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[Essay]

Making Meaning

Against “relevance” in art

Somewhere on the Couch Again, by Cassidy Early © The artist. Courtesy La Loma Projects, Pasadena, California

[Essay]

Making Meaning

Against “relevance” in art
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The word “relevant,” I was recently surprised to discover, shares an etymology with the word “relieve.” This seems obvious enough once you know it—only a few letters separate the words—but their usages diverged so long ago that I had never associated them before. Searching out etymologies is an old habit, picked up in the decades when I aspired to be a poet. Language is fossil poetry, Emerson says, and the poem the Oxford English Dictionary lays out in this case is remarkably moving. The common forebear of both “relevant” and “relieve” is the French relever, which meant, originally, to put back into an upright position, to raise again, a word that twisted through time, scattering meanings that our two modern words have apportioned between them: to ease pain or discomfort, to make stand out, to render prominent or distinct, to rise up or rebel, to rebuild, to reinvigorate, to make higher, to set free.

I looked up this history because I realized that somehow I’d lost my sense of what we mean when we talk about “relevance,” especially the relevance of art, and I wanted to know whether the problem lay in my own understanding or in some deficiency in our usage. The word is everywhere in blurbs and reviews as a quality to admire or, more than that, as a necessary condition; “irrelevant” has joined “problematic” as a term of absolute dismissal, applied not so much to books one reads and hotly debates as to books one needn’t read at all. Artists feel the anxiety of relevance during every season of fellowship applications, those rituals of supplication, when we have to make a case for ourselves in a way that feels entirely foreign, for me at least, to the real motivations of art. Why is this the right project for this moment? these applications often ask. If I had a question like that on my mind as I tried to make art, I would never write another word. This pressure has only increased in recent years. I can still remember the shudder I felt in early 2017 when, after expressing my desire to review a newly translated European novel, an editor asked me to find “a Trump angle” to make the book relevant to his magazine’s readers. There’s something demeaning about approaching art from a predetermined angle, all the more so when that angle is determined by our current president.

Part of my confusion about the meaning of relevance has to do with a curious shift in usage. Until the middle of the twentieth century, according to the OED, the word meant “pertinent to a specified thing,” and it was generally accompanied by a prepositional phrase: something was relevant to or for a particular question or situation or argument. A new meaning of the word made its first appearance in the OED’s citations in 1951, when it began appearing all on its own, without a construction specifying context. Something no longer had to be relevant to something or someone in particular; it could simply be, in a vague, hovering way, relevant. “Appropriate or applicable in the (esp. current) context or circumstance,” was the OED’s definition for this new usage; and then, tautologically, “having social, political, etc. relevance.” My discomfort with our current use of “relevance” as a term of judgment is that it conceals its criteria, and that those criteria are not aesthetic, but social and political. I worry that if we make such “relevance” not just one among other judgments we might make about art, but a condition of our interest, we have made that condition purely about the explicit, discursive content of art, its subject matter. In doing so, we devalue the elements of a work that, to my thinking, properly distinguish it as art; we deny the importance of form.

My aim is not at all to imply that the subject of a work isn’t important, or that social and political context should not be part of what we discuss when we discuss art. I came of age as a literary person, more than twenty years ago now, in an academic milieu that very much did de-emphasize subject matter. One teacher of mine insisted in our poetry workshop that we not discuss content at all, that we somehow pay attention only to form. This was interesting as pedagogy, and not a terrible way to spend a semester, but it seemed false as a way of engaging with art. I suspected that behind the resistance to content was something more than a commitment to aestheticism—to art for art’s sake. It seemed to me the academic literary establishment’s way of responding to subject matter that it found disturbing or discomfiting, subject matter that seemed too assertive, too dramatic or overbearing, only because it had for so long been excluded from the literary canon. Much of this work drew on the experiences of people of color and queer people, of women, of poor people and people in rural areas—experiences deemed irrelevant to a supposedly universal human story.

