“I am left feeling that there is something if not startling then at least disquieting in [New Yorker classical music critic Alex] Ross’s brusque announcement that politics does not stop at the door of art—and that to think otherwise would be to succumb to ‘an old illusion,’ ” Jed Perl wrote in the New Republic this week. “What I want to suggest is that we have come to a point where the irreducible value of art, far from being a controversial value, has come to be regarded as not even worthy of discussion—just ‘an old illusion.’ ”
Perl is worried that by focusing on the political value of art, we make it harder to defend investment in it. I agree that there are risks in both strategies. If you argue that a sculpture should be preserved because it is beautiful, people who are left cold by it can say the work has no aesthetic value. If you argue that a work is good because it has certain politics, people who find those politics objectionable may be inclined to disagree.
In both art and politics, what is good and what is bad depend on deeply personal preferences and on framing. There is no technique we can use in either sphere of life to reach a collective agreement on what is good and what is bad. There is no objective standard for what constitutes a beautiful painting or a beautiful worldview.
I have been writing about the politics of culture for five years. When I began, I knew more about politics than I did about art. I often assigned a higher value to the political perspective of a work than I did to its aesthetics. And I often ascribed political motivations to creative and business decisions that were driven by format, conservative assessments of risk and the growing international market for American culture. All of these factors are political, but in a way that is more subtle and insidious than a crude and overriding desire to impose certain values on audiences.
None of this means that I think culture is apolitical. I just think that politics functions differently in culture than I initially expected. In fact, the great political strength of art is that when politics walks through the door of culture, politics begins to function differently. You can say strange, impractical and contradictory things in art that could never be spoken during a stump speech or a Sunday morning talk show.
And discussions of politics and aesthetics do not have to exist separately from each other. When “Girls” brought on “Orange Is the New Black” actress Danielle Brooks for an episode, her role was to nudge Jessa (Jemima Kirke), one of the spoiled white characters, toward an epiphany. Her limited arc did little to meaningfully and permanently expand the world of the show or to further our understanding of Jessa. Without careful political framing, Kara Walker‘s cutouts and sculptures, which comment on American racial history, would be an entirely different class of grotesques.
It is for this reason I sometimes find myself heaving sighs at pieces I once might have written myself, like Vox’s recent offering “The Bachelor franchise is sexist and needs to go,” from reporter Kelsey McKinney. Of course “The Bachelor” franchise is grotesquely, bizarrely sexist. The entire conceit involves generating drama by making its cast go through intensified versions of antiquated courtship rituals and making them feel bad for themselves if those rituals do not produce a happy result. But in keeping with Perl’s objection, I think we ought to be a bit more careful about declaring that culture “ought to go” on the grounds of its politics.
I am all for using political tactics to target problems that occur in the production end of mass culture. The abusive working conditions in the reality television and video game industries are part of an erosion of solidly middle-class jobs in the culture business. Mass culture’s eagerness to display women’s bodies on screen can make the work of female stunt performers more risky. The racial and gender composition of the pool of working directors, showrunners, writers and executive producers suggests real and deliberate failures to recruit new voices and new perspectives.
Applying the same litmus tests and pressure tactics to content itself is a rather more dangerous proposition.
If stories get to reach an audience based on their politics, whose politics govern those decisions? On what grounds can we claim that the sexism of “The Bachelor” franchise merits action, but that complaints about depictions of gay sexuality are frivolous and ought to be ignored? Plenty of conservatives feel just as strongly as liberals do that culture has great power to shape the way we see the world and act in it.
And there is something suspiciously anti-competitive about the idea that something should go away just because it has bad values. It is an impulse akin to the hope that a politician you dislike will be indicted or caught with a person not their legal spouse, eliminating the need to actually beat them at the polls. This is an end run around figuring out why people like what they like. It suggests a lack of confidence that liberal values will be compelling and a wish to ignore the reasons that something retrograde can also be extremely popular.
The questions of good or bad, sexist or not sexist ignore a much more interesting line of inquiry. Why is it that people, including feminist authors like Jennifer Weiner and Roxane Gay, love “The Bachelor” franchise? There is a certain un-suppleness of mind in the idea that sexist content attracts only people who are on board with that sexism.
McKinney quotes producer Mike Fleiss as saying “It’s a lot of fun to watch girls crying,” as if it is a nefarious statement, rather than one with a lot of potential meanings. I loved watching Bachelorette Andi Dorfman cry this season not because I enjoyed watching her be miserable, but because she is a fabulously strategic crier. The woman knows how to turn the waterworks on every time she needs to let a fellow down, because she understands the value of communicating that this is just so hard for her, preserving her status as a nice girl faced with difficult choices.
You can watch “The Bachelor” franchise because it is fun to dream of an easier way to find a partner. You can watch these shows because you are nothing like the men and women who put themselves through this absurd process and you enjoy reminding yourself why you have made the choices you made. As people who work in politics and policy know, it can be useful to have the enemy present before you.
It is not always comfortable to look at what is popular and to recognize that people do not share your tastes and values. But if we are what we love, I am interested in knowing why we love it. That is where the conversation really begins.