Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Art & Politics

I'm wondering whether the relationship between art and politics is currently the wrong one. There are quite a number of explicit criticisms of the politics that has took us into Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as of specific "establishment failures", (such as dramatisations of particular events such as the De Menezes shooting.) It is disappointing, to me at least, that art seems to mostly engage with the political/societal in such a direct way. For two reasons: firstly, because in doing so it takes on too many of the conventions of reportage, and, secondly, because art seems particularly well equipped for nuance and uncertainty. Not that anyone ever asks, but if I had to say what my primary subject was as writer, I'd more than likely say "doubt." Pinter's anti-war poems always seemed a let down from a writer whose critique of society had always been so piercingly oblique: I always wondered whether he felt that the art had let him down, once he became a political activist where the emphasis was on being direct. More worrying, of course, is despite the disquiet that many writers feel for politics in this country (and by extrapolation, America), how little it appears in the major works of the day.

But it is not just the direct relationship between art and politics that concerns me. I'm frustrated how little art itself seems willing to be a political movement. Am I asking for a return to Manifestoism? Perhaps I am. It seems that the creation and consumption of art can be a highly political act; and in the current time, that political action has to be in its implicit critique of consumerism and the capitalist financial model. In this version: a little magazine, a blog, a download, a painting can be political simply by disengaging with the production/promotion model. But there's something else that art needs to do, if it is to re-engage politically, and that is to do so within some intellectual framework. In other words, challenging assumptions of what is art, and why we are artists.

It is perhaps a lot to ask. Yet, it seems to me that good art gets it right more often than other media. The art that survives creates a version of the historical times that it was made in, in a way that is more valid than any "official" versions. The art is immutable, but the meaning can change. There's actually an infantilism about much artistic debate - from the old chestnut about the South Bank Show dumbing down (through showing Will Young), to the way a children's author such as Philip Pullman becomes one of our highest profile public intellectuals, to the ongoing "ne'er the twain" will meet misunderstandings of the poetry world. These all strike me as being partly because of art (and contemporary artists) unwillingness to make a political stand, for their view of art. Depending on the art form, the only intellectual positions taken are by marginalists - but not the marginalists of the new and coming work, but the outdated or the parochial.

If an artist or writer or musician has a clear intellectual-political position concerning their artform; then it matters not whether the work or the artist themselves is explicitly political, for surely, everything they do will be implicitly political as a result of their intellectual starting point?

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