pageok
pageok
pageok
[Fernando Tesón (guest-blogging), December 15, 2006 at 2:39pm] Trackbacks
Against Political Art:

A noteworthy case of discourse failure is political art. Many people regard art as a legitimate vehicle for political views. Indeed, many have insisted that artists ought to be politically committed. The aesthetic experience may raise people’s political awareness. And, if one believes in moral-political truths, it seems natural to recommend that artists convey those truths in a way people can readily understand. Thanks to the emotional power of beauty, art can, at least sometimes, help noble ideals reach the general public. Many of these works have great artistic value (Picasso's Guernica, for example), and some of them have surely contributed to worthy causes.

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. Political paintings (say, Diego Rivera’s murals) often suggest causal connections that, for the reasons I indicated in my previous posts, permeate theories that people hold by default. Political art’s appeal to emotion usurps reasoned political argument. If you think big oil is responsible for the evils in the world, make an argument. The movie Syriana will not do. (A related puzzle: why is all political art of the left? We have answers to this too.)

Political satire is an interesting case. One reason it is particularly effective is that it generates an additional cost for those willing to challenge its purported message, for in that case the challenger becomes the “party pooper” who spoils the fun by taking the satire seriously. So comedians like Jon Stewart not only ridicule political figures or views. Whether intentionally or not, they also preempt objections to the intended political message (“Give me a break! Where is your sense of humor?”).

Many people see political art as a healthy form of social criticism. For them, consuming and appreciating political art epitomizes the critical attitude. I disagree. political art hinders critical thinking. It reinforces people’s fundamental default beliefs, and sometimes it does so by questioning their superficial beliefs. Thus, a novel may convince readers that their prior belief in the kindness of the police is wrong, and that in reality the police are henchmen of the ruling class. No doubt these readers may regard this novel as having transformed their beliefs on the matter, and in that sense political art may be seen as challenging their beliefs. At a deeper level, however, the novel may well have appealed to the reader’s default theories, for example by showing the role of the police in making some people rich at the poor’s expense – a zero-sum explanation that is inferior to explanations derived from reliable social science.

Taeyoung (mail):
why is all political art of the left? We have answers to this too
I think that's plainly not true -- there's things like that anti-Michael Moore movie, and, rather older, all those Waugh novels abominating modern civilisation, etc. I've just been reading a bunch of short stories by Saki, and he makes fun of progressive education (worthy causes and peaceful advances, rather than war, conquest, and killing), womens' suffrage, and all kinds of other "liberal" causes. It may be that satire is an unusually rich field for conservative or anti-liberal political art, but whatever the reason, there's quite a lot of it. Left-wingers may dominate the whole sordid "political art" scene, but they don't quite have the field entirely to themselves.
12.15.2006 3:50pm
BobNSF (mail):

A related puzzle: why is all political art of the left? We have answers to this too.


You're kidding, right? What to make of such a glaring oversight? I'm inclined to dismiss the entire argument.
12.15.2006 3:55pm
Ubertrout (mail) (www):
A simple modification...how about asserting that all major modern political art is on the left? The only exceptions are satirists like Chris Buckley and P.J. O'Rourke.
12.15.2006 4:15pm
Francis (mail):
why is all political art of the left

I could have sworn that John Wayne was one of the leading producers of political art in this country for a period of time. Fighting Seabees? Back to Bataan? They Were Expendable? etc.

Political art's appeal to emotion usurps reasoned political argument.

that's why calling something "proganda" is an insult.

Many people see political art as a healthy form of social criticism. ... I disagree.

Damn that First Amendment! Intefering with the ability of right-thinking people to suppress unhealthy social criticism.
12.15.2006 4:17pm
Spartacus (www):
Despite many people's criticisms, I find Ayn Rand's novels to be masterpieces of political art--perhpas better would be philosophical art, though Rand herself notes the philosophical, ethical and political aspects of her work--and she is hardly a leftist.
12.15.2006 4:24pm
anonVCfan:
I'm going to call BS on this one.

Are you really arguing that the average person should cast his instincts aside in favor of immersing himself in social science literature?

Art operates at the level on which most people form their presumptive judgments about things. I assume that police officers in the United States are generally honest and generally act in good faith, but what is that based on? If someone else wants to change my mind about this, I don't have time to read their tendentious think tank paper about it, but I'll watch an entertaining Spike Lee movie.
12.15.2006 4:26pm
Taeyoung (mail):
Re: anonVCfan:

Are you really arguing that the average person should cast his instincts aside in favor of immersing himself in social science literature?
For most people, that's not going to be a particularly helpful strategy, since the costs of amassing that kind of knowledge are immense -- better to go with a reasonable heuristic and just support policies you'll be happy with, even if they're not fully reasoned out.

