A recent debate about how progressives should do cultural criticism led me to Ann Powers' "In Defense of Nasty Art". I agree with Powers that Democrats, especially elected ones, are often equivocal or disappointing or incoherent when talking about art. I agree with her that art that exposes tensions and ugliness is often more worthwhile than art that leaves you with a feeling of harmony. But I don't find her "Defense of Nasty Art" persuasive at defending Nasty Art in general (or art in general for that matter) against moral criticism. It's more compelling as a case for the moral value of some of the art others have deemed immoral.
Powers argues that it's good for art to give voice to the rage of marginalized people. She argues that dark art is more honest than optimistic art. She argues that liberals are wrong to prefer art depicting victims to art depicting (vengeful) violators come back to haunt the yuppies. She argues that the art that most upsets our sensibilities often does so because it confronts us with urges we're ashamed of. She argues that the experience of shock is part of a healthy mental diet. You can agree with all of that (I mostly do) without embracing her (much-quoted, judging by Google) conclusion that
Not all art that claims to be transgressive is worth caring about. But you can't tell the bullshit from the real by setting moral standards. You have to set artistic ones.
My original post was driven by a frustration with the right-wing moral judgements that seem to dominate discussions about morality and art (much as right-wing values swipe the shorthand "moral values" in politics). But part of where my frustration comes from is the conviction that instead of counting the number of breasts we see on TV, we should criticize TV shows that downplay rape or reinforce the myths of white male victimhood. Art is political. It's a zone of contestation. It tells stories that subvert, solidify, or showcase values. Those stories may be ambiguous, or silly, or ironic, but that doesn't leech out the political content. The political content of art has moral meanings and implications - it can afflict the comfortable and it can afflict the afflicted. Most art has progressive and reactionary aspects, and my goal isn't to eliminate great swathes of art or audience - it's to drag the reactionary aspects into plain view we can contest them and respond to them with more speech and more art.
What bothers me about Powers' conclusion is the sense that if we zealously pursue great art, the political and moral questions will take care of themselves. That's the same confidence that bugged me when Baffler writers would assert that selling-out always leads to terrible music, or when people smugly say the worst thing about that racist joke is that it's not really funny, or when my high school piano teacher (no Holocaust survivors in her family) opened a recital after Columbine by saying that human beings who appreciated great music would never kill people. In each case, the potential for works marked by artistic greatness and moral shortcomings is sidestepped. But I think it's that potential - the Bill Maher joke about Hillary Clinton that's both funny and sexist, the 24 episode (early seasons) that's gripping and also pro-torture - that most often leaves us, as my friend Alek says, feeling pissed-off and conflicted.
I believe progressivism makes art artistically better, because I believe progressive ideas about people (White people are not intellectually superior, women don't all secretly want to be raped, poverty is not divine punishment or character-building exercise) hold more truth. But we need to be able to make political judgments of art that may differ from our artistic judgments, even as they influence them. Right-wingers have much more of a shared set of vocabulary on this than left-wingers do. To the extent people on the left have differing values they bring to art or expectations from it, the vocabulary may vary. What I really care about here is not a system for rating the political content of works of art relative to each other - it's a discourse in which problematic stuff in art gets identified, criticized, and wrestled with, especially when it's popular, especially when it doesn't flag itself as controversial. And as we do that, we should notice the patterns in what we see on TV or at the movies and what what we don't, and we should talk about why.
(Cross-posted from my site).