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Why Good Politics Makes for Bad Art
Addendum to an essay for Tablet
Published today in Tablet magazine is a new essay by me on the incidental, noninherent relation between politics and art. You can read it here (no paywall). An excerpt:
“All art is political,” a notion with which we are bludgeoned, derives from two facts of formidable substance: that (i) artworks are produced by and exist for people, and that (ii) wherever there are people, there are politics. Gut bacteria also are present wherever there are people, though are we advised less frequently to seek in poems and sculptures hard truths about the microbiome.
The essay’s definition of politics will be too narrow for some; “the business of governing the polis” is not what they mean by the term. In cultural spheres a broader working definition, broad to the point of total nebulousness, is operative. Politics are relational, speculative, a matter of being and becoming. Politics is about power.
How political subject matters are treated in art is the topic at issue, but readers of a certain academic disposition will counter that artworks’ forms, no less than their contents, have politics. Whitman’s use of parataxis—his long lines within and across which nouns, the people and places and things of the world, are granted equal importance—is a rejection of hierarchy. (They are called subordinating conjunctions for a reason.) Leaves of Grass, the argument follows, is formally democratic. Literary artists who abstain from capitalizing or punctuating do so, we have been told, as an expression of their radical politics. The great Catherine Liu recently recalled the scholarly-artistic trend of associating narrative closure with authoritarianism (persons who like the former are said to love the latter).
As an exercise, analogizing the forms taken by artworks to forms of social arrangement can yield some passably entertaining results, if you go for that sort of thing. Academics, it should be remembered, are no different from the man in the street. They will find a way to talk about what they want to talk about.
On the question of art’s political efficacy, the poet George Oppen was honest as few artists are today. A man, and a poet, of rare integrity, Oppen in 1933 joined the American Communist Party and thereafter ceased writing. Along with his wife, Mary, Oppen gave his time and energies over to organizing for worker’s rights in New York; as a poet, he refused to produce propaganda for the Party. (“To use verse for the purpose [of politics], as everyone perfectly well knows, is merely excruciating,” he would later write.) By the early forties, at odds with CPUSA’s activities and principles, Oppen left his job as a toolmaker and mechanic to enlist in the army. He fought in France and Germany, including at the Battle of the Bulge, and was seriously wounded by flying shrapnel—he survived and would receive a Purple Heart for his service. In 1950, under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee for their prewar political activism, George and Mary, along with their ten-year-old daughter, left the United States for Mexico, where they remained for eight years. Only on returning home, in 1958, did Oppen return to poetry.
If you decide to do something politically, you do something that has political efficacy. And if you decide to write poetry, then you write poetry, not something that you hope, or deceive yourself into believing, can save people who are suffering. —George Oppen, 1969 interview
Oppen’s maintaining that his commitments to poetry and to politics were separate did not stop his acolytes—poets of the next generation who established Oppen’s place in the American canon—from deeming his poetics as political. That he did not write poetry for a quarter century has even been deemed political. For Michael Davidson, Oppen’s “silence was political in that it represented the inability of art to provide an adequate image of human suffering.” Davidson’s definition of political is, I fear, too nuanced for me to grasp. Eliot Weinberger states his opinion absent any underlying reasoning: “Oppen’s silence was political and not personal, ideological and not ‘writer’s block.’” Little can be gained from disputing such claims. I would simply restate my argument in the essay, that to situate all human thought and belief, utterance and action, nonutterance and inaction(!), on a political axis is to misapprehend the full (and finally unknowable) scope of our nature.
Elsewhere in his otherwise wonderful preface to Oppen’s New Collected Poems, Weinberger offers an example of the political force exerted by the poet’s compact verses:
All of those elders [Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Lorine Niedecker, Louis Zukofsky, Carl Rakosi] enlarged the possibilities of poetry . . . but only Oppen, among them, spoke directly to the political consciousness and the political crisis of the time. In 1968, amidst the powerful (and still powerful) overtly political poems being written by Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg, and so many others, it was Oppen’s Of Being Numerous that, from its opening words, struck me, still a teenager, as the poetry that had captured the interior essence of where we are, who we are, right now:There are things We live among ‘and to see them Is to know ourselves’.
These lines are now philosophical, but they were once political, for then the things we lived among included the first televised scenes of war and the photographs of napalmed children: Was seeing them seeing ourselves? Over and over Oppen emphasized that the function of poetry was a test of truth; he may have been the last writer in the West to use the word “truth” without irony.
Weinberger recognizes that his politicized interpretation of Oppen’s lines was bound to his and his peers’ context. For a time, the poem was read politically. But even then, those readers who understood the lines as speaking to their political moment believed the lines to be philosophically true: The poem, for them, expressed a truth about society and the self that—for them, again—had political consequences. The political reading was always derivative of the philosophical reading.
One might say that Oppen is an important poet still because the United States is always at war, its citizenry always implicated in the bloodstained project of imperialism. Or, instead, one could say Oppen is important now as then because his worldview, like that of all great poets, is worth the effort of meeting and challenging, taking from and being burdened with.