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.
If, for Perl, the artist is both a “rationalist” and a “pragmatist,” a skilled “maker” for whom “the job must get done,” the true artist is also one who responds generously and wholeheartedly to a vocation to stand apart, and thus to be free. Among the many compelling examples Perl cites are Michelangelo, whose floating columns and skewed staircase in the vestibule of the Laurentian Library in Florence both respects and breaks with classical architectural theory, as if activating a new energy hiding in old forms; or Aretha Franklin, whose rapturous performance of “church music” before thousands of people in a Los Angeles theater in 1972 reveals her “at the height of her powers” even as she remains laser-focused on her craft and technique, the “nitty-gritty of her art.” Perl sees the solitude Franklin experiences on stage as paradigmatic of what art can be at its best: a way of living in and engaging with the world that also takes seriously the fact—as well as the infinite, inviolable essence—of human interiority. “All eyes are on her, but she is alone with her vocation.”
Though Perl never mentions her, those words could also describe Celia Paul, one of the most important contemporary British artists and author of the 2019 memoir Self-Portrait (New York Review Books, $29.95, 216 pp.). Known for graceful, intimate portraits of family members and, more recently, spare still lifes and quiet landscapes, Paul is also an extraordinarily gifted writer. She kept a diary when she was young. (The daughter of Anglican missionaries, Paul spent much of her childhood in India, then studied painting at the Slade School of Fine Art in London.) Now, at the age of sixty, Paul puts the same unassumingly curious, incisive voice to powerful new effect in retelling her long, emotionally abusive relationship with the British painter Lucian Freud, grandson of Sigmund and the father of Paul’s son Frank.
The result is less an aggrieved, angry act of defiance than a confident, self-assured assertion of independence and freedom. “By writing about myself in my own words,” Paul says, “I have made my life my own story. Lucian, particularly, is made part of my story rather than, as is usually the case, me being portrayed as part of his.”
Grief and pain are present throughout, but that’s not really the point of Paul’s memoir, which also unfolds as an account of her total dedication to her art, a solitary endeavor always held in tension with her intense love for those closest to her, especially her mother, her late husband Steve, and her son. What most struck me while reading Self-Portrait is Paul’s undivided and unwavering commitment to routine. Her self-imposed asceticism is precisely what enables her to focus—and thereby connect deeply with the people and places that surround her.
In a sense, Paul’s life literalizes the very artistic separation that Perl extols. Much of it takes place within the confines of her studio, housed in a small fourth-floor flat (“a climb of eighty stairs”) in London’s Great Russell Street, just across from the British Museum. Lucian Freud bought it for her in 1982, but Paul has since transformed the space into an inviolable sanctum (“No one can enter without my permission”). Like a monastic cell, the studio serves both as a metaphor for Paul’s interiority and artistic vocation (“When I wake up, the first things I see from my bed are these huge figures of the Muses carved into the triangular summit of the pediment”) and a concrete, physical space to work out her salvation (“The floorboards are bare and saturated with paint and turps. My painting clothes and paint rags have turned into encrusted rock formations”).
Unintentionally, Paul also complicates and rounds out Perl’s conception of art as a path to freedom. The artist’s work lies not just in copying and then creating, but also in erasing: “Painting is the language of loss. The scraping-off of layers of paint, again and again, the rebuilding, the losing again. Hoping, then despairing, then hoping. Can you control your feelings of loss by this process of painting, which is fundamentally structured by loss?”
Even if I were a painter, I’m not sure how I’d answer Paul’s question. Still, I’m grateful for her candor, her integrity, and her work, which continues to console me. Art can’t solve our problems, or make up for our losses. But it might help us transcend them.