Progressive Political Fiction
A bias against explicit, progressive political fiction is widespread among critics and commentators, publishers, editors, and many authors. This has led to a dearth of such fiction being published (and written, I assume), a serious lack hinted at in passing by Sean Wilentz in â€œThe Rise of Illiterate Democracyâ€ in the New York Times:
"The nonfiction best-seller lists these days are often full of partisan screeds labeling Democrats as elitist traitors and Republicans as conniving plutocrats. But look over on the fiction side, and politics appears almost nowhere. Some critics read Philip Rothâ€™s â€œPlot Against Americaâ€ as an allegory of the current White House, and there have even been a few blunt and appalling political fantasies, like Nicholson Bakerâ€™s â€œCheckpoint,â€ a brief dialogue between a man who wants to assassinate George W. Bush and a friend who wants to talk him out of it. But unlike the ubiquitous nonfiction tub-thumpers, todayâ€™s novels rarely take the grubby business of ordinary politics, past or present, as a subject, let alone an activity in which their authors might participate. Contemporary party politics, which once inspired writers as different as James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain and Robert Penn Warren, is terra incognita. The separation of church and state is hotly contested; the separation of literature and state seems to have become absolute."
Wilentz is scarcely referring to progressive political fiction here; however, his observations apply beyond party politics, since many crucial and enduring public issues are not taken up in fiction from much progressive perspective. â€œMulticulturalâ€ fiction is far more pronounced in recent decades than it has been traditionally and some of this is progressive or has progressive aspects, some even overt progressive and revolutionary aspects. But, for merely one example, how many recent anti-war novels can be named? The US has been smashing Iraq since 1991, taking a toll of over a million Iraqi lives through bombings and sanctions â€“ according to the former United Nations coordinator of humanitarian aid for Iraq, Denis Halliday, numerous reports, and many other individuals and organizations â€“ long before the years-old ground invasion and occupation. And the US for years has allowed corporations the use of patent laws, which have prevented HIV vaccines from reaching Africa resulting in millions of lives lost. Where are the exposÃ© novels? Name the so-called muckraking novels or vivid polemic novels about the unconscionable US health care system. Or poverty rate. Or avoidable environmental catastrophes. Etc and so on. Not easy to do. Itâ€™s possible to come up with a few, including John le CarrÃ© (recently) in The Constant Gardner - exceptions to the rule.
Writing powerful quality political fiction appears to be in many ways unthinkable in the circles of literature. One author has suggested that fiction writers could â€œtitheâ€ some part of their writing time and talent to producing nonfiction political works. The notion of enlightening and moving and aesthetically accomplished political fiction of various sorts is that which cannot be thought.
Suggest at a website of literary scholars the teaching and study of progressive political fiction and it will likely be said that you are advocating indoctrination. On the contrary, many imaginative writers write to stir and uplift and illuminate for all sorts of reasons, in all sorts of ways, not only the â€œpolitical.â€ It doesnâ€™t just magically happen - itâ€™s an art. If a university isnâ€™t an appropriate place to study such matters that are often so integral to an artistâ€™s work, then no place is. Itâ€™s not a question of indoctrination any more than any class, or purposive experience, involves a form of indoctrination. It seems to me that politically progressive art (and criticism) is one of the most socially useful and socially healthy realms of art (and criticism), and one of the most lively and otherwise appealing realms, as is manifest in quite diverse ways: morally, psychologically, politically, aesthetically, and so on.
Other authors applaud political fiction in which â€œstories stand alone as stories and the political edge sneaks up onâ€ readers. In other words there is supposedly a distinct divide between â€œstoryâ€ and â€œpoliticsâ€ â€“ or itâ€™s okay to be political but not too political. Well, there go all the vital tales in which the politics explicitly support, infuse, or frame the main story, and in some focal ways are the story â€“ primary phenomena from which related moments may reverberate.
For yet other authors and commenators, American writers lessen their work by including explicit political information â€“ they â€œreduce [their] literary attempts at [politics] to propaganda with a narrative arc.â€ Of course novels should tell the truth. The implication here is that writers who use a substantial amount of political information or a clear and pointed view throughout their fiction, or who dare to make explicit politics a strong focus, are propagandists, and as such lessen the quality of their work. This argument collapses immediately upon reading even a single piece of quality polemic fiction like Jonathan Swiftâ€™s â€œA Modest Proposalâ€ â€“ a great fictive work of politics and art both.
