Jasper Johns, "Flag"

Jasper Johns, “Flag” (1954–55) (image via Wikipedia)

Jed Perl, a savvy polemicist far above fatuous windbag trolling, is mad as hell. Why? Because “Liberals Are Killing Art,” according to the headline accompanying the art critic’s latest for The New Republic. This is actually the best part of the piece, a turn of the phrase that flips liberalism and leftism for maximum shareability. Though the article itself is more nuanced than its title — Perl marshals W. B. Yeats, Robert Hughes, and Lionel Trilling (among others) in support of his claim that liberal “reason” has killed the mysticism and emotion of art by making it accountable to politics and other structural concerns — he seems, as usual, to be at war with straw men, and oddly indifferent to the artist whose autonomy he champions. (Jasper Johns, whose work is the lead illustration in the piece, once wrote that “artists are the elite of the servant class.”)

Like much of his criticism, Perl here seems to be talking to no one in particular, bellowing at the present from an oblique angle. And for someone drawing from the ambered debates of modernism, it seems deeply strange for him to blindly assert that emotions are not political, or that politics cannot be emotional. And without getting into an intellectual history of art criticism and history (a subject intelligently surveyed in a recent article by Ingrid Rowland in The New Republic), which might explain a turn away from the belle-lettristic art discourse he seems to advocate but not adhere to, Perl’s recycling of antique arguments under the guise of contrarian thought is tiresome. Witness a recent selection of art opinions shot out from Jed Perl’s steampunk cannon:

  • Richard Diebenkorn: “Painting, which for centuries reigned supreme among the visual arts, has fallen from grace.” (This was written in the year 2013 AD.)
  • James Turrell: “To criticize the art of James Turrell—who has major museum shows this summer not only in New York but also at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—is a little like setting out to critique the summer blockbuster movies.” (A weirdly political argument about an artist whose work is generally addressed in the most emotional of terms!)
  • A rigorous dismissal of Ai Weiwei: “I do not know all there is to know about art in China.”
  • Art Spiegelman: “Pretentious is pretty much Art Spiegelman’s M.O. His work is about giving comic books some high culture airs.” (No, Jed, Spiegelman’s work is definitely art. Says so right there in the guy’s name: Art Spiegelman.)
  • Finally, a positive review … of Jacques Callot, the 17th-century printmaker whose extremely political work is never addressed with the dreaded p-word, only: “In his drawings, Callot makes judgments about what matters and what doesn’t, and not only in relation to the human figure.” (Post-Renaissance thought leadership!)

Jed Perl hates your favorite band, and he hated it before its members’ great-great-grandparents were born.

The Latest

Mostafa Heddaya

Mostafa Heddaya is the former managing editor of Hyperallergic.

12 replies on ““Liberals Are Killing Art,” or Critic Jed Perl Gets Emotional”

  1. I am sympathetic to Perl’s overall argument, but thought that Perl didn’t quite do it justice. The main point he should’ve made is that art as criticism, whether social or political, must have a positive imaginative vision of who we are and what we can become. It is not enough to find fault in our systems and in ourselves. It is too easy and doesn’t lead to the kind of social change that artists in this vein strive for.

    Rather if you are an artist that wants to make a difference and wants art to “do” something, coming up with a positive vision of how we can embrace more of our larger share in life, individually and collectively, is the best criticism possible. If you present us with a vision that let’s us vicariously experience, not what is wrong with what we have, but what it feels like to become something more than what we currently are, we will make the criticisms ourselves, because we’ve felt and embodied the experience.

    Art that divorces itself from this feeling, or art that divorces itself from beauty, is doing itself a disservice precisely because it downplays this important visceral emotional embodiment. It instead makes a rational argument that seeks to ground itself in concreteness, but by divorcing itself from the emotional, just floats off into space. Perl’s argument should’ve made the distinction between this narrow view of criticism (pointing out what is wrong) and this deeper emotional view of criticism, which is, having an imaginative vision that goes beyond our current conception.

  2. Don’t forget Perl’s review of the Sigmar Polke MOMA show, in which he praised Richard La Presti as the superior artist. Perl’s schtick is standard for the ‘cultural’ back pages of New Republic, though — it is very much like what James Wood used to do in his literary reviewing.

  3. Jacques Rancière covered this issue already quite well in a chapter called “The Ethical Turn of Aesthetics & Politics” in ‘Aesthetics & Its Discontents’ (2004).

  4. Perl did something interesting here, accurately noting a utilitarian and politicized tendency within rationalist liberalism that is hostile to the core project of art, and he did so from within liberalism in an act of honest introspection. I knew that tribal liberals, as opposed to the principled ones, would react badly to it, but I didn’t think that they were going to be this petty about it.

  5. Most odd. Very stupid précis, as Perl must know, but nonetheless quite good as click bait, which suggests a certain cynicism. But conservatives like Perl are first, last and always ridiculous, as the writer here says.

Comments are closed.