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The Subversive Nature of Art and Literature–and what that means for the literary life

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I started out The Literary Life in 2015 with this post–or manifesto, if you will. I think it is time to post it again with just a few tweaks.

0w-Pieta

Art, literature, is by its nature subversive of its contemporary social and economic order.

  • Art is contemptuous of philistine values.
  • Art is elitist. But the elite are not those of the conservative middle classes since these classes have no use for art—not real art. Members of these classes have conventionally been call philistines. The philistines now rule the United States and Britain.
  • The elite are those who, while yes, technically are of the power, privileged class, can rise above and realize the vacuity of philistine values.
  • All true art subverts philistine values. The great masterpieces of pure beauty, of pure art for art’s sake, subvert by their very existence. The great masterpiece of pure art, of pure literature, screams out “I exist,” “I transcend.” Imagine a great piece of marble such as the Pieta by Michelangelo pictured above. Certainly, the piece promotes an intense devotional response. But in economic terms it serves no purpose beyond beauty. But who cares?  Nothing of that sort matters to philistinism unless it can be commodified.

So, when our friends ask us how to distinguish great literature from among all the books lining the bookshelves down at Barnes & Noble, ask them to pay attention to which books pledge their loyalty to the social and economic orders of the day and which pledge their loyalty to pure art. Which books are primarily commodities for philistine market forces and which aim to subvert commodification? These questions are easily determined and require no particular literary acumen.

Some big questions arising today in our postmodern period about art and literature are: Why does philistinism abhor the word “elite”? Can a work of true art collaborate with philistine values? Or, Who are the philistines? Can those of us who are serious in our own tastes about literature really escape our personal philistinism? (Alas, I wrestle constantly with this and usually fail.) Can philistinism coexist with democratic values?

Questions, questions, questions. I want to keep talking about these big questions in this blog. Join in.

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