And such lines of thought fall apart when confronted by any one of a number of arguments and analyses made throughout the years on the great qualities and strengths of didactic, polemic, or partisan fiction and other such political art â€“ arguments just touched on in the brief excerpts below.
At Mainstay Press, we publish works of progressive political fiction that are invigorating, urgent, and vital â€“ politically, aesthetically, and otherwise.
Frank Norris, The Responsibilities of the Novelist (1903):
[The novel] may be a great forceâ€¦fearlessly proving that power is abused, that the strong grind the faces of the weakâ€¦..
Morris Edmund Speare, The Political Novel: Its Development in England and in America (1924):
The political novelâ€¦is the most embracing in its material of all other novel types...[and] must be dominated, more often than not, by ideas rather than by emotionsâ€¦
W.E.B. Du Bois, â€œCriteria of Negro Artâ€ (1926):
â€¦all art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists.
V. F. Calverton, The Liberation of American Literature (1932):
Most of the literature of the world has been propagandistic in one way or anotherâ€¦. In a word, the revolutionary critic does not believe that we can have art without craftsmanship; what he does believe is that, granted the craftsmanship, our aim should be to make art serve man as a thing of action and not man serve art as a thing of escape.
John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934):
A particular work of art may have a definite effect upon a particular person or upon a number of persons. The social effect of the novels of Dickens or of Sinclair Lewis is far from negligible....
Joseph Freeman, Proletarian Literature in the United States (1935):
To characterize an essay or a book as a political pamphlet is neither to praise nor to condemn itâ€¦. In the case of the liberal critic, however, we have a political pamphlet which pretends to be something else. We have an attack on the theory of art as a political weapon which turns out to be itself a political weapon....
James T. Farrell, A Note on Literary Criticism (1936):
Literature must be viewed both as a branch of the fine arts and as an instrument of social influenceâ€¦. I suggest thatâ€¦the formula â€˜All art is propagandaâ€™ be replaced by another: â€˜Literature is an instrument of social influence.â€¦â€™. [Literature] can be propagandaâ€¦and it can sometimes perform an objective social function that approaches agitation.
Bernard Smith, Forces in American Literary Criticism (1939):
'Propaganda' isâ€¦used [here] to describe works consciously written to have an immediate and direct effect upon their readersâ€™ opinions and actions, as distinguished from works that are not consciously written for that purpose or which are written to have a remote and indirect effect. It is possible that conventional critics have learned by now that to call a literary work â€˜propagandaâ€™ is to say nothing about its quality as literature. By now enough critics have pointed out that some of the worldâ€™s classics were originally â€˜propagandaâ€™ for something.
Roger Dataller, The Plain Man and the Novel (1940):
That Charles Dickens assisted the reform of the Poor Law, and Charles Reade that of the Victorian prison system, is undeniableâ€¦. Such novels influence.
Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941):
The contemporary emphasis must be placed largely upon propaganda, rather than upon â€˜pureâ€™ art.... Since pure art makes for acceptance, it tends to become a social menace in so far as it assists us in tolerating the intolerable.
George Orwell, â€œThe Freedom of the Pressâ€ (1943) (Excerpt from the suppressed preface to Animal Farm):
The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.... The British press is extremely centralized, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is â€˜not doneâ€™ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was 'not done' to mention trouser in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.
*[After the end of Jennifer Howardâ€™s recent article â€œThe Fragmentation of Literary Theory,â€ notice the gap in the timeline of works of literary â€œtheoryâ€ that occurs roughly between the two world wars: That gap comprises much of easily one of the most vital periods of US literary criticism, as partly indicated above, a time that Bernard Smith overviews and analyzes in the last two chapters of Forces in Literary Criticism (1939). It seems to me that there should be more discussion among political artists and others of the sort arising, both figuratively and literally, from that gap in the timeline - discussions that relate the creation of art and literature today to the urgent concerns of today.]
