On the Political Essence of Art and Literature

Liberty Leading the People - Eugène Delacroix (cropped)Liberty Leading the People - Eugène Delacroix (cropped)

Not many debates have raged as long as the one pertaining to art and the political role it should or should not endorse. There is a vast amount of reasons why this seemingly unresolved question keeps being brought up, and although we won’t pretend, nor have the space and time, to investigate them all, we will nonetheless try to examine some of their most salient aspects in order to comprehend the implications of answering such an antique debate, as well as underline why the matter is relevant to the left if it seeks to embrace constant criticism of the world as its primary tool in the uncovering of truth, and how it is necessary to investigate the issue for leftists who genuinely recognize said truth as their fiercest weapon against reactionary forces.

“Art is a private thing, the artist does it for himself; an understandable work is a journalist product.”

Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto, 23rd March 1918 [1]

Naively, we could start by questioning the exceptional treatment of the artist our subject implies: why would he who writes a book have a different connection with politics than his neighbor who is a jurist or a shoemaker? In what way should his work bear more or less political content than the baker’s? Does it mean that the writer truly is a distinct entity that doesn’t belong to the masses? The problem in this approach of the question, is that it makes political involvement appear as a secondary concept – secondary in the sense of only being thought after the definition of the primary ones. Yet, “Should the artist (or, more generally, the worker) defend in his work his or some political views?” doesn’t simply ask whether an artist would be better at what he’s doing, were he to adopt a certain behavior, but challenges the very definition of being an artist, pondering on the conditions one has to fulfill in order to legitimately be called that way. While being a good baker only implies making good bread and being a good shoemaker making good shoes (setting aside moral considerations of course, since the use of oppression would never make of someone a bad shoemaker, rather than a bad human being), being a good artist means producing good art, the appreciation of which is arguably not as easy as solely analyzing its nutritive and gustatory properties and its positive or negative impact on our overall health… Or is it?

The reader may understand that our purpose here won’t be to provide him with an accurate definition of art; it is requisite though, if we wish for our demonstration to be rigorous, that we briefly analyse a handful of its traits. We will especially draw our interest towards the idea of mimesis, that is, in literary theory, the representation of the actual world. It seems to us that it is foolish to think of a work of art so safe from human interference, or on the contrary so refined by the hand of man that it would escape the influence of the material world it belongs to. How can one pretend to write so neutrally that he would free his use of language from the centuries of philosophy, cultural references and History every word is loaded with? How can one pretend to paint in a way so abstract that there would be no shape, no association of colours or spacial organisation that would find its source in the constant aesthetic experience we skim through for all our lives? The mere desire to deconstruct previously existing forms is a product of culture, and the result of dozens of artistic innovations we have been exposed to. We can very surely make the choice to ignore any work of art’s context of creation, but such posture only bears interest in terms of analysis and criticism, while quickly falling short when trying to grasp the essence of what art is: the punctual witness of a time or a society, with its concerns, its flaws, its intellectual landscape, all contemplated from within.

“Art for art’s sake, the entertainment of a solitary artist, is very exactly the artificial art of a fake and abstract society.”

Albert Camus, Sweden discourses, 14th December 1957 [2]

Once we accept that the artist is merely the medium between its work and the group it is speaking for, [3] it becomes clear that there are only two criteria fit to judge the quality of its production: accuracy and originality. Indeed, a representation can only look like or differ from two other entities: the object it is trying to depict, and the other representations trying to depict the same thing; we would argue that even aesthetics is nothing more than a combination of the two concepts in play. A poem is moving when it is accurate enough in its description of feelings for example, or find new ways to reach its audience; a painting is sublime when the quality of its execution delivers a profound message, able to resonate with the viewer, or breaks the usual codes to find completion off the beaten tracks, and so on. Another simple example of it is the sentence “I love you,” which is quite accurately used by an individual to confess his love to another. One could also say “You’re like a snail to me,” which would be rather original, at the expense of accuracy since the initial meaning would certainly be lost. Yet, when both originality and accuracy are combined in order to write a few verses, we can attain a real piece of art, truly touching, that manages to extract the very substance of its subject and offer it to the eyes of the reader, work which both required creativity, and lets us embrace a much deeper sense of the feeling described than a single word ever could.

It is easy now to see how much art benefits from its creator’s insight and interpretation of its surroundings: putting the finger on contradictions and absurdities, proposing new ways of thinking and appreciating reality, challenging commonly-approved standards, trying to reach poignant truth and authenticity behind the curtain of illusions, all are what makes artists great… as well as the basis of critical and political thought. Art is, by definition, in a state of constant revolution, thus it doesn’t come as a surprise that most great artists were revolutionaries themselves, opposing through their works the fallacious views of their time. Of course, some were not, and we could name dozens of famous authors who were (or still are) complete reactionaries – although the popularity of such figures tends to fade much more quickly after their death than their rebellious counterparts’ – but this phenomenon doesn’t take place because their art is apolitical: they were (or are) actually not content with the current state of the world, but instead of wanting actual progress, they strive towards false ideals or long for a past that is no more. They are still hoping for what they perceive as change, we just don’t believe it to be the right one, or one at all. As for the hypothetical artists who either managed to ban all politics from their work, or are so perfectly in sync with their environment not a single trace of abnormality could be found in their production, we think that they do not exist, or are doomed to produce only poor-quality pieces, deprived of any original world view or opinion despite all their possible technical skills.

“So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilisation, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age — the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of woman by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night — are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this might not be useless.”

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 30th March 1862 [4]

Politics, in its ambition to be the science of how communities ought to organize themselves, should not stick to the processing of facts and their interpretations, but extend its constant borrowings from philosophy and social sciences to every field of knowledge at its disposal. Art and literature in particular can prove to be an immensely valuable source of inspiration, as well as a way to reach people just as efficiently as mainstream media do. Because creation lies at their core, they know no match to their ability of opening new possibilities, and amidst a pervasive ideological net pretending that revolutions ceased to be possible, and that the last social changes we are allowed to hope for before finally reaching the end of History are taking a woman to the White House and giving more freedom to banks, corporations and their shareholders, it may be useful to remind people that alternatives still have room to exist.

[1] original quote: L’art est une chose privée, l’artiste le fait pour lui ; une œuvre compréhensible est produit de journaliste.”, Manifeste Dada.

[2] original quote: “L’art pour l’art, le divertissement d’un artiste solitaire, est bien justement l’art artificiel d’une société factice et abstraite.”, Discours de Suède.

[3] see the works of Lucien Goldmann, particularly The Hidden God: a study of tragic vision in the Pensees of Pascal and the tragedies of Racine, and Towards a Sociology of the Novel.

[4] original quote: “Tant qu’il existera, par le fait des lois et des mœurs, une damnation sociale créant artificiellement, en pleine civilisation, des enfers, et compliquant d’une fatalité humaine la destinée qui est divine ; tant que les trois problèmes du siècle, la dégradation de l’homme par le prolétariat, la déchéance de la femme par la faim, l’atrophie de l’enfant par la nuit, ne seront pas résolus ; tant que, dans certaines régions, l’asphyxie sociale sera possible ; en d’autres termes, et à un point de vue plus étendu encore, tant qu’il y aura sur la terre ignorance et misère, des livres de la nature de celui-ci pourront ne pas être inutiles.”

About the Author

Jan Wawel
I'm trying to get revenge for my failure as a poet by attacking the successful bourgeoisie.

1 Comment on "On the Political Essence of Art and Literature"

  1. Unlike art, vandalism is beautiful for what it is, not for what it represents.

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