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
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’