Archive for January, 2017

Is Art Political? Must it be?

“Why does art always have to be so…political?” 

We hear this question posed time and again–on Twitter, by critics, by one artist to another. I won’t mince words: when this happens, it is almost always because someone on the political right complaining about an artist’s work exposing their left-leaning ideology (the reverse exists, and I will provide an example, but they are markedly less common). It’s an ugly conversation, the participants usually devolving into condescending smugness on the left and unhelpful screeching on the right. Even I’m not immune, when Rogue One’s screenwriters tweeted that the Galactic Empire was “a white supremacist organization” I got angry. It’s wrong. I can prove to you that they’re wrong using George Lucas quotes and the mythological language of Joseph Campbell, but it’s unhelpful to pick apart this particular instance on the level of a graduate thesis, because Rogue One’s writers–however ideologically motivated–are right. The Galactic Empire is a white supremacist movement. They’re also the Soviet war machine, the German Empire of WWI, the Third Reich. They’re every autocrat, every regime who ever placed a boot to the throat of their fellow man and stomped.

By speaking up and saying that the Empire is a white supremacist movement or represents the modern resurgence of white supremacy, the writers of Rogue One temporarily damaged the universality of their work. Star Wars being Star Wars–and Rogue One being excellent–this small damage will be negligible over time, but there was a small boycott movement, and the film might have alienated a small, cretinous portion of its audience.

I choose this example not only because I happen to love Star Wars more than most things, but because it’s a very clear example of a polemic–a politically charged narrative–being injected into a piece of storytelling. This sword cuts both ways, however. Just this morning, I was reading an old article about the works of Orson Scott Card (a writer whose oeuvre I greatly respect, though I disagree with him as regards marriage equality). In it, the reviewer complained about how “offensively heteronormative” his novel Ender in Exile was. Perhaps it is. I haven’t read Ender in Exile since high school and it didn’t make much of an impression (it’s no Ender’s Game). But ultimately, this complaint, that Card was injecting his political agenda RE marriage equality is the same as alt-right fascists complaining about the Rogue One white supremacy narrative. No matter what you think of it, this is what Card believes, and I believe that in art and storytelling there are no invalid beliefs, however caustic or subversive. If we are willing to call a photograph of a Crucifix immersed in urine a work of art, despite it being deeply offensive to more than a billion people in the world, than there is room enough for the odd heteronormative sci-fi novel, whatever you or I feel about it.

And it is my fate to complain about both. About all. In the foreword to The Lord of the Rings, the good Professor says that “As for any meaning or ‘message’, it [the book in question] has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical.” This particular line has been used, to great effect, by what I must call the anti-political crowd of readers and critics. After all, who could gainsay Tolkien? Well, plenty of people. Others have–just as correctly–indicated that authorial intent is in many senses irrelevant, and that The Lord of the Rings might serve as an allegory for the dangers of atomic power in World War II (which is specious and utterly absurd) or, more correctly, that the corrosive nature of the Evil of the Ring and of Frodo’s resistance to it accurately demonstrates a Catholic view of the nature of sin and of our ability to overcome it. Which is to say that, in spite of even the Professor’s best efforts, there is something of his politics in his work (and not just his ardent Catholicism, but his anti-modernism and environmentalism).

Which brings us to the pro-politics side of the argument: that no author can fully shake the bonds of his or her perceptions and conceptions about the world. In this, the writers I see on Twitter talking about how they plan to use their work to advance their agenda (be it conservative or {more usually} liberal) have an ally in–you guessed it–Orson Scott Card. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Card (along with co-author Aaron Johnston) at a signing in 2014. He said something I have not forgotten: that we as writers do not know what we believe (and that this is true of non-writers as well I’ve no doubt) until we explicate it in writing. The old axiom that “speaking is thinking” is in this case very true. That is to say that writing is as much a process of self-discovery as it is of entertainment. Because of this, it is possible that the people who believe stories are only for entertainment already know all there is to know about themselves, either because (charitably) they are very self-aware or (less charitably) they simply aren’t very complex.

