Bad art is doing very nicely these days, and the reason is that people want a message. An early symptom was the galloping first-personism of movie reviewers: “I feel…” was a hard-to-beat gambit, since who can refute a feeling? A more impartial claim was suggested by the successor locution “It feels like…”—where the “it” meant that the feeling in question ought to move anyone. The broad-church piety was harder to challenge than a mere first person. Meanwhile, negative judgments were on the way to becoming prohibited so long as the work wore its good intentions on its sleeve.
This is not a question of sincerity. Oscar Wilde said, “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling,” and in The Importance of Being Earnest, Algernon recoiled from the display of affection by the happily married: “It looks so bad. It is simply washing one’s clean linen in public.” A great deal of the admired and well-rewarded art of our time consists of washing one’s clean linen in public.
That the artist should have a function separate from the existing cultural or political apparatus is by no means a timeless idea. It goes back to the mid-18th century and found its clearest formulation in Friedrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795). You may know a work of art, Schiller wrote, by a commitment that looks like detachment. It does not make you want to go out and do something. This was a radical proposal, rather than a virtue at home in the Age of Enlightenment. The taste of the age was more truly represented by Joseph Addison’s verse tragedy Cato (1712), Whig propaganda for a civic-republican ideal that gave pleasure to three generations of viewers, but the sentiments they warmed to are now so frigid it is impossible to imagine what those people were feeling. The same is true of the high art celebrated by the ancien régime—a painter like François Boucher, for example.
The successful artist shares with the politician a recurrent temptation to indulge in emotional claptrap. Bernard Bosanquet in Three Lectures on Aesthetic (1915) proposed that this urge to chase after tears or laughter could be quelled by attaching the art-emotion to a particular object and not a set of reactions. His consequent definition of art was “feeling expressed for expression’s sake.” Notice, however, that this is something only the deranged would dream of wanting in real life. Our everyday expressions of feeling are spontaneous and practical; they are never “for expression’s sake.” By contrast, aesthetic feeling is self-sufficient.
Jean-Luc Godard’s movie Breathless deals with a young thug and his dame and the binge of fraud, flight, and betrayal their infatuation puts them through. Nothing obliges us to think these people admirable human specimens. Nor do we think them detestable. It is enough that they are interesting, and their surface glamour accounts for much of the effect. There is a moment quite early when the hero turns toward the camera and addresses the audience head-on: “C’est jolie, la campagne…. Si vous n’aimez pas la mer—si vous n’aimez pas la montagne—si vous n’aimez pas la ville: allez vous faire foutre.” (It’s beautiful, the countryside. If you don’t like the sea—if you don’t like the mountains—if you don’t like cities: to hell with you.)
Was Godard saying, “Relax, it’s just a movie”? The moment seemed to convey a sharper admonition: “I don’t care if you like this, but you won’t walk out. It is going to interest you—later, you can wonder why.” The impudence went hand in hand with a peculiar freedom and unconcern. It surprised the viewer’s wish for a rehearsed response, the click of the trap in the usual plot.
Iris Murdoch in her essay “Against Dryness” (1961) said that modern writing had inherited from liberalism and romanticism an image of human beings as agents of moral choice. Yet “we are not,” she wrote, “monarchs of all we survey, but benighted creatures sunk in a reality whose nature we are constantly and overwhelmingly tempted to deform by fantasy.” The task of artistic conscience was to remind us of that deformation.
“One is forever at odds with Marxism,” Murdoch added, because “reality is not a given whole.” But liberalism, too, is a promoter of counterfeit understanding: “Our sense of form, which is an aspect of our desire for consolation, can be a danger to our sense of reality as a rich receding background.” The experience offered by art is not already in place, not predigested; and if you understand reality as a given whole, you have no need of art. You may create works of fantasy or rejiggered fact, tutor the audience in proper feelings, and hope to heal some aspect of reality, but the result will be not expression but propaganda, or magic, or medicine.
Between the 2020s and an earlier age of conformity, the 1950s, the language of cliché switched from middle-class respectability—the self-evident ideal of movies like Executive Suite (1954) and Marjorie Morningstar (1958)—to the current Hollywood agenda of the inclusive and the marginalized. In last year’s film The Power of the Dog, an early-20th-century frontier businessman is relieved of the burden of his macho-sadist brother when his gay stepson surreptitiously infects him with anthrax. In the just-released Top Gun: Maverick, the loner protagonist leads a diversity-checked squadron of fighter pilots to bomb a uranium-enrichment site in an unnamed country. The first of these films is stark and highbrow, the second flash and lowbrow, but they share an optimistic moral. Elimination of bad guys knits the brotherhood of the good and true.
“Just as once there were bourgeois commonplaces,” wrote André Gide in Return From the USSR (1937), “so now there are revolutionary commonplaces”—but let us say the same of anesthetic uplift generally—catchphrases and righteous slogans which, though “so successful today, will soon emit to the noses of tomorrow the insufferable odor of the clinic.” That odor has been with us for a decade or more, and it is not getting weaker.
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the enemy country in Top Gun: Maverick. In the movie, the country is not named.