Towards Smarter Politics In Art, As a Means to Better Art

In case any of you are interested, here’s the text of my remarks to the Yale Political Union. It was a fun debate, which included a vigorous clash over the ethics of curation, the question of whether creation is a subject for criticism, and whether criticism is literature. I bet you can guess my answers to the last two questions. In any case, it was a nice chance to pull together my thinking over the last six months.

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I’m here today to argue that we should evaluate art not merely on aesthetic grounds, but on political ones. To that end, I’d like to make four main points.

First, given that we spend so much of our time consuming art and popular culture, it would be unwise to ignore the assumptions that we absorb along with our vampires, detectives, space odysseys, and gallery shows.

Second, if our goal is to give art full credit for the power it’s capable of exerting, we should accord it the respect of engaging with its ideas—and give artists the respect of holding them responsibile for how they express those ideas.

Third, politics and political assumptions, because they’re subjects often invite didactic, lazy thought, are a leading indicator of artistic energy and consideration, particularly in narrative fiction.

And finally, I’d argue that at a moment when our standard venues for political and policy debate have become sclerotic, hyperbolic, and unproductive, politically engaged art can be a particularly important forum for playful thinking about our values, and our plans for the future.

While we’re in the throes of a presidential primary campaign, the upsurge in political media only serves to underscore how much more attention Americans pay to art than they do to politics. Even if American television audiences tuned in for a Republican debate every week, it would still amount to less than 6 percent of the 31.5 hours the average American watches every week. In 2010, Americans spent just 70 minutes a day consuming the news across all platforms. Movies are less predominant than television—the average American sees between 4 and 6 movies in theaters each year, though the rental market is bigger. The country’s museums get 850 million visits every year. And the average video gamer spends 8 hours a week playing online. Whatever one might think of the relative merits of the culture we’re consuming, there’s no denying we’re consuming an overwhelming volume of it.

Some of this art is explicitly political—the two highest-grossing movies of 2010 were Avatar, a fantasy of spiritual reengagement with the natural world in opposition to corporate resource exploitation and Iron Man 2, a dramedy about the regulation of military-grade technology. And some of it’s not. But even when art and culture aren’t telling stories about specific policies or making arguments for specific worldviews, politicized assumptions are deeply embedded in even the most bland cultural products. An assumption that a police investigation will treat victims and the accused fairly is a political assumption. An alien invasion movie in which the United States marshals the world unity necessary to repel an attack has a definite if unsubtle point of view about American hard and soft power. The invisibility of birth control and the constant rejection of abortion, in a market that’s drenched with romantic and family dramas, suggests a deep denial about the way that Americans actually conduct their sexual and romantic lives. And overwhelmingly white casting in popular entertainment is just one indicator of a culture that frequently fails to tell stories about wide swaths of American life. If you care about cliched police procedurals, the metaphorical underpinnings of zombie movies, or why Tyler Perry is the one black director with a green light to produce whatever television shows and movies he pleases, you’re already judging art by its politics, whether you acknowledge it or not.

But it’s not merely that the politics and aesthetics of art are intimately related. We do a disservice to art when we evaluate it only on aesthetic terms, reducing it to a sensual experience and denying its power to influence us long after we’re finished consuming it. Certainly not all art operates in the same realm as political debate or opinion writing. But part of what makes art compelling, and what lifts it over other forms of communication, is that it can intervene in multiple forums and on multiple levels. We can best show our respect for compelling art by engaging with its ideas as well as its beauty, and by holding artists at least somewhat responsible for their civic roles and impact on public debate.

The decision to take up that role is clearest when artists take on commissions from parties or political movements, and there are two cases I think it’s particularly instructive to consider. It’s possible to appreciate Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will simply as a technical achievement. There’s no question that the way Riefenstahl cuts images of Nuremberg shot both from the air and the ground brings out the beauty of the city; that the way she creates a continuity between Wagner and the Nazi party anthem is a clever use of soundtrack as argument; and that the alternating sequences of military parades and torchlit speeches creates a sense of dramatic urgency, even if the climax is delayed until its bloody work can be accomplished off-screen on the killing fields of Europe. But to discuss these accomplishments without taking into context the film’s role as Nazi propaganda is to fail to give Triumph of the Will its full due.

