Politics and art; oil and water; Mitch McConnell and charisma.
Like alternate universes, the oppositions seem utterly irreconcilable.
”The only thing poetry and politics have in common are the letters P and O,” the late poet Joseph Brodsky once quipped.
Yet, there are clearly many cases of political art. Much of the world’s greatest art, from the Antigone to Angels in America, has concerned politics.
So when I say art and politics are death to each other, what I mean is not politics as a subject — anything in life is fit subject for art — but politics as a lens, as dictator of what is permissible. If you have a political ax to grind, don’t try hacking tree stumps with it, hoping to make a masterpiece.
Another way of looking at it is that there are two types of political art.
The good and the bad.
If you are politically inclined, good political art is art that advances your ideology, and bad art is anything else. This was the inspiration for most Socialist Realism, and it’s making a comeback in a raft of forgettable politically correct art and theater.
But if you are aesthetically inclined, the good and bad are not defined by ideology but by aesthetic persuasiveness. Does the work ring true?
Politics itself can be seen as two separate, almost incompatible things. On the basic level, politics is the acquisition and use of power. It is a basic characteristic of humanity. Politics on this level can be used for ill or good. It is not a thing about which a value judgment can be made. Like gravity, it just is.
But to too many people, ”politics” means political theory. It means not the way things are, but the way things should be. Life should be more fair, the aristocracy should rule, power to the people, a flat tax will solve all ills. Name your poison.
When American politics works as it is supposed to, factions promote their causes and compromise is reached. The result is a continuous tension of interests, like a human pyramid in the circus.
But when ideology takes over, compromise is seen as an evil. Through the ideological lens, there is only one truth and everything else will lead to ruin. This is equally the case with Marxists and the Christian right.
”One law, one God, one king,” as William Blake has it. You are either with us or against us.
So, lost in the discussion is the fact that when we say something is ”political art,” we mean two very different things. On one side, there is partisan art, which takes a political stand and uses the art to proselytize. It is the art of the street theater, meant to persuade — although more often than not, its audience has already signed on, so its purpose really is to reinforce beliefs already held.
At its worst, partisan art is Nazi and Soviet propaganda; at its best, it is Brecht. Always, it is didactic, and more often than not, it is forgotten by the following year. Name a Socialist Realist painter, I challenge you.
But art may approach political questions from another direction:
There is an art that is interested in the ironies and passions of politics, in its human toll, not its theories.
Partisan art is interested in answers, certainty and action; the other direction is interested in questions, ambiguity and contemplation.
The problem is that ideology is system, and systems are dehumanizing. It matters not whether it is left- or right-wing. The machine is supreme: We measure success not in human terms, but by whether it adheres to theory. Read any Marxist criticism and you will see such. Or listen to a House Republican talking about the National Endowment for the Arts.
In both cases, the question is whether the art is orthodox — does it adhere to the party line.
It is a mark of critic John Berger’s intelligence that his Marxist theory inevitably leads to gibberish and double talk. He must wind up saying something patently silly or else he must ultimately abandon the theory.
People simply do not act the way Marxist theoreticians say they do; neither do they act the way capitalist theoreticians say. Humans are much more complex, much more contradictory.
No, art, if it is to last, must concern itself with the human, not the system.
Goya’s Disasters of War, Picasso’s Guernica, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, even Homer’s Iliad, all approach political questions from a human point of view.
So do Citizen Kane and Oliver Stone’s Nixon. And so does Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror. It does not take a stand on one side or the other; rather, it allows each side to say its piece, incompatible as those sides may be.
Such art examines the possibilities and tests them against the human heart.
Such art is dedicated to this one human truth: There is always a larger context.
Compare Maria Irene Fornes’ A Conduct of Life with Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden. The first deals with the rape of a 12-year-old girl; it knows who the villains are and what we should think of them, and it tells us in no uncertain terms.
Death and the Maiden, about a woman brutally tortured under a South American military regime, is much more equivocal. We are never quite sure whether the man she accuses of carrying out the torture is guilty or innocent, and we surely find that the woman’s revenge on him is brutal in return. There is blame to go around.
As W.H. Auden wrote, ”Those to whom evil is done do evil in return.”
Or Barbara Garson’s MacBird, which lampooned Lyndon Johnson as a Macbeth who killed his Kennedy/Duncan for his own political ends. It is a sour-toned comedy and nearly forgotten except by graduate students with theses to complete.
And that brings up another reason the narrow partisan art dies such a stiff death. Its concerns are almost always so transitory. Does MacBird still have meaning 45 years after the events it describes?
Nothing is more dated than a superannuated political idea. We’ve moved on; we have our own problems, thank you.
Compare that with Citizen Kane, which is equally a hatchet job on a public figure. But because filmmaker Orson Welles concentrates on the human rather than the partisan, it still contains meaning, still has that resonance which is the ultimate test of a work of art.