"Art in Itself is Political" The Buck Stops Here

I go down the same side of the street Gordon Brumm does, even if I write about culture broadly and Brumm politics. Of course, artists have political views as much as anyone else. Joan Jett campaigned for Howard Dean and was on stage with him when the press captured his scream. "It was a compete fabrication," she says of what the press did. "It was created to knock Dean out." This year she went to Afghanistan to play for our troops. "A lot of times people can't separate that when you play for the troops you're supporting them but not the policy that put them over there," she says.

It seems they should not have political views. In a concert, The Dixie Chicks commented between songs that they were ashamed the President is from Texas. Thousands of their cds got buried in protest. Just sing your songs and shut up. Entertain us, help us sing along with you, hum your tunes, but stay buttoned-up. ("Not Ready to Make Nice," a song on their new cd, is their answer.)

Artists do create works that reflect their politics. The actor George Clooney, a liberal, directs a film on the legendary newscaster, Edward R. Murrow, "Good-Night, and Good Luck," to call attention to the responsibility of a press in a democracy. Murrow's fears of what might happen if the press compromises its integrity Clooney sees (implicitly) to have happened.

What I want to argue here, however, is that art in itself is political. It may help us escape. It may lie. It may resist what is. It may call for change. Its whisper may be a shout in the streets. Its shout bring down the walls. Its expression, however it be expressed, is about how we should live. Politics is about how we should live. Each of us dreams a world to come, and art, as much as politics, helps us see it, even if it may seem hopelessly impossible or lost. "[Alban Berg] has undercut the negativity of the world with the hopelessness of his fantasy," Theodore Adorno notes of the composer.

Totalitarian governments understand this. Joseph Goebbels, propagandist for Hitler (and a failed novelist), once famously remarked that whenever he heard the word culture, he reached for his gun. If his comment is, in part, a contemptuous dismissal of the pretensions and frivolity of art and those who support it, it is also, if only implicitly, a fear of its impact in our lives. All dictatorships only support art which delivers their message and ban (or worse) any art that does not. Pinochet's soldiers in Chile cut off Victor Jara's hands because they feared his songs.

This is not to say that the political expression in art does not call us to a higher standard, of what life might or should be, what we might be, what is right and good. Charlie Sheen coming out of the Cleveland bullpen in the ninth inning to face the Yankees in "Major League," "Wild Thing" on the PA accompanying him is an anthem to Cleveland, a promise yet to come, but never foreclosed. The Indians are not lost. The Indians are not lost forever.

The thing is, if art is true to itself, it makes no concessions. It is why we go to it. The artist always knows when he compromises himself. He knows - as we do too -- what concessions do, and what they cannot.
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Volume 2, Issue 17, Posted 8:08 AM, 08.16.06