Tuesday, March 6, 2007

A Discussion on Art and Politics

An Our Word Roundtable

We’re going to try something new here at Our Word – a roundtable discussion featuring some of our contributors.

The occasion for this symposium is a quote from Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker, and author of the blog The Rest Is Noise, which we link to here. In a wide-ranging discussion, we talk about the premise of the quote – that political opera is almost always of the left-wing variety – and segue into other topics: why liberals are predominant in the arts, whether or not political art is really art, the relationship between art and truth, the impact all of this has on culture and society, and the influence of corporate America.

The participants are Mitchell and Judith, the managing editors of Our Word, and contributing editor Drew. Those of you who are regular readers probably would figure it wouldn’t take much to get this group started, and you’d be right. We’ll start this multi-part discussion with the quote itself:

“Political opera—by which one almost invariably means politics of the near- to far-left varieties, right-wing classical composers being an elusive species—faces an obvious paradox. Opera houses draw a diverse public, but for financial support they lean heavily on mega-wealthy corporations and executives, whose labor practices and moral self-justifications would elicit new blasts of invective from the likes of Brecht and Steinbeck. Brecht wanted to use opera as a kind of Trojan horse, to enter the palaces of the upper classes and prick their conscience. Gordon, Korie, and the Minnesota Opera administration seem to have had a similar purpose in mind, smuggling a fairly savage attack on corporate indifference into yet another musicalization of a familiar book. Chances are that no minds or hearts will be changed, but you have to admire the brass of a composer who makes the line “It’s not my fault” a four-note echo of Beethoven’s Fifth.”

Mitchell: So what do we make of that?

Drew: Well, personally I like Beethoven's Fifth. [Laughter]

Mitchell: He calls Brecht the great politicizer of art. So it's all Brecht's fault. End of discussion. [Laughter]

Judith: It's a very thought-provoking article - he's a terrific writer. I don’t think anyone can disagree with what he said about political opera, or a lot of art for that matter, being left-wing. It’s true because it’s true. The question is why?

Drew: As I see it, there are several issues involved here. You’ve got the question as to whether or not it’s true that there’s a liberal bias in political opera – or other kinds of political art.

Mitchell: I think we’re all on board with that.

Drew: Then there’s the secondary questions – why is it this way, has it always been this way? What does this mean for art in general?

Mitchell: As to the why, I mentioned last week that I thought there was this idea of substituting self-satisfaction for actual accomplishment. And I thought one of the reasons for that was that our culture and our economy have changed the emphasis from manufacturing to service. So rather than actually getting something done, you find it easier to tear the other guy down. In this case liberals find it more important to make great pronouncements and lecture people than they do to create transcendental art. You know the old saying, “Those who can, do – those who can’t teach”? Same kind of thing, I think. It’s easier to talk about a problem or an issue than it is to do something.

Drew: So conservatives tend to look at manufacturing as accomplishing something, and they’re probably thinking, do you really accomplish the same kind of thing by, let’s say, acting? They would probably think not. Now, where do they get that mindset? To be honest, I think liberals feel the same way, deep down. What else to explain why they’re always getting involved in social causes? Maybe a lot of them really do care, but they’re also trying to justify the huge sums of money they make. The Protestant Work Ethic still exists to some extent in this culture, and so does liberal guilt. That’s the big thing driving them, liberal guilt.

Mitchell: Definitely.

Drew: And so they have this liberal guilt about being successful, about having boatloads of money, and they think they have to justify it somehow, they have to validate themselves because deep down they suspect they aren’t doing anything that’s really all that important. I don’t think conservatives have that same sense of guilt, and that might be why they don’t feel they have to assuage their consciences.

