Can art corrupt our politics?

what will this lead to?At Time magazine, Alex Melamid suggests it can, that the infantilism found in (some) works of modern art has led us, in the end, to an infantile president of the United States:

Whatever the intelligentsia nurtures and celebrates in our galleries and academic journals is bound to flow eventually into the nation’s cinemas, through its ballot boxes and toward the swamp of Washington, D.C. The last few months have proven that Trump is not out to drain that swamp. He is its progeny, and we on the left — the artists, the people of culture — have done our part in creating the conditions for him to thrive.

Ben Davis, at ArtNet, is not having it:

The political situation is dire. Nothing really feels important right now unless it somehow connects to that situation, which leads to all kind of flailing around in cultural commentary. In this case, turning the problem inside out, Melamid ends up echoing the most thoughtless caricature about modern art—”my kid could do that!”—just to construct a credible way to plug art into the Conversation about Trump, who acts like a kid.

I’m going to side with Davis here. First, we should be careful about defining this era as ‘the age of Trump’: we just finished an eight-year presidency of Barack Obama, and in 2016 Hillary Clinton decisively won the popular vote. Trump has at no point enjoyed high approval ratings, though his likely vote totals remain higher than his approval, simply because he is Republican and there are a fair number of nose-holding Republican voters out there. There has not been any president like him, with a lot of years since 1968 (which Melamid sees as a watershed year), and my eternal optimism leads me to think we will not see another. Second, because it is such a stretch to believe that contemporary art has much salience in this world. How many voters do you believe have any idea who Jeff Koons is? Or even identify that a work is by Andy Warhol? True, Melamid does say that popular culture has also been infantilized – and any visit to your local multiplex cinema will confirm this – and this is probably where the bigger influence, if any, is to be found. Of far greater influence, not mentioned by Melamid, in Trump’s electoral success would be Fox News, which I suppose we could see as infantilized news coverage, stories for children. But the serious art world? No.

But here’s a thought:

I’m going to suggest that in the circles that follow the art world there is an assumption held by the majority that art cannot corrupt. That scolds who worry about the terrible behavior of anti-heroes on screen and in literature, or violent lyrics in music, and their influence on our society, don’t appreciate our ability to enjoy the art without it changing our personalities – we are not going to begin to think that gang members are to be admired, that revenge killing is morally right. We maintain an ironic distance, whether viewing a Koons exhibition or watching The Sopranos. It’s at the heart of any argument that art ought to be unfettered by the state, that Plato was wrong. And that childish art will not change us such that we are willing to accept a childish president.

But shouldn’t it then also give us pause when we read stories – and the artsjournal.com site that hosts this blog is full of them – about how the arts improve us, expanding our moral capacities and our empathy with the other, providing political and social enlightenment?

Empirically, we know very little about how art affects our individual morals, and, in turn, our society (even though there is a large literature of small-sample, university psychology lab studies of assessing our immediate reactions to literature, how we change over a lifetime of art remains unknown). Even philosophers who argue that incorporating ethics into our aesthetic criticism (say, Noel Carroll, for example), agree. And if we don’t have the empirics, and rely on logical argument, it is hard to see how we could ever make the case that the arts can improve our morals, but never harm them. We want to believe the art and literature we love makes us better, but, as Joshua Landy put it:

We should all just come out and admit it: ‘”morally improving” is merely a compliment we pay to works whose values agree with ours.’

Did Dada lead to Trump? I don’t believe it did. Is any art movement capable of corrupting our moral lives? I think we would like to think not – we recognize immorality when we see it, a viewing of Birth of a Nation will not induce us to admire the KKK.

But where does that leave our arguments that the arts are morally improving?

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  1. The arts do not work in isolation, but as part of a larger cultural Gestalt that creates a worldview. After WWII, modernism, for example, strongly promoted philosophies of individualism. At the same time, the social realism of the 30s was derided and virtually wiped from the map in the West.

    This became part of a larger movement that increasingly stressed personal gain and individualism over the collective good and social responsibility. The short-lived social democracy of the Roosevelt years was dismantled and eventually replaced with the free-wheeling world of neoliberalism – a world of junk bonds, hedge funds, massive bank mergers, outsourcing, deregulation, privatization, union busting, rustbelts, and globalism. The self-absorbed, individualistic social Darwinist cowboys of Wall Street became the rock-and-roll masters of the world. And the New Dealers pariahs.

    We see the usual cultural isomorphism created by self-reinforcing cycles of social philosophy, economic systems, religion, and art. Sling that paint, Jackson Pollack; shut up and go away Diego Rivera. Our philosophies of life and art play a role in what society is, good and bad.

    So our complex Gestalt of a wild, Darwinist, individualistic, modernist paint slinging Market-Over-Alles neoliberalism creates a post-apocalyptic Rustbelt. Resentment builds among the disenfranchised and they elect a conman tyrant. Then then everyone’s amazed and people ask, “How did this happen?”

  2. There has certainly been a trend in 20th-century art away from intelligibility and accessibility. I think that may signal to the general public that art has nothing to say to them, or worse, that art has nothing to say at all. In that sense it cannot inspire or condemn. (Historically, of course, much of the great art of the West was made in support of one or another despotism. It was the despised bourgeoisie who created the option of art for art’s sake.)