Wednesday, January 21, 2009

My response to Mr. AYW, part 1

When last we left the Acclaimed Young Writer, he had contacted me to ask how I liked his book, then, after I'd politely criticized it, responded with an eight-paragraph lecture on why "reading as a communist," as he paraphrased my stance announced in the subtitle of this blog, "shouldn't be part of art appreciation." His treatise expounded on the aesthetic bankruptcy of looking at art, let alone creating it, based on a political point of view. Here's my earlier post recounting our correspondence.

Because it was a private email exchange, I'm not naming him, and I won't extensively quote him either. A friend suggested I invite him to make his comments public, to sort of debate me, here. But I'm not doing that. He is an Acclaimed Young Writer. He gives lots of readings and interviews and has all kinds of outlets to speak and write his piece. His opinion on the topic of political art conforms to the conventional wisdom; it's propagated everywhere and anywhere by him and by most other prominent writers and writing teachers. In fact, the "art and politics are antithetical" viewpoint is pretty much the only viewpoint anyone in this country ever gets exposed to. Me, in contrast, I'm an obscure writer who's claimed this teeny tiny corner of the blogosphere as a place to air my dissenting point of view. He gets to spout his bourgeois-masquerading-as-neutral spiel everywhere but here. Here, I speak my proletarian piece.

Mr. AYW's anti-political-literature argument in his email to me opened with a bizarre, reactionary (and misspelled) attack on a short story writer for her "reverse-mysogyny," then rambled about a bit before alighting on the main point, that "using political considerations to determine a reading experience" is wrong, and concluding that a political approach is "not an aesthetic position I have a great deal of sympathy with." To buttress his argument he quoted Bellow, Kundera and Woolf. Shockingly, this trio--the scrivener of the middle-class white male experience, the professional anti-communist, and the brilliant bourgeois whose progressivism didn't extend to relations with the servants--all agree with Mr. AYW.

The position, boiled down, is that true art can have no political viewpoint. That creativity cannot spring from any political purpose or express any political ideology. And that it is equally impossible to appreciate art from any but a non-ideological approach.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. It's the position of the entire arts establishment in this country. Well, almost. A writer you might have heard of sees things differently.

Because it's been a while since I wrote here about this whole question of political art, and because the points I want to make will take some time, some thought, and some blog space, I'm going to make those points in a series of posts. Starting today, with points number one, two and three.

Virtually every time I've ever seen the case made that a politically conscious approach to art is illegitimate, and this certainly applies to the case made by Mr. AYW, it relies on three logical (actually political!) bases. None is explicitly stated. Each is assumed to be understood. Each is mind-bogglingly wrong.

1. The argument that true art can't be political is not really made as an argument backed up by reason or evidence. Rather, it's an assertion, backed up by--nothing! It is presented prima facie, as though the assertion needs no proof because it is self-evident to any reasonable person. Actually, the more I review the standard cant the more I'd say that almost always it merely amounts to this. Art can't be political, obviously! Mr. AYW's email, including its citation of quotations, was a prime example of this approach. None of what he wrote me, and none of his "expert" backup, amounted to anything but stating, and re-stating, and re-re-stating, the assertion, as though reciting it frequently enough magically makes it true.

2. This is a variation on #1 but it's worth noting separately. The anti-political-art assertion amounts to a tautology. A tautology, as in my favorite example from the Bill Clinton presidency, is a logical fallacy in the form of a circular argument: thus-and-so is true because so-and-thus is true. In Clinton's case, when he signed the viciously anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 and was asked why he opposed same-sex marriage, he said, "I'm against same-sex marriage because marriage is between a man and a woman." Tautology. Similarly, Mr. AYW and his ilk rely on the tautology that true art can't be political because, why?, well, because if it's political it can't be art. How's that for deep thinking!

3. The entire position against a political approach to art claims to be above the fray--posits itself as apolitical, as it has to in order to not appear baldly hypocritical--when in fact the argument itself is deeply, in fact entirely, political. It is not an argument equally against fascist and working-class art although it may claim to be. Who ever defends fascist art and must be answered? No, it is an argument against working-class, or class-conscious, or, heaven forfend, communist art. It is the argument of the class in power, the ruling class, the capitalists, against the exploited class, the workers. The position that art cannot be political is a position for the status quo, which is an utterly political position. This is so even if the arguer doesn't realize that she/he is arguing for the exploiting class, even if she/he denies it. How can that be? I'll delve deeper in future posts.