by Joanna Rossiter
Tuesday, 30
June 2020
Debate
11:40

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.

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Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
2 years ago

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.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
2 years ago

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.

Jeffrey Shaw
Jeffrey Shaw
2 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Indeed – watching or listening to the award presentation ceremonies for “literary excellence” has become one of my favorite forms of entertainment. They re-define pretentious and would have been the stuff of a Monty Python sketch, if the boys were still in operation.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
2 years ago

‘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.

Jeffrey Shaw
Jeffrey Shaw
2 years ago

Are we all supposed to forget for a moment that the current Government of the Ukraine came to power in a coup – overthrowing an elected government? And further, that the coup was quite openly orchestrated by Victoria Nuland (then at the US Department of State) in close coordination with the CIA, a Neoconservative group of DC influencers led by her husband – Robert Kagan (all of which hold dual citizenship status with Israel) and a broad range of DC lobbyists making sure that the US Congress would watch silently from the wings like the good little synchophants that they are? Nobody is claiming that Russia is some lighthouse of democracy, but the US and NATO have violated the initial post-Soviet agreements with the Russians on so many fronts that it is impossible to even make the propaganda look anything but risible. Does Russia have troops in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, etc., etc…..or does the US and NATO? Has anyone pointed out to Ms. Jankowicz that the entire Russian Electoral Interference bag of accusations has been proven to be a whole-cloth charade? Her efforts here to breathe life back into that fairytale polemic are transparent and are anything but a scholarly endeavor.

Andrew McIntosh
Andrew McIntosh
2 years ago

“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.”

That’s quite clever, and possibly true, but then there’s the whole issue of how beauty in art is defined. Or beauty, in general. Is there still a nominal definition, these days, at least for art? I can look such definitions up, but do they still apply in practice? Are they taught in art schools? Are there other definitions?

As for politics in art, “didactic” is precisely how I would describe it as well. Certainly art has been used politically for centuries now. But that, in itself, doesn’t make it either a good idea, or good art. Among other things, it can date art very quickly, especially as popular political issues tend to change very quickly these days.

Having read a little bit about art activism, it seems to me that while art can and has been employed in activism, it’s best to be employed (if it has to be) as a supplement to activism, and not another version of it. To produce some kind of work called “art”, and then to declare that it is, in itself, an act of activism, just strikes me as a way of avoiding actual on-the-ground, anonymous and often unrewarding activism while still retaining the credibility of what the word means. In other words, unearned kudos.

Personally, I don’t think art has to be either political or beautiful.

chris carr
chris carr
2 years ago

“there’s the whole issue of how beauty in art is defined. Or beauty, in general. Is there still a nominal definition?”
It’s a bit like a heap isn’t it. Very hard to define but you know it when you see it.

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago

Not only is most ‘modern art’ (the type we see in the Turner Prize, Frieze etc) neither beautiful nor true, it actively embraces ugliness and falsehood. It is bankrupt, morally and aesthetically. As far as I can see, the only art form which still flourishes is cuisine, which alone of all the arts has not lost sight of the importance of giving pleasure, to both artist and ‘consumer’. The crafts – so often dismissed as ‘minor arts’ – are also flourishing. But so-called Fine Art -forget it.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Well said, we certainly agree on this subject.

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
2 years ago

Wokeism will eventually collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. When it does, the memory of the companies, celebrities, professors, sports personalities and politicians who capitulated to this bullying movement will still be very fresh in the public consciousness.

Cave Artist
Cave Artist
2 years ago

From Picasso to Hemingway, art pursuing a political cause, is hackery. Think socialist realism in USSR if we want a good example.

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
2 years ago

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

That seems an amazingly right-wing statement now, doesn’t it?

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
2 years ago

Let’s not forget, though, that T.S. Eliot – no “left-winger” he! – disputed Keats’ syllogism, precisely because he thought that it was false. He argued that great art needed to embody a perspective which was more than pure aestheticism. In fact he argued that Keats flawed his poem by making a claim that was fundamentally false.