I see the prominence of “relevance” as a term of assessment in our current critical language as part of a huge and necessary correction, an assertion that these and other supposedly marginal experiences are pertinent, as all human experience is pertinent, to the communal endeavor to make sense of ourselves that is the labor of art. What I find moving in the shared etymology of “relevant” and “relieve”—that fossil poem I began with—is the resonance between “to make stand out, to render prominent or distinct,” and “to give ease from pain or discomfort.” The struggle to assert the value of a broader range of voices in our literature has relieved an injury, the injury of invisibility. That struggle is ongoing: just a few years ago, in a graduate seminar at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, an author I continue to revere characterized my work as resembling “a sociological report on the practices of a subculture.” The fallacy of a certain idea of universality is to imagine that any human experience is unmarked by the accidents of geography, history, demographics—to believe that an account of a Congregationalist minister in rural Iowa, say, is somehow larger, more relevant to a shared human story, than an account of sex among gay men. The idea of universality, when used in this way, is nothing more than a maneuver whereby a privileged social position—which is often the position of straightness, whiteness, and maleness—secures its own default status, and therefore its immunity from self-awareness and critique.

Sunday, Sitting on the Bank of Butterfly Meadow, by Wardell Milan © The artist. Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, and David Nolan Gallery, New York City

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Because these battles are still being fought, I hesitate to articulate the ways in which I think our use of the word “relevant” is distorting our appraisals of art. But I can’t help feeling that the current idea of “relevance” recapitulates some of the disturbing features of “universality,” in the way my literature professors once applied the term. For decades now, since that change in usage, we have not had to specify to whom or to what a particular relevance pertains. That omission has become a presumption, making the word a kind of unmarked term. But relevance is never really unmarked: we generally do mean relevant to or for something or someone; we are all, always, addressing constituencies. The danger of obscuring this fact is that, like a certain usage of “universal,” it is ultimately a term of exclusion. Anytime we praise the relevance of a particular novel, we are positing, at least implicitly, the irrelevance of other novels; and often enough we make this judgment explicit. We are tired, I sometimes hear my friends say, I sometimes hear myself say, of stories about straight, white, privileged men contemplating adultery; we are tired of stories about Americans abroad; we are tired of stories about middle-class malaise. We are tired.

I often find myself perusing the shelves at Prairie Lights, a bookstore in Iowa City, where I live, reading the jacket copy of a recent release, sighing with friends that we don’t have time for another story about x or y, and setting it back on the shelf unopened. Often these judgments are framed as jokes, though they are half in earnest. They make me laugh sometimes; they also make me worry. The desire to invert a structure of injustice—to inflict on those we take to be the bearers of privilege the disregard they have inflicted on others—is one I very much understand, one I feel in myself. But it is always ethically suspect to speak of any human experience as irrelevant to our common human experience; it is always, let me go further, an act of something like violence. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu describes what he calls the law of the conservation of violence: that groups subjected to violence will seek to inflict that violence on others, to pass it along. This is what we’re doing when we dismiss the relevance of other stories—the relevance, therefore, of other lives—and suggest that the aesthetic value of a human experience, such as straight-male desire, is exhaustible.

Growing up in Kentucky, and later, studying in the academy of the 1990s, I experienced the violence of being told that my life as a queer person, my work as a queer artist, could stand only as an eccentric counterpoint to a central, universal human story. But I don’t want to conserve that violence; I want to disperse or transform it. It seems to me that either we believe that all human experience is valuable, that any life has the potential to reveal something true for every life—a universality achieved not through the effacement of difference but through devotion to it—or we don’t. I want to encourage the proliferation of voices and stories, not their repression.

