It has never been harder to teach artistic individualism in America.
A religious devotion to the causes of social justice dominates the ideas of professors in the academy, and David Randall’s report “Social Justice Education in America” has made clear that their evangelical zeal for teaching students the merits of intersectional political activism is topped only by the enthusiasm of university administrators for it.
The cultish creed has permeated throughout universities, with moderate professors bowing to the mob and leaving the tiny minority of their conservative colleagues paranoid and fearful of speaking out against the ideology that has dominated them. Their voices are silenced by the threat of anonymous denunciations and by the examples that have been made of bullied colleagues who endured threats of violence, unemployment, lost homes, and the harm caused to their families.
Thus, the burden of making change happen within art schools may rest upon the shoulders of art students who abhor demands to politicize their work.
The social justice warriors’ ongoing takeover of American education extends to attacks upon art museums, which is where education meets the public sphere. They recently forced the closure of a traveling retrospective show of paintings by Philip Guston. Why? The museum’s boards were frightened that Guston’s paintings of Klansmen might “trigger” their visitors, despite the fact that the artist always used them as symbols of evil.
The exhibit was canceled due to fear of the social justice mob.
Museums are among the targets of the faithful because they are seen as public symbols of the oppressive power structures that subjugate racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities. They are easy targets: A majority of them have claimed to be bastions of old-fashioned liberalism since the 1930s, the New Deal era that was the high-water mark of the American left. Art museum leaders operated, as they understood it, in allegiance with minorities, and believed that they lived up to their ideals by occasionally showing the work of ethnic and gender-oriented groups.
However, they failed to grant representation to racial minorities, women, and LGBTQ people on their boards and administration. Thus, now they are ill-equipped to deal with activists’ accusations of condescension and hypocrisy leveled against them.
John Dewey, the famed progressive American philosopher of the 1930s, is a foundational figure to social justice warriors in their action against museums and art galleries. Dewey condemned museums as “memorials of the rise of nationalism and imperialism.” Even collecting art was a symptom of capitalism which was indulged in by people who wished to show off their success and good standing. Communities and nations built galleries and opera houses and museums to show off their collective superiority—this was an elevated form of racist snobbery.Museums are among the targets of the faithful because they are seen as public symbols of the oppressive power structures that subjugate racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities.
Those same accusations are now leveled at the museums again, by activists under the Marxist banners of Black Lives Matter, by radical feminists, and by LGBTQ groups who shrilly reproach the galleries for being symbols of white supremacy which must be “decolonized.”
Such tediously didactic activism has replaced the bourgeois avant-gardism that once dominated American university art departments, and museums and art magazines.
The consequence of its success in the cultural sphere naturally has been an explosion of narrow propaganda—ranging from the sophisticated (Guerrilla Girls) to the sentimental (Titus Kaphar) and the simple. One of the distinctive features of the riots in American cities has been a proliferation of murals duplicating photographs of dead martyrs to the social justice cause. Slogans painted on city streets and walls are claimed as art.
Magazines like ArtNews and Hyperallergic are packed with stories of social justice-oriented art activism, sometimes to the extent that it is hard to see how the hook of their stories has anything to do with actual art-making. (Unsurprisingly, Hyperallergic is funded by activist foundations including The Ford Foundation, The Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, and the Nathan Cummings Foundation).
Under such circumstances, how should art students respond? Many surely feel compelled to create left-wing propaganda if they are to satisfy their teachers and their indoctrinated peers—or to have any hope of appearing in museums and magazines. Many surely acquiesce to the fervor and become propagandists for the new religion.
But Randall’s report suggests that student dissent is a powerful tool to wield against the political takeover of the universities. Fortunately, artists—especially young ones—are feisty and rebellious people. They can find clear guidance from the history of the long conflict between the egalitarian left and the individualists. Artists are unusually individualistic and tend to dislike being told what to do.
