Art Without Tradition is Dead

In his recent book Authority and Freedom: A Defense of the Arts, critic Jed Perl argues that the “lifeblood of art” is the tension between authority and freedom. “Authority is the ordering impulse,” he tells us. “Freedom is the love of experimentation and play.”

Perl’s book, which is really more of a long essay, is a pungent warning about both the politicization of art, and the temptation to take shortcuts in music, writing, film, and other arts. It’s important for art to push boundaries and explore new modes of expression, Perl writes, but without an established canon or standard of excellence to break away from, it risks being frivolous. According to Perl, the struggle between authority and freedom not only “animates the war of twentieth-century giants like Mondrian and Schoenberg,” but also stretches back through history. The struggle was going on “in all times and places”—through Mozart, Wordsworth, Picasso—all the way back to Egypt.

Without that struggle, and acknowledgement of the power of the established authority, art becomes frivolous. One thinks of Marina Abramović’s The Artist Is Present, a 2010 work of performance art in which Abramović was seated silently at a wooden table across from an empty chair. Various people then sat down across from her for several minutes. For three months and eight hours a day, Abramović faced a thousand strangers. It was more reality TV than art, Perl himself once declared, in an essay arguing that “liberals are killing art.”

The Relevance of Irrelevance

In a 2018 article, Washington Post music critic Chris Richards argued that musicians should restrict the kind of songs they will play based on politics and race. Richards describes a band that so loved a song by a soul artist that they wanted to cover it, but finally decided not to. “A band of white indie rockers performing the songs of a black R & B singer?” Richards wrote. “No way. It would be seen as cultural appropriation…As badly as I wanted to hear their covers they were right.” 

Richards posits that we are living “in an era in which listeners expect their favorite musicians to reflect their personal values and politics in neat, legible, completely literal ways. We demand that our pop heroes be virtuous in their private lives, valiant in their public art—and if they aren’t, we try to compensate by being ethical in our listening.”

Richards’ attitude is the antithesis of the argument laid out by Perl, who in Authority and Freedom writes:

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. I want to convince a public inclined to look first for relevance that art’s relevance has everything to do with what many regard as its irrelevance.

This doesn’t mean that relevance is not important. “It goes without saying that we want works of art to have meanings that resonate with us, our friends, and the wider world,” writes Perl. “But what holds together all the disparate elements in any work of art, at least any that endures, are the novelist’s mastery of prose and storytelling, the composer’s or musician’s mastery of harmony and melody, and the painter’s mastery of color and composition. The artistry with which the elements are united is what makes the subject matter really count.”

A particular work of musical art that is part of my consciousness, and that precisely reflects Perl’s thesis, is “Tainted Love,” a globally popular 1981 single from the British band Soft Cell. “Tainted Love” was previously a 1964 Motown song by singer Gloria Jones. Under the rules laid out by Chris Richards, the very white and male Soft Cell—comprised of singer Marc Almond and instrumentalist Dave Ball—should not have gone anywhere near “Tainted Love.” Yet to the New Wave generation of the 1980s, Motown was not just the mecca of black pop music, a joyful musical authority, but a brilliant creative galaxy to be imitated, adopted, played with.

In this different, less woke and punitive time, it was possible to approach sacred totems and spin something fresh out of the experience. Almond and Ball came up with something extraordinary that still sounds amazing. Inspired not only by the “Northern Soul” movement in their native England but also by the electronic music of the German band Kraftwerk, Soft Cell reimagined “Tainted Love” as a synthesized pop song. They even released an extended version with the Supremes’ classic “Where Did Our Love Go?” on it. It is a perfect intersection of Perl’s dual idea about authors and freedom, author and play. To hear it as a teenager on the dance floor in 1981 was to have your mind blown. It was new, but not at all contrarian. As Perl notes, “great artists are not necessarily contrarians.”

Creative Battles, New Things

It’s worth noting that the music scene of the 1980s was charged with modernism. In his book, Rip it Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, Simon Reynolds argues that “those postpunk years from 1978 to 1984 saw the systematic ransacking of twentieth-century modernist art and literature. The entire postpunk period looks like an attempt to replay virtually every major modernist theme and technique via the medium of pop music.” 

