Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Art and Politics

There are many who say that art and politics don't mix. I kindly beg to differ. How can anyone say that Picasso's Guernica is not art? How can anyone say that what Charles Dickens wrote, or Arthur Miller's play The Crucible or Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye is not art? How can any piece of art literary of visual be created in a vacuum and not be political in some way? Yes, there are works that are so political they border on propaganda or polemical but they probably wouldn't be art even without the politics. Just like any work, art should be judged on artist merit not on its politics. Maybe it is my Lutheran farmer ancestry telling on me, but I am inclined to believe that art should do something. By "do something" I mean make a statement, have meaning, cause a reaction, open up a different point of view, be more than just a pretty picture to hang on the wall or a fat book to sit on my shelf. This is not to say that the purely decorative or escapist is bad or useless. There is a place for it, certainly, and I enjoy it myself. But Art with a capital "A" should have substance. Now that you know where I stand on the matter, you'll understand why a book like Paths of Resistance: The Art and Craft of the Political Novel edited by William Zinsser is appealing to me. The book is actually a series of lectures that were given at the New York Public Library and sponsored by the Book-of-the-Month Club sometime before 1989 (the book's copyright date). The five lectures were given by Robert Stone, Isabel Allende, Charles McCarry, Marge Piercy and Gore Vidal. And they have some interesting things to say. Robert Stone:

The practice of fiction is an act against loneliness, an appeal to community, a bet on the possibility that the enormous gulf that separates one human being from another can be bridged. It has the responsibility to understand and to illustrate the varieties of the human condition in order that the consciousness may be enlarged.
Isabel Allende:
I feel that writing is an act of hope, a sort of communion with our fellow men. The writer of good will carries a lamp to illuminate the dark corners. Only that, nothing more--a tiny beam of light to show some hidden aspect of reality, to help decipher and understand it and thus to initiate, if possible, a change in the conscience of some readers.
Charles McCarry:
The propagandist sees things as he thinks they should be. The novelist must see things as they are, because his purpose is to record and illuminate human experience.
Marge Piercy:
I've never been able to understand the assumption that being ignorant of science is good for poets, or that being ignorant of economics and social organization is good for novelists. I've always imagined that the more curious you are about the world around you, the more you'll have to bring to your characters and to the worlds that you spin around them. I've always imagined too, that one reason many American novelists haven't developed, but rather, have atrophied, producing their best work out of the concerns of late adolescence and early adulthood, is that since they do not care to grapple with or even to identify the moving forces in their society they can't understand more than a few stories.
Gore Vidal:
In his critique of my book Professor Current fusses, not irrelevantly, about the fictionalizing of actual political figures. I also fuss about this. But he has fallen prey to the scholar-squirrels' delusion that there is a final Truth, revealed only to the tenured in their footnote maze. In this he is simply naive. All we have is a mass of more or less agreed-upon facts about the illustrious dead, and each generation tends to rearrange those facts according to what the times require.
As you can see from some of the quotes, the book is not just about politics and the novel but a sort of mini theory of the novel and writing as well. It is a good read particularly if you have read and enjoyed any of the writers.