The recent rewriting of works by Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming by their English publishers, seeking to make them acceptable to contemporary political attitudes, has sparked controversy. Some hold that we can no longer revere classics in painting, literature, and music, since their creators worked in a racist, patriarchal, and colonial era. For militants of wokeism—a movement now arriving in Europe from America—it’s time to clean the Augean stables, to have done with the canon and any reverence for High Culture.
Art is becoming once more what it was during the classical period, and again in the 1930s and 1940s—a dangerous, or at least delicate, concern that can’t be left to just anyone. Elites can retain unrestricted access to the great works, in this new environment; the plebes, though, should stick with diversion and consumerism—comic books, sanitized paintings, and industrialized music. In a perspective on the future, proposed as part of the Venice Biennale of 2022, curator Cecilia Alemani wrote: “This selection of 213 artists includes a majority of ‘women or artists of non-conforming gender who challenge the supposedly universal figure of the white man guided by reason.’ ” The importance of a work, on this view, is no longer tied to the talent or creativity of artists but to their gender, skin color, or sexual orientation.
What is a work of art? We can consider art as an object, representation, or text characterized by ambiguity, complexity, or even the emancipation from common sense.
Ambiguity: when a painting, a musical composition, or a novel is not simply what it seems to be, but has the power to signify one thing, as well as its contrary, or to play on a spectrum of possibilities. Complexity: when the interpretation of a painting, the understanding of a musical performance, or the encounter with a great book is not exhausted in the first experience; to see it, to listen to it, or to read it may sometimes require the attention of a lifetime, especially where masterworks are concerned. Finally, emancipation from common sense: when a great symphony, a famous painting, or an ancient monument surpasses the meanings immediately assigned to it.
Western culture’s history is marked by its fight against the powers that seek to domesticate it. At one time, artists were in the pay of kings, whom they had to entertain without criticizing their rule and questioning their greatness. This all changed with the end of the Old Regime and the creation of the right of the author: in France, by Beaumarchais in 1777; and in the United States, by copyright law in 1790. Henceforth, the artist or author no longer depended on the fancies of the sovereign but on the benevolence of public opinion—often fickle, however, and subject to the prejudices of the age. In France, one thinks of the 1857 public prosecutions of Gustave Flaubert for Madame Bovary and Charles Baudelaire for The Flowers of Evil. While Flaubert, accused of vulgar realism in his depiction of his characters, wound up acquitted, Baudelaire was fined for offending “all laws that protect religion and morality.” Some of his poems remained banned until the verdict was annulled in 1949.
The totalitarians of the twentieth century distinguished themselves in their will to crush “decadent” art and promote the official art of the regime. National Socialism advanced the notion of “degenerate art,” which it opposed to heroic art, or racially inferior art as opposed to racially pure art. This idea of degeneracy was first applied to the plastic arts, with the banning of Oskar Kokoschka, Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, Marc Chagall, Picasso, and Kandinsky, all held to be filth. It was extended to the music of Schoenberg and Kurt Weill and to swing, as well as to the cinema of Max Ophuls, Fritz Lang, and Billy Wilder—and to literature, too, of course. The autos-da-fé proliferated, the most notorious taking place in 1933 in Berlin’s Opera Square, where more than 10,000 books (including works by Stefan Zweig, Freud, and Marx) were burned for expressing “Jewish negativism.”
What was the Nazi alternative to Jewish decadence? The Nazis subjected art to the government’s approval, as consistent with Greek and Roman criteria, and opposed to modern trends. Theirs was a realistic art that celebrated Blut und Boden, militarism, the fatherland, the people, and obedience. But for the work of Leni Riefenstahl, Nazi art has hardly left a trace, except among collectors and fanatics.
On the Communist side, the problematic is similar: socialist realism postulates that art must promote the revolutionary values of the regime. For sculptors, novelists, or painters in the Soviet Union, this meant adopting portrayals faithful to history in its supposed revolutionary unfolding. This task was to be combined with the “the ideological education of workers under socialism.” Art is in the service of revolution, an instrument for bringing about a doctrine of progress. Whoever fails to honor this imperative is an enemy of the people and can be swept aside without qualms.
Think of Prokofiev’s ballets, which exalt revolutionary action. A few great painters succeed in transcending Stalinist orthodoxy, such as Kazimir Malevich, who incorporates party dogmas while preserving his originality. The great composer Dmitri Shostakovich, whom Stalin often threatened to send to the Gulag, was obliged in 1942 to compose his seventh symphony, The Leningrad, to celebrate Russian resistance to Nazism. Public statuary that honored the conquering proletariat had to be of gigantic dimension, just as new cities were built on an excessive scale. And woe to anyone who failed to conform to the party dogmas and to the Father of Nations: he would wind up executed or incarcerated in the glacial immensities of Siberia.