Judith: You hit on something there by talking about “transcendental.” For a work of art to truly be art, it has to be able to transcend its own time. So much of this political art we’re talking about is so topical – the artist has substituted political polemics for actual creation, which is I think what you were just saying – that when you look at it a few years down the line it just looks old and dated. It doesn’t have any real staying power. For it to truly be art, it has to have a sense of timelessness, of always being relevant in a way. Beautiful music will always be relevant because the chords it strikes resonate in us – it’s part of the natural rhythm of life. That’s why some art, even though it might have started out to be political, lives long after the political issue has faded away.

Mitchell: Well, and you know this because I do it around you all the time, I’m always talking about looking at things in context. You can’t remove something from the original context from which it came and expect to fully understand it. But by the same token, for art to be truly timeless, it has to be able to exist outside that context at the same time. Is that what you’re saying?

Judith: Exactly. Look at the Bauhaus movement in architecture. That was definitely a political statement, and I’m not sure it wasn’t an ideological political statement. It might have suited the times, but if you look at the buildings that came out of that era today they fall completely flat. They’re cold, gray, lifeless, without any kind of beauty. They look like prisons. They leave the observer totally unmoved. They’ve failed to live outside their own time – their context, as you put it.

Mitchell: Sounds like you're talking about a modern Catholic church. [Laughter]

Judith: But look at Verdi. His operas were extremely political. It wasn’t just the music he was interested in. He worked directly on the libretto to make sure it emphasized political points.

Mitchell: Sure, but Verdi wasn’t about to sublimate art to politics. While the political aspect was important, it was more important to him that it was a good piece of art, with music that sounded good that people would want to listen to. You have to keep in mind that a lot of these composers were working on commission – they couldn’t afford to make something that people wouldn’t buy tickets to. Verdi was an artist – he wanted something that was a work of art, not just a political screed. He was entertaining people, not just lecturing them.

Drew: And look at Verdi today. Or Puccini. Classics. Take Tosca – we don’t really have an appreciation for the political elements they were concerned with. We have to have them explained to us in the program notes. But how much does that matter? We don’t need to know about politics to appreciate the story – love, jealousy, political intrigue. Maybe he was making a statement by having Cavaradossi paint his painting in a church, but that’s not important for most of us. His music lives beyond his politics.

Judith: Does that mean you have to put some distance between yourself and the events someone is writing about before you can appreciate them? Does that mean an opera like Nixon in China will have more of a shelf life as we get further away from it as a historical event?

Drew: Well, I don’t know about that. I don’t think Nixon is a very good opera myself.

Judith: Man, I hope not. John Adams has to be one of the most boring composers around. His music might work well as background noise, but it just doesn’t go anywhere.

Mitchell: Adams, and Philip Glass. I see the Met is doing Satyagraha next season. I’m not sure I want to keep my Saturday afternoon open for that. [Laughter] You notice it’s not on their HD schedule.

Drew: The point is, you take a piece of crap like The Handmaid’s Tale, and the Minnesota Opera thought they were being very daring in putting that on. It’s hard to see that anyone’s really going to appreciate that as anything other than a political screed. Once it’s removed from its political environment, does anyone really think that’s going to be seen as a classic a hundred years from now? That’s not transcendent, it’s shrill hectoring.

Mitchell: I think liberals are just more political in general, their lives revolve around it. That’s not to say that there aren’t conservatives who are the same way.

Judith: We met enough of them when we were in politics.

Mitchell: Yeah. But so many liberals, they’re defined by their liberalism because for them there’s nothing else. I’ve talked about this before, about stand-up comics, especially the political ones, who get applause instead of laughs when they tell a joke. Now, the only time I think a stand-up should get applause is at the end of the act, when he’s going off stage. The rest of the time people should be laughing. But they tell these jokes, and they aren’t very funny. The audience applauds to show they’re in tune with what he’s saying, like, “Yeah, I agree with that!” They approve of the content, they agree with his viewpoint. But they’re not laughing, because he’s not funny.

