In·ter·punct shares book reviews, art news, lit theory and daily musings from the intimate lives of writers. It seeks to highlight, in an edgy and sprightly fashion, the poetic moments that punctuate our lives.
Do you hear that? That sound. The sound of commentators compressing the universe of art onto a 1996 USB. Once it was a whisper. Now it’s growing louder. Somebody gave it a megaphone and a million Twitter followers. And what does it say now that it has the audience’s attention? “Art is always political—by definition, you see.”
“By definition.” Is this true? The marriage of arts and politics does have its own Wikipedia page. A sure enough sign that the proclamation deserves at least the minimum of internet detective snooping. A few smacks on the keyboard, a quick click on “I’m feeling lucky,” and what do I find? A small list of names as recognizable as “Oprah” who have decided art is invariably political:
Who says intelligent people can’t say stupid things?
“Art is always political” is bullshit (in the sense of philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s “bullshit.”) It’s a statement in which both parties would be happier after the divorce. Nonsense for Goodreads quotes. Nonsense that has chained the perception of art to a maze, as the minotaur. It declares that when the hurricane of politics fails to evaporate artists must have an umbrella for their mayor, congressman, president; typically in the shape of a middle finger—or a metaphor for one. Copy and paste ad nauseum.
The origin story of “art is always political” isn't as certain as knowing Star Wars movies will be released until the day I die (of old age). But history always offers clues.
It's no secret that 20th Century theorists couldn’t stop themselves from objectifying the world. How else could they believe they had arrived at eternal Truth? That meant reifying even the qualia of my individual experience: sacrificing the ineffable for the easy. As part of that plan, theory put art under the knife to fit it in a bow-tied box labeled with a crayon. “Cut off all that excess! This must conform to count!”
Therein lies what “art is always political,” says: that artworks are just highway markers leading to some intellectual statement, some neatly cataloged epiphany: propaganda with an agenda.
It’s a dangerous sentiment balancing on stilts made of yarn. Best served as spittle from the mouth of a pundit on Fox & Friends rather than any commentary about aesthetic appreciation. “Well, you see, Rivera’s Marxist tendencies…” It proposes that appreciating a poem is nothing more than marking your book with arrows pointing to references to The Decline of the West.
Talk about decline.
“Art is always political” ignores the fundamental experience of encountering any artwork: the evolving dialogue that escapes a definition buzzing around the word “is.” In reality, nobody (who’s human, at least) studiously sorts through symbols—unconsciously or consciously—to analyze a song, a poem, a painting, a building on their first encounter. Paintings aren’t hung in a lab. Political ripples aren't automatically plucked. That's not art speaking. That’s tarring and feathering the Pietà.
In reference to Dante, T.S. Eliot wrote that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” A quote taken out of context so often, nobody knows the context; that being Eliot's preference for a childlike naivete. The less gravity I shove down artwork’s throat, the farther I can jump.
Hearing Debussy’s Claude de Lune or Biggie Smalls’ Everyday Struggle brings me into direct contact with my immediate experience, with the totality of my being. Now. Dasein. My cumulative reality. Something the political only shares a sliver of. Only the four windows of my sedan are privy to my pencil neck miming lyrics in traffic. Great art is the presence of Buddha: absorption in the entirety of the magic circle that is the game called life.
In·ter·punct shares interviews, expositions, poems and daily musings from the intimate lives of writers. Like the interpunct, which is a middot used to separate syllables, this blog seeks to highlight, in an edgy and sprightly fashion, the poetic moments that punctuate our lives.