Social Justice Warriors Will Leave the World an Uglier Place

social justice warriors covered art

Is this where we're headed if social justice warriors won't acknowledge that beauty is important to art?

According to the great English Romantic poet John Keats, all we need to know on earth is that “truth is beauty and beauty truth.” Yet, it is becoming increasingly clear that beauty as an ideal in and for itself will be one of the victims of our brave new world. The delicious part is that the yokels to the right that I so lovingly wrote about last month won’t be to blame. No, the death of beauty can be laid pretty clearly at the feet of a specific segment of the young urban left. I hesitate to use any of the nomenclature that has been so widely attributed to this new slice of the political pie, but (for the sake of clarity) why don’t we use “social justice warriors”? Basically, just think of that kid you know from high school who calls everything “problematic.” From declaring that one should interrogate one’s musical tastes for classism to fretting about yellow face in opera to musing as to whether a man can write a novel about rape culture, in the hands of the social justice warriors, artistic and cultural criticism is increasingly less about aesthetics and more about virtue signaling by the critic. Like all other fundamentalists, these secular descendants of the Puritans are so preoccupied with enforcing their rigid morality that they’ve forgotten the importance of beauty and creativity.

These SJWs are secular descendants of the Puritans.

That’s not to say that we exist in some sort of meritocratic Utopia where opinions, including aesthetic ones, spring organically from some untainted Well of Truth. Racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, classism, etc. are real and have real consequences. Sometimes (even a lot of the time), creative enterprises reflect these things. To argue to the contrary would be absurd. However, we must be careful when we move from the realm of policy critique to artistic critique that we don’t throw out a pursuit of beauty in the service of a political agenda. We should be wary of those who would turn the analysis of art into merely an interrogation of the ideological purity of creation and (frequently) creator.

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Not a single scene for the new HBO series Confederate has been written, never mind filmed, and yet it has already been condemned as counter-revolutionary. We are not even to give it the benefit of the doubt, because the plot offends. There is also the bizarre, historically ignorant attack, on drag as transphobic. Or what about protesting The Producers for mocking the Nazis? Imagine that, satire that mocks. This is a dangerous road we are heading down, one that stifles free expression, snuffs out creativity and rids the world of beauty in the name of safety. Frankly, history doesn’t offer many positive outcomes for this kind of political interrogation of art and artist.

Now, be aware: the next example probably violates some Communist-centered version of Godwin’s Law, but it’s the best historical example out there: If you’re interested in seeing what happens when art is placed wholly in the service of “the revolution,” look no further than the cultural history of  our new overlords. For centuries Russia produced a disproportionate amount of the world’s great art, particularly its great literature. Russia was the home of Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Goncharov, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Anton Chekov (and this is an abridged list). Of course, some of these novels, short stories and poems were decidedly political. Some were spiritual meditations. All happened under the gaze of the Tsar and the Church, meeting with varying levels of approval and disapproval. But what unites the illustrious names above is not a politic or a religion or even an aesthetic. What unites them is that they are all dedicated first to being beautiful, dedicated to the subtle manipulation of language in pursuit of a higher purpose, in pursuit of truth.

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Soviet Realism social justice warriors

Is this what social justice warriors are advocating?

The Russian Revolution and the subsequent creation of the Soviet Union changed that forever in Russia. Soviet Realism meant that art was only to be valued if it advanced the goals of Communism. The Revolution had already discovered truth and beauty served no revolutionary purpose. Art was merely a vehicle for conveying a preordained political reality. This was the end of the great Russian novel and the end of the international acclaim of Russian writers working inside of Russia.

Our mobs of social justice warriors are dangerously close to the same error. When questions about the personal character and political orthodoxy of the artist dominate reviews and decisions about casting, staffing and representation drown out questions of beauty and form, there is  a problem. Not because the latter questions aren’t valid, but because if the sole purpose of art becomes the service of a predetermined, rigidly defined political end, there is a danger that there will be no more art. There will be only entertaining propaganda.