I think Prof. Teson is correct that political art is a kind of "discourse failure," though, if you have an expectation that political discourse is supposed to proceed through reason (as opposed to being, say, nothing more than a means by which incompatible worldviews can hammer out a least-bad compromise -- something practical, if utterly devoid of theoretical coherence -- by marshalling the outrage and adulation of their various bands of supporters). It's a little like asking someone "so have you stopped beating your wife?" Or, for that matter, "what would you do if a man raped your wife?" It sidesteps what one might consider as the "actual" issues in favour of provoking a gut emotional reaction.
12.15.2006 4:38pm
Hoosier:
Spartacus--

I can't agree with you on Rand. I find here novels to be two-dimensional and full of caricature. Similar to socialist realist painting. She produced a sort of 'capitalist realist' literature that was constrained by the need to get out a rather limited messagem, and to beat the reader over the head with it. "Fountainhead" isn't a more readable novel than, say, the Stalinist "Cement."

Re: All political art is of the left--Obviously not true historically. But if this means /current/ political art, then it's probably true in the vast majority of cases.
12.15.2006 4:39pm
Lonely Capitalist (mail):
There seems to be more political art like painting on the Left because the left accepts anything as art. A conservative would want a painting to require talent and have some redeeming qualities. Leftists put feces in a can or dump paint on a canvas and call it art. So there are dozens of talentless Leftist artists for every conservative artist. And some of them can only get attention when they do something outrageous and political.
12.15.2006 4:39pm
Rand Simberg (mail) (www):
Anyone who thinks that all political art is of the left (and particularly when it comes to satire) obviously doesn't spend much time in the blogosphere. I write a great number of pieces that tweak the left, and Iowahawk often devastates them. And how about Cox and Forkum?
12.15.2006 4:42pm
M. in Boston (mail):
Political art, as practiced in the early 21st century, usually commits a cardinal sin: it is boring.

I listen to music, read books or watch films as an escape from the political dogmas that permeate every facet of American media today. They're my vehicle for getting away from the relentless, pervasive, toxic dosages of "message" from both sides of the political spectrum.

Art employed in the service of politics is propaganda - and I won't pay to be preached to, whether I agree with it or not. Any artist who thinks that all there is to be said about life can be summed up through political messages alone not only lacks imagination, but has chosen the wrong line of work.
12.15.2006 4:43pm
Preferred Customer:
Seriously, is this post satire?

Obviously, there is "political art" that runs the gamut of political/social views--some noteworthy examples of "rightist" political art (Rand, John Wayne films) have already been posted. Other examples might be films/art that portray certain groups with a negative stereotype, or simply reinforce traditional notions of morality by depicting scenarios in which those notions are seen as good or acceptable (e.g., Leave it to Beaver), or overtly convey a religious message (Davey &Goliath, that weird religious vegetable show, etc.)

But the real head-scratcher in this post is the notion that wrapping political discourse in persuasive imagery is somehow a "discourse failure." Why can't we make the same claim about verbal or written art? If a text makes reference to an analogy that "appeal[s] to emotion," does that "usurp[] reasoned political argument?" While it seems clear that emotion can cloud reason, I doubt I could identify *any* effective political text that did not make appeals of this kind; to say that they are intimately entwined with political discourse is to badly understate matters.

Wait. By saying "intimately entwined" did I cause a discourse failure, by evoking images of sexual congress in order to make my argument more effective?
12.15.2006 4:46pm
Colin (mail):
One reason it is particularly effective is that it generates an additional cost for those willing to challenge its purported message, for in that case the challenger becomes the "party pooper" who spoils the fun by taking the satire seriously. So comedians like Jon Stewart not only ridicule political figures or views. Whether intentionally or not, they also preempt objections to the intended political message ("Give me a break! Where is your sense of humor?").

That assumes that the original critic (and the metacritic) conflate two separate criticisms: "That's not funny," and "That's not true." Perhaps I'm sheltered, but I haven't seen that mistake made very much in criticisms of Comedy Central's political satire, or in their metacritics.
12.15.2006 4:51pm
GMUSL 3L (mail):
I think Teson is talking about political ART (North Country, Civil Action, Erin Brockovich, Boys Don't Cry, West Wing) rather than artistic satire with a political slant or purpose...
12.15.2006 4:57pm
frankcross (mail):
I would have categorized Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly as political art, at least in substantial part.
12.15.2006 4:57pm
Preferred Customer:

I think Teson is talking about political ART (North Country, Civil Action, Erin Brockovich, Boys Don't Cry, West Wing) rather than artistic satire with a political slant or purpose...


He specifically mentions Jon Stewart, which I think qualifies as "artistic satire."
12.15.2006 5:01pm
GMUSL 3L (mail):
yes, but he refers to political satire as "an interesting case" as distinct from political art. They're two different subjects.
12.15.2006 5:02pm
Taeyoung (mail):
Re: Colin:
That assumes that the original critic (and the metacritic) conflate two separate criticisms: "That's not funny," and "That's not true." Perhaps I'm sheltered, but I haven't seen that mistake made very much in criticisms of Comedy Central's political satire, or in their metacritics.
I think the point being made is that when something is presented to you as humour, you get all the benefit for your side, by presenting the other side as ridiculous, but you can beg off of defending your point (the "not true" part) by saying "it's just a joke, lighten up!"
12.15.2006 5:03pm
Colin (mail):
Political art's appeal to emotion usurps reasoned political argument. If you think big oil is responsible for the evils in the world, make an argument. The movie Syriana will not do. (A related puzzle: why is all political art of the left? We have answers to this too.)

