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Episode 30
Author Jed Perl "Authority and Freedom: A Defense of the Arts"

  • 1 min read

Episode Description

00:48 - Jed Perl discusses his new book “Authority and Freedom: A Defense of the Arts". In the book, Perl looks at the nature of art, why it resounds with each of us and what pushes us forward.

28:00 - The week's top art headlines.


Craig: [00:00:10] This is art, since a podcast focused on educating and informing listeners about the past, present and future of art. I'm Craig Gould. On today's episode, I speak with author Jed Perl about his new book, Authority and Freedom A Defense of the Arts. In the book, Perl looks at the nature of art, why it resounds with each of us in what pushes us forward at the end of the episode. I'll be taking a look at some of the week's top art headlines. But first up, a defense of the arts with Jed Perl.

Craig: [00:00:48] Jed Perl, thank you very much for joining the podcast today. You know, you have recently released a book authority in Freedom, a defense of the arts. Maybe you can kind of give us a background or an overview about your about your work.
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Jed: [00:01:05] Great. I've been writing about art for most much of my life. I actually started writing art criticism when I was in college in years around 1970, and it turned into a life work, a career for me. I've written mostly about the visual arts, but all the arts, music, theater, dance have really been incredibly important to me. They've been at the center of my life and for years I took that. For granted, almost I would say to me, the arts were important because I felt they were important, I knew they were important. But as the years went on, I began to feel as a writer, as somebody who wrote especially about the visual arts, that I had to go deeper into what exactly their importance was. And of course, that's something about which a lot of people have different ideas, especially now when both this country in the world are in so much social and economic turmoil. We're worried about climate change relations between different countries, different people. A lot of people are looking to the arts for answers to social, political economic problems. People are talking a lot about art that reflects black experience, gay experience, women's experience, and that's all very much a part of what art does. But the question I always have is why do people go to art? Why do people go to paintings? Why do people care about songs and music so much? And I began to think that there was something inherent in the very process of making art and being an artist that draws people that draws a wide swath of people to the arts, makes people care about the arts.

Jed: [00:03:18] And out of this can this central idea of this new book of mine, which is called Authority in Freedom and the central idea is, as I say, in the first sentence of the book, that authority and freedom are the lifeblood of the arts, the lifeblood of the arts. What do I mean by that? When I come to believe is that every artist and this goes from, you know, reticent masters like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci to a great pop singer like Aretha Franklin. Every artist is grappling with two forces. One is the authority of a tradition. If you're a painter, what are the fundamental things you grapple with is most paintings drawn on a rectangle, you're dealing with a flat, rectangular surface. If you were a writer, a fiction writer, a storyteller, you're grappling with a fundamental fact that stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. Everybody knows that. And when you look at a painting, when you read a story, you, you we go to that experience knowing there are those fundamental basic principles, the authority of those forums and then what is it individual artists do? An individual artist finds their own freedom, their own ways of expressing themselves, their own feelings, their own experiences within the authority of that tradition.

Jed: [00:04:51] And you can do anything. You can write a story that has an inconclusive ending. We've all enjoyed stories like that. But when we come to that inconclusive ending, we know that the writer is playing with the idea of what an ending is supposed to be. And I really believe that this play in the arts between the authority of a form of of what the artist is given by the past of the art and what the artist brings to it, touches in something very fundamental about being human because all of us in our lives grapple with what is given to us in the world, the authority of social life and social patterns, economic patterns, patterns of friendship and love, and then how we as individuals assert our freedom within those. And I think when we listen to classical music or pop music, when we go to the theater, when we look at a painting, when we read a novel, we have this sense always that there's this kind of dynamic, this dialectic between authority and freedom.

Craig: [00:06:01] And so I mean, I feel like it's not just a micro level of metaphor. There's also like a macro level in terms of even within a society, within a country. We live in a country that has a constitution that provides authority, but we're promised these freedoms within that, right? And so maybe you can kind of talk about that whole notion of, you know, it's personal, but it's also kind of the collective, correct?

Jed: [00:06:30] Exactly, exactly. So what are the important points I try to make about authority is authority is not authoritarianism. You know, we sometimes think of authority is, you know, it's your father or your mother saying, don't do this, OK? But if you think about authority exactly in a broader terms that you're talking about, for instance, the authority of a constitution authority is something that over a period of time, communities, countries, groups come to agree about that. So it's not like one person is asserting authority. But in the way we're trying to talk and think about authority here, authority is a kind of communal sense of what we can agree about. And then as you enter into that, you think of like growing up and how you a kid learns, you know, you learn like what something even as rudimentary as table manners or or like your your parents will say to you will say thank you to this person when you give them something, those are conventions that are part of the authority of social life. But then as we grow up, as we absorb those, we also want to find ourselves and what is unique to us within that authority. So, you know, what are the interesting things about like social life is how you can have friends, you know, have different ways, for instance, of engaging with you or different ways of expressing themselves or, you know, different people when those have different ideas of what in their personal lives should be made public and what they keep more private.

