Art and Politics
This is an essay I wrote for a debate that I didn’t want to let go to waste.
I’d never assert that no good things, no books nor films nor sculptures, are politically motivated because both you and I know that’s simply not true. Everyone is shaped by the climate and culture in which they mature, aren’t they? Surely the political sphere has some influence on that. So to a ceratin extent nobody is free from the influences of politics. Many of the great works are, to a greater or lesser extent, politically motivated, from Goya, Beethoven, Orwell, Swift, Aristophanes and even Dante and I don’t think it’s possible to deny the greatness of their works and that’s not what I want to do.
But I do believe that art should not be politically motivated and while that may sound like I’m contradicting what I just said it’s really a question of vocabulary. We tend to give many things, books, movies and sculpture, the status of art if they are of sufficient quality. We have the distinction of ‘fine art’ and other, supposedly lesser, forms but this distinction is mainly based on some dusty old academic’s evaluation of something’s merit. It’s no coincidence that most fine art shares the dual honours of being very old and very boring. This isn’t art; art should stand for something. So what I want to argue is that for something to qualify as art, it should ideally fulfill a certain role, it should serve a function and further I’d argue that good art is ultimately robbed of its value and purpose by being politically motivated. So I’ll discuss this regarding different forms of art, starting with drama and then if I have time sculpture and painting. (I’ll save this for a later post maybe)
Politically motivated works should be, at their best, well reasoned, argumentative and persuasive. In short, they should appeal to the conscious mind and that’s where I think the problem lies. Most politically motivated drama as we see it today takes the form of the problem play; about racism, or AIDS or gender imbalances and basically these allow the audience to engage in a sort of power fantasy that, unlike everybody else, they see the injustices of the world and are galvanised into correcting them. So, if you take a play set in LA dealing with racism, the characters and scenes will almost write themselves, because the whole thing is circumscribed by the issue of racism. It’s all a product of the conscious mind and it’s overburdened by having to express a conscious view of the world. The characters wont be people, they will stand for some aspect of the problem. The idea of racism is so important that it colours the entirety of the play. Each scene must tend towards the right conclusion – racism is bad – and the unconscious mind will never, ever take part in the play. You have a very important topic which needs and deserves attention but which, nonetheless, cannot be the stuff of good art. It might be a good tract, good polemic, it might even change your views for the better, but it can never be good art.
It’s something which the Russian playwright Stanislavsky explores in his writings on art and politics and in discussing the distinction between the two kind of plays he relates the effect they each have on the audience member after they leave the theatre. With a political play, if its good, you leave and you feel enlightened and as if you’ve finally seen the truth of the matter and we are arbiters of our own destiny and the future is a bright place if only we make it so and then you go get something to eat. With good drama, with art you don’t really know what to make of it after you’ve left the theatre, they are perhaps upsetting or intricate or unsure, but with no real conscious effort it begins to have a profound effect and that’s ultimately what art should aspire to achieve.
The function of drama as art is not to mend the social fabric, not to incite the less perceptive to wake up nor is it to preach about the myriad injustices in the world. Most forms of art have devotional origins, music in ceremonies, sculpture to represent the Gods, drama as a religious tool and that’s no coincidence that there is a strong association between art and religion because they have much the same effect; they both inspire a sense of cleansing awe. We know that in the politically-motivated play that good will prevail, or at the very least the protagonist will be ennobled by their failed efforts.On the other hand, the protagonist of good drama or tragedy has to fight the world, though powerless, and with no tools except their will to discover the truth or attain their goal. Like Hamlet or Oedipus or Odysseus. It is the sense of driving, fatal inevitability carried forward throughout the play that grants it potency. In music, it’s the bass line, not the melody, which gives the music its strength. The treble might be pretty but its ultimately meaningless unless coupled with the drive-to-resolution, the driving inevitability of the bassline. It’s this same driving intensity which sees Oedipus blinded, Hamlet dead and Sam Spade left broken and alone.That’s the freeing quality of true art. It revels and affirms our powerlessness, our inability to change things and most importantly, the failure of reason in the face of absolution.
Politics is about reasoning, argumentation and the effective packaging of truth to make it seem more palatable and that’s where I think the nub of the issue lies. I think that true art, all art, it’s a quality shared by all art, should be intuitive. There is a forum for politics but art shouldn’t be that. The two are essentially anathema to each other. Politics is about relativism, argumentation and it appeals to the conscious mind. Art is intuitive and there’s something fundamentally true about it. So to my mind, there is no way the two can possibly coexist and I think that anything which would aspire to be art is ultimately devalued by being pressed into a political end.