June 2, 2022
Various critical traditions associated with left-wing politics have promoted apathy or antipathy toward beauty, beginning with Karl Marx, who planted the seeds of the idea that beauty is a distraction from the all-important aim of overthrowing capitalism. Beauty was part of the “ideology” used to validate the privilege and power of the ruling class. Marx’s twentieth-century disciple, Theodore Adorno, openly advocated ugliness in art as a form of protest against the evils of the free market. The vindictive resentment of the far left—whether justified or not—is incompatible with the experience of beauty as a self-transcendent vision. Such an experience would detract from the real end of tearing down capitalism and taking revenge on those who have benefited from it. A similar sentiment is evident in the work of more recent critics such as John Richardson, who condemned Philip Glass’ opera Akhnaten for not doing enough to oppose “the orientialist/capitalist-imperialist project” in its portrayal of ancient Egypt. The power differential between America and Egypt was the real concern. There is, however, no nationalist or imperialist mentality evident in that opera. Meanwhile, there are striking harmonies, compelling melodies, brilliant costumes, fascinating sets, and colorful orchestration—in short, much to miss if one heeds the bad critique.
Certainly some artworks reflect racism or other anti-humanist views, and the critic ought to expose it when necessary; but the critic’s job is also to use wisdom and know when charges of injustice are appropriate. Irresponsible critiques are themselves unjust. Critical theory (as it’s known) errs on this side, i.e. of projecting its concern with oppression onto the work it condemns. Critical theorists, however, are unlikely to admit the error, which they see as a virtue. One can always insist that a pencil drawing is merely two-dimensional, and refuse to admit that two-dimensions are hinting at three, and interpret the diagonal lines as mere angles. In a similar way, the critical theorist—or those infected by his claims—can always insist that the only relevant thing to behold in the art is orientalism or patriarchal oppression, etc. The cost of this fallacy is that one misses out on potentially wonderful experiences, and worse, blocks others from the same. Excellent art—not to mention the seascape, your sweetheart and so on—can and should bring joy without letting political preoccupations get in the way. The extremist’s rage against oppression, however, leaves little psychological room for the disinterested appreciation, let alone the rapt adoration, of beauty. It is a small world to live in.
For the far-left critic, art must explicitly take a political side. The artist must oppose social hierarchies in his work, on pain of being condemned as complicit with the oppressors. You’re either with us or against us, the artist is told. And if you’re with us, you’d better prove it. This mentality has the potential to imperialize the leftist’s brain, so that more and more and soon everything in his world is interpreted through the lens of power differentials. This is unfortunate, not just because it is a sad fate, but because it reflects poorly on the left. “Socialism,” wrote E.F. Schumacher, emphasizes “non-economic values,”—e.g. that which offers “moral, aesthetic, and cultural enrichment.” Socialism wisely rejects the idea that society should be built on the individual’s single-minded pursuit of material profit. Marxism and its related thought-systems, however, envision those with power and privilege on the guillotine, and demand that artists and writers throw garbage at them. This embittered mindset is in competition with the love of beauty. The better versions of socialism, however, are allied with anti-materialism. Similar distinctions can be made of the feminist and anti-racist movements, of which there are extreme kinds fueled by vindictive resentment, and reasonable kinds motivated by the commitment to, let’s say, absolute justice, to borrow again from Plato. These distinctions are important because they show that the problem is not with the left, but with the far-left—which veers into intolerance, authoritarianism, and eventually blood and brutality, as history shows.
The beauty we see in art, nature, and people is non-trivial. If we allow ourselves to be arrested by its power, we allow the part of ourselves to live that seeks meaning and joy. This thirst cannot be denied indefinitely in the human race, and as a result, the love of beauty which arouses and, to some extent, quenches that thirst will never disappear from human cultures.
We have not addressed another quality that we attribute to art, nature, and even people: the sublime—that which inspires awe and wonder. Beauty and the sublime have different connotations. A list of things under each heading will yield different results. For me, Beethoven’s Ninth is on both lists. But my things, of one kind or another, will differ from yours. Some of them might coincide. Any two people who share the same experiences are more than fellow-humans that owe respect to one another; they are the same kind of person