Jed: [00:08:18] And those are kind of modalities of freedom that you test. You discover for yourself within this larger kind of communal frame of authority. And my feeling is that something very similar goes on in the arts so that, you know, like, for instance, when you talk about singers voices, OK, you know, there's some people talk about, well, is a singer hitting the note properly? Do they have a perfect high c or something? But of course, we also appreciate all different kinds of voices. You know, among pop singers, you know, someone like Janis Joplin or Bob Dylan, they do not have perfect voices, OK? But there's a freedom about the way they use the vocal abilities, the vocal material. But again, within a broader context of what we know singing to be. So the roughness of a voice. Is something that I think we enjoy in a kind of counterpoint with a sense of what the authority of what singing should be is, and as again, I think as experiencers of the arts were always kind of interested in how people navigate those possibilities.

Craig: [00:09:45] And it seems like these definitions are very fluid that as artists pursue freedom through abstraction or pushing their medium, the result is that a lot of times the definition of what the standard was changes that freedom to to express, then it kind of shifts. Do you feel like what we consider authority or what we consider the the standard? Yeah, it does. It does sort of change over time, right? And then we have to look back. And that's one of the things about studying art history is that it's hard to study art history in the context of of the now. A lot of times we have to look at art history within the context of then, right?

Jed: [00:10:32] I mean, I think you're absolutely right. It's a very fluid situation with lots and lots of different possibilities. And you have creative people who kind of go to the edge of what seems possible or plausible. And then you have other ones who can be very powerful by kind of staying at the kind of center of what kind of a broader community of people take for granted. And there are different pleasures to be provided by those different kinds of of experiences. What one of the the the the kind of core ideas I'm kind of trying to get at in this book is that although art intersects with many parts of our lives in many different ways, we we can be very excited by the political content of a saw. It's often a pop soul, but often operatic composers do this kind of thing to you. You make musical art that really deals with current issues. Current events or novels very much will deal with, you know, kind of broad social or economic situations. And that's very much a part of what we want from art. But one of the core points I'm trying to make in this book is that what makes those things compelling ultimately? And one of the works of art I talk about fairly extensively book is Picasso's great mural Guernica, which of course has become in the more than half century since it was created, I think almost universally acknowledged to be this great representation of the inhumanity of war. But one of the points I make about it is that it starts with this very personal creative interest action that the artist has between the possibilities of the medium as given to the artist and then what the artist can do with them.

Jed: [00:12:51] There's a wonderful few lines I quote from in the book from the novelist Flannery O'Connor, who those of you who read Flannery O'Connor know. She wrote these very, very sharp eyed stories and novels about how strange people can be, how brutal people can be, and how brutal life can be. And the novels are often associated with sort of a vision of especially the American South seen in the rawest, toughest life. But Flannery O'Connor in the letter, said the first duty of an artist is to make a work of art. And then she said, well, maybe it could have some social or political or religious significance. But first of all, you have to make it a work of art. That is the first duty of of it. And if it is going to have some power in the world, whether in the Middle Ages of the Renaissance, it was the power of a of a painting of Christ or Madonna and child. Or if it's something done now, which addresses social political questions, the first duty of the artist is always to make it a work of art. And I think it a lot of the writing and thinking we're getting about the arts right now. I would say people have it kind of backwards because they start with, Oh, this is an artist with a particular life experience and a particular story to tell, and they sort of tell you that part of it before they actually tell you how it works as a work of art.

Craig: [00:14:32] You know it just hearing you speak there about that kind of reminded me of the late Dave Hickey's writings about the relevance of of beauty in art and how some have turned away from that. Is it still considered a measure? Let me ask you this. I know that part of your book you referred to the role of relevance in art. You perhaps you could tell us a little bit about that.

