Monday, August 31, 2015

Jed Perl piece at New Republic on how liberals are paradoxically killing the arts by requiring it be political

... The trouble with the reasonableness of the liberal imagination is that it threatens to explain away what it cannot explain. Nowhere in the past seventy-five years has this tendency to bring art’s unruly power into line with some more general system of social, political, and moral values been more pronounced than in the efforts of scholars, critics, and the public to reconcile their admiration for the experimental adventures of twentieth-century literature with the authoritarian, fascist, and anti-Semitic views of some of the greatest modern writers. Let me again emphasize that I believe there is no question that many of the views of W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound are repugnant and ought to be regarded as repugnant; and in the case of Pound, his actions during World War II, when he broadcast on behalf of Mussolini, surely rise to the level of treason. What interests me here is the insistence, when treating these admittedly extreme cases, on some fundamental link between artistic and political or social expression. I know why that link is emphasized. The rational mind, with its desire for logical equations, is upset by the idea that a great artist can be a bad person, and would perhaps prefer that the art also look bad, or at least be tainted. And behind this desire for a logical equation is the liberal imagination’s refusal to believe that art can lay claim to some irreducible mystery and magic.

That Eliot and Pound were able to articulate the debt all contemporary artists have to the past yet were royalist/fascist in their overt sympathies is a reminder that being avant garde in the arts is hardly any assurance of being progressive in any other capacity.  Nor, by turns, is being a traditionalist in politics or even religion necessarily a consistent indicator that a person will be traditionalist in the arts.  Olivier Messiaen was a fairly conventional Catholic in his faith and practice but the music he wrote was an inspiration to the post-World War II avant garde.

But the temptation to insist that a great artist must also be a good person is likely to persist.

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