This criticism of political art makes two very serious assumptions, both of which are grossly simplistic and mistaken. The first is that political art happens in a vacuum - that the artist makes his argument purely through the piece. This can happen, but is it the usual case? Did the makers of Syriana put their movie on the market and then stay silent about its meaning and context? That's not how I remember things. I recall a dialogue happening through and around the piece.

The second mistake is related. The author assumes that political art does not create a dialogue that happens outside of the piece itself. Part of the value of a piece of art (say, the movie) is that in addition to its internal message, it generates criticism, questions, and responses. These add depth and significance to the piece, and should be taken as part of its context.

I think this vitiate's the author's argument that critics who want "to challenge the political stances represented by the artifact have to overcome the suggestive power of beauty." The political stances of the artifact are present and challengeable outside of that artifact, where the discussion will occur. See my comment above, regarding satire--a critic does not need to say "this is not beautiful" in order to say "this is not true."

Obviously, the author's primary concern is not quite what I describe. He's more concerned, I think, that a beautiful piece is at least partially exempted from criticism of its message because of its beauty. I'm very dubious of that argument. I'd like to hear some actual examples, because I'm having a hard time thinking of any of my own.
12.15.2006 5:04pm
Preferred Customer:

yes, but he refers to political satire as "an interesting case" as distinct from political art. They're two different subjects.


I interpret his "interesting case" reference as meaning it is an interesting subspecies of "political art" that presents its own unique issues.
12.15.2006 5:06pm
Taeyoung (mail):
Re: GMUSL 3L:

yes, but he refers to political satire as "an interesting case" as distinct from political art. They're two different subjects.


Maybe, maybe not. I read "interesting case" to mean "interesting case of political art," that is, that it's a subset of "political art," about which other interesting characterisations can be made, e.g. that it in addition to the cheap-shot, it also makes you look humorless when you point out that it's all founded on lies. I suppose he can come in and set us straight though, when he's got a moment.
12.15.2006 5:07pm
Aristocles (mail):
This strikes me as very old-hat. I seem to recall Plato having similar concerns regarding writing and poets as rivals of philosophers for the role as educators of Hellas. Indeed, many of the dialogues make great use of literary and artful techniques while advocating for reasoned analysis rather than inflaming the passions of the masses.

Also, Vergil's Aeneid is an excellent example of political art in favor of Augustan consitutional reforms, though admittedly it is difficult to classify it as "conservative" or "liberal." Augustus made excellent use of art for politcal ends. Paul Zanker has a delightful text on the matter "The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus".
12.15.2006 5:08pm
RMCACE (mail):
POlitical Art is sometimes the only way to start a discourse on the subject, thus avoiding the discourse failure. Art works if it starts the discourse. This is even more so true if it is fact based. It is a long and difficult process to synthesize facts into a logical, concise, yet comprehensive set of facts to convince a person of a given position. BUt if you out those facts into a piece of art, well, then you can at least get those people thinking.

I think Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Toms Cabin, and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath accomplsih this goal. They start political discourse on the topic, where the was a failure and lack of information beforehand.
12.15.2006 5:10pm
Colin (mail):
Taeyoung,

Yes, I think that I understood his point. Mine is that I haven't seen (A) critics saying that Stewart isn't funny (or simply not getting the humor), or (B) advocates accusing the critics of not getting the humor.

I think that I might agree with the author in general, at least on this small aspect of his argument, but he picked a poor example. Although Stewart claims to be just a comedian, he's not taken that way by his defenders (or, I think, most of his audience). He is presented as someone who has staked out certain positions on subjects such as the role of news media, and I think that his critics and his defenders appraise him accordingly—not as a simple standup. I just haven't heard anyone, in person or in writing, telling his critics to lighten up because it's just a joke. I think his staunchest defenders don't think that it is just a joke, or that his material should be seen that way.

(I'm a little bit equivocal because I'm not entirely sure that Stewart wants to be seen that way, but I do believe that he's put himself into that position. Also, I'm not sure about Colbert. I just haven't watched as much of his show, or read as much criticism of him.)
12.15.2006 5:10pm
GMUSL 3L (mail):
I don't find Stewart particularly funny; I think Colbert is funnier. South Park is BY FAR the funniest, but that's the most elaborately satirical.
12.15.2006 5:13pm
Taeyoung (mail):
Re: Colin

The second mistake is related. The author assumes that political art does not create a dialogue that happens outside of the piece itself. Part of the value of a piece of art (say, the movie) is that in addition to its internal message, it generates criticism, questions, and responses. These add depth and significance to the piece, and should be taken as part of its context.
I think this vitiate's the author's argument that critics who want "to challenge the political stances represented by the artifact have to overcome the suggestive power of beauty." The political stances of the artifact are present and challengeable outside of that artifact, where the discussion will occur. See my comment above, regarding satire--a critic does not need to say "this is not beautiful" in order to say "this is not true."

