Monday, March 28, 2005

Politics and art- why they can't get it on, Part 2

In a post last month, Can art fornicate peacefully with mammon?, I was wondering why it was so difficult to convince local and state governments in America that it was in their best interest to support the arts. Granted, it doesn't fit into a neat overall agenda and falls way behind issues like crime, education and such with most people but doesn't this speak to the occasional mantra we hear from above about "quality of life?"

Richard Eyre's Ballot-Box Blues gives us an insightful look at this problem from a British perspective, quoting author Philip Roth.

"Politics is the great generaliser and literature the great particulariser, and not only are they in an inverse relationship to each other - they are in an antagonistic relationship. To politics, literature is decadent, soft, irrelevant, boring, wrongheaded, dull, something that makes no sense and really oughtn't to be. Why? Because the particularising influence is literature. How can you be an artist and renounce the nuance? How can you be a politician and allow the nuance? As an artist the nuance is your task. Your task is not to simplify ... Allow for the chaos, let it in ... "

Insert any other type of art in there for literature and it's still pretty applicable.

Another thing that I'd add is that American politics seems more and more to pander to fear (not that it's exclusive to this country). One side is telling you about the doom that we're headed for if the other side makes it into office. The last presidential election was a textbook example of this- both Democrats and Republicans played up the fear factor to scare voters to their side rather than try to win them over by touting positive qualities. Art is certainly known to tantalize thrill-seekers with illicit pleasures but scare tactics only work in horror movies and it's a different kind of frightening that they're doing- it's a thrill sensation like a good amusement park ride. Trying to scare you to buy a CD or see a movie versus your other supposedly detrimental entertainment choices is not a strategy that works.

One common trait that art and politics share many times is pandering, trying to appeal to a certain audience. In the world of entertainment, this doesn't necessarily mean that you're not going to have a totally unappealing product sometimes (unless you're an indie snob). Politics is a little different as someone who promises you anything is really promising you nothing- their be-all and end-all is elected office. In contrast, the empty pop song or action movie can be appealing in spite of itself but they're only supposed to provide visceral thrills. Elected officials are supposed to make decisions about our lives so it's a little more grave.

One other connection occurs to me. In both art and politics, we receive a nuanced version of reality. It's somewhat idealized to match the concept of the creator, be it congressman, director or producer. It doesn't exactly match what we know but we recognize it and we can buy into it- even in great fantasy tales, we see a measure of what we know already. We support the art or political figures that best meshes with our own concept of how things are or how they should be.

So if there are so many similarities, what does each side have to be scared of? Roth is right to note that politicians many times distrust art but maybe it's also because it's seen as unseemly competition. It's not unreasonable to think that the opposite is true- artists distrust politicians partly because they think they're above such things. Neither side would want to admit that they're not so far apart since one is supposed to deal with concrete matters of society while the other aspires to loftier goals to enrich society. Then again, each side would like to think that they're able to accomplish both things. And each of them definitely doesn't like the other side trying to tell them how it's supposed to be done.


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