The Question of Relevance

It's a question not just for the arts.

Garth Greenwell, “Making Meaning: Against ‘relevance’ in art,’” Harpers, November, 2020.

Mr. Greenwell laments the use of “relevance” as the defining notion for what makes art meaningful or worthwhile in our day, particular as it us used in reference to political views. “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.” What gets lost in such a context is the value of art based on form and subject matter, and of art’s capacity to draw us outside our comfort zone through confron-tations with others unlike ourselves.

He believes that “our use of the word ‘relevant’ is distorting our appraisals of art.” Relevance in our day stands alone as an idea, without an object or framework: relevant to what? “Relevance” has become “a kind of unmarked term” which ultimately becomes “a term of exclusion.” To say a work of art is not relevant means it doesn’t fit the interests of the times or certain regnant ideas. Its form, content, and construction may all be of the highest excellence, but if the theme is deemed not relevant, the work is doomed to obscurity.

Mr. Greenwell writes, “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.” To judge a work of art as irrelevant is to presume “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, filter-ing attributes we’re sure we want in a partner…” Defaulting to relevance means we cut ourselves off from people who are not like us, don’t think like us, and from whom we might actually learn something: “I don’t think we are likely to be transformed by art if we try to determine that encounter in advance.” He says that “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.”

Relevance is not actually a quality of a work of art, but of the audience for that work, and of their prejudicial views of what is and is not art. We need to remember that “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.” Mr. Greenwell, a gay atheist, has been especially enthralled with Augustine and his Confessions: “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 feel like the question raised in this essay is important not merely for the arts, but also for the work of preaching and teaching and making disciples. Do we pay as much attention to form and content as we do to what we think will be “relevant” for the people we’re serving? All believers need exposure to something other than what they want to hear, are used to hearing, or feel comfortable hearing. For those who have been entrusted with the ministry of the Word, the only “relevant” question they must consider is “What does the Lord say?” His Word can take care of delivering whatever relevance is needed in any situation.


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