“This line strikes me as a serious blemish on a beautiful poem, and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement which is untrue. And I suppose that Keats meant something by it, however remote his truth and his beauty may have been from these words in ordinary use. And I am sure that he would have repudiated any explanation of the line which called it a pseudo-statement. On the other hand the line I have often quoted of Shakespeare, ‘Ripeness is all’ or the line I have quoted of Dante, ‘la sua voluntade e nostra pace’ strikes very different on my ear […] The statement of Keats seems to me meaningless: or perhaps the fact that it is grammatically meaningless conceals another meaning from me. The statement of Shakespeare seems to me to have profound emotional meaning, with, at least, no literal fallacy. And the statement of Dante seems to me literally true. And I confess that it has more beauty for me now, when my own experience has deepened its meaning, than it did when I first read it.”

Martin Adams
Martin Adams
2 years ago

Thank you for the long quotation from T.S. Eliot, and for your impeccably terse commentary, placing it into the context of Eliot’s thought.
For many years I have been convinced that these lines from “Ode on a Grecian Urn” have been used to underpin one of the great lies foisted on humanity by romanticism. If one reads those lines in context, it becomes obvious that many uses of them are spurious and, all too often, a cloak for self-indulgence. Eliot nails the fundamental problem; and his method of nailing is so revealing ” he discloses a problem within the poem; and yet he keeps open the possibility that something important is escaping him. A great mind’s response to great art.
The rarity of comparable thought in present-day debates about art is depressing. So Joanna Rossiter is onto something in her final paragraph ” beautiful things are their own justification.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Adams

One of the unfortunate things about Romanticism is how fundamentally its assumptions have been naturalised in Western culture – so much so that they no longer feel like ideological ones. Of course, like all great movements, it contained elements of truth and falsehood; the problem is that so many of its values have simply become instinctive parts of modern Western thought.

Indeed, Eliot’s subtle way of identifying a problem which acknowledging his own potential fallibility as a critic is hugely admirable here. Something I’ve thought in response: Eliot, as a Christian, thought that the claim Dante made was true. But actually, he’s oversimplifying in identifying it as Dante’s claim: Dante puts those words into the mouth of a character. In the literal sense, ‘La sua voluntade e nostra pace’ is a claim made not by Dante, but by Piccarda Donati, whom Dante’s narrator encounters in the Paradiso.

Martin Adams
Martin Adams
2 years ago

Thank you. Your first paragraph encapsulates, rather better than I have ever been able to do, something that I have often said in conversation, and have even used in the pulpit as a warning. (I’m a musician, I’m retired, but also a licensed lay minister in the Church of England.) The necessity for warning lies precisely in the point you raise in that paragraph.
That point you raise about Dante and placing those words into the mouth of a character is a fascinating one. In the same way, I have often wondered about the infinitely quotable Polonius, whom Shakespeare does not present as a model of lofty intellectual attainment.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Adams

You’re quite right about Shakespeare – we should never assume that the words of any character represent the Bard’s own views – that is the miracle of drama. Joyce picked up on this wittily in Ulysses, when a character tells Stephen Dedalus to “put money in thy purse, as Shakespeare said”, and Stephen retorts, “Iago said it.”

In the case I cited from Dante, the distinction is worth making, but in this specific example we can actually be pretty confident he’s endorsing Piccarda Donati’s sentiment – after all, putting her in heaven is about the strongest endorsement one could offer. But one shouldn’t forget that, say, the noble humanist sentiments expressed by Ulysses (“Considerate la vostra semenza: fatti non foste a viver come bruti, ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza”) are expressed by a character Dante placed in Hell. I always think it’s the supreme mark of Dante’s genius that he could “place” a truly noble sentiment – a phrase that centuries later comforted Primo Levi in the camps – by questioning its adequacy from a Christian perspective.

Martin Adams
Martin Adams
2 years ago

Oh thank you!
I love that quote from Ulysses. I would have been unable to recall it, for I have not read Ulysses for a little over 50 years. Anyway, my memory for detail tends to be much stronger in music than in anything else ” though I’m pretty good with scripture.
You have encouraged me to engage with Dante in full. Thus far I’ve only dipped, albeit quite frequently. I’ll have to do it in English.
Many thanks.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Adams

If you have any knowledge of Italian, there is some virtue in a parallel text. I find it wonderful to follow the vitality and concision of the original with the help of an English translation alongside.