Somewhat more recently, Roland Barthes observes:
"Then comes the modern question: why is there not today (or at least so it seems to me), why is there no longer an art of intellectual persuasion, or imagination? Why are we so slow, so indifferent about mobilizing narrative and the image? Can't we see that it is, after all, works of fiction, no matter how mediocre they may be artistically, that best arouse political passion?"
Pakistan, for one, has made overt its understanding of the cultural potentcy of fiction, as I've noted elsewhere, having banned all imports of fiction from India but not all non-fiction. The state of Pakistan apparently fears that the power and influence of fiction will undermine its control. In this case, fiction is even more feared than nonfiction. And why shouldnâ€™t it be, given its very influential history and nature, in public and private realms both?
The remarkable fact about literary censorship in America is that it is largely voluntary (to play off of Orwellâ€™s comment about England). It is carried out knowingly in some cases and unwittingly by others, in ways that happen to serve the interests of power â€“ in the sense it is commonly understood, that is, economic power, command and control authority - who gets to make decisions â€“ a corporate-state elite, or the people at large.
And of course these considerations apply all across the society, culture, media. See a recent report by FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) revealing censorship of political views on televsion.
Imaginative literature that aims in large part to have social and political and cultural effects dates back to antiquity, easily. Quite a number of such works are considered to be among the greatest of the classics. Possibly there is also a similar critical tradition that goes back that far, (though I havenâ€™t purposefully looked into it). Platoâ€™s Republic, both an imaginative and critical work, I suppose would qualify â€“ not that its positions on the effects of art in society are necessarily sound.
And if one thinks there is not much to be accomplished by, let alone explored, in regard to literature of social and political change, one might consider, say, the opening of Kenneth Burkeâ€™s essay, â€œWar, Response and Contradictionâ€ â€“ written in the 1930s and published in The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941):
"The various arguments in recent years as to the relation between art and propaganda may have struck some observers as purely a haggle among literary specialists. Yet the issue is a vital one, and carries far beyond a matter of mere literary fashions. Aesthetical values are intermingled with ethical values â€“ and the ethical is the basis of the practical. Or, put more simply: our ideas of the beautiful, the curious, the interesting, the unpleasant, the boring are closely bound with our ideas of the good, the desirable, the undesirable â€“ and our ideas of the desirable and undesirable have much to do with our attitudes towards our everyday activities. They make us ask ourselves, more or less consciously: Are we doing the things we want to do? to what extent is there a breach between what we must do and what we should like to do? Probably for this reason, even the most practical of revolutions will generally be found to have manifested itself first in the 'aesthetic' sphere."
"Then it is no academic matter to concern oneself with the implications of booksâ€¦. Points of view first make themselves apparent in the realm of 'fancy.' In time they come to be carried into the structure of our sciencesâ€¦."
Much of the liveliest and most accomplished imaginative writing has a pointed strong and even shaping and pervasive critical edge, though some polemic fiction maybe not always be finely wrought aesthetically throughout, as has been said of Uncle Tomâ€™s Cabin. Nevertheless, it seems to me that some of the most aesthetically and otherwise appealing and inspiring passages of Uncle Tomâ€™s Cabin occur where Stowe incorporates impassioned socio-political essaylets. Though the novel does not hold up aesthetically nearly as well as many other political works of fiction, in my view, Iâ€™ve seen this novel devoured recently by a surprised reader as if it were a long sought, long denied meal â€“ a reaction not uncharacteristic of its reception over a century and a half ago.
Similarly (I note for those who are particularly interested by or invested in aesthetics) Jack Londonâ€™s polemic novel The Iron Heel may not be continuously aesthetically exciting to everyone but there are at least a number of intriguing and unusual artistic twists and turns to go with the inspiring explicitly progressive political story, the fictive footnotes not least.
More evidence of the terrific viability of polemic and explicit political commentary and literature as art is the fact that great socio-political satire has virtually always existed, in diverse types of literature, often of high aesthetic caliber. Satire is nothing if not polarizing and didactic, and it is obviously often quite insightful, useful, and aesthetic - lively and powerful.
If one has the opportunity to teach or read the famous progressive political play Waiting For Lefty sometime, one might be surprised, as a colleague of mine recently was, at the quality of the writing â€“ found in much of Odetâ€™s writing â€“ and also by the enthusiastic response of those who find it stirring and uplifting.