And what of our democracies today? Autos-da-fé have taken place in the contemporary democratic world: in 1988 in Bolton; and in 1989 in Bradford in the United Kingdom, for example, when Muslims, encouraged by Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa, burned Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. More recently, in 2021, a Francophone school district in Ontario, Canada, burned or otherwise destroyed 5,000 children’s books, their authors declared guilty of spreading prejudices against indigenous peoples. Among the condemned works were traditional French favorites by Hergé and Astérix. Suffering from some kind of complex in relation with the United States, Canada is sometimes vulnerable to extremist gestures, intended to prove to its great neighbor that it is no less intransigent in the struggle against racism—and this even to the point of parodying the Third Reich!
“Cancel culture,” as it is called, deems it necessary to purge museums, libraries, and film collections, among other repositories of works, of politically insensitive material. Thirty years ago, American feminists, in an early expression of this pseudo-progressive impulse, castigated Picasso, Balthus, and other major artists for their supposed hatred of women, evident in their depictions of the female sex. That canceling impulse is pervasive today. Gauguin must be censored, writes Adele, a reader commenting on a review in the Guardian of the National Gallery’s 2019 exhibition devoted to the artist. She suggests that the organizers interest themselves in the “thousands of terrific artists,” often unknown, instead of this “pervert pedophile”—here, the artist’s behavior and not his art being the offending thing. She concludes, in an increasingly common gesture: “Come on we are in 2020, and we no longer promote abusers.” Indeed, Gauguin has the honor of fulfilling every category of abomination: he is at once a sexual malefactor, a racist, and a colonialist. For Adele and those like her, the standard for assessing a work of art no longer is its wealth of meaning or its formal inventiveness, but its conformity—or the artist’s conformity—to the progressive moral credo of the age.
French feminists are cleaning house in European and national culture. What shall we then make of courtly love and romantic adventure? All of it is now considered sexual assault, hidden beneath pretty forms. And the great painter Fragonard? Another propagandist of aggression against women. His famous painting The Bolt (1778), in which a man leads a half-naked woman to a bed, while locking the door, is seen as a defense of rape.
The trials of excommunication go on and on. The Austrian painter Egon Schiele is another excoriated for how he depicts women. In 2018, as Vienna planned to mark the anniversary of his death, London, Cologne, and Hamburg refused to participate in the billboard campaign for the event, on grounds of sensitivity. In 2017, 10,000 signatures demanded that New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art remove a Balthus painting that depicts a girl opening her legs on a white slip. The petition accused the artist of “romanticizing the sexualization of a child.”
Switching to cinema, militants tried to prevent the release of Roman Polanski’s J’accuse, which premiered in 2019, in the name of protecting women, accusing viewers of complicity with a “criminal pedophile.” The fact that this film was a reflection on the Dreyfus affair and anti-Semitism was seen as an aggravating circumstance. In fact, the demand is that all the director’s films be banished. Why not burn them? Actor Johnny Depp, amid his largely successful defamation suit against former wife Amber Heard, was asked by Warner Bros. to resign from his role as Grindelwald in the Fantastic Beasts film franchise.
In March 2020, Woody Allen saw Grand Central Publishing cancel his Memoirs in the United States because the firm’s employees protested its publication. (The imprint Stock, an affiliate of the same Hachette publishing group, released it in May of that year.) Allen’s ex-wife Mia Farrow and his son Ronan Farrow have accused him of sexually abusing his adoptive daughter Dylan Farrow when she was seven; Allen has always denied the accusation and has never been charged. Honesty in this case consists in saying that we don’t know all the facts and in reserving judgment. But suspicion leaves an enduring stain on reputations. It suffices to slander, and keep on slandering, and something of the accusations will always remain. In June 2020, the public radio station France Inter refused to broadcast an advertisement for Allen’s book, and the book’s editors found themselves accused of celebrating a pedophile. The lynch mob won.
The excommunication trials include great operas. Thus, celebrated heroines such as Carmen now are supposed to have surrendered sexually not because of their lovers’ persistence but because they were forced. Regarding Georges Bizet’s Carmen, director Leo Muscado, not wanting to see his heroine die, decided in 2018, at the Opera of Florence, that she would instead take out her attacker. “In our day, marked by the scourge of violence against women, it is unthinkable that we would applaud the murder of one of them.” A mother in England protested the famous fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty”: the princess had not consented in her slumber to a liberating kiss; thus, she was violated. We are seeing a cultural settling of scores.
We are increasingly no longer lovers of film or literature or painting or music, but judges, who look at cultural creations from an exclusively ethical or political point of view. Literature is no longer creation or the portrayal or decoding of an era; it is an expression of the domination of the powerful or of the rebellion of minorities. One no longer creates, one testifies—and so much the worse for talent, for imagination.
Should we introduce ethnic or gender quotas into art, at the risk of denaturing it? After all, if a work of art is required only to be representative of a fraction of the population, then it is no longer a creation but an election by proportional representation. Every film, book, or opera would then automatically include a fixed percentage of minorities. We thereby confuse good intentions and talent. But talent has nothing to do with justice. To recover a certain equilibrium in the creative world entails the creation of true works of art. A bad film produced by the staunchest feminist is still a bad film.
