Should art be relevant? A prominent critic says no.

Perl’s use of the term “authority” owes much to Hannah Arendt, whose two essays “What Is Authority?” and “What is freedom?” most likely led him to apply her meditations on power and totalitarianism to the riddle of how the arts should function in a free society. “Authority” is a positive value for Arendt. She notes that the term is derived from Latin: increase, “complete.” By recognizing authority, we increase, literally ‘add to’, the foundations on which we maintain our social order. It is, in Perl’s words, the “old tradition embracing the living.” It follows that authority is conservative in the best sense of the word. It’s rules-based, conventional (again in a positive sense). For Perl, it’s “a hierarchy of values ​​that a group of people agree on.” It is the known, the canonical, the historical. It implies collectively recognized values ​​by which we judge something, a kind of experience network through which, consciously or unconsciously, we encounter and evaluate our impressions, whether they are familiar or strange, reassuring or disturbing. Thus one speaks of the ‘authority’ of the rectangle that frames a painting, the ‘authority’ of the sonnet that orders the poet’s utterance, the ‘authority’ of the sonata form that gives structure and meaning to the melodic and harmonic events of the musical discourse.

In Perl’s lexicon, “freedom” is both the opposite of authority and its complement: it is anything intuitive, inventive, rule-breaking, fanciful, risky, genre-defying, revolutionary—in short, it includes all those impulses that challenge convention and that , if cultivated correctly, keep the arts alive and in a state of constant evolution. The popular archetype of the creative artist, the radical, uncompromising, pioneering “genius,” represents the more glamorous “freedom” side of Perl’s equation. But whether it was Beethoven or Van Gogh or Emily Dickinson or Jackson Pollock, each of them was “uncompromising” and “radical” in the public’s imagination, all had a firm foundation in convention, and all had the highest mastery of the tools of their art. “Artistic freedom,” writes Perl, “always means engaging with an idea of ​​order, becoming an authority that the artist understands and recognizes, but to which the artist does not necessarily submit completely.”

Despite the concerned concerns about forced relevance that inspired the book, “Authority and Freedom” more often than not reads like a free-range cornucopia of revealing encounters Perl has had with books, poetry, music, painting, sculpture, architecture, film, and dance. . He exudes pure joy with his highly personal responses to art of all kinds, writing with warmth and a sense of gratitude for the many top experiences he has had over a lifetime of engagement. Although he is best known for his critical essays on painting and sculpture – Perl was an art columnist for The New Republic for many years – he is an omnivore of all media. At times, his penchant for name-checking through the ages can get dizzying: a single paragraph can bounce us from Homer to Michelangelo to Mallarmé, Duchamp, Gertrude Stein, and John Cage. He will see affinities everywhere – between Picasso and Aretha Franklin, Mozart and Jane Austen, or between Balthus, Borges and Balanchine. But these reference points are all in the service of its chief leitmotif: that the art that endures, which transcends the time and place of its conception, is the product of an alchemical union of technical command, knowledge of precedents, and an attendant determination. to break that precedent.

“Only when artists have felt free enough to absorb the patterns and goals of a particular art form can they begin to assert their own freedom,” he writes. It’s another way of repeating the old saw: “You have to know the rules to break them.”

So it’s baffling why, after Perl’s repeated alarms about the threat of “relevance,” he doesn’t give examples of exactly what he sees that bothers him so much. Who does he think is exerting this pressure to be relevant? Is he targeting museums, dance and theater companies, symphony orchestras, all cultural heavyweights who, especially in the wake of Black Lives Matter, redirect energy into projects focused on social justice? Is it the foundations, many of which now focus their funding on social causes? Would he approve or disapprove of a recent $300,000 grant from the Hewlett Foundation to the California Shakespeare Theater, which “redefines classical theater through the lenses of equality, diversity, and inclusion”? Is there pressure from critics to choose which art to discuss? Or is it the consumers of art itself, the public, gallery visitors, readers and listeners? We are left to connect the dots. You may wonder if the real reason for his silence here is the now-known threat of being canceled. As a result, the book tends to stay on the “meta” plane for much of the time—serious and thoughtful, but without the cranky brio, piss and vinegar of its art columns, as when, for example, he once wrote about Sigmar Polke as “a cross between a slob provocateur and a brutal aesthete” who mixes “gadabout hedonism and ostentatious indifference”.

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