Recently, my fiancé and I strolled through the Jewish Museum, a repository for art and cultural artifacts on the Upper East Side. Unlike the museum it is often confused with, the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City, the Jewish Museum is not solely dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust. It is a cheerier, more heartening experience, three floors of fascinating sculpture, paintings, and murals connected to the Jewish experience.
I learned, during my visit, that my ancestors were always hostile to astrology but still managed to incorporate signs of the zodiac into their objects and images of worship. I stood, astounded, at the sculpture of Abraham and Isaac, erected by George Segal for the memory of those killed at Kent State in 1970. I laughed as a screen flashed clips from movies and television shows that captured the Jewish fascination with food—Jerry and Elaine’s quest for the chocolate babka, Larry David haggling with a deli owner for a personalized sandwich that isn’t whitefish.
On the second floor, we came to an exhibition curated by the New York-based artist Jonathan Horowitz. Entitled We Fight to Build a Free World, the dramatic assemblage included more than 70 artists, from an 18th century portraitist to those working today. The exhibition examined how artists responded, historically, to periods of authoritarianism and xenophobia, as well as racism and anti-Semitism. Conceived in 2017, the show seemed particularly apropos for 2020 and 2021, when mass protests against police brutality convulsed cities across America and a pandemic destabilized societies worldwide.
The exhibit took its name from a 1942 painting by Ben Shahn that was supposed to be part of a series of World War II propaganda posters he created for the Office of War Information. Gouache and tempera on board, the posters depicted five concepts—torture, murder, slavery, starvation, and suppression—with human figures shown in various states of distress. The government ultimately rejected the project. Inspired by what could have been, the show featured 36 newly commissioned posters on a floor-to-ceiling installation, speaking to contemporary struggles. The vivid posters were arrayed with phrases like “Stop Gun Violence” and “Our Planet Can’t Wait” and “Every Age Has Its Own Fascism.”
It was the signature show of the Jewish Museum, the subject of laudatory reviews. I could profess to agree with its sentiment and the need of art, among other purposes, to confront the most pernicious forces in our society. I nodded along at the wall, and joined others in a stance that could be, from afar, perceived as profound appreciation, my head bent forward, eyes narrowing. As I walked away from the show, I felt a gnaw, a sense that I could not quite describe then. Later on, after enjoying the other exhibits and leaving the museum, I began to consider what it was, exactly, that the exhibit had left me with. It was, I decided, dissatisfaction.
Though I’ve been steeped in politics for much of my adult life—I write about it, and I’ve been a candidate for office—I’ve always been uncomfortable about its intersection with art. This is not to argue against art that is politically conscious or created for an expressed aim, or art that exists to further a particular cause. This is not to argue against the artists who engage in politics, who show up at anti-war rallies, campaign for their preferred candidates, and raise money for worthy groups. May we all do what gives us purpose and may we all, as best as we can, try to manifest tangible, ameliorative change in the world. May we not be null-people, taking instead of giving, hidden from the conflagrations in front of us.
But art is not just this, and it never has been. It is not merely a tool for very good or fair politics. The problem with We Fight to Build a Free World, I felt later that day, was that I agreed with all of it. I was not challenged. I was not unsettled. Neither were any of the other patrons, unless they happened to be conservative tourists, and not many of them probably wander into anti-fascist, anti-racist museum exhibitions. On one hand, I could commend Horowitz for seizing upon a lost moment in history—these haunting propaganda posters from Shahn—and reimagining them for the chaos of today. The aesthetic was inarguable. The message was inarguable. It was like I was an attendee of a political rally, knowing exactly what my favorite candidate would say, fingertips flexed and poised for the applause lines. The Office of War Information rejected much of Shahn’s art because it was not patriotic enough. The new posters in the exhibit met a different kind of propaganda threshold—they were all perfectly acceptable to the broad anti-Trump left, flag-waving for causes and creeds so vital to everyone who would show up to view the art.
Back in 2017, Carl Swanson of New York Magazine wondered, as tactfully as he could, whether any of this was actually good for the art world. One dealer told him: “The art world just doesn’t feel as relevant. They don’t go to the places that voted for him. Lena Dunham doesn’t know these people. Posting on Instagram isn’t resistance; it just means that you pose as resistance.” Horowitz was featured here too, as a founder of an Instagram feed called @dear_ivanka, which attempted to directly shame Ivanka Trump, once a mainstay of New York’s liberal, elite milieu, into rejecting Donald Trump’s horrid politics. The last Instagram post was in 2017. Ivanka, unencumbered, happily campaigned for her father’s re-election.
Since the heady days of artists trying and failing to sway morally bankrupt scions through Instagram, a left-liberal consensus has come to dominate prestige culture. There are benefits to this, especially for people like me who grew up in cities, accrued sufficient cultural capital years ago, and can speak the language of the educated classes. It is good, of course, we can shame corrosive views away, that bigots are thrown out of the common square. The trouble only begins as the net widens. What is acceptable and what is not—what is considered right for the general public and what must be locked away—has hardened to a point where reading a novel or visiting an art show is an exercise in bouncing comfortably among bubbles, secure that whatever it is that we believe will be reaffirmed, in aesthetically sufficient terms, in the medium.
