It is impossible to extricate oneself from the questions in which our age is involved. You can no more keep out of politics than out of the frost.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
I suppose Emerson wrote this at a time when insulation was far less robust, since nowadays it is perfectly possible to keep out of the frost. Or perhaps he meant that the only way to keep out of politics was to shut oneself up like a hermit. In any case, though the comparison has aged, the sentiment certainly has not.
Lately I have been reading some of Orwell’s essays, which called this quote to mind. It was Orwell’s essay on Dickens—in which he utters his famous dictum, “All art is propaganda”—that specifically made me think of Emerson.
Is it really true that all art contains political preaching? Is it true that it is impossible to extricate oneself from controversial questions?
To these answers I would give a qualified “yes.” I do not think it possible to create art that is politically neutral, since our thoughts about personality, philosophy, nationality, morality, sexuality, human nature, society, and so forth, all have political ramifications, even if the author has not thought through these ramifications. Every artistic choice—the characters, the setting, the plot—carries ideological baggage, even if this baggage is unintended.
Even if we attempted to create “art for art’s sake”—purely formal art, devoid of any identifiable content—this, too, would have political consequences, since it takes a stance, a very particular stance, on the role of art and the artist in society.
Before I go on, I will try to define what I mean by “politics.” To me, politics is the struggle between demographic groups for resources and power. Politics isn’t politics without controversy, since it necessarily involves a zero-sum game. This controversy is typically carried on in highly charged, stringently moral language; but the fundamental motive that animates political struggle is self-interest.
Where I disagree is that I think the political content of art is usually uninteresting, and plays little role in the art’s quality. There is no contradiction in saying that a great novel may embody backwards political principles, or noting that a movie that champions progressive values may be boring and amateurish.
Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example, it stuffed to the brim with the politics of his age; and these political passages are, in my opinion, inevitably the weakest and most tiresome of the poem. The Divine Comedy is great in spite of, not because of, its politics. Likewise, the political implications of Milton’s Paradise Lost are chiefly of historical interest, and for me neither add to nor subtract from the poem’s artistic force. Nothing ages faster than politics, since politics is always embroiled in transitory struggles between factions.
Orwell’s essay itself, ironically enough, also illustrates the limitations of seeing art as propaganda. Orwell attempts to treat Dickens as a sort of social philosopher—trying to furrow out Dickens views on the state, on the economy, on education, on the good life—only to repeatedly hit a wall. Dickens was not a reformer, and not a revolutionary; he was, if anything, a moralist, as Orwell himself admits. But above all Dickens was a novelist, something that should not need pointing out. His books are far more interesting as novels than as sermons.
Do not mistake my meaning. I am not arguing for “art for art’s sake.” Some art cannot be properly appreciated without noting its political message. I am, however, arguing that the political implications of a work of art do not exhaust its meaning, nor do they even constitute its most valuable meaning.
The aesthetic is as valid a category as the political and the moral. And by categorizing something as “art,” we implicitly acknowledge that its aesthetic qualities are its most important traits, and determine its ultimate value. Even if we insist otherwise, the very fact that we differentiate between polemical cartoons and portraits, between political pamphlets and plays, between national anthems and symphonies, belies the fact that we consider art a special category.
How anyone chooses to interpret a piece of art is, of course, up to them. Great art is distinguished by its ability to inspire nearly infinite reactions. But I do believe that every interpretation, if it wishes to respect the work in question, ought to increase our appreciation of it, or at least to try.
When somebody reads a novel solely for its political content, and then evaluates it solely on the extent to which it agrees or disagrees with the interpreter’s beliefs, the work of art is turned into a mere weapon of political struggle. In other words, to treat art merely as propaganda is not to respect it as art.
I have heard many movies and television shows denounced for their political implications; nowadays there are endless controversies about representation in media. Now, I believe the question of interpretation is undoubtedly important. But to condemn or champion works of art purely on this criterion is, I think, just as narrow-minded as ignoring the question of representation altogether.
Art speaks in different languages to different people. This is its magic and its lasting value. And anybody who thinks that they unequivocally “know” the meaning of a work of art, and is so politically self-righteous that they think they can pronounce eternal judgement on its worth, is acting tyrannical, even if they are mouthing sentiments of egalitarianism.
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Parenthetically, it is worth noting that this anxiety about representation and political values in art, so common nowadays, is grounded in a certain, tacit theory of human behavior. This is the belief that our media exerts a decisive influence over our values and actions. Indeed, I’m sure this proposition would hardly be regarded as controversial in some circles.
But isn’t it equally possible that our media is just a reflection of our values and actions? And doesn’t the very fact that people are often politically dissatisfied with their media prove that we are not under their control? For, if the influence of media were decisive over our political perspective, how could we ever be dissatisfied with it?
Artists and art critics tend to be intellectuals. Intellectuals are naturally prone to believing that humans are motivated by ideas, since that’s what motivates intellectuals. Thus they can be expected to pay too much attention to art as a social force, and not enough to the other things that drive human behavior, like economic trends or political institutions, since art operates on the level of symbols.
And since much of our discourse is framed by intellectuals—people tend to become politically conscious in college, under the influence of professors—it seems likely that paying too much attention to the political power of art would be a pervasive error, which I believe it is.