Sometimes a brutal calculus is brought to bear against arguments like the one I’ve just made: resources are finite; time is finite; every book exists at the expense of another; any book I read represents a different book I could have read instead. We have to make tough choices, this thinking goes, and we shouldn’t favor those who have benefited, who continue to benefit, from structures of racial and economic privilege. It’s hard not to acknowledge the validity of this point: so few books get to claim a place in the world. Maybe in the end it is indefensible to argue that we don’t have to make these choices, that in fact it’s imperative we don’t make them, that we think in terms of abundance—of time, of audience, of voices—and not in terms of scarcity. Maybe this is just a kind of cheap mysticism, like a secularized treasury of grace—the old theological idea that there are certain substances, such as God’s love, that as they are spent do not diminish but multiply. Maybe what I’m suggesting is pure fantasy, imagining that our attention could be like the loaves and fishes at the feeding of the five thousand. Maybe that’s true. But maybe it’s also true that there are certain indefensible positions we must hold because not to hold them would be an affront to the human dignity necessary for any world in which we should rightly wish to live.

I can’t bear the thought that art is a zero-sum game, that we have to choose which kinds of stories are relevant, which lives have value; I can’t bear the thought that works of art exist only at the expense of other works of art, that books are locked in some ferocious competition for space. Maybe there is virtue in rejecting any reality construed along these lines; maybe there are certain choices that so deform our character that no claim of necessity can justify them. Besides, the rhetoric of scarcity often turns out to be exaggerated. Our time and attention might be more like the loaves and fishes than we think. After all, we could always cancel our Netflix subscriptions; we could always delete our Twitter accounts.

When my friends and I consign new releases, on the basis of their subject matter, to the category of irrelevant things, we are making another kind of presumption that seems deeply harmful to me: we are presuming to know what we need from art. It’s as though we want to engineer an encounter with art the way we might engineer an encounter on a dating app, filtering by attributes we’re sure we want in a partner: a certain age or height or race. My problem with those apps is not just that swiping left is always a degraded response to another person, but also that we never know as much about our own desires as we think we do. One of the great gifts and challenges of desire is that it illuminates who we are in unexpected ways.

This is one of the many ways in which art and desire resemble each other. When I use relevance as a filter for determining what books to read, I’m failing to make myself available for an authentic encounter with otherness, something genuine art always offers. I’m presuming that I can guess, from the barest plot summary, whether a book will be useful in my life. But how can I know what I will find relevant about a work before I have submitted myself to the experience? I don’t think we are likely to be transformed by art if we try to determine that encounter in advance. Part of the vulnerability necessary for transformation is the recognition that I am, to a great extent, a mystery to myself. How could I know what I need?

Not long ago, I was having lunch with a straight friend who teaches writing at a public university in the West. He told me how surprised he was when a colleague chastised him for teaching Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain.” We shouldn’t teach stories like that anymore, this colleague, who was queer, apparently said; we’ve read enough stories about gay people with tragic endings; there are happy queer stories now, he said, you should be teaching those. He was making an argument about relevance, I think; he was saying that queer stories addressing the conditions of an earlier time are no longer pertinent since, in certain places and for certain populations, new possibilities have presented themselves to queer people; he was suggesting that, moreover, such texts might actively do harm.

This is an argument I’ve encountered often, even about my own work, which has dismayed some readers who feel it offers an inadequately affirmative depiction of queer life. “Why can’t your narrator be an out and proud gay man?” one man asked me after a reading in San Francisco, visibly shaking with an emotion I took to be anger. I won’t go into why I think this is a flawed assessment of my work, which I see as aggressively assertive of the dignity of queer people, and of my narrator, who is, as it happens, an out and proud gay man. I’ll just note that many writers from marginalized communities feel this pressure, the responsibility to offer a story that supports a particular political vision. Give us the world as we want to see it, this pressure insists, not the world as you perceive it to be. I don’t mean to be flippant. When people ask me whether I think we need more queer stories with happy endings, my answer is always yes. We need more queer stories, period. But to believe that art is irrelevant if it fails to reflect the life we want for ourselves and the world we want to live in is to mistake how art works.