Bands from Cabaret Voltaire, who borrowed their name from Dada, to Talking Heads “tried to deconstruct rock even as they rocked hard.” Lyricists absorbed the science fiction of William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, and Philip K. Dick. The record cover artwork of the period “matched the neomodernist aspirations of the words and music, with graphic designers like Malcolm Garrett and Peter Saville and labels like Factory and Fast Product drawing from constructivism, De Stijl, Bauhaus, John Heartfield and Die Neue Typographie.” 

The call of the 1980s, like the call of the modernist, was to make it new. Yet as Perl persuasively argues, the best way to make it new is on a foundation of mastery. The great critic Hilton Kramer wrote extensively on how modernism was accepted by mainstream Americans as something new and exciting yet also cognizant of the very traditions it was attempting to break away from. Perl explores how a range of artists interact with authority, from Peter Paul Rubens, T.S. Eliot, Picasso, Henry James, and Michelangelo, to a philosopher like Isaiah Berlin. Aside from politics, Perl writes, art has “an authority of its own.” 

Art allows us “to enter into the life of our time or any other time.” It also takes tremendous preparation and effort. “The most refined or virtuosic achievements almost invariably turn out, upon close inspection, to be the product of tough creative battles that the conscious act of construction demands.” The Beatles played to the point of exhaustion in Hamburg before becoming famous. John Coltrane practiced until his lips bled. When it comes together, this supernova of mastery and play can create exhilarating experiences of art. Perl emphasizes that there needs to be a “solid foundation” to achieve “imaginative flights.” We believe in the fantasy of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights due to “the graphic precision with which each element is realized.” Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is so brilliant because his sense of time and place “is plotted and elaborated with such lucidity.”

Perl devotes a good amount of time to the live performances of Aretha Franklin during the height of the Civil Rights movement. Of course, Franklin’s songs about freedom were closely connected to the American political fight for basic rights for African-Americans. Yet as Perl notes, that message was delivered by supremely hard-working musicians working from a decades-old gospel and soul tradition:

As the choir spins and shouts … Aretha can be almost expressionless, waiting for the moment when she takes up a song. She doesn’t rise to the occasion so much as she sinks deep into the music. The astronomical highs that she achieves along with the choir and the musicians are built on the strongest and most secure foundations. In the moments before and after she sings, as she sits or stands, quiet, concentrated, she’s entirely absorbed in her craft. No singer has ever made the time, the place, the moment more thrilling. But the look on her face is the look of the artist who is focused on the nitty-gritty of her art.

Such moments are less likely to happen if our writers, filmmakers, and musicians are constantly looking over their shoulders to see what the Art Stasi are allowing them to do. In the Washington Post, Richards argued that cultural appropriation is wrong and should be avoided when it feels like “taking” instead of “making.” “When Justin Timberlake beatboxes, or Taylor Swift raps, or Miley Cyrus twerks to a trap beat,” he writes, “it feels like taking. Nothing is being invented other than superficial juxtaposition. On the flip side, when the Talking Heads echo African pop rhythms, or the Wu-Tang Clan channels the spiritually of Kung-Fu cinema, or Beyonce writes a country song, it feels more like making. The borrowed elements become an essential, integrated part of a new, previously unheard thing.”

In other words, pop music should submit itself to the social justice left and only play the music that is approved by the state. In fact, as Perl so persuasively argues, any artists at any time should be able to borrow or imitate any other artists, and for any reason whatsoever. The music of the Beatles would arguably never have existed had they not imitated black American rhythm and blues. Picasso’s “Guernica” was inspired but just by the Spanish Civil War but by “hellenistic sculpture and the work of neoclassical painters of the seventeenth and eighteen centuries.” Aretha Franklin could brilliantly sing opera. As Perl notes, “genius doesn’t emerge ex nihilo.” The next newest new thing, if it is to have any lasting artistic value, is standing on the shoulders of something very, very old.