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Twice, climate activists disrupted the premiere of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Tannhäuser, unfurling a banner that read, “No opera on a dead planet” and chanting “No opera” as Christian Gerhaler, a German baritone making his Met debut, sang, “Und sieh, mir zeiget sich ein wunderbronnen,” the aria that begins, “Before me a miraculous spring appears.”

Shouted one protester, “Wake up! The spring is polluted. The spring is tainted! The spring is poisoned! This is a climate emergency! This is a climate crisis!”

Following the interrupted performance, Environmental Extinction, the group that organized the protest, issued a statement that read,

“Our key institutions, corporations and governments function according to quarterly profits and the election cycle, respectively, without regard for the long-term dangers to our survival. This system is designed to steal from future generations, in order to maintain a lifestyle that benefits the 1 percent to the detriment of everyone else.”

Many members of the audience considered the protest disrespectful and inappropriate at best and a moral abomination and a political blunder at worst. But some others defended the disruption as “a valid form of protest.” “They’re not desecrating anything. They’re not destroying anything,”

Richard Wagner was just 32 years old when he completed Tannhäuser, his extraordinary tale of carnal lust, spiritual love and the quest for redemption. His fifth opera—he’d already composed The Flying Dutchman, Rienzi, The Ban on Love and The FairiesTannhäuser revolves around the medieval knight and poet Tannhäuser and his struggle between his sensual desires, evident in his experiences in the seductive lair of Venus, and his pursuit of purity and salvation through a higher love for the noblewoman Elisabeth.

Tannhäuser is a quintessential example of Romanticism in its themes and style: in its exploration of emotion and inner struggle, its use of myth, folklore and the supernatural, its fascination with the nature’s sublimity, and its focus on the individual and his personal journey.

It also exemplifies the Romantic spirit in its efforts to break free from classical constraints and conventions. The opera epitomizes the Wagnerian concept of “Gesamtkunstwerk,” where the opera is a total art form combining music, poetry, dance, drama and visual arts.

Especially striking is the potent eroticism of the Bacchanals in the first act, “as scantily clad couples cavort alongside others languidly lolling about in post-coital bliss.”

A work of nationalistic myth making, Tannhäuser—with its romanticization of medieval Germany’s chivalric and poetic traditions and its incorporation of the mystical and legendary elements of German folklore and mythology—played a role in defining Germany’s national identity in opposition to France’s emphasis on the Enlightenment ideal of reason.

Not just a magnificent, intensely moving artistic creation, Tannhäuser is a work with powerful political undertones. Its exploration of sensual desire versus spiritual redemption can be viewed as a critique of the moral and religious constraints of Wagner’s time. Also, Wagner’s use of Germanic legends and myths contributed to the burgeoning sense of German nationalism and cultural identity in the early and mid-19th century.

In an opinion essay published earlier this year, New York Times columnist David Brooks described “The Power of Art in a Political Age” as the opportunity escape from the fraught, contentious issues of today into an “alternative world,” where it’s possible to lose “yourself in a book or song” and lose “track of space and time” and enter “a deeper realm of the mind”:

“that hidden, semiconscious kingdom within us from which emotions emerge, where our moral sentiments are found—those instant, aesthetic-like reactions that cause us to feel disgust in the presence of cruelty and admiration in the presence of generosity.”

Art, he insists, “has the potential to humanize the beholder.” Great works of art prompt observers to “cast off the self-centered tendency to always be imposing your opinions on things,” “to stop in your tracks, take a breath and open yourself up so that you can receive what it is offering, often with a kind of childlike awe and reverence,” to train “you to see the world in a more patient, just and humble way,” and to widen their “emotional repertoire.”

These works teach us “to see the world through the eyes of another” and “furnish us with a kind of emotional knowledge—how to feel and how to express feelings, how to sympathize with someone who is grieving, how to share the satisfaction of a parent who has seen her child grow.”

One reader echoes Brooks’s perspective with these words: “Without the arts, life would be considerably duller, drabber and much less rewarding. Say some others: Art alone can give us ‘transcendence, peace and beauty.’ Without art, life is ‘such a shallow and threadbare thing,’ ‘emotionally, imaginatively limited.’”

Brooks is quite right to fear that “the arts have become less central to public life,” though he surely exaggerates when he says, “We don’t seem to debate novels and artistic breakthroughs the way people did in other times, that the artistic and literary worlds have themselves become stultified by insular groupthink and this has contributed to the dehumanization of American culture.”