I wonder what my friend’s colleague would say about James Baldwin, whether he thinks Giovanni’s Room ought to be removed from bookshelves and syllabi. I’ve written and spoken a great deal about the debt I owe to Baldwin, a writerly debt and a more profound, human debt. But the way that debt was incurred remains a mystery to me, since it seems fair to say that Giovanni’s Room, a novel in which every character ends up dead or devastated, is not just a tragic narrative of queerness, but a homophobic one. The book is horrified by effeminacy. My skin crawls every time I read the bar scene in which queeny gay men are compared to monkeys who eat their own feces, an image radioactive with the tropes of American racism, though the men being described are white. It isn’t just the narrator, David, for whom homosexuality is a curse; the book itself absolutely forecloses the possibility of durable love between men. How is it, then, that this book, in which homosexuality is only ever a closed door, for me opened every door? When I was fourteen, I pulled Giovanni’s Room from a bookstore shelf in Kentucky, knowing nothing about literature, nothing about Baldwin, and the book made life possible for me; it gave me permission to exist. Nothing in its content explains this; the answer lies not in what Baldwin said, but in how he said it, in what Hilton Als has called his “high-faggot style.” The world of Baldwin’s book, in which gay men died at one another’s hands, had no more place for me than the world in which I lived, where gay men died of solitude and AIDS; but his language was its own world, a world that promised a kind of home for me, a different scale of existence.

The way we talk about relevance suggests that it is a quality a work possesses, something an author has engineered or achieved, an accomplishment. This, too, seems wrong to me. Relevance may have more to do with the audience; it is a quality of our reading at least as much as an attribute of what we read. I was lucky to stumble upon Baldwin when I did, before I knew anything about literature; it meant that I met him without defenses, with none of the knowingness I affect when I glance at a book and dismiss it as irrelevant.

Sales Slip, by Mequitta Ahuja © The artist

Sales Slip, by Mequitta Ahuja © The artist

Our misunderstanding of relevance may come from a single word in the OED definition: “Appropriate or applicable in the (esp. current) context.” In the age of Twitter feeds and nonstop news, our overwhelming glut of novelty, something has become disordered in our sense of the relationship between art and time. I’m interested in literary projects that attempt to write at the speed of our present moment—projects like Ali Smith’s seasonal cycle of novels, or, somewhat differently, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. But a more profound capacity of art is its ability to speak across time, and not just time, but also across geography, language, culture, class—the very attributes that now determine “relevance.” Literature is an extraordinary technology for the transmission of consciousness, which is what makes it worth devoting a life to. It seems little less than miraculous that I can read Sappho across millennia, Yukio Mishima across languages, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie across continents, and feel both that I am experiencing worlds alien to me and that I am being shown essential truths about myself.

I have been spending a lot of time lately with St. Augustine, the North African bishop and architect of the Western world, my first return to him since, as a graduate student and fledgling writer, I fell passionately under the sway of his Confessions. Time, place, culture, and language all separate me from Augustine, but we are separated furthest by belief. I am assertively, affirmatively, committedly atheist, which means that a large part of the content of Augustine’s work seems vacuous to me, based on an error or illusion—in a word, irrelevant. And yet, reading Confessions, that doesn’t seem to matter at all; few texts are as invigorating, as inspiring, few texts give me so pungent a sense of companionship, of intimacy, with another human.

Elizabeth Bishop had a favorite line she used to characterize the kind of poem she aspired to write: that it would portray not a thought but a mind thinking. This is what I value in Augustine, what I value in all the art I love: not a set of arguments and conclusions, not a message, but the shapes a mind makes as it struggles to make meaning from a life. Augustine’s Confessions are relevant because of the way he articulates and interrogates inwardness, because of the syntax he invents both for expressing bewilderment and for making bewilderment itself a tool for inquiry. Reading it recently, I noticed how much of his argument is presented as questions; there are entire paragraphs of interrogative syntax. Augustine takes our helplessness before the ultimate, irresolvable questions, which we so often experience as an impasse, and makes that very helplessness a way to move past it. That feels relevant to me, it feels like something I need, even though in so many other ways Augustine’s world—both the City of God he imagined and the City of Man he knew—excludes me, is foreign or obsolete or repugnant to me, actively seeks my annihilation.

