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Why art matters at the end of the world

Art does not have to be political satire to help us reckon with the world.

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Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

It’s difficult to think about art during an apocalypse.

That’s one of the ideas I keep coming back to as the Vox Book Club continues on. Or more precisely, it is difficult to treat art as though it is worthy of attention during an apocalypse.

I think that reading books and thinking about them and talking about them is important and valuable. I think it is important and valuable regardless of how horrible the rest of the world is.

But sometimes I am caught up in the easy cynicism of letting them feel trivial. Sometimes I am tempted to say: Well, if we’re going to be wasting our time and attention on books, shouldn’t we at least make sure they are topical? As if the novel is inherently valueless, and the only way to redeem it is to think about it in relation to our current political catastrophe.

This September, the Vox Book Club is reading Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, which I read primarily as a book about language and meaning. And writing up our last discussion post, which gets into an esoteric little riff on semiotics, I found myself falling into that state of defensiveness. This is an election year, a plague year, a year of police riots and fire, and I am devoting my critical resources, my platform, to thinking about language and emails and fictional college students? Surely there are more important things I could spend my time on.

So I want to make some space here to talk about why I wrote that post anyway, why I chose The Idiot to begin with, and why I don’t want to only ever write about books in terms of how they fit into the current news cycle.

I want to talk about why art that is explicitly not about the state is valuable. I also want to talk about why it is valuable to read art without reducing it to its relationship to the state.

The New Republic’s culture critic Josephine Livingstone wrote an essay shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017 that I’ve thought about a lot in the years since. That was a moment in which it felt as though any work, any intellectual effort that wasn’t bound up in the effort to resist Trump, was worthless, and the only way to write about any piece of art — book, movie, TV show, podcast — was to say it was the Art We Needed Right Now. It was Perfect for the Age of Trump. It would help Explain Life in Trump’s America.

Livingstone argued specifically against treating art as an especially handy way of understanding Trump and his presidency. They argued that it was most valuable instead to approach art by imagining a zone “staked out for a variety of ideas and postures to flex and interact.”

This zone, Livingstone continued, “is the place where the arts play. It is not an apolitical place, it is just not owned by government. In this aesthetic space, the arts explore a less confined politics than the one that controls the state. The state is not the beginning, end, or the reason for this space.”

Under Donald Trump’s leadership, the only coherent way to discuss American politics is to discuss them in terms of Donald Trump: what is possible under his administration, what he is trying to do, what his failures are, what’s happening in secret, who is pushing back against him, how likely it is that resistance will matter. Trump warps the fabric of reality around himself, and he would like to warp the fabric of our minds, too, until he becomes the only thing we can think about, until he is at the center of our thoughts and all our most powerful aesthetic ideas.

Art is a space outside of the political landscape that Trump has built. It does not have the boundaries or the contours of the state. It is a discrete entity, and its relationship to the state can be much richer and more complex than merely attempting to render the state into the terms of the aesthetic, to explain or to subvert or to render glorious through propaganda.

Art does not have to be What We Need to Understand Trump in order to be worthwhile. It can be valuable in its own right — not apolitically, because all art contains political content, but without the concerns of the state becoming the central concern of the art.

In an essay in n+1 in 2006 — four years before she would publish her memoir Possessed and 10 years before The Idiot — Elif Batuman developed a definition of sorts for the novel. “A novel says, ‘I looked for x, and found a, b, c, g, q, r, and w,’” Batuman wrote. “The novel consists of all the irrelevant garbage, the effort to redeem that garbage, to integrate it into Life Itself, to redraw the boundaries of Life Itself.”

And that statement of purpose holds for The Idiot. What makes The Idiot so good, the place where both the humor and the sorrow lie, is in the accumulation of its main character Selin’s observations as she watches “all the irrelevant garbage.” It’s in the quality of her thought as she thinks about the social rituals of college, of email, of buying clothes and traveling and journaling and flirting. What she is watching is mostly petty trivialities, and the power of the novel comes from Batuman’s ability to render those trivialities worthwhile.

And of course it’s political, too. Selin has thoughts about gender and colonialism; she is specifically a Turkish American character navigating mainstream American culture and forming relationships with other bicultural people. Even the language stuff can be read politically because politics is built out of rhetoric, out of words and signs, and thinking about the space between signifier and signified is useful when we are dealing with politicians who want to convince us of anything.

But any political utility The Idiot might carry is not the only thing that makes it valuable. It is not the only thing that makes it art.

The Idiot is art because it is a framework for thinking about what Batuman refers to as “Life Itself.” It is art because it takes what seems invisible or disposable and renders it visible and transcendent.

Any cultural criticism I write, like most other cultural criticism on the internet, is governed by a system of clicks and incentives. And the criticism that most people are most drawn to — perhaps especially Vox readers — is frequently criticism of a piece of art that deals explicitly with Donald Trump or Brett Kavanaugh or American politics, followed closely by criticism of a piece of art that is not about Trump but can be read through that lens.

This is natural. The world feels as though it is in existential danger, and to engage with anything less than that danger feels trivial. So people enjoy feeling that the art they engage with is in some way helping to save the world.

But political satire is not the only way that art can help us reckon with the world. And to insist that all art must be satirically attempting to subvert the state to be worth our time, or else failing to properly subvert the state and hence in need of chastisement, is impoverishing.

In that 2006 n+1 essay, Batuman describes America’s literary landscape as one animated by guilt. She calls guilt “the single greatest obstacle to American literature today.”

“Guilt leads to the idea that all writing is self-indulgence,” she writes. “Writers, feeling guilty for not doing real work, that mysterious activity—where is it? On Wall Street, at Sloane-Kettering, in Sudan?—turn in shame to the notion of writing as ‘craft.’ (If art is aristocratic, decadent, egotistical, self-indulgent, then craft is useful, humble, ascetic, anorexic—a form of whittling.)”

Since Batuman wrote that essay 14 years ago, guilt has if anything become more central, not just to American writing but across the English-language literary landscape. Sally Rooney’s whole oeuvre is devoted so intensely to this sense of aesthetic guilt that she seems to have looped back around and made the guilt the subject of her art. Zadie Smith’s last essay collection features a frigidly nihilistic essay describing writing as “something to do,” in which Smith says that, in quarantine, she has found that building her life around writing has left her with only “a dry, sad, small idea of a life.”

Smith cannot make writing mean something to her in the midst of a pandemic and a police riot. She cannot make art matter when concrete political action is so blindingly necessary. “The people sometimes demand change,” Smith writes. “They almost never demand art.”

Smith is correct, as she almost always is: People are demanding change, and they are not going to demand art. That is good and necessary.

But I want to suggest that even still, even now, in the midst of plague and panic, art can be good and necessary, too.

Art is valuable as a thing in and of itself. It is separate from the influences of the state, and sometimes it is separate even from the demands of capital. It is where all the things that make the world unbearable are rendered into a space where we can at last, finally and for once, survive them.

It is not indulgent or escapist to engage with art on levels outside of the political, or to free art from the shackles of the state. That is how we insist that life matters, regardless of what little value the state is telling us that our lives hold.

Do not apologize for caring about art. Do not apologize for engaging with art outside of the terms set by the state, even now, even now. Insist on the value of art. Insist on the value of your life.

The Vox Book Club is linking to to support local and independent booksellers.

Correction: An earlier version of this article used “she” to refer to Jo Livingstone. Livingstone uses they/them pronouns.

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