Don’t Go Mixin’ Politics

It has always bothered me when a well-loved (by me) singer or actor decides to use the fame they have gained through art-making for political ends.  I don’t necessarily fault them for feeling like they ‘should’ do something to better the world given their money and influence.

It just makes me….want to classify them as something other than artists.  Activists, maybe?  Activism is a productive and rewarding way to spend a life.  But, it’s not art making.  And I’m not sure the two can be combined without tainting either the activism or the art.

I just finished James Joyce’s, ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man‘ and although admittedly this is a better book to study than to read, I found his views on the philosophy of art very enlightening.

He says, ‘The feelings excited by improper art are kinetic, desire or loathing.  Desire urges us to possess, to go to something; loathing urges us to abandon, to go from something.  These are kinetic emotions.  The arts which excite them, pornographical or didactic, are therefore improper arts.  The esthetic emotion…is therefore static.  The mind is arrested and raised above desire or loathing.’

Proper art then, according to Joyce, is one that creates stasis in the mind of the viewer.  It does not promote action or hatred, desire or loathing, it’s not propoganda or oversimplification.  It is complex enough to force one to think about the piece before reacting to it, to try to understand it before making judgments.

Johnny Cash, after describing the depressing fate of a folk singing group that disintegrated after a brawl over politics, says, ‘Now this should be a lesson, if you plan to start a folk group.  Don’t go mixing politics with the folks songs of our land.  Just work on harmony and diction.  Play your banjo well.  And if you have political convictions, keep them to yourself.’

What’s your opinion on the mixing of art-making and politics?   How easy/difficult is it to combine the two?
Have you done it?  How?

***And speaking of successfully (?) mixing the two, Anne Lammott is featured in last week’s podcast of ‘This American Life.’ Go listen, you won’t regret it.

***And I highly recommend the ‘Writer’s Almanac,‘ a podcast hosted by Garrison Keillor as a great resource for new poetry and information about authors (and a great listen).  It’s short and succinct and if you like to read or write, it might be worth a try.

25 thoughts on “Don’t Go Mixin’ Politics

  1. I find it unsavory when musicians and actors use their celebrity to promote political agendas– just because they are famous doesn’t mean they understand international security!

  2. I find it human for celebrities to exercise their rights as citizens to speak out on issues they are passionate about. It is my right to ignore them when I don’t agree with them.

    I’ve just finished reading State of Fear where Michael Crichton does just that and ruins an otherwise exciting story. And where would we be without Ayn Rand. Even if we don’t agree with her pseudo philosophy, she did write some interesting polemics–I mean stories.

    Are you saying Ronald Reagan should have stayed out of politics? Anytime he said anything I knew anything about he was wrong.

  3. There are times I find myself having the same knee-jerk reaction. Especially with musical artists I love (Indigo Girls, John Mayer..). I think, “I just want to hear pretty sounds, I don’t want to feel attacked because my political views don’t agree with theirs.” But then I remember my own limited experience as a visual artist.

    Art is a way to explore. The visual artist explores ideas and concepts with images. Sometimes the images are jarring enough that the artwork is what Joyce stated as producing a feeling of loathing. Some artists intentionally seek this intense reaction in order to get the viewer to really think about and perhaps re-evaluate their views. In this world where so many people follow popular culture (just because they see it on TV) I think getting people to think more deeply about their views is a good thing.

    Of course what I am afraid also happens all too often is that because someone is a good actor, as well as handsome and rich (George Clooney) the public will take their advice on politics. I don’t blame George Clooney for voicing his opinion, I blame the public for embracing it as divine revelation.

    Another way art is helpful in the political realm is by presenting a situation or thought in a new way. Getting the viewer to consider the issue from an angle they may not have found on their own. Don’t be so afraid of your views being questioned that you loose all capacity to ponder another’s viewpoint.

    Where another problem arises is when we insist on the supremacy of our views and pronounce judgements on those who feel differently than us. I love to say, “I’ll just have to agree to disagree with you.” While I may not necessarily be happy about some political tides it still is a matter of agency at an individual level.

  4. I also think everyone has the right to voice their viewpoint, however there are limits to what I will listen to.
    A few years ago the country group Dixie Chicks was in Europe,and at a concert expressed their conviction that they are embarrassed to be Americans, along with other venomous and hateful opinions. Left to wonder why they felt that way, and why they did not choose to become citizens of another country I felt that I could no longer buy the music of a group that was such a poor example of an American. This is MY right as a citizen.
    I think we need to make OUR voices heard as well. It is not as easy for us, but is even more important to “stand for truth and righteousness”. This is one reason I blog-to use my voice for good. The run of the mill citizen doesn’t have millions of dollars nor the public visibility that “stars”do, but we can make a difference through the ways we express our support of, or opposition to current public opinion.