Yes, but criticism, questions, and responses, in large measure, occur within a frame already established by the movie or artwork -- the political artwork encodes (so to speak) a particular worldview and particular assumptions (perhaps false) and particular conclusions, and works to engage your feelings on the side it feels to be right. In order to push back, in the criticism occurring outside of the immediate context of the work of art, you face the uphill struggle not only to refute the arguments propounded by the work of art or surrounding, supporting commentary; you also have to push back against the discursive framework the work sets up. You have to undermine its assumptions and so on and so forth, and in so doing have to struggle against the feeling and emotional appeal that made the work compelling when you do so.

That is to say, it's not a matter of saying "this is not beautiful" -- de gustibus and all that. It's a matter of arguing "yes this may be beautiful, but it's all lies." And that's kind of a hard sell. Beautiful things stick in memory, but dry tables and figures and academic prose generally don't.
12.15.2006 5:14pm
finec:

"...a zero-sum explanation that is inferior to explanations derived from reliable social science."

And on what planet is there a "reliable social science"?

I am deeply frightened by the tendency to place social science and, in particular, economics, on a pedestal. Social science is a messy process, as complicated by the views of advocates as political art. You just have to look harder to see it. Do you honestly think that the work on Social Security privatization is somehow dispassionate, and that we're going to arrive at the "right" answer? Do you think economists actually understand the effects of monetary policy? Do you think there's a scientific consensus on school vouchers?

Political art, at its best, is persuasive -- it makes arguments that appeal beyond the converted. And these arguments may have emotional force. It is then the role of good criticism to check these arguments. Are the facts accurate? Representative? Is the rhetoric merely a cheap emotional appeal? Or does it arouse passions by drawing attention to forgotten, but evocative facts?

In both political art and social science, a healthy critical environment is essential. If you must make general statements, please emphasize that both forms of discourse are inherently unreliable.
12.15.2006 5:18pm
Taeyoung (mail):
Re: Colin
Yes, I think that I understood his point. Mine is that I haven't seen (A) critics saying that Stewart isn't funny (or simply not getting the humor), or (B) advocates accusing the critics of not getting the humor.

I think we may be talking past each other (in more ways than one!) -- I'm not sure I see your point. I don't think we need to see critics saying that Stewart isn't funny. He is, actually, quite funny, whether or not he's fair; all they need to criticise is the logical implications he invites (e.g. just because something looks ridiculous doesn't mean it's wrong), and factual distortions he may employ. And on the other side, we don't need to see Stewart-supporters saying that critics don't get the humour -- we just need to see them saying "can't you take a joke?" No? I know Teson says
Whether intentionally or not, they also preempt objections to the intended political message ("Give me a break! Where is your sense of humor?").

And that suggests that the criticism they are making, in his view, is that the critics don't get the joke. But I'm not sure that's precisely the argument he wanted to suggest.
12.15.2006 5:20pm
Colin (mail):
This is very frustrating - this is one of the most interesting threads I've seen in a while, and I'm too busy to really commit to it. Taeyoung, I hope you won't be offended if I just can't give your comment an in-depth answer.

The short answer is that I agree with your concerns, but feel that they aren't strong enough to overcome the value of political art. In other words, while there are elements in individual pieces that may contribute to a failure of discourse, political art in general is overall generative of it. I would agree that there are individual pieces that represent failures, and may be intended to destroy discourse - such a piece would fit my personal concept of propaganda, but I wouldn't say that the concepts "propaganda" and "discourse-failures" are equivalents.

While a piece's framework carries some ideational inertia, and that inertia can absolutely be used to prop up an argument that might not be adequately supported with reason or fact, I don't believe that this in and of itself tends to destroy discourse. There are several reasons for that. The first is that I see a positive value in art, and believe that political art generates responses in kind--even an overwrought piece has value if it precipitates an interesting artistic dialogue.

Another reason is that I believe that a heavy framework doesn't necessarily weigh down a mature consumer of the piece. On the contrary, I think that it encourages the viewer/reader/listener to engage the piece in an attempt to separate the message from the medium. I accept that this doesn't always (or often?) happen, but I argue that the impetus is there.

To tie these points into your post:

It's a matter of arguing "yes this may be beautiful, but it's all lies." And that's kind of a hard sell.

I agree. But hard sells improve the quality of dialogue, and the effort improves the participants.

Beautiful things stick in memory, but dry tables and figures and academic prose generally don't.

