Democracies make the best art—or so says Jonathan Jones for the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2010/apr/06/art-democracy-general-election) in a widely commented article last year. Jones’ straw man is the well-worn claim that “dictatorships are good for art,” thanks in part to huge state spending on artistic monument and in part to the audacious life of the creative dissident; his rebuttal is that, from Athens through Whitman through modern jazz, a cult of freedom has generated the “liberty and energy” that supports great forms of expression.
His argument is selectively empirical and generally pretty weak. If it’s liberty and energy an artist needs, well, there are plenty of places to find it. (Indeed, the dissident writers of Tsarist Russia got by quite well on a bit more of energy and a bit less liberty.) And the paralyzing effects of liberty are well-maligned in the West by writers who would much rather grasp at their own kind of conflict—from Coetzee’s postmodern quandary (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2003/nov/20/disturbing-the-peace/) to Krauss’ melancholic grasping for a political memory of generalized loss (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/17/books/review/Goldstein-t.html) to Martel’s vastly over-publicized plea for, well, a little bit of faith (http://www.reviewsofbooks.com/life_of_pi/review/).
If liberal democracy really is the end of history, as Fukuyama would have it (http://www.opendemocracy.net/democracy-fukuyama/revisited_3496.jsp), then that socio-political triumph is met with artistic vapidity. “The end of history,” he writes, “will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical world there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.”
Well, that sucks. But that’s not to say that art can’t be made out of a non-ideological world—indeed, that’s what brings us to Jonathan Jones’ pin-up boy for democratic art: Jackson Pollock and his era. Whether you believe Pollock was a covert CIA tool or not (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/modern-art-was-cia-weapon-1578808.html), the point remains that abstract expressionism, jazz music and rock’n’roll culture are held up as the quintessential art forms of twentieth-century democracy.
The death of art is a hard call to make, and I think the question of whether democracy is good for art is too overburdened with false dichotomies and generalizations—and of course undermined by a collective confusion over what art and democracy actually are—to be of any much use. We can, however, make qualitative distinctions, and the first of these ought to be that the art of democracy is wont to withdraw into abstraction. From what is won and what is lost, it may be too early to say, but it’s no coincidence that the Nobel Prize for Literature (http://www.barnesandnoble.com/u/nobel-prize-books/379001109/?cds2Pid=17798&linkid=1256654) has gone almost consistently to writers outside the First World (or for Jelinek, with the violent perspective of an outsider, and in the case of Pinter an insistent focus on the conflicts that spurred the path of History).
Democracy can produce great artists, to be sure, but can it produce great moralists, great dissidents and great human narratives?