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Good Art Can Have (And Should Have) Political Values

Terry Teachout warns readers that they don’t have to agree with his politics when reading his criticism.

If this blog has a credo, it is that the personal is not political. Anyone who believes it to be, or tries to persuade other people that it is, will find no comfort here. Needless to say, my own political views are far from secret (or simple), but I check them at the door of “About Last Night.” I think it’s important that there be at least one politics-free space in the blogosphere where people who love art can read about it and nothing else.

Beyond that, I believe deeply that art and politics are essentially separate enterprises. Essentially, I say, and I chose that word carefully. Of course an artist who lives under a totalitarian regime cannot help but engage with it in some way or other, as Dmitri Shostakovich did in his music. But it?s one thing to seek to evoke the terror of life under Stalin in a symphony and another to write a novel (or paint a painting or choreograph a ballet) whose purpose, whether in part or whole, is to encourage its audience to take some specific form of political action.

This is a reasonable-sounding and polite position to take. Of course, politics and art don’t belong together. Apples and oranges, right? One of my writing teachers (J.M. Coetzee), when running a workshop at Johns Hopkins, often expressed dismay at how rarely workshopped stories tried to engage political matters of U.S. society. Coetzee hardly lived in a repressive regime (at least after apartheid fell), but his literary works (even his most personal works) could be read (and in many instances ought to be read) as political allegory. Not as in “connect-the-dots” allegory, but just recognizing that people live and think in a political context. Politics, for Mr. Coetzee, was about engaging with (or withdrawing from) the public space. For Coetzee, social and political forces in South African society were silencing voices and blinding people from inhumanities. Politics is about opening your eyes (and so is storytelling). Coetzee didn’t engage himself in politics in the way a Vaclav Havel or Mario Vargas Llosa did. But it’s doubtful he would want readers to draw a dividing line between the political and artistic.

I think it’s possible for artistic works to be aware of political values while existing solely at a personal level. Michael Moore is a special case; he is by his own admission trying to inject himself into politics. But decent artists know that to convey the artistic experience, they have to get beyond the topical conflicts and and make the experience universal. Think for a moment. If a film about the Iraqi war were read 500 years from now, why would viewers care about it? Creating a story through drama or novels is more than providing “political consciousness.” It is about recognizing the transcendental nature of experiences, confronting emotional conflicts and understanding why people adopt values and act the way they do.

The problem comes when a society starts requiring art to have explicit political messages or critics to have political interpretations. Often, this pressure comes indirectly; in communist societies, subversive artists lost jobs, received threats of persecution, while socialist realist artists received more awards and recognition.  Artists hated it. But the problem was not that criticism or art was political, but that artistic and critical visions were truncated to conform with political norms.

Interestingly, when I taught in Albania (shortly after it overthrew its communist government), the state forbade any political teaching in the classroom, assuming (incorrectly) that any political discussion would drown out the free exchange of ideas. Ironically, this prohibition made  the Albanian academy more cowardly, not less. The stricture against politics essentially made it impossible for academics to engage in meaningful social criticism in the classroom. (Fortunately, I think this was a short-lived phenomena as time went on).

I am not a political writer in my creative works. But these are issues that come up in my creative writing: consumerism, the artist’s role as outcast in society, how technology estranges us from others, how the dream world overtakes the real world, whether to disown or embrace our intellectual and cultural heritage, how the individual deals with and overcomes his and her past, and why people love and hate the way that they do. I’ve decided to write under a pseudonym for various reasons (personal, artistic and political). I want to make it a little hard to find my fiction; I want to be able to write without fear of professional repercussions; I want to encourage people to read without preconceived notions and without any knowledge of how commercially successful I am (for the record, I am NOT commercially successful at all). As someone dedicated to “creative commons,” I try to create artefacts suitable to web surfers which don’t depend on some outdated distribution/production system. I resist attempts to sell my work (and in fact I probably forswear any ownership claims to my work). I often use pop culture references as entry points for readers to make my works easier to read.

Why is the decision to make a story accessible or easy to read a “political decision”? It has to do with elitism, pandering and deciding what constitutes entertainment. Think of Joyce’s Ulysses, which pretty much can be enjoyed by upper middle class intellectuals with enough coursework in literary criticism to appreciate his technique and story frame. To write plainly or to make simple fairy tale plots, on the other hand, says no, you don’t have to be a cultural elite to appreciate my stories. (Of course,  I would love if skillful readers found all these deeper meanings and pleasures).

For me, the biggest political issue facing American artists and storytellers is consumerism and trying to help us escape its paradoxes (such as, why hasn’t our economic wealth created a society of compassion or made us happy?) My issues may not be your issues, of course. And quite frankly, I do not consciously  trumpet these issues (though I make no attempt to hide them). But for me, to separate the political from the aesthetic has the effect of gutting artistic works of social relevance.

Having said that, it is perfectly fair and appropriate to complain that a work of art is “too ideological” or “moralistic” or “manipulative.” Just as hinting at sexual intercourse in literary works may work better than depicting it graphically, hinting at political messages may in fact work better artistically than pounding people over the head with it. Recently I was reading Diana Abu-Jaber’s Crescent, a wonderful work where one of the characters is an Iraqi exile living in the USA. I doubt anyone could accuse Ms. Abu-Jaber’s book of using her book to produce political conversions (although  Ms. Abu-Jaber would hardly be a fan of Bush’s Middle East polities). Still, the book presents experiences of individuals  shaped by political realities.   The book doesn’t try to suggest political solutions or even apportion blame. But this book, like many other successful works of art, brings political events down to a personal level; when character’s lives are shaped by political realities,   the reader can’t help but to reflect on questions of justice. The characters might not concern themselves with these political questions, but that does not mean readers should not.

Finally, the freedom to withdraw from politics is in fact a political freedom. Franz Kafka, for example, barely made mention of a world war engulfing his country at the time. As I once wrote, “We may criticize this blindness, but self-absorption is perhaps the first privilege taken away during times of crisis. It takes real courage to cling to it.”

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