Jack Hanson looks at the line between politics and art
I'M NOT SURE where the line is between politics and art. What I mean is, strictly speaking, why should they even share a border? It seems to me that they are separate activities, their products separate entities, which can interact but nevertheless remain distinct. For example, Virgil’s Roman triumphalism—if that’s what the tone is—is, really, pretty easy to extricate from the import of the Aeneid. Students have to be taught that bit by their teachers: the vagaries of politics in Augustinian Rome just don’t jump off the page. What do strike any reader, tutored or not, are the battles and atrocities which fill the epic’s second half. Or, for a more nuanced soul (though she can be moved by the blood, too), the curious wisdom of Anchises, Aeneas’ father, when his son meets him in Hades. These moments seem unavoidable. Whatever drives us to tell and listen to stories tends to put us in the direction of the same questions, over and over, regardless of our own climate, or, you might say, the author’s.
But this is a bit too simple, and not just because I’m trying—trying—to say something un-idiotic in 500 words. My question about the border between politics and art seems to demand a pointed response, but every attempt fans out into a thousand implications, and I write fully aware that everyone who reads this will likely have her own, very closely-held opinion. And so despite (or because of the topic’s relevance) maybe the best I can hope for is to stick to the word count.
So, where do you start? To take the temperature of a boiling pot you need a lance-long thermometer.
The Aeneid itself demands that we consider how seemingly private aesthetic experiences connect to the way we organize our communities, from village to nation. A moment’s reflection on Aeneas’ slaughter of the Italians calls to mind countless other crimes committed in the building of great civilizations—and countless questions: Why do these crimes seem to be so ubiquitous, even necessary? And what do you do about them later? Clearly, aesthetics and politics share a border. But can they—should they—do more with each other?
Virgil’s famous remark that he wished to imitate nature, then found Homer had already done that, forcing him to imitate Homer, leads me to believe that however strong the contemporaneous political relevance of his masterwork was, it was not the poet’s main focus. I’m not advocating for pure aestheticism, or a complete separation of art from politics. But the artist is not a politician, it must be remembered. Forgetting that simple fact leads not necessarily to social and political change, but almost definitely to bland, uninspired, not to say uninspiring art. See the socialist realism of the Soviet Union (except maybe for Mayakovsky, who shot himself under the strain).
We inhabit a startlingly turbulent culture. Many of the issues which daily rock our collective longboat are not those of, say, party politics (at least not on the surface), but of identity. Many feel—you probably do—that it’s not just your opinions, but who you are that needs defending, or at any rate, discussing. This phenomenon isn’t exactly new, but it’s difficult to find an atmosphere like our present one, in both intensity and publicity.
It’s no wonder, then, that so much of our writing—fiction and poetry, but especially that nebulous genre, creative non-fiction (including even reviews and hot takes)—tackles the politics of the day head on. Not only do we attempt to illuminate and redress societal ills in essays, speeches, and activism, but in every word we write, and with increasing intensity. Publishers move up release dates to respond to current events, and magazine editors must have a position (meaning a post up) on the latest microscandal. Meanwhile, the conservative-minded harken to Renaissance definitions of art as a response to, say, post-colonialism (a practice I’m not entirely against, by the way, but which is too often taken up in a censorious and snobbish manner; criticism should start where the critic stands, not in the good old days, however golden).
One wonders what Slate would make of Aeneas’ Italian conquest or The Hairpin of Dido’s suicide. Is tackling the politics of the day every day always wise? Do the straightforward addresses of our time serve their political purpose? And, perhaps more importantly, do they make for good writing, good art? Of course there are very gifted writers operating today—talent has a way of asserting itself—but could that talent be better exercised telling stories instead of just allegories? Writing poems, rather than thinly veiled manifestos? Essays where not everything is on the line, every time? Arguments that refuse to respond to the merely topical? Takes that aren’t timely? You might say that we don’t have that luxury, that change needs to occur now. But are the most pointed voices necessarily the most effective? Activism is one thing, but the speeches that reach the ears of millions tend to come toward the peak of movements, not at their beginning—they might even come at movement’s end. Before that time, art serves its political function in whispers, in double meanings, in unintended meanings, in the moments after reading when you stop to reflect. If art’s purpose, even secondary or tertiary, is political, its work seems to be incremental.
JACK HANSON is a contributing editor for Partisan.