Tyler Green points to posts by Daniel Drezner and Barry Gewen regarding the fate of the public intellectual in recent years. Drezner argues that, partly thanks to the blogosphere, the pool of public intellectuals is as strong as ever. Gewen thinks Drezner’s playing fast and loose with the term “public intellectual” — and in some cases I’m inclined to agree. I would consider Joshua Micah Marshall and several others on the list to be dedicated political analysts, although I think other names on Drezner’s list do make the cut (Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan, for instance).

At any rate, Green brings up the question of how many public intellectuals spend much time talking about visual art these days, and I think he’s right that the answer would be “not very many” (although I see no reason Dave Hickey couldn’t slip into Drezner’s list). But his explanation for this fact — that art critics “tend to burrow and bunker into the safe little cocoon of the art world, rarely engaging issues, ideas outside the ghetto” — needs some unpacking. It’s true that the visual art world can be insular in a lot of ways. I think part of the reason for this is that it is one of the few creative communities that has not embraced mass production in a comprehensive way. A work of visual art, unlike a typical book, album, or film is almost always limited in quantity. When it’s not (see Felix Gonalez Torres), it’s usually to make an abstract point about materiality or something. Even artists who use inherently reproducible media (e.g. photography) artificially limit their works to editions, apparently in order to remain within the prescribed economic structure of the art world. This makes the underlying structure of the art world inherently elitist.

But I think there’s another, perhaps more meaningful reason that the visual arts are rarely part of a broader public discourse (after all, every form of intellectualism tends toward elitism). While Green says that visual art “rarely engag[es] issues, ideas outside the ghetto,” visual artists work hard to embrace other disciplines and incorporate them into their toolbox. There has been a steady trend of breaking down these barriers between art forms at least since Duchamp. But, counterintuitively, this very openness has bread insularity. When a visual artist incorporates a technique from the music world, or an idea from the political realm, it is to build it into an esoteric conceptual structure. It’s rare for a contemporary artist to deal with an outside idea on its own terms — it’s more common to appropriate the idea or image and use it to comment on the art-historical tradition. This Talmudic labyrinth usually doesn’t yield much of interest to the broader public discourse.

Now I don’t mean to imply that artists have nothing to contribute to a broader conversation. Far from it. But for a public intellectual to engage with the art community in a meaningful way, they’re going to have to cut through many layers of irrelevant meta-discussion to get to the heart of the artistic statement. At a certain point, they’ll realize that they could more easily broaden their field of useful knowledge by studying economics or film.