An anecdote: it is twenty or so years ago, and two friends, J. and M., are in Florence, relaxedly on the trail of some of the city’s less well known artistic treasures. In a nondescript street, M. pauses before a nondescript church, which, according to his Royal Automobile Club guidebook to Italy, published in 1928—yes, he has his eccentricities—houses a fragment of a mural by Filippo Lippi (1406–1469) that is not to be missed.
They enter the church, deserted on this weekday morning, and stand in the spot where what survives of the mural is supposedly to be found. However, on the wall there is only an enormous and exceedingly bad painting, in a heavy wooden frame, done primarily in weary shades of brown, depicting a Tuscan landscape with dim saints and sentinel cypresses and an unidentifiable bird on a bough. Not a mural, certainly, and certainly not a work by Lippi.
Disappointed, the two begin to turn away, until J. notices, at the right-hand side of the frame, two rusty hinges, and, on the other side, a six-inch nail hammered into the wall at an angle and acting as a latch. He grasps the nail, turns it, and, with an effort, draws open the painting on its hinges. And there before them on the pristine wall is the fragment of Lippi’s mural.
It is no more than a ragged-edged circular patch the size of a large platter. It depicts the haloed head of John the Evangelist, Jesus’ favorite disciple, and behind him, in the middle distance, a servant woman hanging out washing on a clothesline, with a frisky little white dog gamboling at her feet. After a long, silent consideration of the work, J. draws the big brown picture to the wall, turns the nail to latch it shut, and the two friends depart.
Years pass, and one day the pair find themselves in Florence again. J. suggests that they should stop and have another look at Lippi’s Saint John. The trouble is, M. has forgotten which church they visited on that previous occasion, and he no longer has his antique RAC guidebook. So the precious fragment is relost, and who can say when it will be found again, if ever?
This raises a number of questions, the most interesting one being: In what category or condition of art does the Lippi fragment now exist? Perhaps only the two friends know it is there, and they cannot find it. Yet undoubtedly it is still a work of art, which in its present state of concealment is, one might say, inactive yet not inconsequential, unseen yet vividly existent. Indeed, it can claim to possess in an extreme and highly purified form an essential quality of all true art, which is the quality of hiddenness.
Art, and great art especially, to an extent always withholds itself, conceals itself, in the plainest of plain sight; the work of art is at once there and not there. This withdrawnness is one of the qualities, perhaps the most important one, that contribute to the work’s inexhaustibility, the attribute that compels us to return again and again to the painting, the poem, the sonata, the novel, as to a mystery we shall never solve, although the effort, the repeated interrogation of the work, is a source of undiminishing interest and aesthetic pleasure.
Look at Velázquez’s Las Meninas; read something as transparent-seeming as Philip Larkin’s near-perfect lyric poem “Cut Grass”; listen to almost anything by Bach: the longer you listen, read, or look, the deeper the mystery becomes. What exactly is being said here, you ask yourself, and, more significantly, what is not being said, or what is being said but not to us; what is being withheld?
In Authority and Freedom, his brief, timely, understated, but wholly persuasive polemic, Jed Perl writes:
At the heart of every encounter with a work of art—whether sacred or secular, public or private, mass-market or avant-garde—there’s the enigma of the work itself, which, even when designed to serve some apparently cut-and-dried purpose, only really succeeds when the artist or artists involved are driven by an imaginative imperative.
The mystery of the “imaginative imperative” was less apparent in the epochs in which the artistic labor that went into the making of a work was considered irrelevant to the purpose of the piece, whether as an earthly symbolization of the divine, as an emblem of the power of princes, as the blazon of a nation’s consciousness of itself, or just as a precious object to be bought and sold, shown off and prized.1
A change came about with the Renaissance, when artists, or some artists, exercising newfound powers of realistic representation, new subtleties of narration, new harmonies and sonorities, began to claim autonomy for the objects they produced. As the centuries progressed, artists such as Josquin des Prez, Shakespeare, or Caravaggio must have given the more intellectually alert among their patrons at least a twinge or two of serious unease. Prince Esterházy could require Haydn to wear servants’ livery, but some among the nobleman’s household and the world beyond would have known which of the two, the prince or the composer, was the greater figure whose works would live far beyond the grave.
Jed Perl is one of the most perceptive, most intelligent, and most vigilant art critics writing today. He has worked and written for a number of magazines, including Vogue and The New York Review. His books include Paris Without End: On French Art Since World War I (1988); a two-volume biography of Alexander Calder (2017 and 2020); Antoine’s Alphabet (2008), a superb study of Watteau; and New Art City (2005), an account of Manhattan as the new center, or at least the self-proclaimed new center, of the art world in the mid-twentieth century. When he was the art critic at The New Republic, he issued a collection of essays, Eyewitness: Reports from an Art World in Crisis (2000), deploring the increasingly voracious marketing drive in the buying and selling of art.
