Michelle Goldberg recently reminded us that in the first days of Trump’s election some believed the new political atmosphere would energize the arts. She quotes the art critic Jerry Saltz, who wrote, “In times of artistic alienation, distress is often repaid to us in the form of great work, much of it galvanizing or clarifying or (believe it or not) empowering.” He predicted that the era would “yield things not yet fathomed or decanted.” Instead, the art from this period seemed almost directly decanted from the NPR station playing in the background. Fiction sales declined, Goldberg notes, and political books, most of them about Trump, dominated the best-seller list. Even the era’s entertainments looked more like reactive political commentaries than original narratives that might take us somewhere new.
The ferment of art has always drawn on an originality and an edginess that had the potential to surprise, shock and make people uneasy. Whether marginalization, hidebound tradition, Victorianism or postwar suburban quietism, its animating targets were the pieties and repressions of social life, which inevitably become, over time, suffocating. But as politics took on the air of aesthetic charade, of postmodern assault on pedantic fact, what could art do but try to become politics at its most literal and insistent?
Granting that the great art of the era may have yet to emerge, I am hard-pressed to find the efflorescence Saltz predicted. What art is really outré anymore? Our art has become exhaustively political, but it is no longer discernibly subversive. To previous generations the idea of nonsubversive political art would have made little sense—a contradiction in terms—but to us it has become natural. It is what major cultural institutions, foundations, and media organizations find congenial. Far from feeling challenged or discomfited, the centers of cultural power assimilate this art effortlessly.
Christopher Beha, writing about “our collective political monomania” in Harper’s, wonders, between entertainment and political art, what happened to a third category: “culture that matters for its own sake, culture that enacts ‘the search for knowledge and beauty.’” This last category may seem trivial, even gratuitous, to some in light of our present crises, but our crises have flowered in the soil of its trivialization. The vacant secular despair that sends us searching for a religious politics—that underwrites the allure of fascism, nationalism, conspiracy theories like QAnon and violent fraternal gangs, that makes us long for the escapism of entertainment, narcotics, video games, or for the endless, miserable stimulation of the internet and social media—is precisely what culture of this third category is meant to address. There is an absence of meaning and purpose in our lives, and our emptiness is the emptiness of continuing to consume what resembles nourishment but is only fast-burning calories. Serious culture, more than a spiritual balm in dark times or a companion through the grind and indignities of life, is a realm of serious experience with ourselves—with our own minds and latent capacities—and therefore a main area of life in which we learn to take seriously and respect ourselves. Just as important, it is the area in which we develop and take seriously values, principles and other metaphysical commitments, cultivating these to bring back into the rest of life—into our personal relationships and professional ethics, into politics, business, science and citizenship.
It is no wonder that authentic moral and ethical guardrails have leached from our public and private sectors at a time when we believe, implicitly, that the metaphysics of principle—of right and wrong—is an invented mythology you talk yourself into at your own peril, subscribing voluntarily to a set of rules your opponents are free from. What conditions the soul to bind with principle comes before politics and takes root nearer to the seat of being.
Personal qualities are simply different from political commitments. They form over time and are stronger for it. Today we have traded personal qualities for political commitments, as if how we got to the latter was irrelevant, just that we did. But you can’t expect a house without a foundation to stand. And how you got somewhere says everything about where you might go next. The many American socialists and communists from the 1930s who became conservative and neoconservative intellectuals in the postwar period show how slight the exuberant political commitments of youth can be, but how enduring the desire for totalizing systems of belief. Was it shifting views on state ownership and private property that prompted their change of heart, or did they swing from one ideological extreme to another because what they disdained most was the messiness of society and progress, which at all times obtains and which the true democratic spirit accepts?
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