But now all the most revered works must be reexamined—Antonioni’s film Blow-Up, for example. The teacher and historian Laure Murat explained in Libération in 2017 that the movie represents an incitement to rape, since its plot and direction reveal an intolerable misogyny. We must, moreover, she explains, reread the whole history of art, cinema, and literature from the perspective of rape, since, as the art historian Régis Michel explains, “rape is the sexual obsession of Western art.” The worm is in the apple. The guilty one has been designated, the criminal file gathered, and the trial may commence.
Western art is obsessed with rape? Really? Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1785), François Boucher’s Brown Odalisque (1745), Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass (1865), Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1652), Watteau’s Embarkation for Cythera (1717), Schiele’s The Embrace (1917), Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss (1908)—all calls for rape? Let’s be serious—unless we want to characterize all heterosexual desire and love between a man and a woman as disguised sexual assault. This is no longer art history but ideology. The eradicators are on the march; the present moment now makes itself the absolute tribunal of earlier centuries.
Professors, male or female, once led you to love great works of art, poetry, and drama and to explore the wealth of meaning in these works. Now, the professors are more often like directors of conscience, explaining why you must beware of the classics, even dismiss them. This is what is at stake in the quarrel over the canon in the academy: since we must recognize the rights of minorities, it is no longer tolerable to include in our course of study, without interrogation, authors such as Shakespeare, Chaucer, Cervantes, Balzac, Molière, or Goethe, propagators of oppressive customs.
Early in 2020, Tim Berringer, then chair of the art history department at Yale University, decided no longer to teach this history except based on “questions of gender, class and race” and to confront “its implication in the history of Western capitalism,” or its relation “with climate change.” He justified this decision by the discomfort felt by many students in encountering a canon “produced by white, European, heterosexual and male artists.”
If it were a question of offering a wider perspective, of considering the extraordinary wealth of the art, say, of Indians, Polynesians, Africans, or American Indians, such an initiative would be welcome. But we are equipped to appreciate non-Western art only to the degree that we know our own culture and have access to references and emotions that sensitize us to those of other civilizations. How can we admire the grandiose metaphysical ideas of Sufism, Hinduism, or Buddhism, and understand such foreign traditions, if we begin by trampling on our own, in a kind of ignorant activism? Beware of one who prizes what is foreign only through self-contempt; the aversion that motivates him will finally get the better of his sympathies.
Here is another example: in New York, the aforementioned Museum of Modern Art, famous for having gathered and shown the works of the American avant-garde beginning in 1945, is now opening its collection to all the world’s cultures, as well as to women and blacks and other minorities, in order to escape from the “Western narrative.” Is this not a form of condescension, sprinkled with the dust of an aesthetic in which what matters most is, again, not the quality of works of art but the origin of the artists?
In Baltimore, the director of the Museum of Modern Art sold several of the museum’s paintings, including a Rauschenberg and a Warhol, in order to “purchase works by under-represented artists, in this case blacks and women.” What will visitors think of these paintings? They will assume that they are shown not because of their originality but because the artist is a black or a woman. What could be more disdainful? The pose of humility fools only the naive. Will we be obliged to rewrite all the classical tragedies, from the Greeks to Shakespeare and Racine, because the originals incite the murder of women or cast a nonwhite person in a negative role—for example, the moor Othello in the play of that name, a play that depicts a remorseless war between the sexes? Must we also ban not just “Sleeping Beauty” but other fairy tales, such as “Little Red Riding Hood,” guilty at once of reproducing a sexist pattern of feminine weakness and also of being species-ist in its negative vision of the murderous wolf? And what of banning Victor Hugo, who chased women, including his servants, until the day he died, or Arthur Rimbaud, who participated in the slave trade in the Red Sea?
Publishing houses in Britain and elsewhere are now hiring “sensitivity readers,” who decide whether a given passage of a manuscript will offend minority groups. It was this kind of process that led to the push to rewrite Dahl and Fleming. Literature becomes a book of grievances; no more development of a variety of characters.
And let us not neglect those new vandals, the Greens, who threw tomato soup on a van Gogh painting in October 2022 or tossed mashed potatoes on a Monet, gestures they take to be some kind of spectacular happening. The hatred of art, once distinctive of the Khmer Rouge, disguises itself behind the mask of climate concern.
These woke positions bear a striking resemblance to the teachings of Zhdanov, Stalin’s fellow-traveler from the 1930s, who defined socialist art as that which contributed to the ideological education of the masses. A pitiless censor, he attacked the decadence of bourgeois art and demanded that intellectuals, those “engineers of the soul,” do their part for the formation of the proletariat. Shostakovich and Prokofiev, accused of dissonance and atonality, were among his main targets.
Just what characterizes an artistic creation, a painting, a symphony, or a novel? These are inventions: they probe into the unknown of symbols, colors, or sounds. They celebrate the beauty of the world; they question, overturn, console, or blast open. On the other hand, a political doctrine or religious or moral dogma is by nature fixed and tends to assume control over whatever challenges its preeminence. Ideology forbids as much as it obligates. Sectarian thinkers love neither artistic peaks nor originality, only the drabness of the docile herd.
Top Photo: Green vandals after throwing soup on Van Gogh’s Sower at Sunset. The hatred of art, once distinctive of the Khmer Rouge, disguises itself behind the mask of climate concern. (Photo by Laura Lezza/Getty Images)