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

Lauren Oyler in the New York Times:

About a year ago I met up for the first time with a woman I knew only online. Articulate and funny, she is a brilliant writer who studied literature in graduate school. So I was surprised that, when I mentioned a recent novel I liked, my new friend responded with head-shaking resignation. “I can’t see how anyone justifies talking about books anymore,” she said. Our nation was so overwhelmed with causes demanding attention and action, she suggested, that it had entered a state of constant emergency, whereby pursuits both personal and political must be pitted against one another to determine which are essential.

A turn toward socially conscious criticism, ushered in by the internet’s amplification of previously ignored perspectives, has meant that culture now tends to be evaluated as much for its politics as for its aesthetic successes (or failures). Certain works — usually those that highlight the experiences of marginalized groups, or express some message or moral about the dangers of prejudice — have been elevated in stature. It’s an overdue correction that brings with it an imposition: No longer just illuminating, instructive, provocative or a way to waste a few hours on a Saturday, these works have become “necessary.” The word is a discursive crutch for describing a work’s right-minded views, and praise that is so distinct from aesthetics it can be affixed to just about anything, from two-dimensional romantic comedies to a good portion of the forthcoming books stacked beside my desk. Necessary for what is always left to the imagination — the continuation of civilization, maybe.

More here.