The New Whateverism in Art
Jed Perl on why great art is triumphantly intolerant
Art critic Jed Perl (writing in the February 5, 2007 issue of The New Republic) observes that "We have entered the age of laissez-faire aesthetics." The ruling assumption of this age is that "any experience that anyone can have with a work of art is equal to any other." Perl examines the work of a number of specific artists, all highly fashionable (and exceedingly well-rewarded for their work), and admits that this moment in contemporary art is "reminiscent of the mentality of a number of collectors in the early 1960s." That was a period when Pop Art burst on the scene, when figures such as Andy Warhol unashamedly exploited the dynamics of fashion and entertainment to upset the aesthetic rigors of the mid-century art world. The difference between then and now, however, is disturbing: in the 60s, Pop Art and the subsequent movements it inspired "were self-consciously ironic: they depended on the existence of a standard that was being mocked or from which one was registering a dissent. Irony, even in the whatever-the-market-will-bear forms that it often assumed in the 1980s and 1990s, was generally accompanied by at least the afterglow of a moral viewpoint. The artists were mocking something. They had a target. This is what has now changed. Laissez-faire aesthetics makes a mockery of nothing. Even irony is too much of an idea."
Perl's criticism of laissez-faire aesthetics is not a charge that people are unconcerned with aesthetic excellence. It is a recognition that "excellence" is experienced in different registers. An "excellent" football game and an "excellent" symphony offer experiences that engage us in different ways. Failure to acknowledge this difference, in the interest of "democratizing" culture, is a great loss. Perl writes:
When the collecting of art takes on that familiar pop-culture buzz, we are seeing a diminishment of the variety of artistic experience, and this variety is among the glories of any culture. Baudelaire may have been the first to point out that one of the great pleasures and privileges open to an educated audience in a modern society is the possibility of experiencing both high art and popular culture. And why on earth shouldn't it be possible to enjoy The Sopranos and Sex and the City, which we take in with thousands of other people, and also the new work of an abstract painter that may be known to no more than a hundred? The trouble starts when people begin to imagine that all these experiences are equal.
Jed Perl's essay contains further discussion of the distinguishing characteristics of high culture and popular culture, distinctions that are of central concern since the current aesthetic mood seems incapable of making any distinctions.
The trouble is that fewer and fewer people are willing to recognize the fundamentally different nature of various forms of cultural experience. And make no mistake, there are essential distinctions that must be made. It is in the very nature of popular culture that its pleasures are ones that we share with a wide range of people simultaneously. And it is in the very nature of high art that its pleasures are ones that we experience as individuals. To insist upon this distinction is not to say that one experience is better and one is worse, it is only to clarify the character of each experience. The art in popular culture has everything to do with creating a work that catalyzes a strain of feeling in the mass audience. High art operates in a completely different way, for each viewer comes to the work with the fullest, the most intense, the most personal awareness of the conventions and traditions of an art form. The essential high-art encounter is a private encounter—but we are living in the YouTube era, when people are often uncomfortable with privacy, with its challenges and its revelations. The intensity of the high-art experience has everything to do with a disengagement from the pressures of the present. It is the unquantifiable experience par excellence.
Perl concludes that the reign of laissez-faire aesthetics promises "a tolerance of everything—high, pop, whatever: a tolerance so bland that it really amounts to indifference." When we contemplate the truly lasting works of culture from any age we realize that they are "anything but easygoing, . . . always daringly, rightfully, triumphantly intolerant."
Jed Perl's article, "Laissez-Faire Aesthetics," is available on The New Republic's website to subscribers. [Posted April 2007, KAM]