This is a very valid point. A partial response is that, as I said above, a beautiful lie can encourage a beautiful (and true) response. Obviously that doesn't suffice if the best and most accurate response is a boring table of figures, but again, we hope that the consumer is motivated to appreciate the value of the simple facts because he was engaged by the art (even if the facts and the art clash). In other words, we want the audience to learn to value both the figures and the art, and rationally discriminate between the two. It may be the least common outcome, but I think that it prevents political art from being a failure of discourse.
12.15.2006 5:28pm
Preferred Customer:
One more point, in reference to this:


If you think big oil is responsible for the evils in the world, make an argument. The movie Syriana will not do.


I would argue that bloated hyperbole is a far greater "discourse failure" than political art. The movie Syriana has a number of messages, but that "big oil is responsible for the evils in the world" is not one of its claims. If you have a criticism of Syriana, make an argument. A simple misstatement of the movie's message will not do.
12.15.2006 5:29pm
Jake (Guest):
The unifying theme of the Teson posts (other than the complete lack of responses to reader input) sems to be that argumentative styles that other people are good at are illegitimate, and that the argumentative style that Teson practices is the correct way to make decisions. Ironically, conclusory statements have comprised the bulk of the argument in support of this point of view.
12.15.2006 5:31pm
Colin (mail):

And that suggests that the criticism they are making, in his view, is that the critics don't get the joke.


Fair enough - I think that's an accurate reading of the author's point. I may have been reading extraneous conditions into the argument. It doesn't change my opinion of the post, however. My response is that I don't think that Stewart's defenders have been saying that his critics don't get the joke. I think that one reason for that is that his critics plainly do get the joke. I could be wrong, of course--I haven't really been following a debate over Stewart's humor.
12.15.2006 5:36pm
Colin (mail):
Jake,

It does seem like the most popular and productive guest bloggers are the ones who respond to comments, doesn't it? Perhaps the VC might stress this to future guest bloggers--we're happy to read whomever they invite to write, but we pay more attention to the guests who do more than serialize an article abstract. I'd imagine the guests get more out of an actual conversation, as well.
12.15.2006 5:39pm
Daryl Herbert (www):
Definitely don't lead with this idea: being caricatured as anti-art won't do you any favors in getting your message across.

I also have to agree with those who point to John Wayne as right-wing "art." It hits all the same notes (emotionalism over logic) like comforting bed time stories or even . . . Bible stories! Also: military recruiting, military imagery (this was big in fascist governments, that hardly makes it inherently bad, but it's worth pointing out how much fascists enjoyed political art). Political art does not belong to lefties, even if in this country they're the only ones who get paid by the government to make it (not that, from your credentials, I would assume you are overly burdened with an American-centric worldview)
12.15.2006 5:42pm
Phutatorius (www):
Some thoughts:

Regardless of how you feel about Fernando's post re whether political art enriches political discourse, there's certainly a case to be made that politics can enrich art.

E.g., the Clash. And for my part I thought Syriana was a pretty enjoyable movie. Traffic, too.

Now to the post: I don't think I can say categorically that art can't contribute to political discourse. It might be that Fernando and I have disparate notions of when political discourse is effective and when it "fails." There's an undercurrent in his posts that discourse must be dispassionate, purely rational, ideally conducted and completed (or at least refereed) by experts. In a prior post I criticized that last requirement.

Now as to the first two:

There is a time and a place for emotion in politics. To be sure, emotional appeals can distract from substance. In fact, they're particularly effective: if Cicero teaches us anything, it's that where possible during an oration, produce a baby. These days that translates to "What about the children?"

But such appeals shouldn't be gutted completely from the discourse. I was faulted in an argument a while ago for the level of rhetoric I had reached in a discussion about the war. My point in response: some subjects should tap into emotion. Why shouldn't one get hot and bothered about a practice that, as a general matter, results in the death, injury, and dispossession of innocents (dare I say, children?)? I like to think that if Europe's various nation-states hadn't acted so dispassionately, so rationally in their dealings over the centuries, there might have been a lot less bloodshed.

(By this I don't mean to start a side argument about this war, or war generally. I was just citing war as an example in support of the logic that we might as easily arrive at bad policy through cold calculation (and the absence of emotion) as we might through hot-blooded emotional appeals (unrestrained by reason). We're best off in a world where both motivators check one another.)

I guess I would challenge Fernando to tell me what makes political art different from other forms of political discourse. Why should we characterize Syriana as discourse failure, but not some of the elevated rants of, say, Ted Stevens in the Senate chamber? Maybe they're both a form of discourse failure, as Fernando defines it, but the point is that political art particularly lends itself to emotional appeals, oversimplification, and the manipulation of reality through fictional presentation.

For my part, I think that forms of political art that are infected with these deficiencies of discourse are less insidious than their counterparts in what we regard as "mainstream" political discourse -- news reports, political speeches, press releases, etc. In the former case we're immediately and constantly on notice that what we're experiencing is the product of some artist's creative genius, and if we're at all sophisticated, we're inclined to suspect the authority of what we're experiencing -- because we know that it's been manufactured for us to express something on the artist's behalf.

