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Enslaving Art to Politics
'Macbeth', Act I, Scene 3, the Weird Sisters, Henry Fuseli, 1783

Enslaving Art to Politics

The New York Times wants politics to dominate artistic imagination. But politicizing art only destroys it.

Daniel Ross Goodman

It was disheartening to see the New York Times publish a review of Salman Rushdie’s new essay collection, Languages of Truth, which argues for precisely the sort of politicization of literature that so many literary greats throughout history would have abhorred. Among the many injurious arrows that the Times flings at Rushdie in its ruthless review of Mr. Rushdie’s new book is the charge that Rushdie is a novelist with “very specific political investments,” along with the equally problematic assumption that a writer need always have “intentions” and “political concerns” when releasing a book.

The first charge sidesteps the fact—raised only briefly by the review—that Mr. Rushdie was compelled to enter the political sphere in order to defend his writing (and his life) from Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s calls for his murder in 1989. The second charge perniciously casts writing and literature as politics by other means. The best novelists, like all great artists, are not narrow-minded agenda-driven partisans but adventurers in the unbounded universe of the human imagination, who, through their fictions, help us better perceive vital truths about ourselves and our reality.

The entanglement of politics and the arts is a very old one. As we learned in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent exhibit on art and politics during 16th-century Florence, “The Medici: Portraits & Politics, 1512—1570,” politicians have used artists to promote their political agendas for centuries.

From the employment of Hans Holbein the Younger by King Henry VIII of England to the employment of Diego Velázquez by King Philip IV of Spain, to Napoleon’s patronage of Jacques-Louis David in France and John F. Kennedy’s engagement of Robert Frost to read a poem at the 1961 inauguration (thereby unofficially establishing the post of U.S. poet laureate), the use of art by politicians has become an art in itself. Yet the fact that politicians have used art to further their political agendas, and that artists like Velázquez have produced masterpieces with the support of state patronage, do not mean that artists should actively seek political and state support for their art. Nor do they, or the always-high stakes of politics, mean that artists should deliberately politicize their art or let it be dominated by political concerns.

Some of our greatest artists have had fervent political passions. Dante, Milton, Michelangelo, Beethoven, Thomas Mann, Camus, Cesare Pavese, and Joan Miró were all devoted to liberty and active opponents of authoritarianism. James Baldwin, Pablo Neruda, Maya Angelou, and Gabriel García Márquez were animated by the struggle for justice and equal rights. Many such artists sacrificed because of their political convictions. Some—Dante, Mann, Michelangelo, Neruda, Miró—were driven into exile because of their politics. Pavese was imprisoned.

Yet what made them great artists rather than just exemplary political figures, like Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., and what makes their art stand the test of time, is that they were first and foremost committed to the creation of beautiful, affecting works of music, painting, poetry, and prose. Undoubtedly, their political concerns often permeated their art. Dante, in Inferno, spends significant time devising hellish tortures for his political enemies (such as their tears becoming frozen inside their eyes) while sardonically and bitterly bemoaning the political direction taken by his native Florence (“Rejoice, O Florence, since thou art so great / That over sea and land thou beatest thy wings / And throughout Hell thy name is spread abroad!”). Mann’s characters in The Magic Mountain engage in heated, extensive political debates. Camus’ The Plague can be read as a political parable. And Miró drew inspiration from his opposition to Francoist Fascism and his desire for Catalan independence.

It is crucial, however, to remember this about politically tinged works like The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, The Magic Mountain, the Eroica symphony, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Giovanni’s Room, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Miró’s landscapes: While politics may have influenced certain aspects of their art, at no point did politics override or dominate the art. Dante is careful to make the disclosures of his political positions in the Comedia incidental to—rather than the motivating force behind—his primary mission: the creation of a new, trailblazing style of poetry in the Tuscan dialect that could bring together the classical inheritance of Greece and Rome and the monotheistic theological tradition of the Bible within a single epic literary work. Beethoven’s admiration for what he saw as Napoleon’s love of liberty and democracy (at least before the Corsican conqueror crowned himself Emperor of the French) galvanized some of the grandeur in the Third Symphony’s first and final movements. Beethoven even dedicated the initial version of his score to Napoleon, but the composer did not write the symphony to advocate Napoleon’s political program. After he learned that Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor, he simply removed the now-embarrassing dedication.

True, Camus’ The Plague can be read as a political parable denouncing totalitarianism; but it can also be read as an existentialist meditation on death and mortality. Most of all, though, it is an engrossing—and, after 2020, a highly relevant—story about a plague, a pandemic, quarantines, and medical heroism. Even Philip Roth, a staunch liberal and avowed opponent of President George W. Bush, vociferously disavowed speculation that he had written The Plot Against America as a political allegory about the Bush-Cheney Administration, insisting to the New York Times that he had not written the novel as “a roman à clef to the present moment” even if he did understand that “literature is put to all kinds of uses” once a work is out of the author’s hands.

Conversely, literature suffers, at least from an artistic perspective, when it is written to promote a specific political agenda. In politicized works, characters become mouthpieces for political points of view rather than the kinds of fully-fleshed human beings that form the lifeblood of literature. In the same way, the plots of such politicized works are driven less by the momentum of the story than by the need to advance a certain ideology. Works like Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and the Fountainhead suffer from these liabilities. The ideological arguments Rand makes in her novels are more compelling (or more deplorable, depending on one’s political leanings) than the stories and characters themselves. In the same way, today we see Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin as being more significant as a work of moral and political advocacy than as a great work of literary art.

There is nothing wrong with taking strong political and moral stances in written works. On the contrary, we are always in need of works of moral and political advocacy and writers who can marshal arguments for the causes of liberty, equality, justice, and peace. Some of our greatest literary artists have engaged in this type of political advocacy. Dante’s De Monarchia, Milton’s Areopagitica, Mann’s The Coming Victory of Democracy, Baldwin’s essays, and Camus’s Resistance, Rebellion, and Death and Reflections on the Guillotine are some of the most important and effective works of political advocacy that any writer, artist or not, has ever produced. When the great writers sought to advance their ideologies, however, they did so through political treatises, not politicized novels or poems, because they knew that the politicization of art is as lethal to literature as dullness and cliché. George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 may be the only exceptions here (and just barely so) that prove the rule.

As Mr. Rushdie writes in the volume’s opening essay, “Wonder Tales”:

The fantastic has been a way of adding dimensions to the real, adding fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh dimensions to the usual three; a way of enriching and intensifying our experience of the real…by unleashing the fictionality of fiction, the imaginativeness of the imagination, the dream songs of our dreams, can we hope to approach the new, and to create fiction that may, once again, be more interesting than the facts.

The greatest threat to such fictionality and imaginativeness is the politicization of art and fiction. This destructive injection of politics and ideology into literature has been the bane of Mr. Rushdie’s existence, as well as the continuing blight of our literary culture; and the Times, which is apparently more concerned with what it perceives to be Mr. Rushdie’s “impoverished political imagination” than with his opulent literary imagination, perpetuates this harmful mixing of realms in its curiously combative takedown of Mr. Rushdie’s book.

If we are to have a literature in the twenty-first century and beyond that cares deeply about literary art and not just about the art of politics, we need more books like Rushdie’s Languages of Truth that sing the dream songs of fictionand more, not fewer, writers like Dante, Milton, Mann, and García Márquez, who radiate the imaginativeness of the imagination.

Daniel Ross Goodman is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Salzburg and a contributor to the Washington Examiner. He is author of Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Wonder and Religion in American Cinema (2020) and the novel A Single Life (2020).

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