This semester I laid on a freshman seminar about Art and Despair, partly because I was already offering Arts and Cultural Policy, partly because Cal had set up a program to encourage freshman seminars about art and promised Oakleys for any art event on campus. And partly because at that point in the fall I was particularly uncertain about how to present policy analysis to my students with a straight face as something that could make a difference, or had any relevance, in a world where something aggressively mindless, ugly, and terrifying was slouching towards the ballot box to be born, and a corrosive slime was steadily leaking out of Fox and coating what we used to call public deliberation.
At that time a song popped into my head, which I was unable to put aside. I hummed it, played on the piano, and listened to it, for example here. This had ambivalent results. On the one hand, I was further despondent reflecting on the loss occasioned by Wunderlich’s early death falling down a flight of stairs, then by all the other blighted and shortened young lives spent in war and lost by neglect. But the song is a hymn, the content is neither sappy nor dishonest (Schubert, another life truncated by neglect, paid real dues), and my realist, skeptical intention not to fall for a cheap sentimental anodyne was overcome by the art. A world that has music is worth pushing a pretty big rock uphill for.
“Something is going on here”, I thought. “Anyway, at worst it’s an excuse to see and hear some art.” The overall structure of the exercise (and my students were remarkably patient as I figured this out in real time) was three big pieces:
A. Art expressing or representing despair
1.Personal: work (Milton, Hopkins) and of course all the ways love can go wrong or not happen, blues; an enormous repertory of treasures
2. Political/social: Goya, Millet, Reading Gaol, Kollwitz, lots of stuff here too
B. Art confronting, denying, overcoming despair
1. Personal: (too much to count, but here are Cavaquinho and Becker again)
2. Political/social: Wondering when this post would get around to the title? Buon primo maggio!
C. Art as a path to resignation and acceptance
1. Personal: Brahms Deutches Requiem, Vietnam Memorial
2. Political/social: Not served here; go back to B.2.
I had no trouble finding examples for B.2, from the union and lefty-political songs I sang in grade school with Pete Seeger, to the Internationale to political posters (I even brought in my personal red fist t-shirt from 1969 for show and tell the same week the graphic appeared, of all places, on the cover of that subversive revolutionary rag, The Economist). But they were all old, back to 1915 and earlier, and almost all left-wing (though there’s been plenty of co-optation) including many that aren’t ferocious or bloodthirsty.
Are we too grownup or cynical or passive to sing at rallies, the way our fathers and mothers did with Pete and Woody twanging away and getting everyone out of their seats? Is that something to be proud of? Is the disappearance of unashamed political art of any quality related to the coarsening and stupefaction of our politics? I know a lot of great stuff was made while brownshirt and KPD thugs were slugging it out in the streets, communists around the world teed up as much disillusion and death as hope and justice, and getting the adrenalin flowing in a big crowd with posters and a song is no substitute for bullsh*t detection and realism. But still…
Where is the right-wing or conservative art of any quality since 1900, and lefty art since about 1980? Is nihilism and wallowing in drugs, violence, and attitude in a misogynist persona the Desastros of our time? If so, as McWhorter asks, what does it do and how does it work for change? I can dish up sarcasm, ridicule, and condescension for the Trump of the moment, but where’s the equivalent of This land is your land to put up against it? and sing along with?
Did they sing Union Maid in Wisconsin? Did they sing anything?