Art as trial by combat

This man does not approve this message

Alyssa Rosenberg has put out an essay on her blog on engaging the politics of art. It’s an interesting essay, and I agree with many of her points. In a way it works as an apology (in a Mathematician’s Apology sense of the word) for her entire blog, which deals with the politics of and in art. That’s her brief, and it’s an important one because, as she points out, even the most apolitical-seeming art has political assumptions embedded within it that we either have to deal with or just swallow. But to me, the danger of focusing on the politics in art is that one has to fight against the constant impulse to engage with art as political trial by combat. It would be interesting to read what critics say/have said on this temptation.

I’ve already previously linked Brian Phillips’ great post on the pleasure and absurdity of rooting against Tim Tebow as an avatar of the Christian Conservative. In the same way, though I realise that Crosby is an amazing player, to me he is also an avatar of Good-Canadian-Kid-ism that makes hating him a great pleasure. But again, I see that he is an outstanding player and enjoy watching him play a great deal. While I feel no qualms about this avatar-making in sports, this is something to avoid with respect to art. There are several reasons. The first is that it makes us terrible and uninsightful judges of art when we see the art as an affirmation of the artist’s politics. An old but great Franklin Foer column about Weekly Standard’s art criticism makes this point better than I could.

The second is that even for politically engaged art, politics is not the entire point. Wallace Stevens once very wisely said (I’m paraphrasing) that if the meaning of a poem were its essential characteristic, it would mean that a lot of people were putting themselves to a lot of trouble for nothing.

A related point is that we risk conflating the quality of the work with the potency of its political message. So here, for instance, Rod Dreher’s post claiming Gaudi as anti-Modern is something where I agree with pretty much every word, but somehow still dislike the whole thing. Well, I don’t know to what extent Gaudi could be claimed as a conservative. He did get arrested protesting a couple times. And his long, self-destructive near-death fasts seem signs of a person who thought in a different way from most of us rather than the hallmark of a social conservative. And for all the talk of nature as inspiration, he’s not conservative in the sense that he is an innovator – no one who’s seen the terrace in Park Güell, for instance, can say that it is somehow natural. But even were Gaudi a conservative, he’s first and foremost a genius*, and it’s foolish to enlist him as batter for the conservative or liberal squad. Were the Sagrada Familia conceived by Rick Perry, it would still not be a convincing point for electing conservatives.

To both illustrate and subvert my point, here is one of my favourite Mayakovsky poems – Order № 1 for the Army of the Arts (Приказ по армии исскуства – here it is in Russian, sorry I can’t find a translation on the internet). A poem calling on artists to be explicitly political and to praise the revolution. Hopefully the preceding has made it clear that I disagree with the message. But I agree tremendously with the poem.

*By the way, it seems to me that Gaudi is by far the biggest genius among architects in a way that doesn’t exist for painters or poets or musicians or any other category of people, actually. I’ve often wondered whether this view of mine has some basis in reality, or whether it’s caused more by my total ignorance of architecture.

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3 Responses to Art as trial by combat

  1. Zuuko says:

    “The first is that it makes us terrible and uninsightful judges of art when we see the art as an affirmation of the artist’s politics.” For some reason, this sentence triggered a tangent that I’ve been meaning to post on in a while. I think the point of this sentence (and perhaps the whole post?) is that as much as politics, or the subtext, or any other motivation leads to the creation of any art, at a certain level these are irrelevant to the actual piece of art, including judging it or deriving any benefit from it. To really stretch the point, at a certain level I don’t care that Michael Jackson fantasized about children to appreciate that Billie Jean is a great song.

    With that explanation, the tangent I was referring to is a post that has been kicking around in my skull is to do with narratives, especially in media. While narratives are great, they feel more like sad-sack efforts of journalists to shoe-horn facts into whatever stories they’re peddling rather than the other way around. I’ll have to flesh this out a bit I think before the connection to this post becomes painfully obvious.

    On Gaudi being the biggest genius, I believe you are spot on. I don’t think you need to be a jockey to judge that race horse. I don’t know shit about physics, but if you ask me, Einstein and maybe Newton tower over every physicist before or since in the same way. At least there is a second in physics.

  2. zolltan says:

    First off, I was just listening to Billie Jean today. What a great song. I agree that we should appreciate art apart from the people who make it – lots of despicable people make great art. But I think dealing with politix in art is more difficult than that question – because sometimes (very often) there’s political content in the art itself. In Bille Jean terms, the three points I was going for in my post:
    1) Just cause Michael Jackson fucked little kids doesn’t mean Billie Jean isn’t a great song
    2) Just cause Billie Jean is about sleeping with a girl and then denying you’re the baby daddy doesn’t by itself make it a good or bad song.
    3) Just cause Billie Jean is a great song doesn’t mean sleeping with a girl and then denying you’re the baby daddy is a great idea.

    But I would argue against you if you went as far as to say that we should ignore that Billie Jean is about sleeping with a girl and then denying you’re the baby daddy. The content is there for you, after all. And I think Alyssa Rosenberg’s essay is about this point as well.

    As to Gaudi and physics, it’s stuff like yr response that makes me doubt it! It’s true that Newton and Einstein are probably the two best physicists ever (at some point it’s hard to compare physicists from different eras), but in the modern era, I’d put in a word for Dirac and Landau and Schroedinger and Feynman. I wouldn’t say Einstein is the best by an order of magnitude or anything. Which is what I feel like for Gaudi.

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