About Waiting For Lefty and progressive movements, Michael Denning writes, in The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (1997):
"A new radical culture was taking shape. On 6 January 1935, the audience at New Yorkâ€™s Civic Repertory Theatre, 1,400 strong, chanted â€˜Strike! Strike!â€™ at the end of the first performance of Waiting for Lefty. An unknown one-act play about a taxi strike by an unknown playwright, performed by Group Theatre actors to benefit the left-wing magazine New Theatre, Waiting for Lefty captured the imagination of this movement; theater groups across the country produced it. By the end of the year, Waiting for Lefty was â€˜the most widely performed play in America â€“ and the most widely banned.â€™ America, it seemed, was waiting for lefty. The heart of this cultural front was a new generation of plebeian artists and intellectuals who had grown up in the immigrant and black working-class neighborhoods of the modernist metropolis."
Today in theater, there is the phenomena of Aristophanesâ€™ anti-war play Lysistrata, the political value of which apparently, has not diminished in over 2,000 years â€“ in fact has almost surely grown. Lysistrata has become a significant part of anti-war work and other cultural action today. See, for example The Lysistrata Project.
About the play and project, Joanne Laurier reports:
"Billed as 'The Largest World-Wide Theatrical Protest for Peace,' readings of the ancient Greek antiwar comedy Lysistrata were held in 59 countries and in all 50 states in the US on March 3, 2003 [to protest the imminent US ground invasion of Iraq]. The global readings, which totaled more than 1,000, were organized by New York City actresses Kathryn Blume and Sharron Bower. The origins of the event were explained by the actresses on the web site of The Lysistrata Project: A Theatrical Act of Dissent: 'Before we started Lysistrata Project, we could do nothing but sit and watch in horror as the Bush Administration drove us toward a unilateral attack on Iraq. So we emailed our friends and put up a web site. The response has been enormous'."
Thus, Aristophanesâ€™ polemic play Lysistrata â€“ nearly two and half millenia old, written during the Peloponnesian War â€“ continues to engage and activate today and provides an example of progressive polemic art that is timeless, universal, and useful to the public, not least.
Just so, as Bernard Smith states in his important (and forgotten) book, Forces in Literary Criticism (1939), â€œThe ideological issues â€“ moral, political, social, and the rest â€“ ... are the sine qua non of literary criticismâ€ just as they are among the essential elements of imaginative literature. â€œDevoid of them, criticism [and art] is likely to be a game of words â€“ abstractions which can have no meaning to men and women who laugh or weep at a play because their feelings as human beings are touched.â€ Though surely art can be meaningful and abstract at once, something more is usually needed, especially for character based art, fiction. There is the urgent need not for:
"literary criticism [and artâ€¦that] tends to create a literature that will express the sensibilities and experiences of a few fortunate men...[but a criticism and art] that tend to create a literature that will express the ideals and sympathies of those who look forward to the conquest of poverty, ignorance, and inequality â€“ to the material and intellectual elevation of the mass of mankindâ€¦."
Or, at this stage of history, to its very survival.
Aristophanes lived during a destructive war that he tried to help stop, just as we live during a prominent war and occupation that ought to be ended now. And the point of Lysistrata was hardly confined solely to the Peloponnesian war. It's readily understood to be aimed at curbing destructive â€œstateâ€ power more broadly, and at examining how people, women in particular, may or may not rally to curb such powerâ€¦. Some of the playâ€™s critique of gender is spot on today too.
People and institutions of the literary establishment must ask themselves should readers and audiences of imaginative literature really be discouraged from art that helps to illuminate and invigorate by way of didactic forms such as gripping polemics or other techniques of purpose? Is such discouragement remotely conscionable? Does such discouragement not serve the interests of oppressive power and even violate critics' and artists' own sense of dignity and values? The question is not only, What's the matter with Kansas? that is, with "middle Americans" voting against their own self interests and values. It's just as much, and in fact far more so, for relatively privileged liberals and conservatives both â€“ What's the matter with intellectuals and artists, and their institutions? Clearly, the question is just as much, Why are so many literary figures speaking and writing against the common good and apparently even against their own basic values? What's the matter with intellectuals and artists? Do readers and viewers not want or find useful art that explicitly, pointedly, purposefully helps to:
"explore fundamental questions of human experiences: What is worthy of our labor? How do human beings communicate ideas, emotions, and endeavors? What is just or corrupt, beautiful or repugnant, noble or disgraceful? How do different cultures honor and enact what they value? How should we balance community responsibility and individual freedom? What does it mean to be human and what fosters that humanity?"