Right or wrong, Brooks’s op-ed essay is certainly out of step with the times, when a growing body of contemporary scholarship looks at art not as an escape from reality or a way to make us better people but as works that inevitably have profound political implications and that invite us to engage with those political realities, including “the alienation, despair, loneliness and longing for connection so endemic to life in America, both past and present.”

A vivid example is Hanan Toukan’s 2021 study, The Politics of Art, which focuses on the way that Western donors and internationally funded NGOs sought to promote liberal values in Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine through the visual arts. Toukan argues that these groups sponsored artworks that uphold the hegemonic structures they claim to critique without recognizing their ties to power.

The artistic works that these groups funded took forms that were “deemed relevant (per Western interests and tastes)” and aligned “with neoliberal values of individualism and entrepreneurship.” These groups tended to ignore works that offered “competing visions of resistance” or called for a more transformational politics.

Two recent books, art critic Jed Perl’s Authority and Freedom, an attack on “the stranglehold of relevance,” which he argues is “squeezing the life” out of artistic criticism, and Bruce Robbins’s Criticism and Politics: A Polemical Introduction, which “unflinchingly defends criticism from those who might wish to de-politicize it,” address the ongoing debate about the nature and purpose of artistic criticism from contrasting vantage points.

Perl, a storied popular art critic and author, seeks, in the words of the postmodern artist, photographer and print maker David Salle, to chart a “middle way” in criticism “that is neither strictly formalist nor identitarian.” Perl, he writes, “wants us to pay close attention to how works of art are actually made, and he outlines the ways in which artists of widely divergent temperaments, backgrounds and histories engage with or against, the material forms of their disciplines.”

One reader argues that despite critics’ efforts, “art stands outside ideology” and politics. Echoing, in certain respects, the argument made by the postwar New Critics, which emphasized close reading of texts with a focus on the text itself, independent of historical context or authorial intent, Perl argues that art “has its own internal dynamic that sets it apart from whatever might be the prevailing political ideology of the moment.”

Art’s value can be found in “remembering what attracted us to literature, music and the visual arts in the first place, often when we were kids … They took us out of ourselves; they felt irresponsible, irrepressible, liberating.”

A critic responds that this book “is a very puffed up article and a slender article at that. If this is the best defense that can be mustered for the arts, then I am more afraid than ever … This book is like cotton candy: hugely puffed up with air.”

Robbins, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, is interested in the political functions of literature and of literary criticism. His argument is a bit like that of the Hungarian Marxist literary theorist György Lukács, who argued for the importance of the historical context in understanding literature and who critiqued formalism and aestheticism in literary criticism. He argued that great works inevitably engage with political and social realities.

Yet unlike Lukács and somewhat like Frederic Jameson, he is especially interested in how novels expose “social processes and psychological drives while also creating the institutions they need and desire.”

When Robbins entered the field of literary criticism, the idea of the disinterested, apolitical critic was at its apogee. It was a largely unquestioned assumption within the American academy that one could speak of a “universal reader” who could interpret a text correctly, objectively and impartially. These critics embraced a heroic self-image of themselves as the defenders of culture against anarchy (or commercialism or materialism or populism), against the barbarians and philistines at the gates.

Those presumptions about objectivity and universality came under attack not just from French literary theorists, but, even more influentially, from the democratic activist movements of the 1960s that focused on race, gender and sexuality (but much less so on class). It became increasingly obvious that many interpretations reflected a white, male, heterosexual, educated and upper-middle-class vantage point that downplayed the distinctive experiences and perspectives of women, Blacks, gays and lesbians, and other underrepresented groups.

Robbins’s book can be read as an effort to address issues that have grown out of the rise of neo- or faux-populist perspective that seeks to delegitimize literary criticism, downsize and defund literature departments and that:

  • Is skeptical of humanities expertise.
  • Regards all interpretation of artworks as equally valid.
  • Privileges the readings and understandings of ordinary readers.
  • Treats the politicization of the humanities in general and literary criticism in particular as a byproduct of the humanities’ marginalization and inconsequentiality.

Three implicit questions underlie his book:

  1. Why should the public subsidize literary study in universities?
  2. What’s the value of jargon-laced, theoretically informed literary criticism?
  3. Shouldn’t academic literary critics devote more attention to the traditional concerns with aesthetics, language, form, literary history and canonical texts?

His answer, put much too schematically to do it justice, is that academic literary criticism enriches the reading experience, contributes to cultural and intellectual discourse and fosters a deeper appreciation of literary art.