Because of this, I tend to side with the pro-politicals when they say that art is about a message, as much as it breaks my heart to stake myself across the starting line from Professor Tolkien. Even Shakespeare was not immune. Recall that the man was a propagandist, that Macbeth was written to legitimize the embryonic Stuart dynasty on the throne of England through the character of Banquo, et al. Mind you, whether or not these were the Bard’s own political beliefs or merely ones he assumed out of pragmatism we will never know. They likely were his beliefs, but that it immaterial. If even Macbeth is political, what hope has any of us of truly divorcing ourselves from our work and from the dialogue of our day and age? Nearly none.

And yet I still cringed when I heard the word about Rogue One and the white supremacists. Why? Because even though the pro-political end of this spectrum is right–and our personal politics always infect our writing–they are also needlessly, hopelessly stupid. Anyone who says “I wrote this book to advance my (Marxist/monarchist/Christian/feminist/heteronormative/liberal/conservative/etc) agenda” and wears that as a badge of pride is a complete and utter moron. No two ways about it. Tolkien was sorely mistaken when he said there was no message–political, religious, or otherwise–in The Lord of the Rings, and we might lay a charge of short-sightedness at his door for that (and for sneering at Wollheim and the Ace paperbacks), but the error made by persons both left and right of political center in saying what that agenda is is by far the more grievously ignorant act.

Because authorial intent–in fiction, at least–doesn’t matter. And because it doesn’t matter the best piece of advice for any writer seeking immortality is “Keep your mouth shut.” The work ought to stand for itself, to speak its own piece. There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is that we writers (and humans generally) are by far more eloquent writing (and writing behind layers of allegory–conscious and subconscious) than we are coming out and saying stupid things like “I wrote this because fascism is bad.” Obviously it’s bad. No one who watches Rogue One is going to come out of it not getting that message, unless there is already something profoundly wrong with them. In a similar sense, the cast of Hamilton stepping up to preach at Vice President Pence was redundant (and in the minds of some Americans, obnoxious) because the musical Hamilton itself was already a love letter to diversity, and a more eloquent statement of the beauty of it than any ham-fisted letter delivered by an actor as a kind of lame post script. It was the awkward emoticon on the back end of a love poem. It was a waste of time that got in Hamilton’s way insofar as the Trumpist right wingers (who need the message of Hamilton more than anyone, one might argue) were concerned. Did you see anyone in a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat after the Pence-Hamilton episode say “Well gee, I should go buy Hamilton tickets?” No. Because the cast shot its own foot explicating Lin-Manuel’s work. (Aside: Ironically, Pence himself seemed to respect the players for their action, to judge by the remarks he made to his family, per some articles I read).

Not only should authors keep their mouths shut to avoid putting their feet in them like some soft-headed Ouroboroi, but because stories are by far more persuasive than are formal arguments. It’s just the way we think. I read once that language is what really separates us from other animals, and I read a later counter-argument (it might have been from Steven Pinker, but I can’t recall with certainty) that went a step further: saying that stories are really what make us human, that they separate us more sharply from all other life on Earth than even language does. I like to think it’s true, in no small part because I am a storyteller. But in any case, we cannot deny the massive psychological power of stories. Carl Jung, from whose work Joseph Campbell samples liberally, goes so far as to propose the archetypes of our stories underpin the way we view the world–this ties also into Richard Dawkins’ notion of memes, of ideas being biologically adaptive traits in precisely the same manner as beak shape was in Darwin’s finches. Things like the hero who slays the dragon date as far back as the Sumerian Enuma Elish–which is nearly the oldest story we have! These notions have been with us as a species for so long that they’re almost a part of our cells. Stories are the real language of change, and when some idiot writer playing at pretension says what it is they are about, they may as well be closing the ears of precisely those readers they most need (to their minds) to reach.

