You've Got Your Politics in My Art!

Politics' imperial cultural ambitions


As election day approaches, politics dominates the media world even more than usual. The notion of a media wall of separation between "news" and "entertainment" has no practical meaning anymore—and not just because of killjoy complaints about too much media space given to "insignificant" trivia such as celebutantes and trials that won't be establishing lasting Supreme Court precedent.

The reality is, given the minuscule degree to which any of us can make practical use, either to change our personal circumstances or the world around us, of even the straightest of straight news, the travails of world and national politics are as much little playlets or sprawling serial dramas for our entertainment and personal moral instructions as are any other work of popular culture. Our practical relations to the "real world" outside our own personal lives that "hard news" exposes us to are essentially the same as our relations to fictions.

If politics can profitably be seen as really entertainment, does it follow that entertainment can be profitably seen as really politics? In election season, the red-blooded American yearns for a world beyond the machinations of the petty tyrants who want to run our lives. The politically minded, though, even outside party politics per se, often love to pull as much of the world of entertainment/art/culture behind their wall as they can. It's a classic colonizing impulse; we strive to be a Man (or Person) Entire, and for many of us (the author does not excuse himself from this tendency) the exercise of the moral imagination required to understand and appreciate art is made easier and more pleasant, if only in a smug way, if we try to warmly embrace only that already snuggled tightly with our general worldview.

It's a game for left, right, and libertarian, this judging and categorizing the worth of entertainments high and low based on political and ideological standards—whether for the purposes of regulating them or merely to make sure the categories of us vs. them, as politics and ideology define them, remain clear-cut.

But the categories are usually more clear-cut than the cultural products we use to bracket them. While the American right wing, for example, spent decades deriding and fearing the politicization of the humanities that allegedly elevated nonentities to the canon based on modern notions of fairness to racial and gender minorities and pilloried the classics for their unalloyed propertied white male privilege, it still doesn't stop them from cobbling together lists of books and movies and pop songs with their worth categorized by the extent to which they support the listers', and the imagined readers', ideological values. The categories always make more sense to the listmakers than the artists—"Godzilla" by Blue Oyster Cult, a conservative anthem? Roll Over, Rachel Carson, and tell the Smog Monster the news.

Such hyping and promoting culture, whether high or low, for ideological team-building exercises inevitably downgrades the value of the cultural item qua cultural item—if that even matters to the politically minded canon builders. It was hard to escape the notion, at the height of Allan Bloom mania, that the American right valued the classics of Western art and philosophy—considered altogether, the Bible with Plato, Shakespeare with Hume, Dante with Montaigne, a jumble of human mental striving and storytelling that adds up to far more a loose patchwork quilt of chaotic loveliness than a decently tailored and elegantly fitted suit into which one could cram a unified worldview—not for what they meant as thought and beauty, but for how they could be used as cudgels in a "enemy of my enemy is my friend" bunker battle to the death.

No matter how hard they try, the artist cannot escape the pundit's net. One recent and telling case in point is a recent article by Sean Curnyn in the Weekly Standard that attempted to explain that Bob Dylan ain't no goddamn liberal.

Trying to shift the massive cultural figure of Dylan in any particular political direction is a task so difficult it seems to challenge everyone to try it; Dylan's greatest constant was a lack of settled authentic identity, despite a certain pop understanding of him as a "protest singer," a jacket he's been trying to escape since he was first fastened into it. Even at his most "political" his narratives were far more angry about individual acts of injustice than ones that had standardly political solutions, and post-Beatnik, post-electric Dylan has been mostly evading even that sort of story, except for the occasional lament for gunned-down gangsters or imprisoned pugilists and shows of annoyance with oil-selling Arabs. (Indeed, there's plenty of evidence that the best fitting ideological label for the modern Dylan is paleoconservative.)

So while there's a case to be made for Curnyn's thesis, he reduces it all to the most, not even political, but merely partisan level, and thus fails: his evidence for Dylan's non-liberalism doesn't even come up with, say, Dylan's very neocon allegorical defense of Israel's right to self-defense, "Neighborhood Bully" (a song which Dylan once slyly denied was political as it didn't support a political party—a blinkered definition of "political" Curnyn implicitly agrees with as he places great weight on Dylan's not appearing in an anti-Bush tour, and a seeming insult to Bill Clinton Dylan made in an interview, while not noting that Dylan performed at a 1993 Clinton inaugural event).

Dylan tries hard to make this sort of political appropriation of him difficult, but it scarcely matters. By his studied efforts to not seem concerned with what side people think he's on, he makes it all the easier for the Curnyn's of the world to attempt to body snatch him as ideological trophies for their side. While lately Dylan's larded his live sets with seemingly antiwar songs such as "John Brown" (about a wounded soldier returning from war disgusted with the jingoistic mother who encouraged him to go) or "Masters of War" (in which he tells arms manufacturers and merchants that he longs to "stand over your grave til I'm sure that you're dead"), even that song the gnomic Dylan suggested might be merely anti-arms merchants and not antiwar per se, insisting "there's no antiwar sentiment in that song," though it's hard to figure where the moral opprobrium attaching to selling arms comes from if it's not a carryover from moral opprobrium for war. Clearly, Dylan recognizes that it can only hurt an artist qua artist to be pinned down on worldly politics—that being held up as an exemplar of a specific political-ideological team may help the audience, but it's death to the artist.