  5. I also think everyone has the right to voice their viewpoint, however there are limits to what I will listen to.

    A few years ago the country group Dixie Chicks was in Europe,and at a concert expressed their conviction that they are embarrassed to be Americans, along with other venomous and hateful opinions. Left to wonder why they felt that way, and why they did not choose to become citizens of another country I felt that I could no longer buy the music of a group that was such a poor example of an American. This is MY right as a citizen.

    I think we need to make OUR voices heard as well. It is not as easy for us, but is even more important to “stand for truth and righteousness”. This is one reason I blog-to use my voice for good. The run of the mill citizen doesn’t have millions of dollars nor the public visibility that “stars”do, but we can make a difference through the ways we express our support of, or opposition to current public opinion.

  6. Actors, etc. should be allowed to voice their opinions, but they should also be considerate enough in doing so that they’re not demonizing those who disagree, simply for disagreeing. It boils down to civility, IMHO… I kind of think we should all be “activists” if we feel the need, although there’s also an appropriate time and place for almost every discussion. :-)

    The easiest contrast for me to draw is between Rosie O’Donnell and Ellen DeGeneres – individuals with whom I disagree on policy. Ellen is civil: she can state her opinion and speak to people she disagrees with, (and so she’s still on the air – yay!); whereas every time Rosie opens her mouth, she slams those who disagree with her policy preferences as racists/homophobes/haters/stupid/etc.

    So… I choose to support Ellen, and I choose not to support Rosie, because I choose to support those who are respectful of others. And that’s part of our fundamental freedoms of association, contract, etc., with market functioning and all, LOL…

    Also, to paraphrase a rather cynical saying, “political opinion on your part does not necessitate a change of opinion on my part.” I can’t separate my politics from who I am and what I honestly, deeply believe. It’s all integrated for me; and so, while condescension and irrationality bother me, I kind of anticipate that others’ lives are probably just as integrated. That eliminates a lot of surprise on my part, although my freedom of association, etc. still stand ;-).

  7. I don’t want to take the human out of the star, so I don’t mind when they speak their opinions. Two things bother me, however. One, when the media picks up their opinions and sells it as headlining news (does the world really need to know how Pam Anderson and Lindsay Lohan feel about Sarah Palin? Free of charge?) and two, when they use an entertainment venue to share their opinions. Concerts…plays…theaters…where people pay money to listen to music or a show isn’t the time to say, “Down with the president!” or even “Free Tibet!” Buy an ad on the radio or TV like everyone else has to do. It’s why I roll my eyes when the Oscars or MTV awards shows turn political. That’s not what we’re payin’ ya to do! Now dance.

    When celebrities truly care about issues and investigate them and use their fame to draw attention to something that’s important to them, whether it’s about politics or something else, I actually admire them for worrying about something…anything besides their own ego and fame.

  8. Are we talking about people who use their stardom (gained from their art) to promote an agenda or people who use their art to promote an agenda? Or both? Because it seems a lot easier to ignore the former than the first. Meaning, if I don’t want to hear Susan Sarandon rant on about this or that it’s easy–I don’t watch E or the nightly news. But when I go to a movie expecting to be entertained and instead all I get is repeatedly hit over the head with an agenda (Wall-E comes to mind) well then, I’m not happy.

  9. I’m more bothered by art as propaganda than I am by individual artists voicing their opinions. They’re certainly entitled to them, even though they get inordinate attention for them.

    I’m more bothered (a lot bothered, actually) by art that is political or, as Maralise said, kinetic, in some way or another. I feel that way about some (not all) Mormon Pop-Stars, who tend to manipulate sacred things for personal gain.

    Having a husband with loose ties to the film industry, the first thing he always looks for in any piece of film is what the message is. There is very rarely a benign movie made with absolutely no over-arching message to share — whether for good or ill.

  10. I actually am grateful when people in the spotlight make a stand on something they believe… I just wish it was always what I believe…

    I guess I like it when they are doing good versus reaking havoc.

    But that is all subjective, isn’t it?

  11. I honestly do NOT see what the big deal is.

    Whether you’re Sean Penn or Chuck Norris, you’re still entitled to an opinion. It’s hardly their personal fault that the media picks up their opinion and runs it ad nauseum on the crawler.

    Who cares? Agree or disagree, their being famous doesn’t take away their right to engage in whatever cause they deem just. I’m not qualified to say where the line between politics and art lies, and neither are most of them.

