In defense of immorality
James Nolan | Monday, September 17, 2018
When I was in high school, I had a sort of sexual revolution. For the first time in my life, doubt creeped into my mind about the religion I grew up with — maybe it’s all a lie. I had been a very chaste boy, but then chastity seemed arbitrary. The consequences do not need to be explicated in print. As happens with sexual experimentation, I learned. Today I have a deeper appreciation of human sexuality and a more firm faith in God than that boy in an alternate universe who, fearing doubt’s insecurity and experiments’ inevitable punishment, clung to his hand-me-down tradition.
In the 1960s Marxists, feminists and minimalists rallied together to deconstruct the modernist fortress of universal formalism — the theory that underneath all the cultural shades and associations attached to art is the pure sound of line and color that everyone can appreciate, if they’re sensitive enough. They overthrew this formalism like a liberated underclass breaking free from the strictures of power… or, as Jed Perl’s “The Universal Eye” suggests, maybe more like a high schooler rebelling against a parent-imposed morality.
Perl’s fresh look at the art world before the anti-formalist revolution urges a revaluation of the celebrated coup d’état. The anti-formalists, of course, champion the individual — marginalized perspectives, non-western approaches — who is purportedly steamrolled by a privileged method of viewing art. Perl points out the devastating photographic negative: silencing the objective aspect of art can only ‘save’ some individuals by censuring others. Perl’s middle-way approach — a sort of “both-and” for the subjective and objective elements of art — recovers spicy, heterodox formalists buried by postmodernity’s privileged historical narrative. Who knew that an idealistic American expatriate like Ezra Pound could be an innovative formalist? Or that art’s objectivity was a given for a free-thinking lesbian like Vernon Lee? The anti-formalists, by their own protest, have excluded lesbians and political refugees. Has the 1960s norm-busting spirit really freed art, Perl asks, or merely changed the chains?
With Perl’s balanced reminder of the beauty inherent to form, identity-art’s messianic aspirations seem no more than the form of the new, if invisible, tyranny. If form does not speak, in some sense, objectively, then it is no more than a method of packaging. The form-content connection vital to art loses its luster, reified into a rationalized, though utterly dull, economy of delivery. Artists, like Adrian Piper, don’t settle down with a single form long enough to hear its beauty, but create a distinct form for every new artwork, leaping from video art, to installation art, to demonstrations, perhaps even a manifesto. Meanwhile, delicate Picassos are violently bent into symbols of misogynist patriarchy. The innocent etchings of a formal romance shamelessly pathologized by an entire generation … Perl’s clairvoyance tugs our collective conscience. Our desecration of the dead-white-male Temple — was it just? Pangs of remorse glare at our democratic habit like a French guillotine that has perhaps cut off too many heads. And what has our revolution won? Today’s lap-dance art, with Perl’s re-education, now throbs at our heads like a Herodian hangover. With fatherly equanimity, Perl patiently shows us how we may have stepped too far from the age-old truth: Thou shalt not separate form and content. In sackcloth and ashes we humbly submit to a carefully crafted Rehab for Desensitized Postmoderns: back to the modernist masters — open your hearts and give form a chance. If you wait patiently, you may find formalism’s strict chastity more fulfilling than Piper’s “formally promiscuous” art.
We’ve heard this speech before. Conservative political thinkers use yesterday’s morals to question the entire project of liberal democracy. Religious leaders call for “Benedict Options” to recover a metaphysical openness impossible in today’s cities. An entire aesthetic resurrects the glory of thick beards, honest mason jars and repurposed wood, while an ascendant superpower culls new life from an autocratic Orthodoxy of the past. Humanity today stands shivering in the cold, unwarmed by a trustworthy tradition or worldview. Some stand boldly naked, but many reach to the past for insulation. The cries for tradition, the anxieties over contemporary rootlessness — these are not wrong, but they do not know why they are right. If these arguments succeed in restoring a little warmth for a dangerously exposed humanity, it is by pulling into sleeves of dead skin.
We have heard this speech before, and we are not convinced. Art’s formal libertinism is not merely an overcorrection of formal rigidity. Artists like Adrian Piper are responding even to the reasonable Vernon Lees and the Ezra Pounds. The reign of political art owes not to some inexplicable deafness to form. We cannot just chalk it up to “these bewildering times.” It is a specific philosophical method undergirding Western culture that has required us to take off the dead skin of formalism. It is the absence of a reasonable objective framework (and the detritus of so many deconstructed frameworks) that has raised Piper’s cynicism as the boldly authentic voice of a generation, otherwise harried by the lulling coos of fraudulent, but safe, claims to objectivity.
Let the archaeologists of past ages damn today’s culture as aesthetically challenged or morally depraved. They may be right. But the authentic, questioning culture perseveres. It refuses to fold, refuses to blindly take on the comforting yoke it does not understand. For better or worse, our culture has staked all its worth on “why?” No matter the pathos, neo-formalist artists will never grip the art world like Piper has. No matter how loud the trembling traditionalists sound the warning bell, we will not give up our project until all has been laid clear and distinct. No matter how unnatural and inconvenient this questioning is, it must be done.
In those regrettable years of adolescence, if I had stunted the course of my questioning because my dad scolded my promiscuity, I never would have learned the true meaning of chastity. I needed to be scolded, for sure. But to never ask why is to live under the low roof of pale proverbs we only half believe. For those interested in truth, we must doubt and experiment until the truth hits us in the face. But for those more interested in acting correctly than understanding what makes it correct, they can try to get comfortable with sad phrases like “modest is hottest.”
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.