The movie is an astonishing testament to art’s power to bludgeon—and to obscure. It’s to Riefenstahl’s credit that she manages to make the interminable speeches of Nazi leaders compelling, to keep audiences in their seats for oratory that ranges from self-pitying to repulsive. Triumph of the Will transforms the Nazi tendency to taxonomize people—a process that would be used to justify and facilitate the regime’s mass murders—into a statement about the diversity of Germany under Hitler. Riefenstahl did exactly what Hitler hired her to do. She gave him an opportunity to present his regime as a hyper-organized engine of German recovery without forcing him to submit to the risk of exposure that journalism might have presented. Beauty, whatever we may want to believe, does not inherently serve the cause of truth.

Just as we can judge art’s ability to convince by evaluating its ability to obscure reality, we can also see its power in the events and facts that we might not be able to approach head-on but that art helps us to understand and acknowledge. Photographs of the bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica are horrific to observe. But other than the specifics of the architecture that was destroyed by the Luftwaffe and Italy’s Legionary Air Force, those photographs can’t capture the horror of a state-sponsored terrorist attack on civilian populations even though they are an accurate representation of the devastation. Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” doesn’t force viewers to confront actual mangled bodies, actual wounded animals. It cannot recreate an experience none of us would actually want to have. But does provide us with a few specific emotional reference points in an event that otherwise is too big and too terrible for us to grasp: the woman holding the body of her dead child, the horse driven mad with fear, the figure peering out the window, holding a candle up in a vain attempt to illuminate a world that no longer makes any sense.

It’s no mistake that state sponsors of violence have reacted to Guernica with fear and disgust. During a visit to Picasso’s apartment in occupied Paris during World War II, a Gestapo officer apparently saw a photograph of “Guernica” and asked the artist “Did you do that?” Picasso told him “No, you did.” If acts of unimaginable horror remain unimaginable, then it becomes harder for people to accept that they happened, the extent of the damage that they wrought—and demand that someone be held accountable for them. It’s not surprising that the Nazi supporters of the Spanish Nationalists would want to displace responsibility for the terrible acts reflected in “Guernica” away from themselves and on to someone else in a convenient act of amnesia. After all, individual Nazis would soon have to practice denying responsibility on a much larger scale. And if they weren’t treating “Guernica” as a work of a sick imagination, they were trying to coopt it. General Francisco Franco, in a rather impressive act of chutzpah, actually campaigned to have the painting brought back to Spain, where its power to mobilize public sentiment against his regime surely would have been limited. That request gave Picasso a chance to reaffirm the painting’s message by attaching conditions to its return to Spain, including the revitalization of the kind of “public liberties and democratic institutions” that would have made the attack impossible.

Culture, however, serves the market far more often than it directly serves regimes, movements, or parties. But just because art is liberated from formal affiliation to a political cause doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a perspective. And the politics of a cultural product can be as clear an indication of the quality of the thoughts behind it as dialogue, characterization, engagement with a school of painting or striking nature of a line of poetry. Take two movies that address politics directly: the 1998 reflection on Bill Clinton, Primary Colors, and this year’s George Clooney and Ryan Gosling-starring meditation on corruption, The Ides of March.

The Ides of March has as its basic thesis the idea that all politicians are susceptible to moral weakness or available for purchase if a buyer is willing to meet their price. The movie mistakes this simultaneously cynical and unsubtle perspective for a profound insight, and the rest of its weaknesses stem from that central flaw. The characters are constantly having fits of ethics or embracing their dark sides in fits of Darth Vader-like melodrama. And the movie wildly distorts the basic facts around abortion, from its cost to the kinds of drugs given patients afterwards, to create more opportunities for black-and-white decision making and tedious moralizing.

