Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock discussing comedy on 'Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee'
Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock discussing comedy on ‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.’

When Jerry Seinfeld went to the mat against political correctness — saying he has been warned against playing campuses and that kids these days were too quick to throw around words they didn’t understand like “sexist” and “racist” and “prejudice”—you knew that the easily offended would come out swinging. What do dopes like Seinfeld or Bill Maher or Chris Rock know about comedy anyway?

The most entertaining response to Seinfeld’s critique of modern audiences was almost certainly Anthony Berteaux’s. Writing for the Huffington Post’s college vertical, the proudly PC undergrad at San Diego State instructed the legendary comedian about comedy’s true purpose in these progressive times of ours. Here’s Berteaux:

It isn’t so much that college students are too politically correct (whatever your definition of that concept is), it’s that comedy in our progressive society today can no longer afford to be crass, or provocative for the sake of being offensive. Sexist humor and racist humor can no longer exist in comedy because these concepts are based on archaic ideals that have perpetrated injustice against minorities in the past.

Provocative humor, such as ones dealing with topics of race and gender politics, can be crass and vulgar, but underlying it must be a context that spurs social dialogue about these respective issues. There needs to be a message, a central truth behind comedy for it to work as humor. [Emphasis mine]

Note the imperatives insisted upon by Young Master Berteaux, the “can no longers” and “musts” and “needs to be’s.” It’s a rather blinkered, vaguely totalitarian view of art. We see something similar at work when Tara Schultz, another college student, calls for certain comic books to be “eradicated from [her university’s] system” because she considers them “pornography.” And there are hints of it when a video game critic like Anita Sarkeesian seeks to eliminate choices she disapproves of from the market in the hopes of altering what people find entertaining.

Insisting that art promote a moral and political agenda while distrusting the common man’s ability to choose an acceptable mode of entertainment is nothing new, of course. One can’t help but hear echoes of Soviet commissars long dead in Berteaux’s and Schultz’s and Sarkeesian’s comments. “[Lenin] never believed that the people, after having listened to several points of view, would be able to decide correctly for themselves,” wrote Peter Kenez in “Cinema and Soviet Society: From the Revolution to the Death of Stalin.” “Censorship and propaganda were related, and Lenin attributed the greatest significance to them.”

What is the role of art? Is it, as Lenin and his fellow thinkers believe, a tool to shape minds? Must we reject art that is impure, that comes from sources we hate or preaches messages we find distasteful? I cannot support this; indeed, I strongly reject it. It is a variation on the politicized life, that deeply harmful worldview that demands we consider all aspects of our being by some ever-shifting political standard. I can’t help but think of Kingsley Amis’ snubbing of this view in “Girl, 20.” In that 1971 novel, the narrator, a music critic, is confronted by an editor angry with him for “advertis[ing] these bastards” — “these” being the East Germans.

“You do realize, don’t you, that this chap’s only allowed abroad because he’s a loyal and trusted servant of that bloody awful regime?” the editor asks.

“Whether I do or I don’t doesn’t come into what I’m supposed to be at,” our hero replies. “The job you hired me for was to cover the most important events, and important judged by musical standards.”

Intriguingly, this fictional defense of the right to cover a communist who made beautiful music came even as Amis was drifting rightward. A few years previously, Amis had published an essay entitled “Why Lucky Jim Turned Right.” In it, he jokingly complains of being “driven into grudging tolerance of the Conservative Party because it is the part of non-politics, of resistance to politics. I have seen how many of the evils of life — failure, loneliness, fear, boredom, inability to communicate — are ineradicable by political means, and that attempts so to eradicate them are disastrous.”

This is not to say that a political or ideological response to art is necessarily bad or to be dismissed out of hand. As the late, great Robin Wood wrote in “Personal Views,” “valid criticism must never lose touch with the critic’s whole response.” Part of that response means grappling with “art, as affecting, influencing, developing, deepening, enriching, refining the human sensibility.” But it doesn’t mean rejecting out of hand that which violates our ideological precepts: “The fact that a book [‘Anna Karenina’] I find increasingly questionable ideologically continues to affect me as among the half-dozen greatest works of art in my experience, neither troubles me nor strikes me as paradoxical.”

All of which is to say that “can no longers” and “musts” and “needs to be’s” have no place in the mind of a mature person considering a work of art, be it a musical performance or a novel or a stand up routine or a video game. Art is not a tool with which to promulgate your worldview or force your beliefs upon others and it’s not something that should be stifled for promoting crimethink: that’s propaganda and censorship.

Art, first and foremost, entertains: a successful novel or a film tells a story and relays vivid imagery; a successful comedian makes you laugh; a successful video game elevates the heart rate and induces excitement. If, in the course of that entertainment, you learn something new about yourself or your world, then fine. But moral education is not the only, or even primary, goal of art. Art has no use for someone who tells it what it must be.