Notes on Art & Politics

In contrast to propaganda, art consists of questions. It is a kind of civic virtue.

“Unless we insist that politics is imagination and mind, we will learn that imagination and mind are politics, and of a kind that we will not like.” — Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination

  1. At present, politics and artistic imagination tend to stand apart in our thinking. This is an artificial polarity and a root cause of many of our civic ailments, though we have yet to admit it to ourselves.
  2. Politics we deem serious and prosaic, a matter of “expertise” or career for the few, or else we deem them hollow and reflexive, a matter of party slogans and empty patriotism for the many. Meanwhile we tend to view art as entertainment — an activity or diversion to be valued chiefly for its “extracurricular” nature (and often for its complete unseriousness).
  3. But art is gravely serious — which is not to say it is always and only grim. Art is serious even when amusing, in so far as it conveys us to planes of thought, engagement, and empathy that lie far beyond ordinary, prosaic experience. Art differs substantially and qualitatively from entertainment inasmuch as it provokes in us a sui generis order of reflection, and sometimes even elicits meaningful action.
  4. What we want is not increasingly politicized art, but a more artful politics — a politics spun from the fiber of a polity, a society, a demos, in which the higher orders of the arts and artistic thinking are integral, not extraneous — characteristic, not inconceivable.
  5. “Only in so far as a society is rendered sensitive by the arts do ideas become accessible to it.” — Herbert Read
  6. Artistic thinking is about being at ease with uncertainty, to the extent of accommodating unconventional solutions; it’s about adaptability, sacrifice, honesty, authenticity, and the propensity to be “in the moment,” to surprise oneself and others; it’s about taking the long view while tending to the necessary (frequently mundane) intricacies of process; it’s about the practice of re-envisioning oneself and one’s world; it’s about inspiration and excellence, memory and enterprise, invention, entrepreneurship, lineage and legacy and belief; artistic thinking, while necessarily subject to realism and practicality for the sake of execution, is never less than thoroughly optimistic.
  7. Art consists of questions and conduces to enrichment and expansion via uncertainty. This in contrast to propaganda, which concerns itself solely with “answers,” a pugnacious surety obtained via incessant repetition (sometimes dogmatic but more often enticingly disguised).
  8. Art and artistic imagination require equivocation. The shape-shifting capacity, the propensity to escape the confines of the self and the pressure of the self’s narrow needs, the empathic ability to see and feel what “others” see and feel, the power to express all these things — this honorable equivocation is endemic to artistic imagination, and it is a kind of civic virtue.
  9. Never forgetting what came before, whether in order to draw strength or outrage from it, the artistic thinker moves forever forward, and the further he or she goes, the more deeply integrated he or she becomes in the human community.
  10. Artist and statesman Václav Havel: “A better system will not automatically ensure a better life. In fact the opposite is true: only by creating a better life can a better system be developed.”
  11. The arts speak of who we are, and who we are is how we govern. Undervaluing the arts, we can’t know ourselves, and not knowing ourselves we cannot govern. We cannot properly honor one another, nor honor our mutual responsibilities.
  12. Not knowing ourselves, we cannot be unified in any special identity. Because we are not unified, our politics can reflect little beyond fragmentation, dysfunction, an incapacity to address some rottenness at our core.
  13. Deeply suspicious of one another, we begin to actively dishonor our common experience. Empathy retreats, anomie moves to the fore. We become less capable of caring for each other, first in our politics, then in our communities. Ideological entrenchment engenders violence — first violent sentiment, then violent rhetoric. Next come violent politics, and finally actual bloodshed. All the while, the increasing barbarism of our choice entertainments reflects our condition.
  14. Strongly we sense something fraying at the seams. We are anxious and alienated. Amid our threadbare civic life and the grinding gridlock of our larger politics, we nervously await improvements, feeling, because we are now so far from our own creative potential, powerless to create the improvements ourselves. Havel: “A person who has been seduced by the consumer value system, whose identity is dissolved in an amalgam of the accoutrements of mass civilization, and who has no roots in the order of being, no sense of responsibility for anything higher than his or her own personal survival, is ademoralized person.”
  15. We disparage even the age-old basis of all transformational events: inspiration. It is what we long for, and yet its primary instrument, eloquence, seems to our brutalized ears deserving of suspicion. Eloquence cannot penetrate (stirring as the speech may have been in the televised moment), so we end up deriding it: knowing how to make speeches doesn’t make you a leader,etc. “You don’t pass speeches, you pass budgets,” says Congressman Blaine Luetkemeyer.
  16. Politics having become a war, oratory feels irrelevant. Too close, to our tastes, to that other supreme irrelevancy — the after-hours, expendable, marginal, frivolous, basically embarrassing pastime deemed useful mainly as a status symbol: art.
  17. We must ask ourselves: To what extent might our lack of artistic thinking, our lack of artistically illuminated political vitality, be more than merely a symptom of our societal dysfunction, but an actual cause? That it may be a single cause among several does not diminish its significance.
  18. A five-year-old girl is busy with her blocks when her parent calls her to the dinner table: “You can play more after we’ve eaten.” The girl’s lucid response: “I’m not playing, I’m building!”

“Notes on Arts & Politics” was originally written in 2013.

M. ALLEN CUNNINGHAM is the author of the novels The Green Age of Asher Witherow, Lost Son, and Partisans; a short story collection entitled Date of Disappearance; and the nonfiction volumes The Honorable Obscurity Handbook and The Flickering Page: The Reading Experience in Digital Times. He recently edited and wrote the introduction for Funny-Ass Thoreau. He is the founder and publisher of Atelier26 Books and a contributing editor for the literary journal Moss.

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