01 March 2008

Not Unprecedented

I'm of the opinion that music with supposed political content generally accomplishes less both as music and as political commentary than could be attained by pursuing these two endeavors separately. Extra-musical statements in general are tremendous burdens on composer and audience alike, but more importantly, I think it's high time to admit that making music is a poor substitute for political activism and community service.

Many an artist has fallen victim to that certain strain of bourgeois contentedness whereby they suddenly interpret something they would be doing anyway as also making some larger contribution, hence absolving themselves of the need to take any additional action. This is just another of the myriad forms that our uniquely American brand of political apathy is capable of taking. Everyone is trying to be Bob Dylan instead of Paul Wellstone. The problem is that there are too many intangibles involved in the creation and reception of art for each one of us to assume that we will be successful in accomplishing activist ends through those means.

There is a choice to be made here: we can become political artists and hope for success, or we can become artists who are also politically engaged citizens and know that we are making a difference. My feeling is that the latter path is the one that will facilitate the most immediate and vital contributions to both art and activism. Striking a balance between these two endeavors while keeping them largely separate means finding time in our "busy bee" artist schedules to step away from the canvas and inhabit the civilian world. It also means that when we return to the canvas, we are free to create in the most abstract and non-representational media we choose without any obligation whatsoever for our art to serve extra-artistic purposes or agendas.

I've stated some of these ideas here before, and am working on a much longer essay that goes into greater depth. I have revisited this topic only because I recently stumbled upon a precedent for this position (or something like it, as best I can tell).

Here is a link to an article I read in The Nation about American poet George Oppen (written by James Longenbach):

A Test of Poetry

Here is a link to a bio of Oppen from what appears to be a reasonably authoritative online source:

MAPS Bio of George Oppen

Here are some bits and pieces from the Nation article that jumped out at me:

"...[Oppen] considered the rhetorical excess of political poems–like the rhetorical excess of political meetings–to be 'merely excrutiating.'"

"...[Oppen] refused the notion that a poet could fulfill his social responsibilities by writing any kind of poem, and neither did this refusal engender any contempt for poetry."

"Especially for those readers who are prone to believe that writing itself constitutes political action...Oppen's remark that 'there are situations which cannot honorably be met by art' is problematic enough; more troubling is Oppen's sense that 'some ideas are not politically useful, or useful to the childhood of a daughter'–as if to say that since we'll never know the ultimate value of our work, writing poems is probably less important than being a good dad."

Finally, here's a fragment of a quote within the article from Oppen himself (I tripped over this passage a couple of times, so I've added some boldface to highlight what I assume is the point):

"...it can always be quite easily shown that political action is going to be valuable; it is difficult to ever prove that political action has been valuable. Whereas art is precisely the opposite case; it seems always impossible to prove that it is going to be valuable, and yet it is always quite clear that the art of the past has been of value to humanity."

I feel like something of a charlatan for riding these particular coattails considering that I myself am no great fan of poetry in the first place. I do think, however, that much of what is attributed to Oppen in the article has implications for many (if not all) of The Arts. Perhaps it is a consequence of my own ignorance that I remain unaware of any other prominent artists or intellectuals who hold or have held such views, but it is at least nice to have finally located one.

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