06 Aug 2014

The Contemporary Left and the Arts

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Don Bergland, Ideology, Digital drawing

Jed Perl gets down to some serious chin-stroking in the New Republic about the contemporary Left’s preference for ideology over aesthetic considerations.

Back in 1950, in the preface to The Liberal Imagination, Lionel Trilling worried that liberalism’s “vision of a general enlargement and freedom and rational direction of human life . . . drifts toward a denial of the emotions and the imagination.” Liberalism, he argued, “in the very interest of affirming its confidence in the power of the mind . . . inclines to constrict and make mechanical its conception of the nature of the mind.” In the sixty-four years since Trilling published those words the process of constriction and mechanization has only become more pronounced. This process is reflected in the ever-growing obsession with polls, surveys, and sundry forms of bureaucratic analysis, which threaten to reduce all art’s unruly richness to a set of data points. Instead of viewing life’s unquantifiable artistic experiences as a check on quantification, the well-intended impulse among many liberal commentators is to try and quantify the unquantifiable. But the power of art, which is so personal and so particular, is finally unquantifiable—and therefore a source of embarrassment to the rationalizing mind. What is at stake is art’s freestanding power.

I suppose it is the casualness with which that freestanding power can now be dismissed that struck me in what was on the face of it a fairly off-the-cuff observation in a review that Alex Ross published in The New Yorker not too long ago. Ross is a winningly fluid writer, and he knows how to report on the musical performances that mean the most to him in such a way that his readers become as excited as he is; we share his avidity, his intentness, his keen pleasure. He is a friend of the arts, and he obviously cares passionately about the musical arts. This is why a passing remark in a piece about the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev has held my attention. In the midst of a discussion of Gergiev—who was conducting the opening night of Eugene Onegin at the Metropolitan Opera, and had voiced his strong support for Putin in spite of the Putin regime’s abhorrent support of homophobic legislation in Russia—Ross complained that Gergiev “dabbles in politics, yet insists that politics stops at the doors of art.” And then—and this is the remark that pulled me up short—Ross announced, referring to the idea that politics stops at the doors of art: “This is an old illusion.” There was something in the mingled broadness and offhandedness of Ross’s comment—the sense that this was not just an illusion but an old illusion—that set me to wondering and worrying.

Note that there is no place in contemporary culture for conservatives. We will be lucky, at best, as Auden put it, to be pardoned.

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and the innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,

Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.


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