Many ‘Modern’ writers and artists have sold out, says Alan Moore. They treat art simply as entertainment to be fed to apathetic, bored audiences who live only to die. The role of the artist is to give the audience not what it wants, he claims, but what it needs: to transform individuals, and more generally, society at large.
I’d add that artists might also actively question accepted norms, stretch perceived notions of right and wrong, good and bad; re-define the beautiful, the ‘real,’ the true; see and expose the unseen in society, know the unknown; provoke, astound; challenge the accepted.
Perhaps Zadie Smith agrees with this. Perhaps she may, however obtusely, be alluding to this role in her attack on Josepj O’Neill’s perfect ‘lyrically real’ novel Netherland.
I agree that much of what passes for good literature these days, isn’t, and that this is partly due to the accepted wisdom that nothing surpasses the aesthetic value found in ‘realism’ and its capacity to convey feeling and understanding. Perhaps all Smith is saying is that artists/novelists are today failing us in their duty to provoke and astound precisely because capitalism undermines the experimental, and ‘reactionary’ critics like James Wood — by eulogizing what exists and perpetuating the status quo, condemning or at least undermining attempts to stretch, see and expose, — foster a climate inhospitable to the creation of genuinely innovative works of art and literature.
Perhaps this is what she is saying. Then again, given all the subtle shadings and layered logic that adorn her argument, how’s a clueless prole to know.