“What Do We Mean When We Call Art ‘Necessary’?”

What has become truly necessary is stating the obvious: No work of art, no matter how incisive, beautiful, uncomfortable or representative, needs to exist. Yet the internet — the same force that has increased awareness of social-justice movements — has hyperbolized all entreaties to our fragmented attention spans. It’s now as easy to see all the incredible and twisted ways the world causes suffering as it is to waste a couple hours scrolling through Twitter. The concerned citizen’s natural response is to prioritize. It’s why so many outlets seem to invoke moral outrage as a growth strategy — and why being told what you need to read or watch starts to be appealing.

The prospect of “necessary” art allows members of the audience to free themselves from having to make choices while offering the critic a nifty shorthand to convey the significance of her task, which may itself be one day condemned as dispensable. The effect is something like an absurd and endless syllabus, constantly updating to remind you of ways you might flunk as a moral being. It’s a slightly subtler version of the 2016 marketing tagline for the first late-night satirical news show with a female host, “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee”: “Watch or you’re sexist.”

This usage seems to gesture everywhere but at the art itself, both as an admonishment to the audience and an indictment of the world that has begotten the themes contained in the work being discussed. If the point of art might once have been found in its pointlessness, this attempt to infuse it with purpose runs the risk of rendering it even more irrelevant. On the bright side, we’d have less homework.

The relationship between art and politics has always been fraught. During the French Revolution, the German poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller observed that “utility is the great idol of the time,” and he proposed that art, with its ability to expand the mind, could be a route to meaningful freedom. Later critics seized on the idea’s lurking elitism. The revolution eventually led to Napoleon, and from the fallout, which included the formation of a middle class with a taste for uncomplicated art and the money to pay for it, rose the bohemian movement in favor of “art for art’s sake” — and against the demand for meaning or morality in culture.

The purpose — or lack thereof — of art will most likely be debated until the moment true liberation arrives, so a to-and-fro process repeats throughout history, with culture occasionally called upon to serve in ideological battle, then permitted to roam free. In the late 19th century, social-realist works depicting the working class and the poor proliferated in Europe, reaching their peak in America during the Great Depression. But by the 1940s and ’50s, abstract expressionism emphasized pure form and feeling; art was, as Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko put it in a letter to the art editor of The Times: “an adventure into an unknown world. … The imagination is fancy-free and violently opposed to common sense.” The pendulum swung back quickly with the antiwar music of the Vietnam era and the social movements of the ’70s.

Art is infinitely adaptable; it accommodates activism naturally. When used to describe specific works today, however, “necessary” constrains more than it celebrates. If we can access only the essential, we may start to crave the extraneous — which, through this increasingly distracting yearning, may feel essential, too. Next to stories of grave injustice, the movie “Paddington 2,” about a bear that wears a red hat, is still considered “an inviting, necessary bit of escapism” by Vanity Fair.

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Along with obligation and requirement, “necessary” can also suggest inevitability, even predestination, the sense that a work is both mandatory for the audience’s political education and a foregone response to the world as it is. There are many noncomprehensive adjectives we can apply to good art: moving, clever, joyous, sad, innovative, boring, political. But good art doesn’t have to be any of these things, necessarily; what we want out of it is possibility. To call a work “necessary” keeps the audience from that possibility and saps the artist of autonomy as well. That it’s frequently bestowed on artists from marginalized backgrounds pressures these artists to make work that represents those backgrounds. Worse, it subtly frames their output as an inevitability, something that would have happened regardless of creative agency, and thus suggests that these artists are less in control of their decisions and skills than their unnecessary counterparts.

When applied to bad art with good politics, “necessary” allows the audience to avoid engaging with a work in aesthetic terms, which tend to be more ambiguous and difficult. When applied to good art with good, or even ambivalent, politics, it renders aesthetic achievement irrelevant. Not only is that depressing, it also nullifies the political argument in favor of art in the first place: Why write a novel when a manifesto will do?

Lauren Oyler

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