“Apolitical Art” and Other Fantasies

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I think Jason Guriel is a genius prose stylist, and as an editor he’s a gentleman and very sharp, but I’m not convinced by his polemic in The Walrus against self-consciously political art. Maybe Auden’s right that poetry makes nothing happen, but only if you define “poetry” (and “happen”) pretty narrowly. Art can make better political imagination happen. It can make greater clarity about the nature of things happen. Plato exiled the poets from his Republic, but Plato’s own poetry (e.g. The Republic!) made a hell of a lot of Western consciousness happen.

I share Jason’s impatience with sentimental odes to art’s politically redemptive power. It’s true that, as he says, “the degree to which one’s earnest message is on the right side of history isn’t enough to redeem a cliché image or rote expression.” But just because there’s loads of dumb talk about art out there, reams of facile politicking in and around it, doesn’t mean art should abdicate in the face of intolerable social problems. Dazzling style gives delight, which matters, but such virtuosity can be placed in the service of any end, and all ends aren’t equally defensible. You have to weigh them and choose.

Jason’s choosing not to choose, taking style as its own end, is a classic liberal move: an assertion of individual freedom (style) and achieved personal responsibility (craft), coupled with a rejection of noisy collectivist activisms — which, on closer inspection, turns out to be itself a highly activist politics in defense of the existing liberal order, a worldview that represents itself as the inevitable, the only rational basis for consensus. It elides the economic, cultural, historical reasons why many people can’t or won’t assent to that consensus, and why they might look to art for various kinds of help.

You could maybe defend Jason’s position, or one thematically related to it, by making the argument Pierre Bourdieu proposes about “art for art’s sake”: that it’s not at all apolitical but instead represents a stronghold of autonomy from an all-pervading market logic. The market tends to assimilate most of what we’d consider Western art creation, though, so I’m not sure that’s a way out. Maybe the more productive thing would be to argue for subtler, smarter political art. Even if apolitical art were desirable, it isn’t possible.

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