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No more art, only entertaining propaganda.

We should be utterly horrified by the hypothesis that art which does not adhere to some narrow orthodoxy is to be rejected out of hand. Let’s, for example, watch Confederate first before we march over to HBO with pitchforks. We should dissect the acting in Wonder Woman or its costume design before we fret if it is intersectional enough. We can separate the debate as to whether Woody Allen is a horribly person from the conversation about the artistic merits of his films. Oh, and it’s been a minute since I’ve been at Penn, but I recall there being enough wall space for both Shakespeare and Audre Lorde. And while their respective portraits are being mounted, shouldn’t these Ivy League undergrads be debating their relative artistic merits? Because, Shakespeare is a dead white guy, but he’s a super talented one who changed English forever. He can’t be written out of the conversation. We must refuse to abide by criticism that is so political that it doesn’t bother to cross the road to aesthetics. At the most basic level, isn’t the main question, “Is it good?” not “Is it problematic?”

It’s easy to understand how we got here. We exist in an intellectual climate, particularly on the left, that seeks to identify power above truth and, consequently, beauty. Moreover, a political climate that is increasingly chaotic and hostile would make anyone prioritize politics over all. But this is so painfully shortsighted. If we don’t want to lose what we are fighting for to the pragmatics of the fight, we must again find a way to talk about beauty first and politics next. We are obligated to realize that the end of aesthetics is what would be really problematic.

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  • elizabethcostello

    The very use of the tendentious term “social justice warrior,” a creation of the alt-right, shows your hand. Neither beauty nor truth exists in a political vacuum, as any examination of art over the last 1000+ years would show. Sorry, please try again.

    • Neither beauty nor truth is objectively defined in terms of politics, and neither truth, beauty, or politics is an essential attribute of “art,” as any examination of both history and the history of art would show.

      I speak as one who is equally critical of conservative/libertarian/”alt-right” and liberal/ progressive/”alt-left” writers on art.

      Rather than clutter this reply with links and a discussion of beauty and art, let me suggest that IF you are interested, you might want to read my detailed response regarding the subject to Luis Conde-Costas (see above).

      IF you want to go even further, see the center column of the aristos.org website for links to ‘What Art Is,’ the book I co-authored and “The Definition of Art” (a chapter from that book), among others.

      Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts);
      Co-Author, ‘What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand’ (Open Court,
      2000); and author, “The Interminable Monopoly of the Avant-Garde” in
      ‘After the Avant-Gardes’ (Open Court, 2016) – http://www.aristos.org [August issue forthcoming by end of Tuesday.]
      . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

      P.S. If my association with Ayn Rand’s ideas on art is troublesome, at aristos.org see the center column for links to ‘Reviews/Responses,’ esp. the reviews in “Choice” [Association of College and Research Libraries, a division of the American Library Association], and “The Art Book” [journal of the Association of Art Historians in the U.K.],

      Also, under “Endorsements” (link on same page as “Reviews”), the remarks of Jacques Barzun (1907-2012), the leading cultural historian of the 20th century, who was long a professor at Columbia University, as well as a Dean and Provost there. Note the link under his name.

      All three neutral scholars assessed Rand’s ideas as presented and discussed by my co-author and me and found much to praise. They did NOT consider Rand’s character or her views in other areas, just her ideas on art and our critical analysis in ‘What Art Is.” You may not agree with them or with us, of course, but I trust you will do the same if you decide to pursue the matter any further.

  • Luis Conde-Costas

    Dear Katie! A good enough piece and I shall not contest or comment on your main point, the critique of “social justice warriors” and the dire consequences of – at least some of – their actions. But, I feel, you lose traction by stressing too much art seeking beauty and beauty being truth, since art has nothing directly to do w/ beauty, and truth can be ugly, to put it succinctly. Best!

    • Well said. Many critics have obsess over the idea of beauty as an essential attribute of art. They have what I refer to as “beauty on the brain.”

