The Totalitarian Impulse and Art

I don't judge artists by their terrible politics

Jed Perl has an important essay over at the New Republic on the incessant politicization of the arts by the left. As someone who has made a hobby of taking on the politicized life, you can imagine how pleased I was to read it. Perl's thrust is this: art is separate from the artist, and vice versa. Which is to say, you can disagree with a person's politics and still approve of—or learn something important about humanity from—their art. Here's a taste:

It is also, so I believe, a grave mistake to imagine that because art has so often been placed in the service of governments or religions that it is somehow essentially a medium through which political or social or religious beliefs are to be conveyed. By this logic, art has no independent life, and is never much more than a reflection of some particular set of values. …

Writing about Yeats’s poetry in the magazine Horizon in 1943, Orwell was abundant in his praise of Yeats’s art, rightly troubled by his authoritarian and perhaps even fascist politics, but could not resist, in closing, observing that "a writer’s political and religious beliefs are not excrescences to be laughed away, but something that will leave their mark even on the smallest detail of his work." Here we have what I would call the classic example of the liberal attack on the freestanding value of art. For while avatars of the left and the right are glad to impose upon the arts a relatively crude ideological test—are the characters the sort of people we regard as good? are the opinions stated ones with which we agree?—the liberal wants to tease out of the very texture of the work of art some ideological stance. The liberal imagination all too often yearns for an art that is logical, responsible, well-behaved. And so formal values—"the smallest detail of the work," as Orwell puts it—are dissected to see if they accord with some social or political stance.

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You can see similar handwringing at work today, of course. Last summer's campaign to deprive Orson Scott Card of lucre by boycotting Ender's Game—an adaptation of a book he wrote long ago and the ticket sales of which would have literally no impact on his bank account—was the most glaring example. "This person thinks the wrong thing so his art must be unclean and he must be made to suffer" is, at heart, the lament of the philistine, the desperate cry of someone who sees art not as a creation unto itself but a tool to be used in combat.

This totalitarian impulse has infected much of the left's writing (and thinking) with regard to culture. It is, of course, not limited to highbrow or middlebrow works. Consider this piece at Vox entitled "The Bachelor franchise is sexist and needs to go." The piece is about as shrill and hectoring as you might expect. What interested me, though, was the URL: "http://www.vox.com/2014/8/5/5814026/-the-bachelor-sexist-ban-it" (emphasis mine). The impulse to ban—to censor, to keep from the public's view for their own good—is a strong one in certain corners of the left. It's why the left's response to the Danish cartoon crisis was so muted, why so many people abandoned Salman Rushdie, why South Park was forced to censor a cartoon about Muhammed: We can't risk inciting violence so we shall censor ourselves and look down on those who refuse to censor themselves. Who can forget Glenn Greenwald's campaign to have Zero Dark Thirty bowdlerized for daring to show that harsh interrogation techniques were used on terrorists who later gave up valuable information?

At least those responses involved actual creations. The idea that we cannot appreciate a work created by someone with whom we disagree—someone who may have distinctly disturbing opinions, even—is far more pernicious. But it's one that more and more people are coming to accept as true.