Jed: [00:14:59] I see at some point that what people sometimes refer to as the irrelevance of art is key to art's relevance. And what I mean by that is that because artists go through this intense process, a process which I talk about in the book as a vocation, they are intensely engaged with the nitty gritty of the art form, whatever it is. Because of that, their work takes on a standalone power, which has a particular place in the world. One of the things I talk about in the book and it goes back to thinking that among ancient philosophers is a distinction between making and doing. Doing is really be right out there in the world. Doing is being a politician, doing is being a lawyer, helping somebody on death row off death row doing is making a cake or making a meal that you eat for dinner doing is fixing a car so somebody could drive to work. Making often is thought of by philosophers as being something where you step away from the everyday doing and you make something. And you make something that has what I call a free standing value. You may be talking about the cruelty of people to other people. But go thinking about it and talking about it in a different way than the politician who tries to pass legislation addressing these problems. Ok. And I think one of the things we sometimes lose track of, and especially in a time when many of us feel and actually feel that we're in kind of national and international emergencies on many social and political issues. One of the things I think we lose track of is the possibility of art to be powerful because it stands apart from the everyday push and pull. And, you know, so even when I was a kid, a young man in the 60s and early '70s when protest music was so important.

Jed: [00:17:29] But the songs that we we never forget, the ones we always went back to, that they don't only address the issues of the day. They also have what I would call this free standing power. And by the same token, there are many works of art a beautiful landscape, an abstract painting by Jackson Pollock or Mondrian, a string quartet by Mozart or Beethoven that you can't get the melodies out of your head. These things have no. Clear, immediate relationship to anything in our lives, and yet we go to them, we feed on them in this deep way. And I think that's because, again, they exude the sense of an artist who has gone through this profoundly human struggle kind of self exploration in which all the aspects of authority are engaged with as a free individual. There's a wonderful passage I called the book from the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, where he talks about musicians, and he says he talks about like playing the violin, I believe is the example he gives. And he says, you know, in order to master the violin, there's all this incredibly hard work involved. But the more you master the discipline, what I would call the authority of violin playing, the more freedom you feel. And I think, you know, sometimes people think of freedom and authority as being like at loggerheads. But, you know, to go back to your example of the Constitution in America, that's also a good example. The Constitution is an authority that gives us our freedom, right? We have freedom within that authority. And I think that's what the arts do and what they show us in so many different ways.

Craig: [00:19:40] You have also been known to be the the authority on Alexander Calder. And you wrote two volumes of biography on Calder. He's not addressed in the book, but I was just wondering how do you see Calder living and working within this framework of authority and freedom?

Jed: [00:20:03] That's a great question. And of course, Calder is somebody who took one of the kind of fundamentals of sculpture, which was sculpture is still and asserted. The freedom to make sculpture move now, he wasn't absolutely the first person to do that. But he explored this kind of possibility of free movement within sculpture with more energy and I would say than anybody of his day and really anybody up until now. So there's this tremendous will to freedom, if you will, in Calder's work. But at the same time, I think Calder worries about very fundamental sculptural questions about how volume, mass, sculptural volume and mass intersect with space. And I think in his own way, sometimes you might say he presents a kind of negative of what sculpture was. In other words, not negative in a pejorative sense. But if sculpture was volume in the world, he, by making these small elements move through space sort of underscores the idea of the void in sculpture, the the space between the volumes. But I think he's very much engaged in a dialog with the past and possibilities of of a media. Very definitely. And interestingly, more and more in his later years in he what he's working on this monumental scale for public works that are now all over this country and all over the world. Really, he he goes back to non-mobile works what he call the stable's, and there he's very much interacting with earlier traditions of public sculpture. You'll call his father and actually his paternal grandfather. Also, both his father's paternal grandfather were very well known sculptors known for their large public works. And I think it's very definitely true that Calder's later large public works perhaps the greatest being flamingo in Chicago, a big red sculpture surrounded by three beautiful, dark blackish grayish buildings by me, Sandro. A work like that is, I think, his kind of free response to the authority of the public sculpture tradition in which both his father and his paternal grandfather worked.

Craig: [00:22:56] In that time, it was a real shock to the sensibilities to especially, I guess, the the public because, you know, people who work in those buildings or who live in Chicago, they are being invited to interact with these forms every day, and they had never seen something like that in public sculpture. If anything, it would have been relegated to its place in a museum, but it kind of shifted the way people thought about public sculpture, right?

