Art’s Role in Civil Society, with Jed Perl

In his book Authority and Freedom: A Defense of the Arts, Jed Perl argues that “authority and freedom are the lifeblood of the arts.” Are they also the lifeblood of civil society—and especially democratic society?

View our discussion below on the relationship between art and society, the artist’s role in society, and whether art and artists have definite social and political responsibilities.

Perl believes that the artist’s struggle is to reshape experience, to assert himself or herself within the confines of a tradition, an authority, that he or she freely accepts. Hannah Arendt, in her essays “What Is Authority?” and “What Is Freedom?”, used the same tension between authority and freedom to describe the evolution of society.

When citizens acknowledge a society’s customs and traditions, even as they may challenge them at certain times and in certain ways, they become, in effect, artists—they assert themselves within a tradition, simultaneously remaking their society while also recognizing and appreciating its continuities.

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Jed Perl

  • Author of TK books, including a two-volume biography of the American sculptor Alexander Calder
  • Recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship
  • Critic