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Garth Greenwell on “Relevance” in Art

In a long, searching essay in Harper’s, Garth Greenwell takes a stand against the view that certain works of literature aren’t “relevant” to readers on the basis of their author’s identity:

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. …

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. …

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. … 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. … 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.