I want to acknowledge that everything I’ve written here has been too simple, that there are all sorts of objections to be made. I agree that one infringes upon the sovereignty of a work, one falsifies it, when one pretends it can be abstracted from its context, when one tries to meet a work on some neutral ground free of “relevance.” And yet the way a work of art inhabits its form is what offers me the experience I crave: the sense of facing another person, the presence of another human consciousness. I mentioned rejecting a certain false idea of “universality” in art, but I do believe in the universal, that some commonness in human experience can be communicated across gulfs of difference, and I believe that art can give us access to it. Art exposes us to the universal experience of being a meaning-making animal in a universe where meanings falter. A good definition of art, it seems to me, might be the science of making meaning-making tools.

One reason subject matter has become central to discussions of art in this era of hot takes and think pieces is that viewing art as subject matter, especially political subject matter, makes it voluble, productive of discourse. When I consider the subject matter of a work of art, or its political or social context, I want to talk; when I consider its form, I want to contemplate. But commentary about art that says nothing about form is nearly useless; it almost always misses the point, because form is the distinctive feature of art, its defining property. Aesthetic form is charged with affective and intellectual significance, with human intention, in a way that non-aesthetic forms are not. This is what makes a poem or a novel different from a newspaper article or an encyclopedia entry.

There is a painting on the wall of my studio, a work by a young American artist named Slater Bradley. I’ve learned a few things about Bradley over the past year, but I first encountered this painting in a state of perfect innocence, when I saw it hanging in a gallery in Lisbon, where I was teaching at a writers’ conference. I was accompanying another writer, who wanted to see the work of a photographer she liked, and we were both struck by an exhibition of Bradley’s canvases in the gallery’s main space. The paintings were large, some broken into geometrical shapes, gold and silver and black, some simple fields of a single color. They contained an elaborate symbolism, a mix of astrology and Eastern metaphysics, which immediately aroused my skepticism and still has yet to catch my interest. But the paintings were beautiful, and one of them, the smallest, grabbed hold of me in a way I’ve felt only a few times in my life. It’s a block of blue on a surface mounted on a white mat, the whole enclosed in a brass frame. From across the gallery, a warehouselike space with cement floors and white walls, lit through a strip of high windows by Lisbon’s extraordinary summer sun, it looked like undifferentiated color, a weirdly textured and captivating blue. Then the room darkened dramatically—a cloud passed in front of the sun—and the painting transformed: it brightened and became luminous, an effect I have become familiar with but not accustomed to, and which I have no way of explaining. The painting communicated a sense of stillness infused with vibrancy—a quality I find in much of the art I love, something I’ve characterized elsewhere as being like “a flame submerged in glass.” It’s a stillness that reminds me that stasis was also the Greek word for sedition, for that decidedly unplacid political stalemate that can erupt in civil war.

Up close, the stillness dissolves, or is troubled: the painting consists of thousands of small hatch marks, short vertical strokes made in horizontal bands, applied in what the artist has described as a kind of meditative discipline. The experience I had viewing it was something like love, what the French call a coup de foudre, a thunderbolt, and I knew that I wanted to feel its effect again and again; I knew that it was something that would be, in some way I didn’t fully understand, useful to me. And so, thanks to haggling, a drawn-out schedule of payments generously accepted by the gallery, and the forbearance of my partner, it now hangs behind my desk, where I can feel it almost buzzing as I work.

It would be difficult for me to say anything about the social and political relevance of Bradley’s work, though of course the work is embedded in social and political contexts, the arrangements of the world that made it possible for Bradley to create it and for me to hang it in my writing room. It would be difficult to make the work voluble in ways intelligible to the idea of relevance I find inadequate. And yet, when I think of the real relevance of art, I think of this painting, which reminds me of that oldest sense of relever, the shared parent of relevant and relieve, and of its physical, bodily meaning: to put back into an upright position. That was what I felt at the gallery in Lisbon, and it’s what I feel now, writing these words with the painting at my back: that I am being restored, set upright, reminded of a frequency I need to tune myself to catch. This is the real relevance of art, I think, this lifting up, this challenge to lift myself up. It helps me to do my work, this mystery hanging at my back; it helps me to live my life.

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November 2020