In 2007, when the capitalist engine worldwide was overheating, he published a controversial essay in The New Republic on what he perceived as a novel and deeply pernicious phenomenon, which he called “laissez-faire aesthetics.” In 2012, after the economic gaskets had blown, he reprinted it as the introduction to his significantly titled essay collection Magicians and Charlatans: Essays on Art and Culture, in which he expressed alarm at the ways in which what he unapologetically designated high culture was being taken over by, or cravenly capitulating to, the pop market on the one hand and deep-pocketed speculative buyers on the other.2 The problem, he wrote in that essay, “is not with popular culture, but with the wholesale imposition of its methods and values on an alien terrain. It is this muddling of the realms that fuels the insane art commerce of our day.” He then delves into the muddle in an effort to separate its constituents:
The art in popular culture has everything to do with creating a work that catalyzes a strain of feeling in the mass audience. High art operates in a completely different way, for each viewer comes to the work with the fullest, the most intense, the most personal awareness of the conventions and traditions of an artform.
In other words, if you wish to experience high art—merely to use the term would today be a heroic and certainly provocative gesture—you must have been educated, or you must have educated yourself, in highly specialized forms of language, signs, and sounds.
Laissez-faire aesthetics greets anything and everything with tolerance, “a tolerance so bland that it really amounts to indifference.” High culture, on the contrary, “is always daringly, rightfully, triumphantly intolerant.” Imagine the cries of protest such assertions would have provoked back in 2007, if the art world had not been so busy crating up modern “masterpieces” and shipping them off to the heavily guarded and air-conditioned freeports where the billionaire investors store their art loot.
Although little has changed since 2007 or 2012, except perhaps for the worse, Perl in his new book adopts a somewhat less forceful tone than he did in the New Republic essay. It is not that he has softened his opinions or that he is any less concerned for the health of our culture. He is, as his subtitle indicates, intent on defending the arts, but such a defense in these debased times calls for a certain amount of sweet reasoning to sugar the argument.
In Authority and Freedom he has something of what we might imagine to have been the attitude of a native of Rome, say, in the years after the barbarian conquest of the city, when the slaughter and rapine had come to an end, and the Romefied invaders were to be seen strolling about the Forum and among the cypresses on the Pincian Hill as if they owned the place. Where art today is concerned, the Visigoths are in the citadel, and the old gods have become mere eyeless statues.
Perl sets out his case in a way that makes it look simple, or as simple as such an intricate and urgent case can be, yet he is no less certain than ever of the validity of his opinions and of his continuing duty to air them. He begins as if his intention is to write not a polemic but a primer, even if a highly sophisticated one. His first chapter has the innocent-sounding title “The Value of Art,” and it is in the tone of a modest, considerate, and patient persuader that he proffers to the reader a gently guiding hand. In his opening sentence, he makes sure we understand that the two terms in his title are not so much antithetical as complementary:
Authority and freedom are the lifeblood of the arts. Whether reading a novel, looking at a painting, or listening to music, we are feeling the push and pull of these two forces as they shape the creator’s work. Authority is the ordering impulse. Freedom is the love of experiment and play. They coexist. They compete.
He quotes from a century ago the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, a central figure in the early years of modernism, writing about the “long quarrel between tradition and invention”—which is another way of saying “authority and freedom,” of course—and notes that without this ongoing quarrel, this “epic debate,” there can be no art.
Following Apollinaire’s cue, he muses on the differing approaches to, and demands of, art, among both artists and audiences. What is radical, what conservative? Under which of these rubrics shall we place, for example, Jane Austen? Well, a feminist might see her as radical in her subtle portrayal of the social and economic predicament of women—which has not altered much since her time—but a Black Lives Matter activist would surely condemn her for her silence on slavery, from which so much of the wealth of the British Empire derived. Still others might say, Who any longer reads Jane Austen anyway?
These considerations quickly lead Perl to the heart of the matter, or the heart of what he takes to be the matter:
The idea of the work of art as an imaginative achievement to which the audience freely responds is now too often replaced by the assumption that a work of art should promote a particular idea or ideology, or perform some clearly defined civic or community service.
