by Joanna Rossiter
Tuesday, 30
June 2020

Shouldn’t artists be worrying about Beauty instead of Politics?

Today’s pop culture is reaching Victorian levels of moral righteousness
by Joanna Rossiter
The Dixie Chicks (pictured) have re-branded to The Chicks. Credit: Getty

Last week Texan country trio The Dixie Chicks gave in to pressure from Black Lives Matter campaigners to change their name. Since ‘Dixie’ was a moniker for the southern states involved in the civil war, the band will now be known as The Chicks.

This was no arbitrary gesture. The band have learned what they need to do to survive in 2020. They can’t simply put out music; they must also embody right-on political views.

It’s no surprise then that today’s musicians are queueing up to have their say on popular political issues: The Rolling Stones are taking legal action against Donald Trump after he used their music at a rally; hit Country Band Lady Antebellum have been renamed Lady A because ‘Antebellum’ has loose connections with the slave trade; Taylor Swift transformed herself into an LGBTQ activist with her song ‘You Need to Calm Down’ and Madonna has been singing about gun crime.

Across Western culture, artists have rebranded themselves as activists. A quick glance at last year’s roster of London exhibitions shows the growing role of politics in our museums: visitors to the Olafur Elliason show at the Tate Modern were invited to bring old T Shirts with them to recycle as a nod to the artist’s support for sustainability while The Natural History Museum celebrated Pride Month with a focus on queerness in the animal kingdom.

As urgent and worthy as these issues might feel, I can’t be the only one to find it all a bit…didactic. It brings to mind the stringent social mores of the 1800s when the value of culture was seen thought to be in its moral message not its aesthetic qualities. In 1807, for instance, Charles and Mary Lamb rewrote the works of Shakespeare for Victorian children. They made no secret of editing the plays to suit the tastes of their audience: scenes of clowning and drunkenness were cut, as were sexual innuendos. Instances of magic were also rationalised away.

We might scoff at such censorship, but we’ve rebranded the Bard with equal amounts of gusto in our own era. Take the 2014 feminist staging of Hamlet starring Maxine Peake. Or the ‘environmentally sustainable’ production of Much Ado About Nothing which popped up recently at my local suburban theatre. These plays are simply doing for our own generation what the Lambs did for the Victorians.

It’s only a matter of time before artists tire of such predictable political box ticking. Victorian moralism gave way in the late 1800s to the aesthetic movement: a Kantian pursuit of beauty for its own sake. Today, we’re in dire need of a similar rebellion.

Today’s activist art scene would be more palatable if the work produced felt original. But art that enforces the values of its day without interrogation or insight quickly loses its purpose. If politics has found a home in pop music then it’s a sure sign that the issues being championed are no longer radical but mainstream.

There’s nothing more radical these days than the simple pursuit of beauty. If you don’t believe me, think how incongruous a painting of a rose would look on the wall of the Tate. Sooner or later somebody will do it and we’ll all sit up and notice.

Join the discussion

  • ‘There’s nothing more radical these days than the simple pursuit of beauty.’

    Yes, this is something one comes to realise as one ages. Along with the ubiquitous mindlessness, virtue signalling and woke content etc it is one of the many reasons I no longer (pay to) visit art galleries, go to the theatre or watch contemporary films. And there was a time when I spent my whole life in art galleries and at the theatre.

  • Nicely put but limiting – art through the ages has almost always claimed it had some of kind of moral judgement to make; pure aestheticism is a rarity. Many of the greatest works of art were produced in the service of a dogmatic ideology, Christianity. The problem nowadays is not that art is excessively moralistic, though indeed it is; rather, the problem is that it is insufficiently artistic. When I read a very modern novel, for instance, I tend to be annoyed not because it advances an ideological position I disagree with (after all, almost all works of art do that), but because time and again, modern authors have forgotten how to write like novelists and insist on writing like journalists.

  • Yes, you are right and offer a far more nuanced contribution than my post below. And I’m certainly with you when it comes to modern novels. The vast majority of them are simply unreadable – especially those that win literary prizes.

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