CRIT­I­CAL MASS

When we say art is ‘nec­es­sary’ we sad­dle it with the weight of moral im­per­a­tive. Can we no longer en­joy cul­ture for it­self, asks Lau­ren Oyler

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Essay -

About a year ago I met up for the first time with a wo­man I knew only on­line. Ar­tic­u­late and funny, she is a bril­liant writer who stud­ied lit­er­a­ture in grad­u­ate school. So I was sur­prised that, when I men­tioned a re­cent novel I liked, my new friend re­sponded with head­shak­ing res­ig­na­tion. “I can’t see how any­one jus­ti­fies talk­ing about books any more,” she said. Our na­tion was so over­whelmed with causes de­mand­ing at­ten­tion and ac­tion, she sug­gested, that it had en­tered a state of con­stant emer­gency, whereby pur­suits both per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal must be pit­ted against one an­other to de­ter­mine which are es­sen­tial.

A turn to­wards so­cially con­scious crit­i­cism, ush­ered in by the in­ter­net’s am­pli­fi­ca­tion of pre­vi­ously ig­nored per­spec­tives, has meant that cul­ture now tends to be eval­u­ated as much for its pol­i­tics as for its aes­thetic suc­cesses (or fail­ures). Cer­tain works, usu­ally those high­light­ing the ex­pe­ri­ences of marginalised groups, or ex­press­ing mes­sages or morals about the dan­gers of prej­u­dice, have been el­e­vated in stature.

It’s an over­due cor­rec­tion that brings with it an im­po­si­tion: no longer just il­lu­mi­nat­ing, in­struc­tive, provoca­tive or a way to waste a few hours on a Satur­day, these works have be­come “nec­es­sary”. The word is a dis­cur­sive crutch for de­scrib­ing a work’s right-minded views, and praise that is so dis­tinct from aes­thet­ics it can be af­fixed to just about any­thing, from two-di­men­sional ro­man­tic come­dies to a good por­tion of the forth­com­ing books stacked be­side my desk. Nec­es­sary for what is al­ways left to the imag­i­na­tion — the con­tin­u­a­tion of civil­i­sa­tion, maybe.

The dis­pro­por­tion of the de­scrip­tor is made clear when it’s in­voked to trans­form two very long, idiosyn­cratic theatre pro­duc­tions into com­pul­sory in­ter­ven­tions in the is­sues they re­flect: The New Yorker’s Hil­ton Als called the re­vival of Tony Kush­ner’s eight-hour play An­gels in Amer­ica, which showed in Syd­ney in 2013 and Mel­bourne last year, “bril­liant, maddening and nec­es­sary”. The Los Angeles Times’s Mark Swed made a sim­i­lar pro­nounce­ment about Tay­lor Mac’s 24-hour queer his­tory of pop­u­lar mu­sic, typ­i­cally per­formed in four six-hour shows with­out in­ter­mis­sion: it was the head­line act at last year’s Mel­bourne Fes­ti­val.

But if you skipped the sec­ond sea­son of HBO’s se­ries Di­vorce, about the dis­so­lu­tion of a mar­riage be­tween two white, wealthy peo­ple, you’re safe. “Di­vorce is heart­break­ing,” Rachel Syme wrote for The New Repub­lic. But “now, when so much is at stake, even a glint of sun­shine on this nar­ra­tive” can­not make the show “feel com­pletely nec­es­sary”.

What has be­come truly nec­es­sary is stat­ing the ob­vi­ous: no work of art, no mat­ter how Padding­ton 2, in­ci­sive, beau­ti­ful, un­com­fort­able or rep­re­sen­ta­tive, needs to ex­ist. Yet the in­ter­net — the same force that has in­creased aware­ness of so­cial justice move­ments — has hy­per­bolised all en­treaties to our frag­mented at­ten­tion spans. It’s now as easy to see all the in­cred­i­ble and twisted ways the world causes suf­fer­ing as it is to waste a cou­ple hours scrolling through Twit­ter. The con­cerned cit­i­zen’s nat­u­ral re­sponse is to pri­ori­tise. It’s why so many out­lets seem to in­voke moral out­rage as a growth strat­egy — and why be­ing told what you need to read or watch starts to be ap­peal­ing.

The prospect of “nec­es­sary” art al­lows peo­ple to free them­selves from hav­ing to make choices, while of­fer­ing the critic a nifty short­hand to con­vey the sig­nif­i­cance of her task, which may it­self be one day con­demned as dis­pens­able. The effect is some­thing like an ab­surd and end­less syl­labus, con­stantly up­dat­ing to re­mind you of ways you might flunk as a moral be­ing. It’s a subtler ver­sion of the 2016 mar­ket­ing tagline for the first Amer­i­can late-night satir­i­cal news show with a fe­male host, Full Frontal With Sa­man­tha Bee: “Watch or you’re sex­ist.”

This us­age seems to ges­ture ev­ery­where but at the art it­self, both as an ad­mon­ish­ment to the au­di­ence and an in­dict­ment of the world that has be­got­ten the themes con­tained in the work be­ing dis­cussed. If the point of art might once have been found in its point­less­ness, this at­tempt to in­fuse it with pur­pose runs the risk of ren­der­ing it even more ir­rel­e­vant. On the bright side, we’d have less home­work. The re­la­tion­ship be­tween art and pol­i­tics has al­ways been fraught. Dur­ing the French

Van­ity Fair called left, ‘an invit­ing, nec­es­sary bit of es­capism’

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