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A Response to Milan Kundera: Art Is Not Dead

Milan Kundera’s latest essay collection, Encounter, is at once enthusiastically exultant and outright curmudgeonly. Amid deserving praise for the composers, artists, and writers who have inspired him, the Franco-Czech writer also describes our era of so-called post-art as “a world where art is dying because the need for art, the sensitivity and the love of it, is dying.”

It’s a compelling claim — and one that’s now been widely over-quoted — but, as Geoff Dyer aptly noted in his Guardian review, it’s also “a form of provocative kindling” that, in keeping with Kundera’s legacy of intellectual interrogation, begs to be challenged. So, in the spirit of constructive optimism, we humbly offer contemporary counterparts to Kundera’s beloved artists — they may not be perfect approximations, but these recent innovators are at least confronting and pushing the same boundaries.

Bygone Genius: Curzio Malaparte
Contemporary Counterpart: Joe Sacco
Like Curzio Malaparte, who defied dry war reportage in favor of aesthetically driven storytelling, Joe Sacco parlays his warzone experiences into graphic novels. Though this “comics journalist” adopts a different tone than his Italian forebear, Sacco forges the kind of engrossing, genre-combining narratives that made Malaparte such a compelling historical critic.

Bygone Genius: François Rabelais
Contemporary Counterpart: Junot Diaz
In Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz experimented with narrative points of view, played with fictional footnotes, and incorporated foreign words in a way that’s reminiscent of François Rabelais’s bawdy, linguistic rule-breaking Renaissance writings. The two writers may diverge on their chosen subjects, but they share an innovative disregard for established conventions.

Bygone Genius: Leoš Janáček
Contemporary Counterpart: Zach Condon
A Czech composer and an indie-rocker certainly sound like strange bedfellows, but Zach Condon carries on the nostalgia-tinged, folklore-influenced aesthetic of Leoš Janáček’s operas with his band Beirut. While Janáček was inspired to create a modern musical style that borrowed from Moravian and Slavic folk tunes, Condon has variously mined Balkan, Klezmer, French, mariachi, and gypsy traditions in his pop-friendly contemporary arrangements.

Bygone Genius: Anatole France
Contemporary Counterpart: Jose Saramago
The disenchantment evident in Anatole France’s satirical writings (like Penguin Island, in which an accidental baptism causes the flightless birds to transform into humans) is also manifested in Jose Saramago’s equally absurdist fictional scenarios (from the Iberian Peninsula floating out to sea in The Stone Raft to a city-wide epidemic of sightlessness in Blindness). France and Saramago also both worked as journalists before turning to fiction — a parallel professional trajectory that may account for their parallel parodies of human nature — and share the less-than-common distinction of winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Bygone Genius: Francis Bacon
Contemporary Counterpart: Todd Schorr
Todd Schorr distorts pop culture images in a way that renders them at once recognizable and revolting — an iconographic irreverence that echoes Bacon’s controversial distortions of religious imagery. Working against the twin evils — at least as Kundera sees them — of sentimentality and kitsch, this pop-surrealist parodies familiar personas while interrogating the borders of their identities. And, like Bacon, he does so without ever losing a sense of humor or bleak playfulness.