Monday, April 11, 2016

The Heart of a Heartless World

James Walker:

Art and culture, for our new generation of social critics — in no small part due to the the neoliberal milieu which bore them — is primarily an object of consumption. It is a means of moral and political nourishment. It can either be healthy (positive representations of women and minorities) or unhealthy (representations that reinforce “power structures”). It empowers or silences. A work of art is better or worse in accordance with whether or not it serves “the interests of the marginalized” — the skill, the craftsmanship, the care that the artist exhibits in creating an aesthetic experience only attains importance in its effectiveness in advancing the political message.

Let me state from the outset that this is an outstanding essay. I wholeheartedly endorse it. But rather than excerpt any number of other sections, only to chime in with a simple "Hear, hear," I'm focusing on this one because disagreements often stimulate more interesting thoughts.

"Neoliberal" is one of those words that I've come to hate. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with it — it's just that in most social media contexts, it's an empty leftist epithet. It tells you more about the writer than the target. When I see someone complaining about neoliberalism, it's often a safe bet that they're motivated by a nostalgic or futuristic vision of social democracy, and I have limited patience with either. Yes, yes; sometime in the 1970s, we were banished from the Garden of Welfare Statism, and since then, we've been wandering the shopping malls and suburbs like the accursed descendants of Cain. As myths go, this one isn't very profound.

In this instance, Walker has written an essay championing the power and necessity of culture against those who would subordinate it to politics. Immediately, then, you may think: what's specifically "neoliberal" about that mentality? Haven't there been plenty of leftist totalitarian states, to name an obvious example, who forced artists to conform to a party line? Clearly, they weren't motivated by an anti-government, pro-free-market ideology. The problem is that within that term, he's conflating two different enemies of culture. Let's call them consumers and philistines.

The bourgeoisie have been an object of aristocratic and artistic scorn for centuries. Derided as self-centered, acquisitive and shallow, they are the types who look at great art and ask, "What's in it for me as I am right now?" Rather than a portal transporting them to a wider perspective beyond their petty concerns, art becomes a mirror reflecting their own perspective right back at them, reinforcing what was already there. The secondary effects of familiarity with high culture, such as increased status, are what interest them. Religion, another means of transcending one's selfish short-sightedness through grappling with the inherited wisdom of millennia, is likewise transformed by a grasping consumerist mentality into the "spiritual-not-religious" identity, where, coincidentally enough, it turns out that your pure, untutored heart has always contained the only wisdom you ever need, and all sorts of exotic belief systems from around the world have been preaching a version of Western, middle-class, twenty-first century ethics all this time. Wherever they go, there they are, indeed.

The philistines, by contrast, do care about something greater than themselves. They just happen, in this case, to care more about politics than culture. Fixing society's problems takes precedence over artistic consolation and contemplation. Even pop culture is too important to be left to individual choice — we don't have to look far at all to find yet another philistine insisting that the most important aspect of popular novels and music is the race and gender of the artist. Subjective discussions of taste and quality are replaced by the ersatz objectivity of mathematical ratios — artists should be promoted or devalued depending on whether doing so helps to rectify past injustices, to even the aggregate score in the assumed competition between races and genders. Art and culture are merely tools to help achieve political goals; they're too dangerous, too trickster-like, to be handled without supervision. These seem to be the people Walker primarily has in mind — those whose moral fervor on behalf of social justice can be intimidating to proponents of "mere" aesthetics.

A different perspective might be what's sometimes called a "tragic" vision. This is one I endorse. From this perspective, life always defies our expectations and best efforts, good things are inherently fragile, and the consolations of art and culture are the closest we ever get to heaven. They are not progressive or cumulative — great art expresses timeless truth and sublime beauty in the most skillful way, but great artists don't "improve" on their predecessors any more than one mountain peak "improves" on the previous one. Mountains and artists aren't "going" anywhere in a progressive manner; they're just climbing higher than anything else around them and bringing a little bit of heaven within reach, before sloping down into the valley of everyday existence again. The cycle goes on, heedless of individual desires or teleological fantasies, rewarding those capable of appreciating something beyond immediate gratification or agitprop.