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Bad Is Good


Having made a hash of the world of scholarship with nonsensical writing, let’s see how the descendants of the sixties have handled yet another field of human endeavor: art.  In a fascinating cover piece for TNR (and the cover has to be seen to be believed), Jed Pearl describes a “crisis” in the world of art.  Pearl’s piece is called, “Laissez-Faire Aesthetics: What money is doing to art, or how the art world lost its mind,” and is accompanied by the following set of pictures on the web (cover picture not included).

Pearl certainly describes a cultural disaster.  He compares the current moment to the sixties descent into “Pop Art” and “Op Art,” the difference being that the latest wave of superficiality isn’t an attempt to overturn standards (there are no standards left to rebel against, after all), but simply a “promiscuous,” radically egalitarian world in which it is impossible to say no to anything or anyone.  The difficulty for Pearl is that this argument makes him sound like a cultural conservative, pining for standards while chastising relativism and equality gone wild.  To counteract the implicit conservatism, Pearl attempts to turn his argument into an attack on capitalism.  “Laissez-faire art” is blamed on the excesses of the free market.

Now I’m the sort of conservative who’s perfectly willing to believe that market forces sometimes have negative cultural effects.  Yet Peal’s case is unconvincing.  It rests on the notion that low-brow art is for the masses (now empowered with big bucks), while high art is meant for but a few discerning individuals.  This is by no means necessarily the case (see Shakespeare, Renaissance Florence, etc.).  When a society shares higher aspirations, those standards are embodied in art, high and low.  Inevitably, some of the finest examples of such art hit a chord across the spectrum.  These pieces of art are great–high, yet also popular and enduring.  In a society that shares only low aspirations, a few good movies fit the bill, perhaps, as the best we can do, while the bulk of the art world runs after bogus, evanescent pop pleasures.

True, the stripping away of every worthy standard and aspiration leaves only money.  Yet this doesn’t mean that money causes bad art; it means that bad art, and a troubled culture, reduce us to a world of money.

So there you have it.  While left-leaning academics inadvertently mock profundity by clumsily mimicking its language, contemporary artists openly mock profundity by self-consciously refusing to strive for it.  Either way, the death of culture is what the left hath wrought.

Art and scholarship finally come together on the matter of politics, however–the closest thing to religion the cultural left has got.  As Pearl concedes at the end, art about Abu Ghraib, however execrable it may be, is lauded, simply for “taking a stand.”  The right politics suffices to redeem bad writing and bad art.  In other words, there is no writing or art left at all, only politics.  That’s the bottom line Pearl ought to be addressing.


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