Martin Adams
Martin Adams
2 years ago

Thank you. That’s an excellent idea, and I had not thought of it. (Don’t know why, for I have done it with German poetry.)
I see there are several parallel version available on the internet. I’ll dig around. Thank you so much.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
2 years ago

” T.S. Eliot- no left winger he!”. That is a bit of an understatement is it not?
Who can forget those immortal lines from the epic, Growltiger’s Last Stand:
“with a frightful burst of fireworks the Chinks they swarmed aboard”?

Gerry Fruin
Gerry Fruin
2 years ago

As a portrait artist (a lowly amateur one) I will avoid unprintable comments on much ‘modern’ art. But I would ask in all innocence. To understand what is beautiful? you must be able to define ugly!
I paint people as I see them. There is no scale which we can say one or the other. My personal view is any artist having to explain what their work is, corrupts their work. Art is what individuals decides it is and it’s value if any.

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
2 years ago

“[H]it Country Band Lady Antebellum have been renamed Lady A because ‘Antebellum’ has loose connections with the slave trade.” Loose? Non-existent, I would say. They took that name because they did a photo shoot for an album cover wearing period costumes in an Antebellum mansion, i.e. a mansion built before the Civil War. That’s about as obscure a connection as you can get. Are we allowed to say that Frederick Douglass was born in the Antebellum South now? A month ago it would have seemed like a silly question. Now, I’m not so sure.

Leti Bermejo
Leti Bermejo
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Baldwin

Yes, antebellum is a style of architecture, but its a style of plantation mansion built in the southern states, especially the deep south. Which have much more than ‘loose’ connections with the slave trade. Just saying.

Cave Artist
Cave Artist
2 years ago
Reply to  Leti Bermejo

Gone with the prevailing wind…

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
2 years ago

Ms. Zarnowitz’s writes: “The most convincing Russian narratives, and indeed, the most successful, in both Central and Eastern Europe and the United States, are narratives grounded in truth which exploit the divisions in societies.” Indeed. And in Canada as well, I might add. Shortly after Chrystia Freeland was promoted to the post of Foreign Affairs Minister, stories emerged from Russian sources that her maternal Ukrainian grandfather Mikhailo Chomiak had been a Nazi collaborator, editing a pro-Hitler Ukrainian-language newspaper during the entire war, first from Cracow, then from Vienna. This would come as news to anyone who read Freeland’s lengthy 2015 campaign article “My Ukraine”, where she wrote: “My maternal grandparents fled western Ukraine after Hitler and Stalin signed their non-aggression pact in 1939″¦ they saw themselves as political exiles with a responsibility to keep alive the idea of an independent Ukraine.” Incredibly, when confronted with these stories at a press conference, Freeland would only say: When the Toronto Globe and Mail asked if the reports were true, Freeland refused to admit the truth, but instead started accusing Russia vaguely of spreading disinformation. It was the more ridiculous as she had herself collaborated in a scholarly article with her uncle, the esteemed Ukrainian-Canadian academic John-Paul Himka, that confirmed her grandfather’s work on a Nazi-run newspaper during the Second World War.
There is undoubtedly some disinformation being spread by sources supported by the Russian Federation in the West. However, when even the Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister starts shrieking about Russian disinformation when basically factual reports are published about historical events, we have good reason to be cynical about every claim we hear about Russian disinformation. And getting back to Ms. Zarnowitz’s home country of Ukraine, is Russian disinformation really a bigger problem there than, say, the rewriting of history to whitewash Ukrainian nationalist war criminals? Here Freeland’s example is again illustrative. When she was still a journo for the Financial Times she wrote: “Yaroslav the Wise, the 11th-century prince of Kievan Rus, was named the winner [of a Ukraine’s greatest hero poll] in a last-minute surge, edging out western Ukrainian partisan leader Stepan Bandera, who led a guerrilla war against the Nazis and the Soviets [er, much more the Soviets] and was poisoned on orders from Moscow in 1959″¦.The Soviet portrayal of Bandera as a traitor still lingers. That would be a mistake.” The apple, it seems, doesn’t fall far from the tree.