    But I love me the Dixie Chicks, especially when we agree.

  12. I don’t think I structured my post well enough to be clear. My fault. Here’s my point: in my opinion, combining art and politics oversimplifies the art and turns it into a means to an end (inspiring kinetic action instead of stasis).

    Now, the most obvious examples of this are thinly veiled propogandistic films like Happy Feet (again, not that I necessarily disagree with their message but I do disagree with this piece being presented as art when clearly that’s not its purpose).

    A lesser example is when ‘artists’ (actors, singers, etc…) use their fame/power that they gained from art making in order to promote political ends. This is a loose example and I should have used the first example in my post. Oh well. But, in order to be clear, these artists absolutely have a right to speak their mind and use their power for certain ends, however, I do believe it can change their status as artists (because I think their ability to create stasis in the viewer is lessened by the fact that they’re actively promoting other ends that do not create stasis).

    And again, activism (or the act of creating kinetic action in others) is a fine and upstanding profession and passion and hobby. BUT, it is not art making. In fact, the two fields are very much opposites if placed in terms of Joyce’s theories. And in my opinion, when the two are combined, it sullies the art, changes its mission; dismissing its inherently powerful qualities replacing them with a political agenda. And I think that devalues art and art making. And THAT is ultimately what I oppose.

  13. Mara–I agree with you. And it doesn’t even matter if it is an agenda with which I agree (or not). When it’s done heavy handedly–when I see the agenda overriding art’s intrinsic value (the simple act of creation, of revealing truth)–the art loses some meaning and value for me.

  14. Art is art is art. Personally, when I approach art, I try to look objectively at the individual piece, rather than at the artist. I really could care less that the artist has an opinion about politics, it doesn’t necessarily change the art for me.

    Honestly, If I were a musician, I would probably promote my opinion on stage. Who better to preach to than a captive audience.

    I agree with Carina, I don’t see what the big deal is.

  15. If you’re going to say art and politics shouldn’t ever touch how do you determine what is “art” and what is “politics”. Writing is an art. Should we never write about politics? Should artists not paint pictures of families? Because as we all know what “family” means is a hot political issue.

    If you don’t like that Happy Feet has an agenda, don’t watch it. Art can, and often does, serve more than one purpose (referring to your example of Happy Feet being art and politics). There are “evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days” (Doctrine and Covenants 89:4). This is one reason we are taught the gospel, so we can decide for ourselves what to partake of, art included. But it is still up to the individual to make that choice. IMHO, saying that a certain issue is taboo to the art world is ridiculous. It is censorship.

  16. I don’t believe anyone here–least of all Maralise–is promoting censorship.

    I can only speak for myself and all I am saying is that when the agenda takes precedence over the art–regardless of the issue–the art loses something for me personally.

  17. Ian–I try to separate the artist from the piece as well. Good point. But I stand by my opinion that it is a delicate balance and one that can easily tip in the direction of sullying their art through trying to get people to ‘act’ as a result of their piece instead of trying to create stasis.

    jendoop–I pointed out what the difference between what art ‘does’ to the viewer (creates stasis) and what activism does (creates kinetic action) so I guess that’s how I determine the difference. So, for example, if you’re writing about politics in order to raise the mind of the viewer above loathing or desire, then that could be considered art. If you’re trying to get someone to vote a certain way on an issue, that is activism. You can write about politics in a piece that would be considered art according to Joyce’s definition, but the result of your writing must create a stasis. If it moves someone to a certain action, then that would not be art. It would be propoganda or editorial. Both of which have their place, but not in art.

  18. I’m with you, Mara. For some commenters, the philosophical argument isn’t coming through clearly for whatever reason. (not blaming you, or them, just saying there’s an obvious disconnect)

    What I’m thinking about, though, is the fact that artists can’t control how people react to their art. Some might see political statements in art where none were intended. So what art does to the viewer isn’t always a quantifiable thing.

    But I agree that deliberate activism can muddy the aesthetic waters. Art evokes–it doesn’t manipulate. I’d never thought about it in terms of kinesis vs. stasis. Interesting.

  19. I’m a photographer and I would never use my venue as such to put forth a political agenda. Quite frankly I find it offensive when other artists do. People come to me because they want art. Not commentary.

  20. Mara, I’m intrigued by your ideas here. But I’m curious what you’d say about the long tradition of mingling art and politics? It goes back at least as far as the Aeneid, which is basically Virgil proclaiming how wonderful Rome and the Romans are, asserting their divine right to rule the world. The fact that it’s essentially propaganda doesn’t mean it’s not great poetry. Reading it now, it is a static piece of art. But it was not intended that way at all; it was intended to earn Virgil’s keep and convince the literate world of Rome’s greatness. It had all kinds of political agenda to it. I’m thinking Dante’s Commedia was pretty political too, although it’s been so long since I studied it that I don’t remmeber the specifics.