Jed: [00:23:29] Right. Yeah, you're making a very important point. One of the things I hadn't realized before I was working on Calder's later years was how much pushback there was about abstract public sculpture in the 1960s. There's there's a fascinating story in the second volume, I called a biography about Lincoln Center, which opens in the 60s, and a an abstract. Calder was one of the works that the people planning the outside spaces, the plazas ramblings of an abstract sculpture by Coleman was one of the works that was planned. It was actually being paid for by a private donor, the head of the New York Parks Commission in the 60s and the Parks Commission had some say over what went in those public spaces in Lincoln Center. The head of the Parks Commission was opposed at that point to having abstract sculpture in public spaces. So yeah, it was a a battle initially, and it was an evolution. And some of the most important holders in public places actually were mounted in Europe, not in the U.S., and it took a while for the U.S. to catch on. And you're right, for the public, it was a kind of growing experience. And interestingly enough, Calder and a lot of his friends among the architects had a particular interest in the possibility of abstract public sculpture as being a kind of new symbol of Democratic society. A Democrat. Experience, because some of what of Calder's a number of Coulter's friends wrote about the old public sculpture, which is, you know, a guy on a horse or something. And they said those sculptures have this very specific meaning. Um, it's so and so on a horse who won such and such a battle, something like that. And they said what a democratic society needs is public art that gives the citizen more freedom to think and see and perceive freely. And that was indeed Coulter's idea behind these public sculptures. But as you say, Craig, it took a while for people to kind of begin to really understand what he was about and what public abstract sculpture was all about.

Craig: [00:26:19] Well, Jed, I really appreciate your time today. This book authority and freedom, a defense of the arts and then interesting guests to the podcast can find your two volumes on the the life and work of Alexander Calder. Do you have another book on the horizon? Are there other ideas?

Jed: [00:26:40] Oh, I have thoughts, but I'm going to keep them to myself for the moment?

Craig: [00:26:48] And so if folks wanted to keep track of of your work, where's the best place for for people to follow up and get updates on on you and your work and your writing?

Jed: [00:26:59] Well, I'm the place I'm most frequently writing for essays and stuff is the New York review of books. That's really where my byline appears. So if you just go to the New York Review of Books website and, you know, put in my name, you'll see recent articles that I've done, which on a variety, generally on the visual arts, but I also sometimes right there on other subjects as well.

Craig: [00:27:26] Well, Jed it's been a pleasure, and I really do appreciate your time today and thank you for for writing an insightful piece about arts, its role in and, you know, our active participation in it.

Jed: [00:27:40] Well, thank you, Craig. It's really been a pleasure.

Craig: [00:27:54] And now the news

Craig: [00:27:59] In 1976 African-American artist, scholar and curator David Driskell mounted a groundbreaking show at like an entitled Two Centuries of Black American Art. The monumental exhibition was critical in reevaluating the role of black artists that existed outside of or on the periphery of the art world's canon. The exhibit featured more than two hundred pieces by sixty three black artists, demonstrating that the work of these artists was being made with significant and yet was overlooked. Now, more than 45 years later, LACMA's hosting an exhibit envisioned as a sequel to Driscoll's 1976 show, Black American Portraits, brings together more than 200 years of black portraiture by black artists. The chronological layout reminds us just how preciously few works fit the criteria in the early eighteen hundreds versus the exhibits contemporary crescendo, which features the works of artists like Berkeley, L. Hendrix, Amy Sherald and Wiley and Mickalene Thomas. The exhibition is on view now through April 17th.

Craig: [00:29:09] In last week's episode, we spoke at length about catalog reasons, specifically that of Jackson Pollock. This week, there's news of the catalog raisonné of artists Marsden Hartley needing to be updated after the discovery of a missing painting in a bank box in Portland, Maine. The painting, titled A Friend Against the Wind, was completed in nineteen thirty six to commemorate Canadian friends of the artists who had died during a hurricane. The collector had purchased the painting back in the 80s, but it moved the piece to the bank vault, fearing the theft of the work. When the heirs found the piece, they reached out to the art historian Jill Scott, who had been working on the catalog. It turns out that Scott had tried to contact this particular collector about the work, but her messages had gone unanswered. Turns out, her messages had been sent just days after the collector's death.

Craig: [00:30:04] A nineteen sixty one Rene Magritte painting titled "L'empire des lumières" will be going to auction in March of this year and is expected to set an auction record for the artist. The painting has been in the collection of a friend and frequent model of Magritte's since its creation. The painting is of a theme that Magritte came back to several times in his career, which involves a home lit from within and its porch illuminated by a nearby street lamp. Although the home is under the blue skies of a sunny day, the paradox is classic. Magritte and similar works reside at MoMA and the Menil Collection in Houston. The pre auction estimate for the painting has been set at $60 million.

Craig: [00:31:00] That's all the time we have for this week. You've been listening to art since you can find the show on Apple Podcasts, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher Radio, Spotify or your favorite podcast app. If you've enjoyed this podcast, be sure to subscribe. And while you're there, please rates show and leave a quick review. Your feedback is the key to other folks finding us. If you'd like to see images related to the conversation, read a transcript and find other bonus features. You can go to Canvia Art and click on the Podcast tab. If you'd like to reach out to me, you can email me at Krag at Canvia. Art. Thanks for listening.

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