That is, half of "discourse failure" comes from the listener, who allows himself to be misled, enflamed, duped, or misinformed. If we were as wary of what we hear on NPR, CNN, FOX, and CSPAN as we are of what George Clooney tells us, we'd all be better off. Let's all become better critics, I agree -- but let's not right off the notion that artists might contribute something meaningful to political discourse through their work.
12.15.2006 5:43pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
why is all political art of the left?

Celine, Pound, Junger ...

Not one of FT's finer moments.

Art that one "agrees" with, I suspect, is just "art."
12.15.2006 5:43pm
Ragerz (mail):
Teson's flawed views about political art are similar to his flawed views about contested political issues. Teson asserts that our disagreements are empirical, not moral. But what Teson fails to realize is that empirics alone cannot resolve any debate involving fundamental normative disagreement.

I don't have negative beliefs about police officers in general. But for the sake of argument, suppose that it was thought that police officers somehow support the rich over the poor. Now lets also say that they are not completely zero-sum; they sometimes help the poor in discrete instances as well.

The question arises, is this system just? This is not an endeavor free from normative judgment. One might think that the system is fundamentally bad, even if it has some positive side-effects. That is, no amount of side benefits can make up for the fundamental evil of police officers who support the status quo and the oppression that the status quo entails. (Note: This is not my point of view. I am just trying to reveal the fundamental normative questions that need to be resolved.)

Guess what social science research can never do. Tell us how much weight to give a cost (entrenching the status quo) versus a benefit (incidentally, helping the poor in discrete instances). We have to resort to normative reasoning for that sort of assessment.

Political art, if it is effective, is an argument to give more weight to one thing than before. For example, a piece of art may seek to focus on police abuse, bringing into focus the costs, and really arguing for us to take these costs more seriously. It works on a different dimension than empirical work and addresses a different sort of question. It does not tell us about what the tradeoffs are (it may not even mention the benefits of a particular approach to policing), it is simply an argument to give the costs more weight than we have before.

Here is the better view. Do not criticize political art for not duplicating empirical work or social science. That is not its function. Instead, appreciate it as something that works on complimentary dimension, as an argument to give something more weight to some aspect of a problem than we have before.

I think Teson misses this for the same reason that he thinks most political disagreement can be resolved by empirical investigation. He fails to see the limitations of empirical work. But his view is logical if you buy his assumption that most of our disagreements are empirical. Why would you want to do anything to distract from the holy grail that is empirical work, when it is only there you will find all the true answers. Overall, this is a very impoverished point of view.

We are better off not worshipping statisticians, even while we recognize and are informed by their contributions.
12.15.2006 5:55pm
Shinob (mail) (www):
I think the biggest failure of discourse is the LACK of discourse on any given topic. Their certainly seems to be a failure of the writer of this post to respond to some other opinion. So which is a bigger failure? A political film that sparks a conversation while appealing to emotion, or someone who states an opinion and then doesn't engage in the following conversation?
12.15.2006 5:56pm
Spartacus (www):
Hoosier: your criticism is aesthetic, but de gustibus non disputantem est. I found Rand's political art inspiring (and readble). You don't like it,or disagree with it (I'm not sure which). However, my point was only that not all political art is leftist. Certainly you cannot claim that Rand is not art, because you find her work two dimensional.

South Park is another great example of non-leftist political art/satire.
12.15.2006 5:57pm
Shinob (mail) (www):

We are better off not worshipping statisticians, even while we recognize and are informed by their contributions.


As a statistician I couldn't agree more. Statistics, by themselves, are useless, it is the context and the interpretation that we bring to them that render them interesting. .... it would be nice to be worshiped though. Alas.
12.15.2006 5:58pm
Assistant Village Idiot (mail) (www):
Art is usually designed as a shortcut or distillation. That's what makes it powerful, but also its weakness. By simplifying, it necessarily oversimplifies.

I have some sympathy with Colin's view that art can create a discourse. There is an extreme of that in much modern art, in which starting a discourse about discourses is ultimately silly ("I think it leads to interesting questions about 'What is Art?'" - a caricature of actual discourse). But RMCACE's examples are good ones of artistic works which did push understanding forward.

The complaint that there is also political art on the Right mostly cites examples from decades ago, which is in itself significant. Certain viewpoints have been shut out of serious consideration in the academic and professional art worlds for two generations, and that is only now changing. Popular culture has admitted both left and right-wing political art.

