Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Wire, Art, and Politics - Part Two

Yesterday’s post, to my slight dismay, conflated numerous issues that demand separation. The piece attempted to delve into the question, or serve as an example, of a perceived generational apathy or stagnation through an exploration of how we react to art, specifically the Wire. However, in phrasing the question in the form of why art does not elicit more of a practical reaction, we began to tread on knotty, complex issues of art, its purpose, the different forms of artistic mediums, and their relationships to politics, complications that diverts attention away from the essential question. The essential question still stands as are we doing enough to solve the numerous issues in the world? Is our generation unique not for its passion, or sense of ideals and values, but for it’s narcissism or apathy? That question I hope to explore through the prism of Peter Singer’s, a famous philosopher, writings on poverty and affluence.
However, now that we brought up the issue I believe it worthy to try to tease out, or sketch out, some of the different possible theories of the relationship between art and politics. Besides an area of general interest, I trust that this exploration will provide some clues as to our more essential question. Beginning this conversation presents a daunting task. First, define art, then, define politics, then describe what you mean to say when you say interaction etc. etc. I do not think I can define either art, or politics, in a holistic way, I do not think anyone really believes they can. Many try, but holes from exceptions abound, and others, cognizant of the impossibility, create a running definition for the purpose of arguments, or theories, so for our purposes, let’s refer to art in the common usage, without the need to draw fine distinctions or provide conceptual foundations (we will not, necessarily, explore the question if advertisements, or propaganda counts as art). Politics though, we will limit to the realm of practical action for the betterment of a situation.
To begin the conversation, despite the crudeness of these delineations, I like to think in terms of types, or groups, or camps of thought in this regard. On one extreme of the spectrum lies the group that believes that art and artists have no need for fealty to politics, in fact, art lies outside of the realm of politics. Let us call this group the art for art’s sake group (Fun little fact: MGM’s slogan that circles their roaring lion is the latin phrase Ars Gratia Artis, which roughly translate into art for art’s sake.) At the other extreme stands a group of thinkers who espouse the opinion that not only should art dirty itself in the mud of politics, but it must. Apolitical art cannot exist.
Those who espouse the mantra art for art’s sake do so for varied reasons. Consequently the phrase takes on different meaning dependent on context, or whom you ask. For many, ironically, art for art’s sake represented a political battle cry for freedom against the tyranny of censorship, or the tyranny of propaganda. Art need not conform to the standards of your government, and art need not serve the greater good in propounding the propaganda of the times. Art lives free, above politics, beyond politics. In fact, the moment politics attempt to stick its grimy hands into the realm of art, the moment we place limitations on expression is the moment we realize the slippery slope of cultural repression. According to this version, the separation of art from politics does not stem from anything inherent in the content of art, but in the exigencies of the time. Art’s content can still draw from the well of politics, and can still attempt didactics as long as the artist remains in complete, unhindered, control of their vision and creation.
To some extent, we can easily sympathize and understand these sentiments. As a society, we cannot tolerate censorship of artistic vision. Censorship denies expression, which we view as one of the essential rights of a human being, not only an essentially right, but the ability to express is an essential part of what makes us human. To limit that, to put guidelines on what can or cannot be expressed smacks of fascism.
For others, art for art’s sake served not so much as a way to distinguish artists, to free them, but this slogan served as pithy way of explaining their understanding of what art is, its scope, their manifesto of art. Art needs no justification or purpose; it serves as its own justification and purpose. Many artists and critics echo these sentiments. (I must admit I found these quotes from the Dictionary of the History of Ideas.)
James A. McNeill Whistler, the painter explains that, “People have acquired the habit of looking, as who should say, not at but through it, at some human fact, that shall, or shall not, from a social point of view, better their mental or moral state.... Alas! Ladies and gentlemen, Art has been maligned. She has nought in common with such practices.... Purposing in no way to better others, .. having no desire to teach.... Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music!... To say to the painter, that Nature is to be taken as she is, is to say to the player, that he may sit on the piano” a picture, but

Théophile Gautier, a French poet and literary critic writes that, “Only those things that are altogether useless can be truly beautiful; anything that is useful is ugly, for it is the expression of some need, and the needs of man are base and disgusting, as his nature is weak and poor”