How inappropriate, lamentable, and debilitating aesthetically and otherwise that â€œquestions such as these are examined in the context of major texts in literature, philosophy, scholarship, and the arts, as well as lived experiencesâ€ in a manner at all overt. Can this be art?
Or does a work of art somehow not exist beyond its aesthetic components â€“ especially if it is any good? And is art with purpose, especially one that is explicitly progressive, inherently non-aesthetic? Is there no need for and no way of creating art which forthrightly helps engender
"women and men who can think, reason and communicate clearly; who understand the complexity of problems and who can look beyond a â€˜quick fixâ€™; who are willing to question that which is taken-for-grant-it; who recognize and assess the ethical consequences of decisions; who are resourceful, creative and open to innovations and change; who cultivate their imaginations; and who can critically evaluate and appreciate alternatives[?]"
How dare â€œthe Humanities [including art] foster [such] skills and insightsâ€? Does it matter that â€œour democratic society depends on them and they enrich our personal livesâ€? Mustn't art be kept â€œpureâ€? Aren't political ideas, information, and observations known to be intrinsically non-aesthetic?
How absurd that quality art be thought of and created as â€œmodes of examining and understanding human experiences, human aspirations and achievements, and human expressions,â€ especially progressive art that challenges unjust power in overt fashion, going so far as to name names, places, dates. Naming names, places, and dates in fiction is fine so long as itâ€™s not too political, which is just â€œnot doneâ€ â€“ as Orwell noted. In fact, as Orwell also noted, itâ€™s suppressed, â€œthough it is not exactly forbidden.â€ After all, everyone is free to start their own press and compete with the giants.
And how uncomfortable for some that art might be created and understood explicitly as â€œa mode of discussing and debating moral and ethical questionsâ€ in a way that happens to challenge dominant illegitimate power, and especially regarding those issues for which it is â€œnot doneâ€ â€“ not too boldly, not upfront, not too powerfully, and so â€“ not too clearly, honestly, openly. Just not done.
Then much of the power and the perceptivity of art is left to those immersed in the status quo who do not see themselves as â€œabove the battleâ€ but who do identify politicians who implement policies of mass murder merely as liars, and who see nothing wrong with novelists who consider themselves to be â€œpro-politicianâ€ in regard to such figures who would be hanged by the standards of Nuremberg. Such art is fine because it is not â€œpropagandaâ€ â€“ say the â€œliberalâ€ and the â€œconservativeâ€ both who are but advocates of the status quo, however reformed somewhat, or deformed.
Joseph Freeman writes â€“ in his â€œIntroductionâ€ to the anthology Proletarian Literature in the United States (1935) â€“ â€œTo characterize an essay or a book as a political pamphlet is neither to praise nor to condemn it. Such pamphlets have their place in the world. In the case of the liberalâ€ or conservative â€œcritic, however, we have a political pamphlet which pretends to be something else. We have an attack on the theory of art as a political weapon which turns out to be itself a political weaponâ€¦. If you were to take a workerâ€ or, say, one of the perhaps four million Indo-Chinese civilians slain during the "Vietnam" War, or one of a million or so Iraqi US-UN sanctions or US bombing victims â€œgifted with a creative imagination and ask him to set down his experience honestly, it would be an experience so remote from that of the bourgeois that the Man in White would, as usual, raise the cry of â€˜propagandaâ€™.â€
And if one were to attempt such a â€œnot doneâ€ work of art, even if one were a highly successful comedian and multi-published novelist like Robert Newman, one is likely to meet with something akin to the fate met by Newmanâ€™s geo-political progressive novel The Fountain at the Center of the World, a novel that mainstream publishers spurned because, as noted by Richard Nash of Soft Skull Press, the novelâ€™s US publisher, â€œbig corporate publishers [acted] like big corporate publishers,â€ rejecting the novel on ideological grounds â€“ sometimes by way of â€œfive-page, single-spaced screeds about the book's politics,â€ Suzanne CharlÃ© reports in The American Prospect.
