Art and politics

Having more opinions than time, I thought I could respond to the debate about art and politics by offering my views, rather than specifically responding to anyone in particular. However, I should give fair warning that my views may be riddled with inconsistency.

 

I have a lot of sympathy for Oscar Wilde’s view, art for art’s sake. And I think in a way, he’s a good example of separating the two. Whatever politics can be found in his plays, poetry and novel (and I read it long enough ago to find very little, which could be wrong), his essay, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” was one of the finest political essays – and arguments for libertarian socialism – that I’ve read.

 

I think the problem with art vs politics is that politics is about communication of a message, whereas this sort of thing can often ruin art. I know Pilger loved Redacted, but it was a pretty awful movie.

 

Wilde said art is about the production of the beautiful (approximately, from memory – if I’m wrong someone can correct me). I think there’s much to this. Art can communicate more complex truths about human nature, and, in my view, if it’s good, should aim at being timeless. Political interventions, if they are to be serious – have to have much shorter sights.

 

Of course, that’s not to say that art cannot be political successfully.  I think it is difficult. I think 1984 is terribly overrated, and artistically has little merit. It is for its brilliant political insights that I think it is a good book. Animal Farm works (very well) as satire – but for people unfamiliar with the Soviet Union, it would presumably seem rather unimpressive. And (disclaimer: I read it when I was about 13), I thought Burmese Days was pretty dreadful. I think Orwell’s best book was Homage to Catalonia – and I happen to appreciate its politics. However, it’s a non-fiction book. And Ernest Hemingway’s book on the Spanish Civil War – For Whom the Bell Tolls – has dreadful politics, but is an excellent book.

 

I love Brave New World. It is, I think, mainly a philosophical book, more than a novel though. I don’t think it’s well written, its characters are not very complex. I think for art to be successful politically, it has to be broader sighted, and the result is that it has less political value to achieve greater artistic value. Catch 22, for example, happens to be my favourite book (with two others). I think it is a brilliant satire of the army, and more generally anti-authoritarian. But a person can certainly read it without adopting the same view – and it is not targeted at any particular political target, as much as supporting particular values. To Kill a Mockingbird is also a wonderful book, with an anti-racist heart, which I think is rather broad.

 

I could go on. I am a big admirer of Larissa Behrendt, but Home works better as political illustration than as art in my opinion.

 

I would like more art to be politically engaged. Sometimes it does so well. But political engagement is essentially about the production of propaganda. Art should involve greater subtleties. I once read a review of some movie – I think Rendition – complaining about the simplicity of the plot. An innocent Arab man was tortured, his wife frantically sought to free him, government officials were the bad guys. A reviewer complained about this simplicity. Perhaps politically this made it more effective. Artistically, a more interesting story would have been if it was more complicated. What if the Arab man was a terrorist? What if they tortured him and it saved ten thousand people?

 

If torture were presented as complex and rightfully controversial, it would have lousy politics, but may well be more valuable as art.

 

That’s not to say that art can never be political, or politically powerful. To return to Wilde, Ballad of Reading Gaol was an extremely powerful and poignant denunciation of prison. But I think that was not necessarily his goal in writing it. I think that art can be political, but to do so effectively, it has to grow organically out of the politically conscious.
Or to suggest it differently: I think that art can be effectively political. Perhaps all art is political. It is effective as an emanation of a person’s politics, rather than as consciously sending out a message.

 

I think the best illustration of this is hip-hop. This is not to simplify it, or overlook its problematic areas. For example, a lot of hip-hop is sexist, and it can be homophobic. It should also be said that much of it glorifies violence.[i] Yet it comes from a milieu that has many politically progressive values.  It is overwhelmingly conscious of racial inequality, the effects of poverty on African-Americans, and is uniformly critical of the racial biases of the criminal justice system (particularly, as is well known, the police). Even the most mainstream, commercial, and even deliberately ignorant rappers – Jay-Z, Kanye, Cassidy, Game, Jadakiss –all take on these issues. Obviously, there’s room for improvement and critique – and it should be stressed that even many of the supposedly more enlightened rappers (like Common[ii]) still are in many ways problematic. Yet they make music that speaks to many millions of people across the world, whilst still incorporating some messages of social justice and opposition to racial inequality, whilst holding up a mirror to the society that created the conditions that gave rise to gangsta rap. That is, the bleak, urban nightmare described so vividly by Mobb Deep and Notorious B.I.G.

 

There is much political value to this art, even when it is not consciously political. That may be the best way to produce good art, and political art.


[i] Typically, rappers deny this in interviews, with varying degrees of sincerity. One interesting demonstration was in the disses traded by Joe Budden and Ransom. Budden responded to Ransom by saying of the hood “You glorify it/I’m horrified of it/ Don’t be stupid all your life Ran, be clear/I fuck with cats from the hood that want to leave there/ and this is when I know, that I seen and heard it all/ Your stupid ass proud to live on the third floor/ He like, I’m in the hood all day, I gets it poppin’/ You wack, mo’rfucker, you ain’t got another option”.

[ii] For example, at the end of “Sixth Sense”, Common has a skit where we hear him slapping a woman he is pimping, because she does not want to prostitute for him. “I don’t give a fuck if it’s snowing, I want you out there hoing.”

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