performance, conceptual, and social practice art; jazz, at this point; literary fiction, possibly soon. Which is pretty arrogant and pretty selfish. Plus—and here’s the point—it distorts the way we talk about what art is for. We bend our rhetoric, even our thinking, toward that which might appeal to funders, politicians, opinion makers. We say that art is good for us, or that it’s good for the local economy, or that it’s necessary for a healthy polity. But none of these are actually why we care about it. And the true reason is not amenable to public appeal.

Art is for increasing life. That, I believe, after all the other purposes receive their due, is really what it’s for—why we revere it, why we give our hearts to it. What do I mean by increasing life? How can we live more, given that we can’t live longer? Through attention and intensity. Being fully present to the world, and feeling without reservation: the two things that making art requires and that experiencing it involves. “Being in love,” Tim Kreider writes, “is one of the only times when life is anything like art,” but the reverse is also true. Art is one of the only times when life is anything like being in love. Attention, intensity. It is also one of the only times when waking life is anything like dreaming. I awaken from a dream, from its saturation of meaning and feeling, its world of color and complete fulfillment, its crowd of presences, of distant friends, old lovers, dead parents, to the drabness of quotidian life, to the narrowness of my existence, to my same old dismal self. Oh yeah, it’s me again. How can I regain that paradise, which was here just a moment ago? Only through art: through music, through story, through the alchemy of verse. I was listening to Abbey Road the other day. Somewhere between “You Never Give Me Your Money” and “Golden Slumbers,” I finally understood Nabokov’s definition of aesthetic bliss: “a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.” It is in this respect, and this one only, that art is utopian (and the reason that it gets dragooned for service to political utopias, which are a completely different kind of thing). Art connects us with another world, which has no place in ours. That world is, to use a term at which my reason recoils, the spirit world. Traditional societies did not feel the need to justify what we call art. Its purpose was obvious to them: to conjure spirits, to converse with divinity, to tap the source of being. Art is a fountain of spirit—that’s the closest I can come to it, though I’m thinking less of water than of magma. There is a crack, somewhere. Something flows, from somewhere. We gather around it; we build temples to it, which we call theaters and museums; we worship its earthly channels, whom we call geniuses; we talk about it endlessly. We may even posit that the thing that our existence is for is art.