Other such authors have been told by agents, editors, and publishers that their work of this sort is not aesthetic, that the political expression is in the wrong form, wrong genre â€“ for one must be significantly â€œabove the battleâ€ in the eyes of those who have â€œnaturally cultivated a distaste for, and eschewedâ€ such fiction â€“ those of the so-called liberal and conservative establishment, and those who aspire to be like them, and to possibly join their ranks, as V.F. Calverton notes in The Liberation of American Literature (1939):
"That the attempt to be above the battle is evidence of a defense mechanism can scarcely be doubted. Only those who belong to the ruling class, in other words, only those who had already won the battle and acquired the spoils, could afford to be above the battle. Fiction which was propagandistic, that is, fiction which continued to participate in the battle, it naturally cultivated a distaste for, and eschewed. Fiction which was above the battle, that is fiction which concerned only the so-called absolutes and eternals, with the ultimate emotions and the perennial tragedies, but which offered no solutions, no panaceas - it was such fiction that won its adoration. "It is possible that we are growing a bit tired of the novel with a purpose," The Nation declared in its issue of April 18, 1912, reflecting that change in the process of consummation, and then adding in a carping vein that the "American novelist, like the American playwright, has listened to the counsel which urged him to look for his materials in problems of the nation and the day." The new aim was to escape social reality and to exalt individual emotionality. In short, this new ideology, like that of all leisure classes, sought to cultivate literature as a form of escape - escape either from boredom or from its own limitations of self and soul."
Unfortunately those of the top and those acting unwittingly or not in the interests of the top have long since joined the battle, and they are battling those who are down below.
And if one were to understand with Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian author and political worker, that â€œcriticism, like charity, starts at home,â€ and if one were taken seriously in publishing powerful and explicit progressive political novels â€“ that is, if one were simply not able to be ignored â€“ then the response from the establishment would be dismissive, or sharp. As Noam Chomsky notes:
"If Orwell, instead of writing 1984 â€“ which was actually, in my opinion, his worst book [especially as compared to his great book, Homage to Catalonia, Chomsky notes elsewhere], a kind of trivial caricature of the most totalitarian society in the world, which made him famous and everybody loved him, because it was the official enemy â€“ if instead of doing that easy and relatively unimportant thing, he had done the hard and important thing, namely talk about Orwellâ€™s Problem* [as pertains to England and western states], he would not have been famous and honored: he would have been hated and reviled and marginalized.â€ [â€¦] â€œAbout Orwell's 1984â€¦some parts (e.g., about Newspeak) were clever. But most of it seemed to me â€“ well, trivial. The problem is not a very interesting one; the modes of thought control and repression in totalitarian societies are fairly transparent. In fact, they often tend to be rather lax. Franco Spain, for example, didnâ€™t care much what people thought and said: the screams from the torture chamber in downtown Madrid were enough to keep the lid on. Itâ€™s not too well known, but the Soviet Union was also pretty lax, particularly in the Brezhnev era. According to US government-Russian Research Center studies, Russians apparently had considerably wider access to a broad range of opinion and to dissident literature than Americans do, not because it is denied them but because propaganda is so much more effective here. Orwell was well aware of these issues. His (suppressed) introduction to Animal Farm, for example, deals explicitly with â€˜literary censorship in England.â€™ To write about that topic would have been important, hard, and serious â€“ and would have earned him the obloquy that attends departure from the rules."
[*How is it that oppressive ideological systems are able to â€œinstill beliefs that are firmly held and widely accepted although they are completely without foundation and often plainly at variance with the obvious facts about the world around us?â€]
A few ways to dismiss the vitality and importance of powerful political art, even of high aesthetic quality, is to simply focus only on the aesthetic (with either praise or scorn) or to deny or be unable to recognize much of either any aesthetic value or public value â€“ all of which is commonly done.
