It’s increasingly difficult to read anything, see anything at the movie theater or on television, or visit an art museum or other cultural institution without being assaulted at some point by politics, and primarily (but not exclusively) leftist politics. It’s as if poets, novelists, artists, cinematographers, television script writers, and other culture creators have caught some kind of mass psychosis which mandates they inflict the rest of us with it. The sometimes-astonishing thing is how uniform the thinking behind it seems to be.
Longtime art critic Jed Perl offers some resistance to this phenomenon. In Authority and Freedom: A Defense of the Arts, he argues that art transcends politics, that it has its own internal dynamic that sets it apart from whatever might be the prevailing political ideology of the moment.
The value of art, he says, can be found in “remembering what attracted us to literature, music, and the visual arts in the first place, often when we were kids…They took us out of ourselves; they felt irresponsible, irrepressible, liberating.” Put another way, we got carried away, transported to another time and another place.
He describes how artists are always caught between the poles of authority and freedom, and how the tension between the two is what leads individuals to create art. He explores the idea of vocation or calling (which has its origin in religion). He says that the arts “have a paradoxical place in our world. They’re essential because they stand apart.” And he examines what he sees as the cyclical nature of the understanding of the arts, that there have been only two brief periods in the last 150 years in the United States and Western Europe where the arts were understood as having their own significance. (And the current moment is not one of the two.)
Perl has held a number of important positions in art criticism, including being the art critic at The New Republic for 20 years and a contributing editor at Vogue for 10. He is also a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books. He has also published several books: Paris Without End, Gallery Going, Eyewitness, New Art City, Antoine’s Alphabet, Magicians and Charlatans, and a two-volume biography of Alexander Calder. He lives in New York City.
Authority and Freedom is a short book – 161 pages including 11 pages of footnotes – but it’s an important book. It ranges across the breadth and depth of art, and not only Western art. It considers the place of our in our civilization and our individual lives. And it says that, often despite our best conforming efforts, art stands outside ideology.