Thirteen Ways of Looking at Art

William Deresiewicz in Salmagundi: 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 building 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-building, 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 unpolitical, 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 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.

More here.