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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, August 31, 2007

politics and the artist

One point I wanted to reach yesterday was to raise the question of what the artist's relationship should be to politics.

It's a complex question. My first instinct is that an artist should not really come out as supporting any particular political view or party. For one thing, as well put by my late brother-in-law the artist Fred Douglas, "I don't see why other people should be interested in my opinions." (Although Freddie was not shy about spouting his opinions at length if you actually happened to be in his company--but still.)

To me, a liberal or a conservative, or a communist or a fascist, artist, seems like a limited thing--sort of the way I feel about, say, Christian rockers. In a sense, you're selling someone else's message, and to that extent are bankrupt as an artist.

At the same time, an artist may have, as anyone may have, political views. Should one then conceal them? Isn't this just mystification--the self-conscious attempt to generate a mystique around oneself, to keep people guessing?

On the other hand, the artist is also an economic entity, someone trying to earn a living. Should one risk alienating potential buyers by exposing one's political views? I think about the Dixie Chicks, and how they landed in hot water with many erstwhile fans when Natalie Maines made critical remarks about George Bush. At the time I thought this was foolish, since the Dixie Chicks' work has nothing to do with politics; the outburst was a taking advantage of the fame of the Dixie Chicks, and the fact that the opinions would get a lot of publicity. Natalie Maines found herself with a soapbox, so she used it. But what, if anything, was the benefit to anyone?

Then again, one doesn't want to be too much of a slut. I recall Michael Jordan's infamous comment that "Republicans buy sneakers too"--invoking his role as shoe salesman to beg off helping a Democrat in North Carolina defeat the notorious Republican incumbent Jesse Helms in 1990. Of course, Michael Jordan is not an artist--but you get the idea.

Then there's the question of what is meant by the very term politics. I remember my late friend and mentor Harvey Burt distinguishing between politics in general and partisan politics--the politics of specific parties. Politics in general has to do with relationships of power between people, and therefore, one would think, is naturally open for comment by artists. And one might naturally incline toward one political or social philosophy over another. Harvey also told me, for example, that Malcolm Lowry, his friend and neighbor in the squatters' camp at Dollarton, was very idealistic about the squatter's life, and romanticized it as being a kind of Thoreau-esque statement by the Common Man against the evil and dehumanizing forces of Civilization. The squatters were the oppressed, decent, principled proletarians up against the faceless State.

As for me, I have for many years now seen partisan politics as being inherently puerile, even as I see the necessity, or anyway the inevitability, of political parties. The public statements of most politicians are embarrassing, flatulent banalities, when they are not outright prevarications or lies. If this behavior wins votes, then that fact reflects on us, the electorate: as a group we are credulous sheep, and therefore must expect to be treated as such. It's depressing to think that a candid, honest politician would be punished at the ballot box. In general, I am suspicious of artists who take partisan politics too seriously.

Can I draw any conclusions? In the last analysis, one should not sacrifice one's integrity for any reason. If you have strong political beliefs, then so be it. But I think artists should tread carefully. Natalie Maines's exclamation that she was ashamed that George Bush was from Texas was, in my view, a pointless gesture. Sincere, no doubt--but empty of content. In effect, she was using her personal stardom as a vehicle for selling dislike of the president. I support her freedom to do so, but I believe that she did no good for herself as an artist, or for society.

That said, I hold musicians and actors to a lower standard in this respect than I do writers. Mostly they're performing other people's work--other people's writing. When the performer is also a songwriter, as the Dixie Chicks are, this still doesn't make too much difference unless they deal with political material in their created work--which they usually don't. Musicians like Billy Bragg, who pump out paeans to social activism and such, I tend to lump in with Christian rockers. They're marketers of ideas conceived by others.

I suppose my advice to myself is: if you have a political statement to make, be sure it's calm, cogent, well supported, objective, mature, and wise.

Is that asking so much?


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