 From Walter Pater, a famed critic, “Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality of your moments as they pass, and simply for these moments' sake”

For these artists and thinkers, they do not simply believe that we must separate art from politics, but that by definition they cannot mingle. Once they do, art loses its status as art, and turns into something dirtier, propaganda maybe, or a political tract, but not art. Art is that medium which taps into or expresses ideas and experiences that other mediums cannot. Art is no handmaiden to philosophy, or politics, it serves no other king besides itself.
In a different vein, some artists will contend that exactly the qualities that make them artists: perceptivity, attention to the ambiguity of life, the ambivalence of every moment, the complexity of all situations, the competing narratives in struggles, the arbitrariness of life, these factors that allow them to explore existence in all its horrific beauty, often precludes them from making politics. Imagine a sensitive author forced to decide to bomb Hiroshima or not. For artists, that breed of people blessed with a curse of an overabundance of empathy, politics and its need for concrete dehumanizing decisions do not mesh.
Sontag, in an acceptance speech writes:
"The writer in me distrusts the good citizen, the "intellectual ambassador," the human rights activist --- those roles which are mentioned in the citation for this prize, much as I am committed to them. The writer is more skeptical, more self-doubting, than the person who tries to do (and to support) the right thing.
One task of literature is to formulate questions and construct counter-statements to the reigning pieties. And even when art is not oppositional, the arts gravitate toward contrariness. Literature is dialogue; responsiveness. Literature might be described as the history of human responsiveness to what is alive and what is moribund as cultures evolve and interact with one another."

In a sense, for Sontag, literature, or art, function aboves politics. (Sontag, in her most famous piece, Against Interpretation argues for art as pure experience, but let's leave that be for now.)
Somewhere in between these two trails of thoughts lies the opinion of David Grossman. Grossman, not one to shy away from political writing, or to separate his art from politics, still writes about the need for art to sometimes transcend politics to keep our humanity intact. Art, often, must take part in politics, and other times, it should frolic freely, delighted in its playful ways, but sometimes, it must stake its claim as the enemy of politics, and political language. Grossman explains: (I apologize for the length of the quote. It’s a gorgeous speech that demands a complete perusal.)
"I write. I relieve myself of one of the dubious and distinctive capacities created by the state of war in which I live — the capacity to be an enemy and an enemy only. I do my best not to shield myself from the just claims and sufferings of my enemy. Nor from the tragedy and entanglement of his own life. Nor from his errors or crimes or from the knowledge of what I myself am doing to him. Nor, finally, from the surprising similarities I find between him and me.

All of a sudden I am not condemned to this absolute, fallacious and suffocating dichotomy — this inhumane choice to “be victim or aggressor,” without having any third, more humane alternative. When I write, I can be a human being whose parts have natural and vital passages between them; a human who is able to feel close to his enemies’ sufferings and to acknowledge his just claims without relinquishing a grain of his own identity.

I write. I give intimate private names to an external and foreign world. In a sense, I make it mine. In a sense, I return from feeling exiled and foreign to feeling at home. By doing so, I am already making a small change in what appeared to me earlier as unchangeable. Also, when I describe the impermeable arbitrariness that signs my destiny — arbitrariness at the hands of a human being, or arbitrariness at the hands of fate — I suddenly discover new nuances, subtleties. I discover that the mere act of writing about arbitrariness allows me to feel a freedom of movement in relation to it. That by merely facing up to arbitrariness I am granted freedom — maybe the only freedom a man may have against any arbitrariness: the freedom to put your tragedy into your own words. The freedom to express yourself differently, innovatively, before that which threatens to chain and bind one to arbitrariness and its limited, fossilizing definitions."
I find it hard to even comment on these words.
At first glance this topics stays in the realm of interesting to those who care about the motivations and purposes of art, but I hope to discuss why it might have more real world value to everyone else, as well as the other side of the argument in the next post.
Thanks for reading
Here are some links to some gorgeous speeches, and writing on this topic.
Sontag’s seminal Against Interpretation  - http://www.coldbacon.com/writing/sontag-againstinterpretation.html
Lastly, some will contend that the question of art and politics is inane, because art cannot effect politics. We must give up on that pipe dream regarding the power of our expressions. See this article for an interesting application of this sentiment - 

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