By contrast, Primary Colors has a much more fascinating premise: that the kind of emotional profligacy a candidate needs to genuinely connect with constituents may inevitably lead to adultery, but that it’s worth the risk. Jack Stanton, the candidate for president in both Joe Klein’s novel and the movie of the same name, hurts his wife, impregnates and intimidates a poor black teenager, and drives one of his aides to suicide. But he also connects deeply with people who are abandoned by other politicians and derives useful and important policy ideas from those exchanges. That lack of clarity is useful for plot and characterization. His staff have to weigh the costs of working for him, and assess what their attachments to him mean for their understandings of their engagements with politics, and for their senses of themselves. And we, as not-so-hypothetical Stanton voters—given how closely the character is based on Bill Clinton—have to weigh the trash alongside the treasure. Politics are like any other kind of premise for art—a bad one radiates outward to affect all other aspects of a production. And a good one provides fertile soil for the growth of the characters, and of ourselves while we consume it.

The same is true for art that isn’t centrally concerned with the political process. The treatment of race, class, and gender, among other political subjects—which can be uniquely susceptible to unsubtlety and pandering—is often a leading indicator of how much respect artists have for their audiences, and for their own work. Take 2 Broke Girls, the sitcom about a former heiress and a working-class girl who share an apartment and a waitressing shift in a Brooklyn diner that has been the breakout hit of this fall’s crop of new television shows. The sitcom ought to have been a sharp, timely take on the faltering economy and the diminished prospects of many young Americans. Instead, it’s managed to tell terrible, stale, racist jokes about Asians, African-Americans, Latinos, Italians, people from the former Soviet Union, poor people, hipsters, and the state of Kat Dennings’ genitalia. The dominance of the show by these themes isn’t tiresome simply because they’re offensive, but because they’re profoundly lazy. Reaffirming rather than challenging the well-worn grooves of comedic tropes moves neither art nor understanding forward. It’s no mistake that the show has been sharper and more interesting when it’s taken on issues that are part of emerging debates. An episode where the plot was driven by the facts that student loan debt isn’t dischargeable in bankruptcy and that paying the minimum on credit cards isn’t enough to keep up with interest rates briefly made 2 Broke Girls genuinely funny—and at the cutting edge of the cultural response to the then-emerging Occupy Wall Street movement.

By contrast, no one had much in the way of political expectations for Revenge, ABC’s soapy drama about a girl who returns to the Hamptons to punish the wealthy socialites she believed framed her father for involvement in a terrorist plot when she was a girl. But while the show may be a throwback to soapy, catty shows like Dallas in its tone—and in its wardrobe budget—Revenge is smart and refreshing precisely because it’s built strong dramatic setpieces out of a consistent political worldview. Whether the main character, Emily Thorne, is bankrupting a corrupt investor by leading him on with a false insider trading tip or turning charity garden parties into demurely-choreographed visions of hell, Revenge gives viewers a beautifully-calibrated class-war fantasy that ruthlessly dismantles illusions of noble oblige. Unlike 2 Broke Girls, which seems to have diversified its cast only to widen its scope for crude ethnic humor, Revenge has built long-running storylines out of the racism and classism of people who fancy themselves sophisticated, and out of the richly complex sexual entanglements of its cast. Revenge may be a wicked little fantasy of a show, but its escapism looks forward rather than backwards, embracing challenges to social structures and stereotypes rather than lazy recapitulations of artistically and politically stale tropes.

