ERE’S A WAY of putting the problem: on one hand we want art to be free, and on the other we want it to mean. Not just to mean, but to be meaningful—to be useful for, and so maybe responsible to, other realms of life: our sense of community, say, or politics, our moral relations. As often happens when competing positions have claims to truth, the pendulum of consensus swings between them, and the pendulum has swung quite far, in recent years, toward the pole of responsibility and holding art to account. Within the small world of people who care about literature and art, the culture is as moralistic as it has ever been in my lifetime: witness our polemics about who has the right to what subject matter, our conviction that art has a duty to right representational wrongs, that poems or novels or films can be guilty of a violence that seems ever less metaphorical against an audience construed as ever more vulnerable.
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