Monday, January 01, 2007

Artistic Discourse

I just found this weeks-old post by Fernando Téson through Chris Bertram. Fernando objects to political art because it doesn't allow for rational disagreement.
However, political art is a special form of discourse failure. Art is a type of concrete imagery, and as such it evokes a “fact” that may activate default theories in the audience. Those willing to challenge the political stances represented by the artifact have to overcome the suggestive power of beauty.

Thus art isn't playing fair by being emotional and beautiful. (Or funny, as he complains about satire.) Yet what effort at political discourse doesn't appeal to our emotions? Many of the commenters to Fernando's post point out the rhetorical efforts as old as Cicero. But what I think Fernando is really missing is the fact that most political art doesn't evoke concrete facts. The point of art is that it doesn't have the same type of logic as rational dialog. Thus, it can evince contradictory positions at the same time, forcing the audience to see things from two or more perspectives. The audience will not agree with all those perspectives, but may have more understanding and more nuance regarding their own positions. John Scalzi made another point about this, the approach that the political artist makes:
To the extent that one decides to get into politics in one's science fictional work -- and the question of whether this is a good idea at all is a discussion so immense and knotty and exhausting that I'm not even going to bother with it at the moment -- there are primarily two ways to go about it: You can build a monument or you can build a room (yes, these are metaphors. Work with me). If you build a monument, what you're doing is putting your politics and polemics in the center of your reader's attention and basically making him or her deal with them on your terms. The politics aren't accessible and aren't debatable; as a reader you deal with them or you don't.

If you build a room, what you're doing is inviting people in -- with all their baggage, political or otherwise -- and inviting them to unpack and stay awhile. And they unpack, putting all their stuff on the shelves and tables and walls and floors, all of which (to stretch the metaphor to its absolute breaking point) are your underlying political and social views. As a writer, you make the points you want to make, and because you've let your readers bring something into the book as well, I think you've got a better chance of them being receptive to your points.
Fernando seems to think that all political artists are monument builders, when I can think of many room builders. Even an incredibly political work like Rzewski's The People United Will Never Be Defeated is a room in which one can confront Marxism rather than an unyielding monument. The music is lovely, and convoluted, and simple in various spots of the 36 variations, none of which explicitly perform the words of the Chilean song. The title gets across the idea that "The People" should unite together. But who are the people, how should they unite, and what is defeat? The lyrics are more explicit, yet still open to interpretation. And Rzewski did decide to not include any text, unlike other works he wrote for speaking pianist (such as De Profundis). This decision opens up more options for close reading. Is Rzewski rehabilitating a political artwork into a work of absolute art? Or is the political effect meant to be subliminal?

Finally, Fernando completely disregards any potential for discourse between different artworks. Woody Guthrie composed "This Land is My Land" as a protest against Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." In this kind of discourse, the audience gets the option to pay attention to the art, the politics, or both. Either way some kind of enlightenment will be gained.


Peter (the other) said...

Wow, thanks, a great post. I've been walking around the room thinking about these things I've never really thought about before.

Daniel Wolf said...

Boy, I'm glad that someone else noticed the Téson postings. I find that he was incredibly naive, reducing "political art" to that which is explicitly or programmatically political. There's plenty of art or music in which the politics are implicit, for example in affirming or challenging a particular genre or tradition or institution. In your example of Rzewski's Variations on El Pueblo Unido, I believe that, more important than the text or the particular struggle it refered to, Rzewski is posing a challenge to the traditional classical music concert audience, one which is locked into certain habits. Too, as a piece with a particularly tight formal structure (6x6 variations, essentially John Cage's "square root form"), it is anything but socialist realist anti-formalism.