Except when artists do the sidetaking themselves, gladly and proudly. A recent case in point in how at times the politics can make the art—and one that's a fun and funny hoot, if you agree that what it's laughing at is laughable—is a Gilbert and Sullivan-inspired (both musically and in its focus on parodying elements of mainstream political culture of its time) musical currently in its first run in Los Angeles, The Beastly Bombing. Despite its charms in songcraft, acting, and comedy, which are considerable, it fairly dares anyone who admires the current administration or the current war to like it.

It's about two pairs of terrorists—one domestic militia types, the other absurdly stereotypical Arabs—who meet while simultaneously planning to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge, find themselves united by their hatred of the Zionist Occupied Government, and through a series of farcical happenstance find themselves beloved guests in a White House ruled by a ridiculous quasi-Bush who gets political advice from a homo-eroticized Jesus and arbitrarily chooses to begin a war on Chad. ("Just the sound of it makes me mad.")

Beastly Bombing proves that the charm of light operetta music and a fair amount of sheer exuberant comic lunacy can make even the clearly partisan seem almost universal. But really, ultimately, only almost—it's hard to imagine even the most Gilbert and Sullivan-loving fan of Bush or the current war walking out of the show not grumbling, but that sort of offending a certain part of the possible audience is part and parcel of the artistic—and marketing—intentions of certain works of art. If it obviously ain't for them, why, it's all the more obvious it's for us, and that can help sell more tickets to us.

There's no reason art, whether high or low, can't be energized by the human emotions and stories that politics engenders—and while I maintain that appreciation of the complicated likes of a Dylan (or, god forbid, the "Western canon") is harmed by such political or ideological reduction, something like the Beastly Bombing relies on it to a large degree, and not to its detriment. Satire especially can generate quite a frictional charge from pushing against the densely sententious and sanctimonious—and often horrifically, absurdly inhuman—world of politics. At its most universally effective—the most successful example I can think of in modern America is Trey Parker and Matt Stone's Team America—the satire can be strengthened from providing strong jabs at multiple sides of a political fight, and not relying entirely on the "pat yourself on the back, audience" effect. That's the vibe that contaminates so many bits of pop culture, from Bill Hicks to Bob Roberts to Rage Against the Machine to American Beauty—that its main strength and appeal seems to be in encouraging and playing on the viewer's identification and appreciation of the viewpoint of the artist or satirist, and a smug recognition that audience and artist are brave soldiers together fighting against whatever force the art is attacking. By being genuinely silly-funny, Beastly Bombing charts a path out of the cloud of smug that envelopes the most annoyingly self-satisfied sort of "political parody."

I'm sure it's difficult to recognize what's going on, or to be bothered by it, when you are part of the audience being encouraged to pat yourself on the back—though I'm sure my admiration for, say, some of Tom Tomorrow's antiwar cartoons arises from this effect in large part.

And maybe that's all right, for me and for others. Looking askance at the politicization of art and culture—whether by segments of the audience or the culture makers itself—has its own built in complications and ironies. My attitude about the topic is certainly driven by my own libertarian ideological predilections that value those areas of human life beyond the endless, tedious games of power and privilege, of ginning up a supposed "national will" and imposing it on all of us, good and hard.

Ultimately, if I value the meta-libertarian principle of human liberty to use the materials of culture and the world for their own freely chosen ends, perhaps I ought to celebrate even the most tediously side-taking versions of cultural criticism—like this list of movies right-wingers are supposed to hate based on political causes to which their creators donated—as an example of our freedom as cultural consumers to seek our own happiness through seeking our own meaning through, in, and among the stuff of human culture.

A grim and blinkered insistence that you can only feel comfortable with art that is "on your side" means unnecessarily delimiting one's own moral imagination, as conservative godfather Russell Kirk might put it. But hey: the work remains untouched by anyone's interpretations of it; the songs of Bob Dylan remain what they are, no matter what I, Sean Curnyn, or even A.J. Weberman says about them.

Having meditated on the politicization of art without a conclusion that any ideological orientation can wholeheartedly embrace, I find myself trapped in my own little wall of smug, noting that, like that notorious "erotic politician," showman/shaman Jim Morrison, the politically obsessed—left, right, or libertarian—are afflicted with wanting the world, culture and all, and wanting it now. I can't help but cheer any artistic, or audience, impulse to not give assent to the political over the artistic, even if it means admiring politicized art in the face of a libertarian impulse to reject it.

Brian Doherty is a senior editor of Reason and author of Radicals for Capitalism, will be out early next year from PublicAffairs.