Because surely it is preposterous that â€œknowledge of the humanitiesâ€ (including art) â€œis necessary if we are to find meaningful solutions to many of the worldâ€™s irritants.â€ Preposterous that â€œPeople do need novels and dramas and paintings and poems, â€˜because they will be called upon to vote.â€™â€ Or lead â€“ like the former Governor of Illinois, George Ryan, who saw a showing of the purpose-driven political play The Exonerated and later said that it contributed to his decision to make law a moratorium on the death penalty in the state. The fool. So easily swayed by the emotion and morality of the play, which surely had nothing to do with the aesthetics of the play, which must have been lousy to non-existent for the governor not to be simply enraptured by the equation of it all, the aesthetic conceptualization. After all, it is important to see how aesthetics are all there is to art and how aesthetics must more-or-less remain pure, free from any taint of pointed public involvement. It is important, and it is so, because it is said to be so. And it simply cannot be understood how anyone could claim otherwise.
And of course laughably dim-witted is the notion that â€œone of the most valuable and also one of the most delightful aims of a liberal education is to nourish in each of usâ€¦the innate curiosity and courage to take seriously what is said by the great stories told in cultures other than our own.â€ Dimwitted that is insofar as one pretends that we are referring to anything but the aesthetics of another culture, that is, of another cultureâ€™s stories, because for a story to reveal any meaningful moral, social, political, or psychological notion or experience of another culture is absurd, for that is no part of art. Art is only the aesthetic story of other cultures and anything else that is not polemic or too political. There can not be much other meaning or element of art than the aesthetic. To learn riveting or dazzling or wondrous or beautiful moral or social or psychological or emotional or political lessons from a work of art â€“ preposterous. No such lesson is ever any part of art. How could it be â€“ itâ€™s not aesthetic.
So it is said. And we all know that no moral or social or psychological arrangement or revelation is aesthetic in and of itself. Because, aesthetics are pure â€“ utterly a thing apart from this world â€“ especially, that is, if any good. Art is not made up of morals or of emotions or of ideas or of sacred beliefs and certainly not of policies and political information. Art is made up of aesthetics only. And aesthetics is made up of...? Well never mind. Surely art cannot be made up of the progressive polemic things of this world. For, it is said to be so. Art = Aesthetics. Clear?
On the contrary, art is an experience with aesthetic components that (usually) more or less serve to organize at least some and often many or virtually all of the many other crucial components.
In other words, aesthetics are not the end all be all of art, despite their often prominent role in art. And aesthetics are even much less definitive of what comprises a work of literature, especially because some works of literature â€“ as I understand the term â€“ are not art, nor are meant to be art, e.g., conventional historical studies, or critical studies, etc. Yet as with virtually anything, such works will inevitably have aesthetic qualities, pleasing or not.
And some works of literature may be seen as art by accident â€“ maybe not intended to be art - but aesthetically intriguing enough to be considered so.
Still other works of art (a kind of literature) struggle aesthetically â€“ and so may not be aesthetically important or much exciting â€“ but nevertheless amount to important works of literature, due to other qualities that are strong â€“ social, political, etc....
And yet other works of art are highly accomplished aesthetically and may also be important (or not) in any number of other substantive ways â€“ emotionally, psychologically, morally, politically, even informationally, and so on.
All of these kinds of literature, art and otherwise, may be politically motivated, actuated, and effective. Just as all such kinds may be emotionally, psychologically, morally, even informationally, and so on, motivated, actuated, and effective as well.
All works of literature (including art) inevitably have political qualities, and many other substantive qualities â€“ implicit or explicit, intended or unintended. In general, to primarily encourage or to focus on only works of art of the (ostensibly) highest aesthetic quality and of particularly limited or biased political range, let alone to dismiss others, is not only a highly political act in itself, it is also anti-intellectual and otherwise inhumane and unfortunate in many ways â€“ it is to slice rather thin and to exclude much of importance and vitality, to say the least.
