Authority and Freedom: A Defense of the Arts by Jed Perl

Review by David Starkey

In Authority and Freedom: A Defense of the Arts, Jed Perl takes on “the stranglehold of relevance…the extent to which [works of art] line up with (or fail to line up with) our current social and political concerns.” It sounds like a statement from a right-leaning commentator, but Perl, the former art critic of The New Republic and a fixture of the New York art world would seem to be the opposite of such a creature.

And that’s what generates the frisson of Art and Authority: how is this eminent writer on the arts going to counter the prevailing tendency among artists and curators that righteousness must prevail and instead convince readers that “When we rush to label [the arts]—as radical, conservative, liberal, gay, straight, feminist, Black, or white—we may describe a part of what they are, but we’ve failed to account for their freestanding value”? The answer is: very cautiously.

Perl makes his case with patience and eloquence. The “authority” he refers to is essentially the tradition of the genre in which the artist is working. That tradition is composed not just of “the great works” in the field, but is also “reflected in the treatises, notebooks, and sketchbooks that creative spirits have produced for centuries. Even artists who embrace chance talk about the laws of chance.” Therefore, artistic freedom “always involves engaging with some idea of order, which becomes an authority that the artist understands and acknowledges but to which the artist doesn’t necessarily submit.”

As Perl proceeds with one extended example after another—Leonardo’s notebooks, the novels of Henry James, Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Picasso’s Guernica, Edwin Denby’s poetry—it’s hard not to be drawn in by his contention that the arts flourish best when they are left to themselves: “Like the scientific vocation, the artistic vocation is a way of seeing and knowing the world. When passionately embraced, it eludes all labels. Many believe that a scientist’s work should be insulated from social, economic, and political pressures. I certainly do. Shouldn’t the same go for the work of a novelist, a painter, or a composer?”

As Perl notes, much of what he says in Authority and Freedom about “the lonely plateau of the art form” would have been taken as common sense when he was growing up. However, that’s hardly the case now, which may be one reason he largely, and studiously, avoids naming living artists. One list of art works that have thrilled him includes “Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library, Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat Major, Yeats’s ‘Among Schoolchildren,’ Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie, Shakespeare’s King Lear, and Anni Albers’s Pastoral.” That’s an admirable catalog, to be sure, but for all its eclecticism, it isn’t exactly daring.

This takes us to the reception the book has generally received, which might be described as respectful but not enthusiastically so. Critics on both the right—Franklin Einspruch in Quillette—and left—composer John Adams in The New York Times—have taken Perl to task for not citing the specific artists, works and cultural institutions that he believes are responsible for privileging social justice over independence of thought and expression. Einspruch writes: “Pugilistic types like myself might have hoped for Perl to tear down some contemporary art darlings, or mock the veritable clown show that is curatorship in the age of pandemic and critical theory.” Adams similarly longs for Perl’s “cranky brio, the piss and vinegar of his art columns,” ultimately wondering “whether the real reason for his silence here is the by now familiar threat of being canceled.”

Of course it is. And that makes Authority and Freedom both measured and intelligent, and something far less scintillating than it might have been. Yes, his latest book lacks the zip and zing of Magicians and Charlatans and, my favorite, Antoine’s Alphabet. So be it. If a refusal to name names in our combative moment keeps Jed Perl writing, then a little caution is fine with me.