In response to, in opposition to, such assumptions, which in our time have become reified to a degree that is highly alarming for the concerned observer and the unfashionable critic, Perl sets out some carefully worded precepts for the making and appreciation of authentic art. The first is a form of that ringing directive framed by Yeats in his call upon poets to “learn your trade.” The task of the artist, Perl insists, is to “reshape experience.” This reshaping
is both artisanal (a matter of mastering the tools of the trade, whether words, colors, shapes, sounds, or movements) and metaphysical (a never-ending competition between the rival claims of authority and freedom). The metaphysical is embedded in the material. [Emphasis added.]
The artist must bow to the demands of the craft before he or she can claim to be an artist at all—“To be an artist is to make things.” This requires work. A great many people imagine that they can achieve their artistic potential, the existence of which they do not for a moment doubt, by an act of will; for are we not all artists, even if only potentially so? Remember the snooty little girl in the Peanuts cartoon who observed airily that she would be as good a pianist as Rubinstein if she could just play the notes. And of course, as a great pianist she would be expressing herself and her deepest thoughts and feelings, and, more to the point, indulging her most deeply held opinions. This is another popular misconception about the doing of art: that it is wholly about the self, that the self has things to say that it is necessary for the world to hear, and that the saying of these things will be a form of radical action.
No doubt the self is present in the making and the appreciation of art; how could it not be? But the self-in-art is of a special kind, something like one of John Cage’s prepared pianos, which can do things an unprepared piano cannot do, but also cannot do things an unprepared piano can—such as play a sonata by Beethoven. In art, we are at once ourselves and other. As Perl observes, “The arts are simultaneously dispassionate and impassioned. If this is a paradox, it also explains their undying fascination.”
This is a vital observation, a vital insistence. What we get in and from art is not feeling itself, but the feeling of what feeling feels like. Art, of even the most intensely expressed kind, is always at one remove, which, even if this is a paradox, increases the intensity of its effects. We are always in pursuit of art; it is always elusive, withdrawn, withheld. Such a notion runs arrantly against the popular conceptions of our time. And this is Perl’s chief worry:
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.
Art must have its autonomy, must be relevant to itself first and foremost. Even works of art created with other than purely artistic aims, such as Gulliver’s Travels, say, or the sermons of John Donne, only achieve their true stature, their full autonomy, when they float free from the political or religious impulses that were present at their creation. Guernica would be a greater work of art than it is if Picasso had not given it the title Guernica.
The demand for art to be relevant to its time and to be effective in combating political, social, and moral ills is not new. The critic George Steiner repeatedly expressed his consternation at the fact that some of the most brutal Nazi officials had a genuine appreciation of the arts, that the commandant of a concentration camp in which thousands were daily murdered could go home at the end of his working day and listen with pleasure and discrimination to recordings of Schubert lieder or the late quartets of Beethoven. But Steiner’s dismay sprang from a misconception. It is not the purpose, or the aim, of art to make human beings better behaved, more cognizant of moral strictures, or more sympathetic to other members of their species. Though we may balk at the assertion, Auden was right when he declared that “poetry makes nothing happen,” and was right in his wish to change the line in “September 1, 1939” from “We must love one another or die” to “We must love one another and die.”
If art has a purpose other than simply existing, then surely it is to quicken our sense of what it is to be in the world, thinking, feeling, rejoicing, suffering. In the Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky’s great work Theory of Prose, he offers the neologism ostranenie, which his English translator, Benjamin Sher, cleverly renders as “enstrangement,” to describe the effect that art has on the everyday objects about us, so that we perceive them in a new and revealing light. As Shklovsky writes, in his idiosyncratic fashion:
Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, and at our fear of war…. And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art.
Authority and Freedom puts its argument quietly, and for that reason may seem easy to ignore or dismiss. But it is an essential tract for our time, and no less a prescription for the health of contemporary culture because it eschews stridency and cajoles rather than hectors. Above all, it everywhere acknowledges the challengingly weighty nature of art:
We often find ourselves pressed to speak about art as conservative or radical or liberal, but these are rough metaphors for an experience that has an indissoluble life of its own. That is art’s ultimate value, a value that is confoundingly difficult to think or speak about, precisely because there is no analogy. Art is simply what it is.
And so it remains, triumphantly so, even when hidden behind a big brown daub.
There has to be some aspect of an artwork that sets it apart from even the most elaborately fashioned piece of craftsmanship. Chief among these, as R.G. Collingwood points out in The Principles of Art (1938), is that the work of art consumes its materials. An exquisitely fashioned majolica pot is still majolica; Las Meninas is not paint and canvas, it is Las Meninas. ↩
One of the leading charlatans was, almost inevitably, Andy Warhol, who, Perl suggests, “first saw the Promised Land of laissez-faire aesthetics.” ↩