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

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.

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