By introducing multiple interpretive lenses, it provides tools for more nuanced and sophisticated understandings of texts. It also offers deep insights into the cultural, historical and social contexts of literary works and encourages readers to question and analyze texts beyond surface-level understanding. In addition, it contributes to our understanding of how literature evolves over time and its impact on society and introduces diverse theoretical perspectives, from feminism to postcolonialism, enhancing our grasp of texts’ full meaning and cultural significance.

The kind of literary analysis that Robbins favors is highly attentive to social structure; class, gender and racial relationships; ideologies and norms; material conditions; and economic and power dynamics. It places a premium on discourse and favors what Yale’s Joseph North calls a historicist-contextual approach that supplies the essential backdrop for interpreting literary works. By foregrounding works by historically marginalized and underrepresented authors and contextualizing literary works within detailed societal circumstances, specific social and economic conditions and settings and their authors’ habitus, this approach underscores the value of academic expertise while giving tangible expression to the democratic, inclusive, liberatory and anti-elitist impulses of the 1960s.

For Robbins, literary criticism has long played a role in the development of the self-consciousness of an emergent class—and continues to play that role today. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the rise of the bourgeoisie cannot be separated from the growth of literary criticism. The emancipatory social movements of the 1960s also benefit from ideas drawn from new currents of cultural criticism and new theories concepts, language and an ethos that arose in classrooms.

Something similar—evident in the proliferation of concepts like critical race theory and intersectionality and the establishment of departments and programs in Black studies, disability studies, environmental and sustainability studies, gender and sexuality studies, Latino/a studies, Native American studies, subaltern studies and programs in indigeneity, diasporas and race, which institutionalize certain ideas, terms and analytical approaches and concepts (i.e. deconstruction, heteronormativity, postcolonialism, privilege, social constructionism and whiteness—is happening today.

In other words, Robbins’s political approach to interpretation does not reduce serious works of literature to agitprop. Whereas agitprop’s goal is to persuade, mobilize and propagate a specific political agenda or ideology, meaningful works of art and literature emphasize aesthetic and artistic values with depth and nuance; they’re ambiguous, subtle and layered and invite reflection and personal interpretation rather than direct persuasion.

Nor does a political and contextual approach to literary criticism treat its function as nitpicking, on the one hand, or surface or naïve reading, on the other. At its best, in the hands of scholars like Edward Said and Stuart Hall, it becomes a sophisticated form of cultural analysis and criticism.

In a recent Twitter posting, one of my favorite writers, Caitlin Flanagan, confesses that when she was 16, “the only person who understood me was a nineteenth century school inspector.” She was referring, of course, to Matthew Arnold and, in particular, to his 1867 poem “Dover Beach.” She read the poem and was ravished.

You no doubt recall the poem’s incredibly poignant concluding stanza:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Published eight years after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, the poem’s theme centers on the loss of religious faith and certainty amid the increasing skepticism brought about by scientific discoveries and societal change. The metaphor of the ebbing tide symbolizes the retreat of faith and the resulting sense of emptiness and uncertainty. The poem also touches on themes of human misery and the transient nature of human love.

But that 16-year-old found in the poem not mere melancholy, but something quite different. This was the message she took away:

“Girl, come stand next to me at the window. Look at the ancient moonlight on the restless water. Outside this room is only madness and we two are not spirit, only flesh. But we have these hours until dawn.”

Great works of art are at once political yet also beautifying, educative, enlightening, redolent, incantatory, revelatory and transformative. You may not agree with what Caitlin Flanagan (whose father chaired the UC Berkeley English Department) writes when she scorns the “academic handwringing about the ‘crisis of the humanities’”—and announces,

“The crisis is that you guys stopped teaching things of great worth. And every time you got hold of something worthwhile, you forced [it] through the critical theory meat grinder. Nobody cares.”

Yes, let’s teach our students to read between the lines, uncover veiled truths and lay bare the dogmas, principles and ideologies that lie beneath art’s surface. Yes, let’s expand the canon and search for the voices of those “who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.” Yes, let’s provide the rich contextualization that helps us recover how a work of literature or art reflects and critiques the social and economic conditions of its time and reinforces or challenges dominant ideologies and social norms.

Yet, let’s also help our students find solace, inspiration, insight, transcendence and pure joy in the works that represent the true heights of human creativity and imagination and that cast light onto the otherwise purposeless, meaningless, ever-wafting universe that surrounds us.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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