For as Kenneth Burke explains:
"The contemporary emphasis must be placed largely upon propaganda, rather than upon â€˜pureâ€™ artâ€¦. Since pure art makes for acceptance, it tends to become a social menace in so far as it assists us in tolerating the intolerable. And if it leads us to a state of acquiescence at a time when the very basis of moral integration is in question, we get a paradox whereby the soundest adjunct to ethics, the aesthetic, threatens to uphold an unethical condition. For this reason it seems that under conditions of competitive capitalism there must necessarily be a large corrective or propaganda element in art. Art cannot safely confine itself to merely using the values which arise out of a given social texture and integrating their conflicts, as the soundest, â€˜purestâ€™ art will do. It must have a definite hortatory function, an educational element of suasion or inducement; it must be partially forensic. Such a quality we consider to be the essential work of propagandaâ€¦. And incidentally, our distinction as so stated should make it apparent that much of the so-called â€˜pureâ€™ art of the nineteenth century was of a pronouncedly propagandist or corrective coloring. In proportion as the conditions of economic warfare grew in intensity throughout the â€˜century of progress,â€™ and the church proper gradually adapted its doctrines to serve merely the protection of private gain and the upholding of manipulated law, the â€˜priestlyâ€™ function was carried on by the â€˜secularâ€™ poets, often avowedly agnostic."
While Burke makes clear here that the times â€œcall for a propaganda art,â€ he immediately adds sensibly that â€œOur thesis is by no means intended to imply that â€˜pureâ€™ art or â€˜acquiescentâ€™ art should be abandoned,â€ for of course such art has its own important value and rewards, especially in the more-or-less private realms of life.
Dare art be explicitly progressive and public focused? Must artists and characters in works of art not â€œtalk, dance, sing, paint, praise the beauties of their belovedâ€ in any way but the approved aesthetics, at most mildly political? May no one make art â€œto tell stories, maintain legends, build monuments, try to discover facts, live by rules, make choices between better and worseâ€ of and about the many crucial public issues and arenas stalking everyday people, each day? [For the authors and sources of many of the words in quotation here and above see this link.]
Even V.S. Pritchett, a conventional critic of the sort ridiculed in the film Dead Poets Society, could observe in passing that:
"The fact is that, from the beginning, the English novel set out to protest and to teach. Its philanthropic campaigns in the nineteenth century are paralleled in the eighteenth century by its avowed desire to reform the brutal manners of the age. The explanation is not necessarily that there has been an extra allowance of public spiritedness in our novelists; it is simply that the crucial problems of his own time provide a novelist with his richest material, whether he deals with it directly or by inference. The reform of manners was as vital in the eighteenth century as the reform of the Poor Law was in the nineteenthâ€¦."
Probably Pritchett understood â€œprotest and teachâ€ and â€œcrucial problemsâ€ in the sense that Wilentz apparently understands such phenomena today, as being reformist and not revolutionary, but the point is that traditional novels have not uncommonly made primary their pointed social, cultural and public purposes, along with any focus on private life. It is the private and the public that make up the personal after all, and public realms often dominate, shape, and create private reality. And so, just as novels and novelists may intend any exploration or effect that is essentially â€œapolitical,â€ anti-political, reactionary, or status quo (liberal/conservative) or reformist, so too may powerful and quality works of literature and art be created that are progressive or revolutionary and transparently purposeful.
"Political novel, governmental novel, tendentious novel, thesis novel, didactic novel, novel with a purpose, committed novel, partisan novel, polemic novel, revolutionary novel, anti-war novel, speculative novel, novel of ideas, problem novel, propaganda novel, utopian novel, dystopian novel, culturally critical novel, radical novel, and so on..."
- these forms all make for valid, useful, lively, and illuminating works of art and literature, in so far as they are employed honestly, truthfully, to enlighten and engage, as with any art form.
Consequently, imaginative writers, some of the greatest (also critics), have turned to literature as activism, call it, as a means for social and cultural change (also political and even governmental change) â€“ in fact very many of them. Who would wish to exclude themselves from such company and work? This tradition is long, distinguished, and crucial â€“ some basis of which, however mildly reformist or otherwise, V.S. Pritchett simply acknowledges in passing as being quite evident.
Nor is it today inappropriate, especially at this precarious point where humanity is incredibly fooling around with destroying itself and the earth, that many works of art and literature have a very strong, even a predominant focus on social, political, and cultural illumination and action that is explicitly progressive, revolutionary, polemic â€“ not least as it relates to the public, to power, justice, freedom, and survival, human rights, as well as to any number of other traditional concerns.
As part of these efforts, Mainstay Press operates as a working artist and activist press, publishing books that, if Mainstay meets its aim, are alive and enlivening often aesthetically and in action â€“ socially, culturally, politically, and so on. Such is the value of progressive political literature and art.