Art’s ability to help us escape into the future, and to explore what it might be like once we get there are particularly important at a time when our political system provides powerful incentives to avoid creative thinking and policy-making. That’s not to say that art is a substitute for policy analysis: artists can use the powers of narrative and character to obscure what actual policy outcomes would result if we lived in a world with collectivized agriculture, or where everyone was infertile, or in a time when people were economically privileged based on their genetics. But when the problems facing us are so significant that, in some cases, we can’t really grapple with their magnitude head-on, art can play a valuable role by letting us remove political constraints and experiment with enormously challenging scenarios—and to return with the germs of solutions to problems we’re already confronting. What would we do if we were starting over on human society millions of years in the past or in the future on Mars? How would we triage treatment in a world where everyone had access to health care but a plague struck? What would it be like if gender roles were radically reversed or if reproduction happened outside the womb? At a moment when policy orthodoxy leads parties to march cheerfully off cliffs and dissension gets lawmakers labeled kooks or traitors, we need more spaces where we play with ideas about policy, social organization and values. Art that seeks out new scenarios and poses new questions is both refreshing in an artistic world that fetishizes remakes and serializations, and a useful political tonic to a system that makes very little space for innovative or futurist thinking.

Avatar, James Cameron’s blockbuster about a mercenary who switches his allegiance from a transnational mining corporation to the native inhabitants of the planet that company wants to exploit, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, which explores a scenario where a multi-national group of technocrats settle the red planet, are perfect examples of art that dramatically reframes our current challenges by placing them in a wholly new context, and generating novel solutions as a result.

Avatar’s positioning of virtuous native people against rapacious white capitalists isn’t exactly novel—it’s squarely in keeping with Cameron’s deeply sentimental filmography. But it’s one thing for John Smith to achieve a moment of sympathy with the Powhatan Confederation during the settlement of Jamestown and quite another to exhort audiences to cut their ties to the kinds of corporations that fuel their cars and power their 3D-capable movie theaters. Our increasing entanglement with corporate power is not comfortable subject, whether it’s corporate capture of government or our increasing identification of a corporate brand like Apple with creative values. Cameron’s work may be more likely to inspire sporadic protests like that of the Palestinians who decked themselves out as Cameron’s aliens to speak out against the extension of a boarder fence than it is to convince hordes of Americans to move off the grid. But that doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. As a wholly original story, Avatar was a welcome and wildly successful break from serialized action franchises with more conventional stories about the origins of heroes. And having a director who is both commercially successful and a critical technological innovator devoting his career to spectacle in the service of environmentalism is a useful spur to more timid studios and more timid filmmakers, a constant reminder that nudging your audience can be as profitable as soothing it.

Like Avatar, Robinson’s Mars trilogy has its artistic flaws, particularly a tendency to lapse into overly technical prose that explains everything from the way time works on Mars to the composition of Martian soil. And like Avatar, the Mars trilogy’s novel and refreshing engagement with politics more than makes up for those lapses. Simply by asking us what we’d dare to make new if we freed ourselves from of our gravity and our political system, Robinson’s performing a valuable service, removing some of the heaviest constraints on our thinking about everything from corporate power to energy consumption to living in multi-faith communities. His characters experiment with a barter-based economy, integrate Islam and Buddhism, and learn what it means to live beyond the normal human life-span. We may never reorganize our society so dramatically, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth considering what we’d do with the knowledge and concepts that we have if we were given an opportunity to radically realign them. Fiction can suggest juxtapositions that may not occur to us. Scenarios that seem impossible now may suddenly become pressingly important. And as his characters experiment with everything from architecture to monogamy, Robinson manages to affirm that some essential principles of humanity will carry into the future with us, making the prospect of heading off towards it less frightening.

And ultimately that’s the best we can hope for from art, that it takes us to a place we cannot take ourselves, whether artist Kara Walker’s nightmare-scapes of American racial history; the seemingly impenetrable halls of power; or a future where our fate is entangled not simply with that of other nations, but of other planets. Demanding that our art be more politically incisive, diverse, and forward-thinking is a way of saying that we hope our art better fulfills that ideal. As Ray Bradbury wrote, “we have our arts so we won’t die of truth…Milton does more than drunk God can / To justify Man’s way toward Man.” Those justifications will be incomplete and imperfect, and they should be. With art, as with politics, we should be skeptical of the status quo and of promised utopias, and eager for imperfections, for pivotal moments, for the insight that makes possible growth and change. “There is a crack in everything,” Leonard Cohen sings. “That’s how the light gets in.”