V. M. I.
V. M. I.
2 years ago

I wonder who – the author or an editor – selected the photo featuring an ugly political poster for this article. I think more subtle and appealing visuals would have served better the premise that artistic beauty is important. This being said, Art is indeed one of the casualties of ugly ideologies. If I may give an advice to Britons, please, defend your rich culture and history. Don’t let the mob dictate how you should run your country. Today it is defacing Churchill’s statue and attacking J.K. Rowling on social media, tomorrow it will be tearing down Turner and Gainsborough and burning Shakespeare. These masters are a treasure for humanity and it is up to you to save them. I don’t want to live in a world where Jane Austen is banned!

Dennis Wheeler
Dennis Wheeler
2 years ago

No country has done more to manipulate and sabotage foreign elections and political processes than the United States, especially in the Ukraine – first in 2004 and again in the US-backed coup in 2014, an effort lead by despicable scum like Victoria Nuland, with the full backing of the Obama administration, corrupt Joe Biden family, warmonger McCain, and others from the neo-con warmonger establishment.

So spare me the endless anti-Russia scare-mongering about the Ukraine and elsewhere. I’d back Putin over any of the worthless clowns that have run for president of the USA in the last 20 years. NATO, which should have been disbanded by 1995 at the latest after the Cold War, has done nothing but antagonize Russian needlessly for the last 25 years, expanding ever closer to Russia’s borders, engaging in a brutal unprovoked war against Serbia, etc., all in complete violation of its alleged purpose as a “defensive” pact. How would the US have responded if after the fall of the USSR, Russia nonetheless had managed to keep the Warsaw Pact intact, and decided to expand to, say, Mexico? Yeah…the world would have been blown to bits. And Russia was quite right to take back the Crimean. Frankly, one could argue that much of the Ukraine should simply be part of greater Russia. So, 3 cheers for Putin, and two-finger salute to the Russophobes and neo-cons.

Derek M
Derek M
2 years ago

Just before the invasion of Iraq, the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks told an audience in the UK that they did not support the war and were “ashamed” of President Bush being from Texas. The statement led to boycotts in the US and backlash from fans; corporate broadcasting networks blacklisted them for the rest of the Bush years. It’ll be interesting to see if something similar happens again, although I suspect not

Jordan Flower
Jordan Flower
2 years ago

“It’s one thing to object to a monument to a slave trader (I’d certainly hate to have one in my town)…” I can’t help but be annoyed by this little concession.

This just adopts the distorted paradigm of cancel culture”i.e. that because the individual monumented happened to trade slaves, the monument is thus a tribute to slave trading.

This is no less void of logic than saying that a statue of Babe Ruth is a tribute to fornication. Or the alleged sexual escapades of George Washington with “younger company” means that the GW Bridge in NYC is a condonation of statutory rape”despite the fact that such laws didn’t exist until the late 19th century.

And that kind of encapsulates the absurdity of the iconoclasm that is currently taking place. When you look into the past and compare it to the present, being able to draw the conclusion that progress has been made is the a priori goal of progressivism, is it not?

In other words, taking todays sociocultural moral standards and observing that your forefathers didn’t meet them is a good sign, is it not?

Where is there a single statue anywhere in the world where the individual monumented lived a life free of blemish?

Once we have cleansed ourselves of any trace of individuals who participated in slavery (exceptions apparently made for native Africans, and Arabs, who inflicted slavery in far greater magnitudes), there will be a new transgression up for cultural sanitization. And the cycle will repeat until there is nothing left but a gray, neutral, nameless, Orwellian landscape of politically correct inoffensiveness where “…nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

stuuey
stuuey
2 years ago

By Russia do you mean the Russian State or anti government Ukrainians or Russian Nationals? It could make a significant difference to the meaning of the article…

davidcjwtt
davidcjwtt
2 years ago

Ouch. Pained expression at-second-half-of-penultimate-sentence only a fellow Liverpool fan can display. Let’s hope we get it right against Villa this afternoon and stay on course for that points record..innit. ≧◡≦