Additionally, talking about the specific political exigence or theory underpinning a story robs it of its universality. If the Rogue One writers had come out and said that the film was specifically about the 2016 white supremacist movement, they would have anchored the film specifically to this point in time. By a similar token, the song “Vision Thing” by the British punk/Goth band Sisters of Mercy could have be about any US President, but their insistence that it be specifically about the milquetoast George H.W. Bush robs it of its ability to critique other Presidents, and ultimately dooms the song to be forgotten. As a way of demonstrating my point: Have you ever heard it before? Most of you will say no. By coming out and saying “This story is about A,” the writer destroys the piece’s ability to be about B or C or anything else. This is why a lot of the enduring works of literature–in science fiction and fantasy, at least–tend to be from writers we might place approximately in the anti-political camp. The Lord of the Rings is one. Dune is another. There are exceptions. Dante’s Inferno is extremely catty and political, but I suspect it has endured only because it was the typifying example of its form. (Or indeed due to the vividness of its worldbuilding. After all, Dante invented the notion of Hell’s having rings, and that trope persists despite its having no Biblical or religious basis whatsoever. Besides, no one reads Inferno for its politics, or even understands them–outside the experts, of course). This sort of non-specific approach to literary context mostly applies to genre fiction and to myth. A World War II novel is obviously about World War II, and any attempt to specify deeper particulars as regards message and theme must necessarily transcend the historical setting. But in myth? In fantasy? Science fiction? We do well to cast our nets wide and vaguely, as far from the here and now as possible, that we might provide our examples and inspire the audience in new ways. Star Wars doesn’t have to tell us fascism is bad: we can see it. Star Trek is softer on fascism (I tend to think it endorses it), but it’s bright on scientific optimism and on the beauty of diversity and acceptance. The Twilight Zone instructs us on nightmare, and injects into the modern world a sense of mystery and terror that the comforts of civilization almost buried. Doctor Who can do it all, and they all do it without condescending to the audience, without telling us outright what they’re about and what to believe.

The final problem with this anti-political/pro-political divide that I wish to address is a social one. These two camps refuse almost universally to have truck or to speak with one another. It’s one of the ethical dilemmas which lies at the heart of the political divide in the arts (and in science fiction and fantasy perhaps especially). The right wingers insist they can tell stories that are pure entertainment, and that their leftist counterparts are dangerous ideologues. At the same time, the left wingers insist they have a moral duty to crusade, and that it’s at best naive or at worst morally bankrupt to insist that stories can carry no polemic content. I propose that both camps are seeing the problem with one eye–the left or right one, as it were. This puts me in a <sarcasm> thrilling </sarcasm> position: I get to be angry with both sides, and like Catelyn Stark said to Stannis and Renly, I’d like to smash their heads together until they remember that they are brothers. Each is looking at an equal part of the same truth here: on the one hand, the pro-politicals are right that you can’t scrub an author’s beliefs out of their work, even on the pulpiest, schlockiest levels. But the price you pay is alienation. On the other hand, the anti-politicals are right to insist that some stories are made to entertain, but wrong in assuming, as Verne did of Wells, that they are merely entertaining.

What we need here, as perhaps in all things, is synthesis. We need to recognize that the truth is that all art is political, but that good art isn’t only political, and that we do art a disservice by talking about it. The pro-politicals are right as regards truth, the anti-politicals are right as regards method. Put the pieces together, throw out the rot, open your other eye.


PS. I should note that Tolkien’s ignorance (feigned or genuine) regarding the political/allegorical nature of his work is a reasonable stance for an author to take. It is at least a far safer one than to outwardly espouse an ideology. An author cannot contradict himself or herself if he or she doesn’t provide you the skeleton key for decoding their work by way of extra-textual analysis. It is for this reason I labeled the pro-political sin of saying what your work is about as mortal, compared to Tolkien’s more venial agnosticism per the matter of allegory/topicality.

PPS. I should say that “politics” here does not mean in the narrow sense of relating to governance, but rather to the system of beliefs and practices a person employs to relate to others, a category containing politics in the narrow sense, as well as religious, spiritual, philosophical, aesthetic, and moral concerns–all of which inform your actions on the political stage. Your politics.