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.
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.
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.
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.