      Regarding “beauty,” you may or may not find some of what follows of some interest: In ‘What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand’ [http://aristos.org/editors/booksumm.htm] [‘Find in Libraries’ link, center column of aristos.org], we write, in part:

      “[Rand] rejects the traditional view that the primary purpose of
      art is to afford pleasure and convey value through the creation
      of beauty, which she does not regard as a defining attribute.
      In her view, the primary purpose of art is much broader: it is
      the meaningful objectification of whatever is metaphysically
      important to man.” [p.15]

      “What matters is not merely the abstract ‘beauty’ of a painted image [if the concept applies at all] but, more fundamentally, what it conveys of the artist’s thought and feeling about the thing represented, his sense of its distinctiveness and its value and importance in life. And, as Rand reminds the reader in ‘Art and Cognition’ [also the title of Ch. 4 in ‘What Art Is’], the ‘essence of art is integration . . . in the sense that art deals with man’s widest abstractions . . .’ and serves to expand the breadth and depth of his consciousness” [p. 203].

      If still interested—perhaps not!—you might want to search for repeated instances of the term “beauty” in two of our essays “Critical Neglect of Ayn Rand’s Theory of Art” (2000) [https://www.aristos.org/editors/critneg.pdf]; and “What ‘Rand’s Aesthetics’ Is, and Why It Matters” (2003) [https://www.aristos.org/editors/jars-mmk.pdf].

      That’s it! Much more than was necessary,of course. Read what you want or nothing at all. No reply expected.

      . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

      Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts); Co-Author, ‘What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand’ (Open Court, 2000); and author, “The Interminable Monopoly of the Avant-Garde” in ‘After the Avant-Gardes’ (Open Court, 2016) – http://www.aristos.org [August issue forthcoming by end of Tuesday.]

  • Major_Scholarista

    The “intellectual” language in this article does not hide the superficiality of the core premise. This article assumes that those driving the current discourse around the politics of mainstream art aren’t already past questioning the “beauty” of the work; most are way past that point. They are not seduced by pretty shiny things. Not only have you not caught up, you haven’t even left the house. Let’s start with some in-depth research on where notions such as intersectionality come from and why they are always relevant to art. As far as “aesthetic” and beauty go, whose aesthetic are you referring? Many aspects and attributes of the “aesthetic” that you are apparently appealing for have caused much trauma to white and, more so to non-white people all over the world. Perhaps, you are happy to engage art with that says you’re worthless unless your a rich domineering white male, or a rich passive white female (preferably with blond hair and blue eyes) that’s your prerogative. I for one would like to engage art that *doesn’t* portray people look like me as less than human.

  • Jessica G. Smith

    ETA: Apologies! The comments below were left by someone not the original author. My comment on cognitive dissonance is therefore moot, but my comment on the inextricable link between art and artist still stands.

    I think there’s some cognitive dissonance present in the article and your subsequent comment regarding Rand’s aesthetic principles.

    From your comment:

    “What matters is not merely the abstract ‘beauty’ of a painted image [if the concept applies at all] but, more fundamentally, what it conveys of the artist’s thought and feeling about the thing represented, his sense of its distinctiveness and its value and importance in life.”

    And, from the op-ed:
    “We should be wary of those who would turn the analysis of art into merely an interrogation of the ideological purity of creation and (frequently) creator.”

    It sounds like you are saying the true importance of art is the intent of the creator rather than the aesthetics, while also saying that we should ignore the intent of the creator in favor of the aesthetics – essentially, that art exists in a vacuum and also that it does not. Can you clarify?

    Personally, I find it difficult to separate art from artist because the artist’s specific point of view is and must be always present (the beauty of Nayyirah Waheed’s poetry is inextricably linked to her experiences of race, for example). I imagine the entire practice of art history would be made moot if art and aesthetics existed in a sociopolitical vacuum. Even Ayn Rand was a product of her time.