Two of the most trenchant critics working today, Christian Lorentzen and Lauren Oyler, excavated this phenomenon in the recent issue of Harper’s, as they and other thinkers grappled with the culture after Trump. For four years, we lived in a hurricane, and as all we knew seemed to be torn asunder, only the most extreme measures seemed sufficient. How could art not be explicitly against all that Trump stood for, when many argued that he was the reincarnation of the most murderous dictators in human history? “Difficult writing is scarce,” Lorentzen argues, “Our most laureled writers are easy to read, mostly unironic, and rarely given to ambiguity. How many stray from the left-liberalism of our op-ed pages?”
This became true of satire, too. Saturday Night Live, still a cultural totem, grew into a dull regurgitation of the left-liberal consensus whenever Trump was invoked. The sketches were predictable; we knew what Alec Baldwin would sound like and what he would do. Subversion, which is the aim of great comedy, was nowhere to be found. An SNL Trump sketch was like therapy for liberals thirsty for a deus ex machina, one that would not arrive. “Trump-era SNL was permeated throughout with the air of frantic didacticism that defined all mainstream political comedy of the last four years,” Matt Christman wrote recently, summing up what a lot of it had come to. “To watch SNL or The Daily Show, or Samantha Bee, or any of the late-night network talkers under Trump was to be placed inside a synthetic world of pure delusion, in which Trump’s obvious unfitness for office would lead, at any moment, to his removal from office.”
Writing on the art—or lack thereof—of conversation in the Trump era, Oyler explored how this approach, among educated liberals, had clearly failed, devolving into “scripted lectures” even though no one “of any political persuasion, likes being lectured, particularly not by people they see once a year.” This, Oyler writes, “did not figure into the left’s talking cure.” Shuffling through museums, reading novels published in 2019, 2020, or 2021, or hearing another pop star urge on the Democratic ticket can feel like being on the receiving end of a perpetual lecture, one that has fully permeated all facets of the culture. Art and politics, under Trump, seemed to complete their final fusion. Art could not be surprising because it had to be necessary.
The danger has always been in this propagandistic turn. The greatest of art—the most innovative painting and sculpture, the most profound novels and cinema and music—often challenges and unsettles, deviating from prevailing norms to blaze a fresh path. Modernism disorients; postmodernism, reflecting the derangement of late 20th century life, lends even greater sweep. A great campaign message or well-orchestrated rally can be referred to as art, but it is not—it is the “art of,” not the object itself. Art can have the greatest of politics and still be lousy. What frustrates about the turn of the late 2010s and early 2020s is that good politics seems a prerequisite to deeming art good. If it does not pulse with the values of the ascendant liberal-left—if it attempts ambiguity—it cannot be celebrated. No one will shed a tear for the diminution of fascists and monarchists like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, but could any poet or critic of suspect politics be allowed to innovate today? Many of the greatest artists were not people we would want to invite over for dinner, let alone elect to office. If character were a barometer, were political compasses weighed adequately, the world’s art museums and bookshelves would be rapidly emptied.
Since I’ve veered to Eliot, it’s worth considering an essay most literature students are forced to trod through on their way to a B.A. or M.A. Published in 1919, “Tradition and the Art of the Individual Talent” was not widely read at the time. Eliot was a little-known poet, not the modernist giant of “Waste Land” fame, and the magazine the essay appeared in soon went out of business. Most college students who encounter the essay in the years after Eliot’s death either remark on its obviousness or contest it under the rubric of the more personalized criticism that has emerged and since become dominant. I can’t recall caring too much about what Eliot wrote, one way or the other, but in this moment it could be a necessary corrective. “Honest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry,” Eliot writes, arguing that the text should supersede the artist, that it should exist in conversation with other works of art. Hugely influential, for much of the 20th century at least, it would inspire the famed literary theorist, Roland Barthes, to claim that “the text is a tissue of quotations … a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.”
Eliot could be guilty of overreach; the idea of art existing entirely alone, as a sacrosanct object divorced of socio-political forces, is silly, particularly when international billionaires can buy and sell it, their pharaonic wealth derived from the exploitation of the vast numbers of people living in poverty. Understanding art, however, cannot be entirely contextual, so much so that whatever it is the artist has said or done—whatever it is the artist believes—renders it more exceptional than something else created without such good intentions. It should not be enough, whether writing or painting or filmmaking, to offer up the best slogans for a consensus that seems worthy. Artists may care for politics, but politics doesn’t particularly care for art. In the world of politics, where transactions are the alpha and omega, art is a means to an end—a policy goal, or a fulfillment of power. Its beingness means nothing. And that is the challenge of art having politics demanded of it. For one, the art produced may be dreck. And two, it becomes inseparable from propaganda.
What we will probably need, in the coming years, is art that can be of the moment and beyond it, that can respond to the crackling times we are in without being utterly consumed by them. Art will need to subvert again; it will need to upend expectations and go in directions we haven’t yet conceived. And it will need to begin reaching everyone—the broad masses who don’t share my politics. It can feel like, in 2021, that novels and museum exhibitions are being created for a faction of the Democratic Party. This is the faction that lives in large cities, attended graduate school, and speaks the proper jargon. The culture has satiated them because it is their culture. If creation is just for these elites, it will leave many others out.