In Praise of ‘Irrelevant’ Art
Since when did the visual and performing arts take on the role of the op-ed column in a newspaper?
How often do friends praise a work of art – a play, an art exhibition, a concert, a film, a book – by solemnly declaring that the work in question is “timely” or “relevant,” as if those are the ultimate criteria by which to judge an artist’s creation?
Frankly, when I hear that a production is “relevant” and, as usually goes along with that, that it “must be seen,” I head for the exit before I even go through the entrance.
Since when did the visual and performing arts take on the role of the op-ed column in a newspaper? Whatever happened to valuing art, if not for its own sake, then for values including timelessness, creativity, and universality, work that rather than commenting on the issue-of-the-week, like some afterschool TV special or “60 Minutes,” speaks to the human condition in some new, creative, provocative manner?
I am not suggesting that creative works cannot dial in on contemporary concerns – social, political, or otherwise. I am suggesting, however, that if the work in question lacks any transcendent qualities, in form, theme, or content, if it does not challenge an audience to think critically (and not just confirm pre-existing pieties, liberal or otherwise, although mostly they tend to be liberal), then it might not even qualify as art. Rather, artworks that value topicality over all the other criteria that make a work of art effective or even great fall into the category of agitprop—art as political propaganda, the sort of state-sanctioned entertainment favored by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany (and, increasingly, by the American, corporate-controlled entertainment establishment).
Even if the observer agrees wholly with the point of view or sentiment of that propaganda, and therefore is well-disposed toward watching, reading, or viewing it, even if the play or painting effectively communicates a particular social or political point of view, it is incumbent upon the viewer to recognize the difference between a political essay in the form of literature, drama, visual art, or music and the creation of an artwork that is the particular product of a visionary and creative mind, a work that could only have come from that particular creator.
There are certainly plenty of examples of artworks that have successfully straddled the line, art that is inspired by and even comments upon a real-life situation but, through the exercise of the artist’s genius in terms of craft, innovation, expertise, or any other number of values that make a creative work successful (including truth, beauty, horror, choose your poison), transcends the specific in favor of the universal. Perhaps the most obvious example of such a work of art in modern times is Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” the artist’s response to a very specific historical incident that was so powerful in its scale and execution that before the paint even dried it was about so much more than the bombing of the Basque town by that name in Northern Spain at the hands of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.
Picasso himself addressed this phenomenon in an interview about the painting, explaining “...this bull is a bull and this horse is a horse... If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously. I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are.”
I recently watched Francis Ford Coppola’s epic war film, Apocalypse Now, for the first time in decades. While the movie is set in Vietnam and on a basic level serves as an indictment of America’s insane, corrupt military venture in Indochina, the film has legs that will last as long as nations and tribes fall for the folly of colonialism and war. But the movie, with its artistic roots in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, also functions as a psychological drama and an indictment of war movies—indeed, it does not even spare itself, with Coppola inserting himself and his film crew colleagues into a scene in which he tells soldiers not to look at the camera as they run past them dodging enemy fire, raising the question, is this all just being staged for the camera, and by extension, for the audience back home?
The movie also draws strengths from the unintentional drama behind the cameras, pitting the aging Marlon Brando, resplendent in his late-period, massive bulk and captivating in his refusal to learn his lines, instead favoring improvisation, against the up-and-coming young upstart, Martin Sheen, who suffered physical and psychological breakdowns in the course of the making of the film. Is Apocalypse Now a “Vietnam film” that time has passed by or left in the dust? Hardly. Is it the war movie to end all war movies? Possibly.
Please do not tell me that some new play or art exhibition is a “must-see” that will illuminate the headlines from this morning’s paper. I read the papers incessantly—many newspapers, and magazines, and newsletters and blogs and what-have-you—and I get my news and opinion from well-researched reporting and expert, well-written analysis.
Rather, please join me for any play by Harold Pinter, or the latest exhibition of paintings by the late-19th/early-20th century Norwegian painter, Edward Munch, and then let’s discuss the inherent cruelty and violence belying seemingly civilized people, or the agony of modern alienation that afflicts any thinking, sentient human being. Let us read Richard Ford’s recurring character, Frank Bascombe, sharing his well-observed insights into America’s shifting social terrain over the course of the last thirty-five years or so as he struggles to make sense of it all (on a very human scale to which we all can relate) and Paul Beatty’s acute satire of our nation’s legacy of slavery as recounted through the lives of fully developed, real characters whose drama and life choices will make you wince as well as laugh. Let’s listen to Stevie Wonder’s groundbreaking mid-1970s trilogy of albums that singularly spawned an entirely new genre of music combining the heights of Motown with deep funk, an ineffable ear for pop melody, and vivid characters, music that still cuts to the bone as well as it pleases the ear and makes you want to boogie on, reggae woman.
In his recent book-length essay, Authority and Freedom: A Defense of the Arts, critic Jed Perl wrote:
I want us to release art from the stranglehold of relevance—from the insistence that works of art, whether classic or contemporary, are validated (or invalidated) by the extent to which they line up with (or fail to line up with) our current social and political concerns. I want to convince a public inclined to look first for relevance that art’s relevance has everything to do with what many regard as its irrelevance…. It goes without saying that we want works of art to have meanings that resonate with us, our friends, and the wider world… But what holds together all the disparate elements in any work of art, at least any that endures, are the novelist’s mastery of prose and storytelling, the composer’s or musician’s master of harmony and melody, and the painter’s mastery of color and composition. The artistry with which the elements are united is what makes the subject matter really count.
In other words, when it comes to great art, make mine irrelevant.
Seth Rogovoy is a cultural critic.