    Here I confess the gaps in my knowledge; I can’t think off the top of my head of another politically pandering work of classic literature, though I’m sure they exist (it’s been a long time since college). But here’s the gist of what I’m saying: whether or not they realize it, artists with a political agenda are participating in a tradition of politically motivated art that’s millenia old. Today, we see classic art out of its original context, and therefore removed from the hot-button issues of its day (Ooh! Milton! Another one! He published all kinds of political pamphlets, and was very involved in the politics of his day). But many of those writers and artists were involved in politics, and their art reflected that, even if it’s not as obvious to us today.

  21. But art is commentary. Every picture tells a story, every writer says something, every actor brings a bit of himself to the character.

    Sometimes an artist may be commissioned to produce something that he doesn’t agree with, but it still says something, whether it’s about himself or those that pay him.

    I think artists have every right to voice their opinions. As a society we have taken away so much from famous people and demanded they give more (think paparazzi). To suggest that they just stand around looking pretty is an insult.

    I may not always agree with them, and yes, most of the time I wish Rosie would just shut up because she is so rude, abusive and demeaning to those who disagree with her, but I can always turn the channel.

  22. I think all art has a message, but also think that there’s a continuum from art to propaganda which depends on how effective the art really is as art. (Where any piece falls on the continuum is, of course, an extremely subjective question.) And, like Lucy said, I AM annoyed when I’m expecting a certain type of art or entertainment and the artist breaks the proscenium and wastes my time by promoting a cause that’s not integral to the art. I’m also usually annoyed by celebrity activists just because I usually find them to be ill-informed and obnoxious. But some such can still be great artists when they’re speaking someone else’s lines and being skillfully directed.

    I can think of examples of works on both ends of the art-to-propaganda spectrum. One movie that I think definitely succeeds as art is “Million Dollar Baby.” But I still dislike the film because, in spite of its effectiveness as art, I disagree with its premise. My sister found a quote from (or maybe heard an interview with) a quadriplegic after that film came out in which the quadriplegic essentially said, “Why does everyone assume my life’s not worth living? Of COURSE I want to live!” So I guess I wouldn’t say that Clint Eastwood “shouldn’t” use his art to promote his views, or that to try to promote a viewpoint necessarily destroys the artistic value of a work — I would just say that in some intances I disagree with the views and therefore dislike the art.

  23. Kathryn’s comment contained a key word for me: “manipulate”

    A writer can tell a story (or an artist can create art) that elicits understanding and empathy in me for a character whose experiences and/or views are different from mine. If it feels honest and genuine and true to me I find myself moved and enlightened.

    But if I in any way feel manipulated or, if anything in the medium seems contrived by an agenda then all I am is annoyed. It feels disingenuous and I don’t appreciate it as much at all.

  24. Emily M–good points. Let me explicitly say that art (as defined by Joyce) containing political themes/commentary CAN be done. I even asked the question if the readers felt that they had ‘done’ it in any of their writing.

    BUT, I think it’s extremely difficult and takes a very skilled writer/painter/singer/artist to do so. Creating stasis is difficult enough, creating stasis while talking about politics is close to impossible. If a writer of the past/present has done it, kudos. But, I think we would all agree that there are many people who ‘try’ it. Unsuccessfully. And my commentary was mainly about that group.

    Zina–YES. “I think all art has a message, but also think that there’s a continuum from art to propaganda which depends on how effective the art really is as art. (Where any piece falls on the continuum is, of course, an extremely subjective question.)”

    As the comments on this post start to slow down, I’ll share my final thoughts. I think all of us would agree that ‘art’ is used frequently as propaganda (Joyce also adds that art is improperly used for ‘didactic’ purposes and although I agree with him, I didn’t want to get into that in this post).

    I think we would also all agree that propogandistic art is manipulative by its very nature. One way to understand why propoganistic art is an improper way to affect the viewer is by using the aesthetic philosophy of Joyce (that of art creating stasis, while improper art creating kinetic action in the viewer).

    As art is used by many people for many different purposes, I think it is vital to create one’s own hearty philosophy of art so as not to be manipulated by poorly done pieces (whether they’re over-sentimentalized, or used as propoganda, or just simply poorly written/performed). Because art is a valuable part of our society and even when it is done poorly, is very powerful.

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