From one of our most widely admired art critics comes a bold and timely manifesto reaffirming the independence of all the arts—musical, literary, and visual—and their unique and unparalleled power to excite, disturb, and inspire us.
As people look to the arts to promote a particular ideology, whether radical, liberal, or conservative, Jed Perl argues that the arts have their own laws and logic, which transcend the controversies of any one moment. “Art’s relevance,” he writes, “has everything to do with what many regard as its irrelevance.” Authority and Freedom will find readers from college classrooms to foundation board meetings—wherever the arts are confronting social, political, and economic ferment and heated debates about political correctness and cancel culture.
Perl embraces the work of creative spirits as varied as Mozart, Michelangelo, Jane Austen, Henry James, Picasso, and Aretha Franklin. He contends that the essence of the arts is their ability to free us from fixed definitions and categories. Art is inherently uncategorizable—that’s the key to its importance. Taking his stand with artists and thinkers ranging from W. H. Auden to Hannah Arendt, Perl defends works of art as adventuresome dialogues, simultaneously dispassionate and impassioned. He describes the fundamental sense of vocation—the engagement with the tools and traditions of a medium—that gives artists their purpose and focus. Whether we’re experiencing a poem, a painting, or an opera, it’s the interplay between authority and freedom—what Perl calls “the lifeblood of the arts”—that fuels the imaginative experience. This book will be essential reading for everybody who cares about the future of the arts in a democratic society.