Each medium is a special case, so we should not be surprised that political satire does not fit nicely into generalizations. I agree that Jon Stewart was not a good example in the OP, as there are indeed satirists on the right who are both skilled and popular.
12.15.2006 6:21pm
Daryl Herbert (www):
Phutatorius wrote:
That is, half of "discourse failure" comes from the listener, who allows himself to be misled, enflamed, duped, or misinformed. If we were as wary of what we hear on NPR, CNN, FOX, and CSPAN as we are of what George Clooney tells us, we'd all be better off. Let's all become better critics, I agree — but let's not right off the notion that artists might contribute something meaningful to political discourse through their work.
Mr. Teson does address this; in his first post here at VC he says that people are "rationally ignorant" (which is almost certainly true). But the problem is not just that people are rationally ignorant, but that they don't want to believe they are. People seem to think these issues are really easy, and buy in to these phony debates (I especially like the Bush tax cuts example Mr. Teson gives: which side really made intelligent, careful explanations about why the tax cuts were important? Neither, of course. You're either for 'em or against 'em).

If that's the real source of discourse failure, then solving the problem is going to take a lot more than wagging one's finger at political ideologues who play to that. At the end of the day, they win the elections, and you look like a finger-wagging scold (also: bashing art--makes you look like a scold). And they get to have more fun. Being fair to your opponents might be satisfying, but it isn't fun.
12.15.2006 6:26pm
Emily (mail):
If you are interested in seeing some interesting social science research (I might be biased as a political scientist myself) on the Jon Stewart's effect, I recommend reading "The Daily Show Effect" by Jody Baumgartner and Jonathan S. Morris in American Politics Research journal. Below is the url to the abstract:

http://apr.sagepub.com/cgi/content/refs/34/3/341
12.15.2006 6:31pm
Phutatorius (www):
Daryl:

Thanks for block-quoting the part of my post with the egregious "right/write" typo.

(sigh!)

I guess my point is simply that all political discourse suffers, to some extent, from these defects. The mere fact that some of it is presented as art shouldn't categorically make it more objectionable. And from my standpoint, there's something to be said that art is categorically less objectionable, because art is put forward as an outgrowth of the artist. The attribution reminds us that an artist is behind this, and we should be careful about accepting the expression at face value -- whereas so many other channels of political discourse don't set off the criticism trigger.
12.15.2006 6:55pm
Marc :
Aaargh!

For a bunch of lawyers, you all y'all aren't defining your terms very well.

What do you mean by political art?

Beethoven's 9th, Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, Palestrina's Pope Marcellus Mass each have strong political attitudes and contexts. I do not find them to be failures. Verdi's Don Carlo is wobbler, Britten's War Requiem is a masterpiece of political music and on and on...

I tell my (music) students that if they start a piece of art with a political message it will probably fail as art and likely be embarrassing as a political statement due to the necessary reductionism. However, if in the course of writing they organically intertwine the dynamics of the piece they are writing with some sort of 'message' they feel is practically inevitable and follows from their technique, then the success of the message (or, I guess discourse as you would say) will still be dependent on how the piece functions as art qua art.

Oooo...legal latin.....I got a thrill!


Ther is a huge amount of political art that fails because it expects its message to be sufficient to enable the art to succeed as art. But there is also a large body of work that succeeds deeply as political art. The reason that the unsuccssful examples are so visible is that the 20th century is fuller of them than other periods and we are only now barely beginning to come to terms with what from that repertoire is good and what is bad, to form a sort of canon. In every era there is a boatload of terrible, unsuccessful art. It jus tso happens that the most recent era had more than its share of political art.


And, yes the vast, vast, vast majority of political art is in fact somewhat to the left (as Beethoven and Mozart would have been considered if the terms had been relevant.)

My own feeling as to the reason that is so is that most artists who are successful (in the aesthetic, not financial sense of the word) do not easily fit into the worlds or worldviews conservatives hold dear.
12.15.2006 6:58pm
Sean O'Hara (mail):

I could have sworn that John Wayne was one of the leading producers of political art in this country for a period of time. Fighting Seabees? Back to Bataan? They Were Expendable? etc.

Wayne did indeed produce a goodly number of films with a rightist slant, but the ones you list aren't among them -- they're WWII propaganda films in which he was a hired hand with no control over the content. And too, They Were Expendable was directed by the liberal John Ford.

And while some of the films Wayne produced under Wayne-Fellowes and Batjac had definite conservative themes -- Big Jim McLane, The Green Berets -- most were apolitical -- The High and the Mighty, Man in the Vault -- and some even had progressive messages -- the pro-Indian Hondo for example.
12.15.2006 8:09pm
Julian Morrison (mail):
Can anyone set aside their default theories? It would require introspective discernment and a commitment to truth far beyond the norm. Political art is bad but it's barely worse than the rest. All of normal life is a slanging match. Politics just adds guns.
12.15.2006 9:23pm
Shawn Levasseur (mail) (www):
Art that only exists to put forward a political agenda is certainly doomed to only be appreciable by those who agree with it.

The art can be influenced by and reflect to some degree a political outlook, but the art must come before the politics.

You've got to have an enjoyable piece that can be appriciated by those who may not agree with your position, for it to be any good. (Not to say that is must be, or even can be, universally acceptable)

The best example I can come up with is standup comics. Good ones who do "topical" humor are capable of getting laughs even if you disagree with the politics behind the jokes, because the politics is merely the setup for the humor, not the point of the humor.

