It has become fashionable to treat art as politics. The inclusion of millionaires of a certain gender or “race” in the latest corporate entertainment product is taken to signify an improvement in the conditions of people who share superficial traits with those individuals, even as nothing changes in their wages, pensions, rights, or healthcare situation. Raging against individual works of art, or even individual artists – particularly on the internet, to audiences already familiar with an in-group terminology designed for this purpose – is taken as part of the struggle for equality, or even the struggle against fascism, even as the continuing crises of capitalism result in destruction on an unprecedented scale.
There are a lot of dangerous delusions when it comes to the entanglement of the artistic and the political. Some of these are politically dangerous; others are intellectually dangerous. Debates tend to sink into confusion or become clashes between the sanctimonious and the reactionary, between those who see politics everywhere and those who don’t want to see them anywhere.
To understand the nature of the problem, we must begin by distinguishing between politics (that is, participation in the affairs of the polis) and the political (that is, subject matter thematically relating to politics). These are not one and the same, and their conflation leads to weak art and weaker politics.
The idea that “all art is political” certainly contains some truth. There is little doubt that art frequently reflects the beliefs of the artist – though this is itself too simplistic a statement, as we will see later. It can also be truthfully said that a great deal of art expresses at least some notions about what is right and what is wrong, even if only in the most tangential of ways. However, even the most intentionally political work of art is only thematically political. A work can be Marxist or feminist or libertarian or neoliberal in the ideas it contains, in the story it tells or the characters it depicts; but to call a work of art Marxist or feminist or libertarian or neoliberal is an academic/critical assessment. A novel being Marxist is not relevant to the practice of Marxism; it is relevant to literary theory.
It is greatly tempting for artists and critics to blur this line. It is tempting to think that one can fight for a better world through one’s art or even one’s criticism, safely from one’s home, without having to go through the effort of organizing people and fighting the system in a real-world, material sense. There are archetypes that it is easy to be drawn to: the political artist who has a sexy, semi-saintly glow of being engaged while simultaneously being above it all, or the victim artist, emerging from great difficulty to express their pain and speak for their community. Even the most crudely political art can draw a strong response, and all artists desire attention. The internet has certainly contributed to the intensity of this effect: with a whole lot of people calling you a defender of all that is good in the world, and a whole lot calling you the incarnation of all that is bad, it’s easy to feel you are doing something.
But what is actually taking place is the shifting of struggles from the actually political to the politically themed. This is catastrophic for actual politics, because a perceived victory in the arts is utterly meaningless in material terms. It gives artists and critics and their hangers-on a hollow, narcissistic satisfaction, but it also turns them into tools of a system that is only too happy to distract people from their misery. It alienates artists, even poor and oppressed artists, from the concerns of the people. The hollow victories of a self-satisfied class of artists will mean little to those who have no food or shelter.
This conflation is also catastrophic for art itself, however. Reducing art to a political tool robs it of its potential for transcendence. Art is significant precisely because it has no purpose; it exists because we want it to, humanity reaching for something beyond the basic functions of biology; it doesn’t matter whether you call it grace, or the divine, or a manifestation of the human capacity to imagine, what matters is that art at its best transcends the world we live in (even if it always begins there) and moves us in ways we cannot easily explain. If that is lost, then what we are producing is not art; it’s advertising. Turning art into a political tool – even for “political self-expression” – denies artists precisely that most important ability of reaching beyond, including beyond themselves.
This effect, it should be noted, is particularly destructive for those artists who are perceived to be part of a minority or otherwise oppressed, as they are strongly encouraged to turn themselves into avatars of an identity, capable of creating only things related to that one topic. (This was painfully and accurately satirized by Drew Hayden Taylor in alterNatives, where the protagonist is always being pushed to write the Great Native Canadian Novel, but really just wants to write science fiction.)
Art is vision, and visions should not be blinkered. Art is a journey, and sometimes the artist should have no idea where they are going. That’s why not even politically themed art should necessarily be tied to the author’s personal beliefs – it’s always possible to produce a work of art that makes even its creator uncomfortable, and that’s part of why art matters. It’s not just self-expression. Art has the capacity to be universal expression; artists have the potential to channel something that feels entirely alien and external to themselves.
None of that is to say that art should not engage with the political. You can’t transcend anything if you don’t know where you are; art must be deeply rooted in historical context, in the ongoing life of the human species in this strange universe we inhabit. But artists must be humble. Transcendence, no matter how minor or brief, is already a pretty significant gift. It is not wise to delude ourselves into thinking that we can use that gift to escape our responsibility as citizens and as human beings. Our artistic struggles matter to us, and we must fight them with dedication – which includes allowing inspiration to take us where it wants to, and not trying to impose our ideologies on stories that don’t support them. We must not pretend that our personal struggles are the struggles of the world, or that our triumphs help others.
The struggle for wages, for jobs, for peace and security and progress, will not be won by artists. It will be won by people organizing, fighting for labour rights, seizing control of the machinery of the state. Yes, that’s scary – a lot scarier than writing or drawing or composing a radical work of art. It scares me too. But that’s where the struggle is, and we’re part of that struggle. So let’s face the truth, no matter how painful or humbling it is.