At a recent in-person Commonweal gathering in New York, I cheekily asked some of my far-flung colleagues whether they knew Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night, one of the most famous paintings in the world, and suggested they take advantage of their visit to go and see it on the fifth floor of the Museum of Modern Art, where, I claimed, they’d surely be blown away.
I wasn’t entirely joking. Starry Night is an incredible work, and the fact that you have to push your way past throngs of tourists to get a good look does nothing to diminish its power. Like gears in a spring-loaded mechanism, every detail combines to produce an explosive effect: the olive-green cypress rising in the left foreground, the black-blue hills breaking like waves in the background, the humble houses with one or two lamps lit inside, all rotating around a slender, white church steeple that pierces the luminous swirl of sky. Van Gogh painted it during the day, rendering the dark night with thick curls of blue, yellow, white, and brown.
Apart from the aesthetic pleasure it gives, what’s the relevance of Starry Night? Can we read it as a record of mental illness (Van Gogh loosely depicts his view from an asylum window), and thus as an indictment of a society that refuses to accommodate people who think differently? Or rather as an idealizing, idyllic picture of a lost harmony between humans and nature, a bond soon to be severed irrevocably by climate change?
In the opinion of Jed Perl, longtime art critic at the New Republic and a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, that all misses the point. “I want us to release art from the stranglehold of relevance,” Perl writes in Authority and Freedom: A Defense of the Arts (Knopf, $20, 176 pp.), the sharpest, most inspiring book of criticism I read this year. True, art can shed light on social problems and may indeed inspire us to work for change. But art’s primary task, Perl asserts, is not to “promote a particular idea of ideology, or perform some clearly defined civic or community service.” Art is meaningful, valuable, and exciting precisely because of its irrelevance to our most immediate, surface-level concerns.
At the center of Perl’s analysis is the notion that all art is the result of a tension between the authority of tradition on the one hand and the freedom of creativity and invention on the other. For Perl, no artist simply makes something new ex nihilo. First, an artist must complete a kind of apprenticeship, imitating and then mastering the models and forms that have preceded them. That process needn’t preclude artists from exercising individual freedom. Perl points out that even medieval manuscript illuminators, who worked with limited physical materials and according to rigid formal conventions, often used such constraints as springboards for producing some of the most imaginative, fantastical figures ever drawn.
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