The poorer "topical" standups tend to use jokes as punctuation for their views, trying to make the joke serve the politics.

Not to say that its impossible to have an artistic work serve a political goal. It's a difficult trick to do it effectively. A subtle touch is needed, bring the reader/listener/viewer into a discussison, instead of getting up on the soap box and preaching.

It's darn hard to pull off.

I think Atlas Shrugged walks a bit on both sides of this. On one level, the mysteries of the first part of the story drive the story. Then it uses that stage to present a particular world view. It serves as a sophiticated parable.

Galt's Broadcast, however, breaks out the soapbox and the preaching. It doesn't help that John Galt was a better character as a mystery than he was after he actually appeared in the story. He's "too perfect" representation of an ideal to effectivly serve as its spokesman.

The more interesting characters of Francisco and Ragnar serve the purpose of introducing objctivist ideas to the reader. There are also characters that haven't come around to the strikers way of thinking that a reader can relate to as the philosophy is argued.
12.16.2006 12:25am
steve (mail):
Well, fwiw, Plato, a pretty good political philosopher, thought highly of Aristophanes, a pretty good poet and political satirist. I'm not aware that his appreciation of Aristophanes's political art hindered his critical thinking.
12.16.2006 8:22am
M. Simon (mail) (www):
Consider political art as advertising.

In fact the vast majority of political art is advertising.
12.16.2006 12:25pm
M. Simon (mail) (www):
WWII propaganda films are not political?

That is a novel idea.

They may have been for a worthy cause. They may have been "right" (as in correct or political right - take your choice). But, certainly they are political.

Just as much as Nazi wartime propaganda films were political.
12.16.2006 12:31pm
Richard A. (mail):
"Syriana" left wing? That would be news to the CIA agent who wrote the book on which it is based. If it's left wing to be suspicious of the Saudis, then call me a commie.
12.16.2006 6:08pm
Chimaxx (mail):
I'm trying to imagine art that is not political, and I'm not sure I can.

It's good that Teson has dropped his silly claim that all political art is on the left. And it amazes me that people seem oblivious to the depth and variety of openly conservative art: How else describe the book and movie "Starship Troopers", Mount Rushmore and all the monuments in Washington, and all those statues of generals and political leaders scattered across the country, how else to describe this generation's answer to the openly conservative "Dragnet": the "Law and Order" juggernaut? What else were two of the most hyped movie epics of recent years: "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe." The fact that they were fantasy stories did not mask their deeply conservative political stances. The right-wing politics of the new (and even the old) "Battlestar Galactica" could hardly be more overt. Claiming that most all political art comes from the left means ignoring the deeply conservative social politics of virtually every horror/slasher movie. It requires claiming that architecture is not art, since cities and their skylines are dominated by these massive artistic architectural celebrations of commerce and the state. It means ignoring most of the music out of Nashville: The Dixie Chicks were notable because their outspoken liberalism was out of step with virtually everyone else in Nashville.

Can people separate out their criticism of overtly political art as art from its politics: Of course. The rich critical literature on the early films "Birth of a Nation" and "Potemkin" is rife with commentary lauding the power and technique while cricizing both the historical accuracy and the political leanings and shorthand of these works--one deeply conservative and the other profoundly liberal.

That some conservative commentators seem to be able to keep a straight face when arguing that "Happy Feet" is political but "The Incredibles" isn't doesn't make it so. The deeply conservative social and political politics (and Randian hero-worship) of "The Incredibles" is, if anything, far more political than the references to global warming in "Happy Feet."

To Teson's larger argument, that politics in art is a form of "Discourse failure" because it simplifies the issues and only appeals to one part of our brains--this is partially true: Like all models, the models of politics in art are a reduction, and they only appeal to one aspect of our minds. But the same is true of "reliable social science". All models reduce the complexities of the thing-in-the-world that they are modeling. That is waht makes them valuable and what limits their utility. The "reliable social science" approach is in itself an equal form of discourse failure by addressing only the rational analytical part of the brain, and when one is making real policies for real people, that is never enough. It also will always deal with people as aggregate abstractions, but nothing can ever overcome the fact that in real people's lives, anecdote is always more powerful than even the most accurate and beautiful table of data, and everyone who is looking at that table of data will always do so throught he filter of experience and anecdote. Only art can help us understand the often deep and contradictory ways in which we link our fundamental assumptions together--the very assumptions that will shape what parts of that beuatiful table of data and that lovely research are relvant, which are true and which should guide us.

And I'm still not sure where Teson's Ozymandian quest to elevate "reliable social science" and label all other forms of reducing the complexity of the world to a comprehensible model as "discourse failure" is supposed to take us.
12.17.2006 8:50pm
Seamus (mail):
I can't agree with you on Rand. I find here novels to be two-dimensional and full of caricature.

Actually, We, the Living wasn't that bad. But in Anthem she made up for it by making her characters one-dimensional.
12.18.2006 5:32pm