Drew: You have to wonder how much you see that in political art. I mean, how many of these pieces get staged not because they’re any good, but because the producers agree with the ideology expressed in it? But if you’re staging productions not because of the artistic content but because of the political message, you’re going to appeal to a very narrow audience – the people who share that viewpoint. The rest of them, you’re going to turn off. And then they’re going to wonder why they don’t draw much of an audience, why there are so many empty seats and they have problems paying the bills.

Judith: Because of the liberal message?

Drew: Yeah, and because people ultimately want to be entertained. They don’t mind something with substance, I think a lot of people hunger for that. But they don’t want to be lectured to.

Mitchell: No, and that’s part of what I’m saying. You can do it one of two ways. You can either make a work of art that has a political message but is first and foremost an expression of art, or you can do something that is first and foremost a political lecture, really, with some tinkling in the background. And you can decide how you want it to be remembered.

Judith: Who was it, Sam Goldwin, who always said, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”

Mitchell: Yeah, exactly.

Drew: That’s part of taking back the culture. You look at some of the so-called art that’s out there today, whether we’re talking about political or religious, and the stuff that the conservatives come up with is so heavy-handed it isn’t even good. Some of these religious novels, for example, are just evangelistic screeds. They aren’t concerned with plot development or character development. All they want is to deliver a message. They’re very earnest, and sincere.

Judith: That’s about the most damning praise you can give.

Drew: Yeah. I’m sure the people who write this stuff mean well, but they’re not really concerned with creating a work of art. Same with paintings. You see the one of Jesus helping a kid hit a baseball, and I appreciate the feeling, but it’s all kitchy sentiment. It’s greeting card stuff, it belongs on the Hallmark Channel. It’s hardly Caraveggio. And art ought to appeal to more than just sentiment. It should appeal to the intellect as well.

Mitchell: But now you sound like you’re making a case for political opera.

Drew: No. That’s all the other direction – all intellect and no sentiment – or let’s say sensual, rather than sentiment. We’re talking about something that appeals to the senses, and political polemics thinly disguised as art doesn’t appeal to any sense other than anger. What I mean is that conservatives have to realize that getting into the arts means more than simply creating a piece based on an agenda. It may mean the absence of any political theme at all – that alone would distinguish it from the stuff a lot of liberals put out. Just don’t be so heavy-handed, is what I’m saying. Try to make something worthwhile, instead of playing a game that the liberals already play, and better than we do.


In part two of our roundtable discussion, we'll discuss the inspiration for art, the substance of political art, and more on the need for art to be timeless.


  1. Cathy here. In a previous post on film I commented, as Judith picked up here, questioning if art should be timeless. Specifically, I referenced some films that I think don't transcend their time or more specifically their intended message which was a mirror of their time.

    I'm going to be difficult again. Can one create art without politics? Or more generally without the artist's beliefs coming through? Is that even possible?

    Hey, do you ever think about podcasting your McLaughlin Group, er, roundtable?

  2. Great question. In my opinion, in the strictest sense of the word, you can't have art without politics, because you can't have art without the artist, and it's virtually impossible to remove politics completely from our DNA.

    However, having said that, I think it's important in this sense to remove politics from its normal association with ideology. As we discussed, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was a political act. I think oftentimes an act of defiance, an act that runs counter to the conventional, can be seen in political terms. And the phrase "office politics" seldom is cast in terms of ideological thought. In the sense that religion is a world view, much of the world's religious art would be thought of as a political statement.

    So, viewed in his way, I think it's difficult to imagine a work of art that does not, to a certain extent, contain the artist's politics.

    But, when the word "politics" is considered in light of today's common thought - ideological - then I think you can have non-political art, when you have an artist whose primary goal is to create a work of art rather than a political (or ideological) statement. But again, as you point out, you have to consider the piece outside the time of its creation. In that way, one could view Verdi's operas as non-political works because the political expression contained within is subserviant to the artistic expression.

    So maybe there is no such thing as art purely without politics, but I think you certainly can have art which does not carry a political agenda, and does not exist for a political purpose. I would, however, make no claim to this beina a universal truth!


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