The great French defender of individualism in the late 19th century, Emile Zola, once warned the proto-communist Pierre Joseph Proudhon that artists
are peculiar people who do not believe in equality, who possess the strange mania of having a heart, who sometimes push nastiness to the point of genius. They are going to agitate your people, disrupt your communal intentions; they will resist you and be nothing but themselves.[i]
Contemptuously, he recommended changing the title of Proudhon’s last, quite authoritarian book, The Principle of Art and its Social Purpose which insisted that artists must bury their own interests beneath their obligation to political activism, to “The Death of Art and its Social Uselessness.”[ii]
Like our contemporary social justice warriors who have weaponized cancel culture, Proudhon concluded his book by demanding the banishment of artists who would not support his revolutionary socialist ideals. Zola defended them for their individuality, their unaffected sincerity, and their self-sacrifice, telling Proudhon:
I think I can answer you, in the name of artists and writers, of those who sense the beat of their heart and their thoughts within themselves: “To us, our ideal is our loves and our emotions, our tears and our smiles. We want no more of you than you want of us.
Your community and your equality sicken us, we make style and art with our body and soul, we are lovers of life, every day we give you a little of our existence. We are in nobody’s service, and we refuse to enter into yours. We report only to ourselves, we obey only our own nature; we are good or bad, leaving you the right to listen to us or to block your ears. You proscribe us and our works, you say. Try, and you will feel such a great emptiness in yourself, that you will weep with shame and misery.”[iii]
Here was the fundamental difference between the utopian, socialist artistic avant-garde proposed by proto-communists Henri de Saint-Simon, Nikolay Chernyshevsky, Proudhon and their acolytes, and the broader, richer, bourgeois-bohemian art world.
Both sides recognized the need for a new art for a new time, but the former placed artists in service to their political ideals and prioritized the use of art as political propaganda, while the latter cherished the artist’s unique personalities and their distinctive and original work.
The most important characteristic of these artists was to assert themselves and their work as original and independent, and this insistent individualism was the antithesis of socialism. When Zola chided Proudhon that artists were “peculiar people who do not believe in equality,” he meant that they were in the business of crafting a successful life for themselves by making unique and commercially successful art, and he was raising the battle standard of individualism against the drab flags of uniformity.
Now, independent 21st-century student artists have the responsibility to fight again. Art must be defended against demands for it to conform to the political fads of the day.
The uneasy alliance between bohemian artists and the bourgeoisie who collect their art will doubtlessly bear the fruit of creative excellence in this new time. Student artists! Resist the pressure upon you to conform! Stand firm on your individuality! Be yourself!
Michael J. Pearce is founder and chair of The Representational Art Conference (TRAC). He is the author of “Art in the Age of Emergence.”
[i] Émile Zola, Trans: Palomba Paves-Yashinsky and Jack Paves-Yashinsky, My Hatreds / Mes Haines, Studies in French Literature Vol. 12. Edwin Mellen Press, 1991, 10
[ii] Émile Zola, Mes Haines, Causeries littéraires et artistiques, Mon Salon, 1866, Bibliotheque Charpentier, 1893, 40
[iii] “Et moi, je crois pouvoir vous répondre, au nom des artistes et des littérateurs, de ceux qui sentent en eux battre leur coeur et monter leurs pensées : “Notre idéal, à nous, ce sont nos amours et nos émotions, nos pleurs et nos sourires. Nous ne voulons pas plus de vous que vous ne voulez de nous. Votre communauté et votre égalité nous écoeurent. Nous faisons du style et de l’art avec notre chair et notre âme; nous sommes amants de la vie, nous vous donnons chaque jour un peu de notre existence. Nous ne sommes au service de personne, et nous refusons d’entrer au vôtre. Nous ne relevons que de nous, nous n’obéissons qu’à notre nature ; nous sommes bons ou mauvais, vous laissant le droit de nous écouter ou de vous boucher les oreilles. Vous nous proscrivez, nous et nos oeuvres, dites-vous. Essayez, et vous sentirez en vous un si grand vide, que vous pleurerez de honte et de misère.”
Émile Zola, Proudhon et Courbet, in: Mes Haines, Causeries littéraires et artistiques, Mon Salon, 1866, Bibliotheque Charpentier, 1893, 27