Monday, January 18, 2016

David Brooks and the Proper Goal of Art

Photo: by Liza Voll via Linda Nathan

In his commentary about beauty and art, David Brooks proclaims, “ is a big, transformational thing, the proper goal of art and maybe civilization itself.”

His essay appeals because he’s a (relative) conservative writing in the paper of record about the importance of beautiful art, an idea that seems pure common sense. We’re inclined to nod along, enthusiastically.

Perhaps my time in DC, researching social policy in a political environment, left me skeptical. David Brooks writing about art in this way seems a little bit like Paul Ryan taking on poverty.

This essay could turn out to be an unwanted gift in pretty wrapping. While proclaiming the awesomeness of beauty, Brooks is sharing another, frightening big idea: There are too many artists advocating for social change, and they are doing it wrong.

For some reason many artists prefer to descend to the level of us pundits. Abandoning their natural turf, the depths of emotion, symbol, myth and the inner life, they decided that relevance meant naked partisan stance-taking in the outer world (often in ignorance of the complexity of the evidence).

Why wouldn’t it be possible to utilize “emotion, symbol, myth” etc. toward art that offers a view of the world as a more equitable place, or painting the painful picture of inequality? Beauty can make us cry, make us see things more clearly or in a new way altogether. Why is Brooks criticizing stance-taking by artists?

There’s one more sentence in this paragraph and it’s an odd jump to a new topic with no explanation. He writes, critical of arts advocates: “Meanwhile, how many times have you heard advocates lobby for arts funding on the grounds that it’s good for economic development?”

Why is this reference to arts advocacy here? It sounds like he’s criticizing the proposition. True, it may not be an effective statement with the public (they don’t buy it), but how does it fit into this discourse on beauty? Does Brooks believe that, like stance-taking, economic development is not a proper goal of art? Perhaps. But that doesn’t make its economic impact less true—or at least any less true than any other sector’s claims about economic impact.

This throw away comment bolsters my sense that Brooks is not just writing about beauty, but criticizing art when—by design and on purpose—it contributes to culture change.

He seems to soften the criticism in the next paragraph.

In fact, artists have their biggest social impact when they achieve it obliquely. If true racial reconciliation is achieved in this country, it will be through the kind of deep spiritual and emotional understanding that art can foster. You change the world by changing peoples’ hearts and imaginations.

I’m inclined to agree. It’s true that we’re often able to reach more people on a difficult topic—like poverty, or race, or gun safety, and so on—when we meet them with it sideways, when we bring it to them in a fresh way, a way that makes them reconsider, or at least willing to hear us out.

Too often, when we talk of poverty or race directly, people turn away. Who goes to see a play about racism and gentrification? Mostly people who are troubled by racism and gentrification, people willing to spend a couple of hours being challenged. We don’t reach the people who’ve stopped listening to the direct appeal. On the other hand, the direct, or even provocative, approach offers a chance to inspire and activate the already persuaded. Isn’t that a worthwhile endeavor?

What is Brooks’ point? Does he mean that artists should only take on social issues if they can do so in a beautiful and oblique manner? We can appreciate his recognition of the power of art in the comments about race. But we shouldn't be blinded by the positive things he writes, and thereby miss seeing his narrow view of arts' goals.

Brooks starts the piece with a description of his own experience seeing unexpected beautiful art.

Across the street from my apartment building in Washington there’s a gigantic supermarket and a CVS. Above the supermarket there had been a large empty space with floor-to-ceiling windows. The space was recently taken by a ballet school, so now when I step outside in the evenings I see dozens of dancers framed against the windows, doing their exercises — gracefully and often in unison.

It can be arrestingly beautiful. The unexpected beauty exposes the limitations of the normal, banal streetscape I take for granted every day.

This is what I call serendipitous art, the art you see at times or in places where you don’t expect it—happen-upon art. My theory is that this unexpected art is especially affecting, changing the way we feel about places and connecting us to others. Brooks’ description is moving (although it created some controversy among the commenters on the New York Times website) and the experience is familiar to readers.

Unfortunately, Brooks’ uses this lovely description to wrap his disconcerting view of the role of artists and community change through the arts. It’s a troubling perspective, particularly when so much of our national conversation is about the contributing role of arts in changing the future of places.

We’ve suffered through years of attacks on funding for nonprofits that advocate for more social services and civil rights. Will there be a similar proposal to prohibit public spending for art that directly (or insufficiently vaguely) promotes more affordable housing, opposes gentrification, advocates for gun control or body cams, and so on?

Stay tuned.


  1. the article by brooks is indeed troubling and deserves a longer more detailed critique but in general artists are used to hearing this argument. in it's banal david brooksey form as polite op-ed it comes off as merely stuffy, old-fogeyish and square but in totalitarian states (hitler's and stalin's most notably) it is voiced as an attack on "decadent" or "subversive" art and is almost always aimed at singling out and marginalizing artists that question the state. whether mr. brooks is aware of the company he finds himself in when leveling these criticisms i do not know but he has at best not thought very deeply about this subject. it makes me want to quote another intemperate (but opposite) view uttered by a leading international artist and thinker of an earlier time period (was it andre breton?) "Beauty is the enemy of expression."

    1. Rereading your comment in light of the election.....scary stuff.

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