Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

Art vs. Politics

Amy McDaniel over at HTMLGIANT is talking about the aesthetic versus the political in art, and she uses this as part of the basis of her argument.

Politics are terminal. They are finite. We might say we are interested in raising questions when we talk about gender or race or other categories that are defined and upheld by politics. But politics is really about finding answers. This has its place, but its place is not in art.

I think this is a very limited way to think about politics, for starters, and so I have problems with the rest of her argument. I don’t think politics are terminal or finite, especially when we’re looking at the political in terms of social issues, and the effects of privilege. I can’t imagine a time where there won’t be some group which is othered, and where another is privileged above all others.

And I don’t think politics is about finding answers. In practice, few answers ever come out of politics, at least in practical terms. Politics is always a matter of negotiation, of argument, of pushing and shoving between groups, often violently. But about answers? No. Agreements, perhaps, mostly temporary, often open to interpretation by the involved parties, and often broken and renegotiated as the times require, but never answers.

Because I look at politics that way–as an ongoing negotiation rather than a search for and finding of answers–it’s odd that I find some common cause with part of her next statement:

Artists know that finding real answers is not possible in this world. The failure of politics to recognize this fact is why the lasting thing from any culture has been its expression.

It’s the first half I agree with–artists who claim they’ve found real answers are always boring, because they have a limited view of the human condition. And there are politicians who fail to recognize that there are no real answers, no question–the last President was a perfect example of this. His unwavering certainty that what he was doing was the right thing led him to make disastrous decisions, many of which are still causing great harm all around the world. But that’s not a failure of politics–that’s a failure of a politician.

But there are many politicians and activists and citizens who know that politics offers no real answers, that there will always be trade-offs and compromises, victories and setbacks, and always, always arguments. There will hopefully be a next day, but never a settled answer.

But here’s the funny thing. In the end, I agree with what McDaniel is saying.

I’m interested in the bigger things, more mysterious, more permanent things. A bigger thing is having empathy for someone you thought you had nothing in common with. A bigger thing is seeing the world through unshaded eyes. A bigger thing is realizing you are powerless to change any of it, but that you still have the will, courage, and stamina to muddle through, most likely for someone else’s sake. A bigger thing is realizing you are not alone. That you are not the only person built this way but that the world won’t stop calling you a freak.

The thing is, for me, that’s politics. Empathy is at the heart of a progressive politics, of widening the in-group, of seeing the world through unshaded eyes and helping to remove those shades from other people’s eyes, often (but not exclusively) by using art as a medium for communication. The personal is the political and all that. And given that, I think that art is the most political statement one can make.


May 4, 2010 - Posted by | politics | , , ,


  1. I feel like this is comparing poetry to prose, or singing to mime, or photography to painting. We work through the world through language and we do it in a way that is more or less communicative, persuasive, emotional, meaningful, insightful, stubborn, whatever, and sometimes it takes the form of art and sometimes it takes the form of advocacy and sometimes advocacy rises to art and sometimes art rises to advocacy. You can be as much of a partisan hack through art as you can through politics, and in either realm you can be a true believer, or a nuanced thinker, or whatever. They’re just different arenas into which one’s hand may be thrown. My experience is that few humans resist throwing their hands into both of these not to mention a few others.

    Comment by amy | May 4, 2010 | Reply

  2. What rubs me the wrong way about Amy M.’s argument is that she seems to be suggesting that art is outside or above ethics, that making good art supercedes all other considerations. And I don’t agree. It wouldn’t be okay to kill people or torture animals for the sake of art, and I think a culture that celebrates racist or sexist art should also be questioned.

    Comment by egabbert | May 5, 2010 | Reply

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