Why all art is political

Art is politics

I sometimes post about politics on this blog. I get told off about that. For example, I once got the following reply to a post on current politics: ‘Celebrities, authors, and others who depend on an audience should think twice before posting opinions.’ But really: all art is opinion and politics.

A disclaimer

Before digging into this, some remarks.

First off, I’m currently not making any money with this blog. In general, most authors don’t make a lot of money. Shows like Californication and Sex and the City paint a picture of writers living it up. In the case of Californication, by writing one great thing and living off of it for years. The reality is most authors have to work their asses off and can not make ends meet from writing alone.

Saying ‘you shouldn’t have opinions because you depend on an audience’ is pretty shitty. Yes, authors depend on an audience, but that audience isn’t very good to them. An employer that kept most of their workforce below the poverty line would be considered exploitative. And to then kick them in the face with a ‘keep your mouth shut about things I don’t like or it’ll go worse for you’ is abuse. It also ignores that most of that same audience enjoys stories on a daily basis — from novels to video games to television shows.

But of course, that’s just the bad faith the argument is given in. Does the argument itself hold any water? Can we separate art from politics and opinion?

What are politics?

So, let’s start with the Wikipedia definition:

Politics is the set of activities that are associated with making decisions in groups, or other forms of power relations among individuals, such as the distribution of resources or status.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics

When I write about politics, I don’t write about making decisions in my local writing group, but about decisions in countries and large organizations.

So, I sometimes directly address the decisions, like the Twitter takeover by Elon Musk, or the US elections. Other times, I look at the context that those decisions are made in. People make decisions based on their world view and certain assumptions. They use a mental model of the world to try to understand what results decisions will have. Politicians push their own models and try to let people buy into them.

And I write about that too. For example, I posted about communism and libertarianism. But I also sometimes take aim at other assumptions and biases that influence decisions and go hand-in-hand with those models of the world.

Finally, realize that while we often associate decisions with change, the decision not to change is still a decision. More about that later.

What does art do?

Moving on to art:

Art is a diverse range of human activity, and resulting product, that involves creative or imaginative talent expressive of technical proficiency, beauty, emotional power, or conceptual ideas.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art

All that creative or imaginative talent described above is used to communicate with people. The core of art is that it invokes a reaction in the audience that they find beneficial. The reaction can be both positive and negative, but there must be a reaction and it must benefit them.

A well-executed concert might evoke awe, while the climax of a novel can trigger grief or joy. Paintings can make people cry. Without the reaction, it doesn’t work. I can paint a wall of my house gray, but when you walk by, you won’t care and might not even notice. So that’s not art.

But the ‘beneficial’ is important too. Trolls on social media try to cause a visceral response, but not a positive one. Their comments aim to hurt, to put people in their (supposed) places, and to take power away from them. I don’t consider that art, it’s an way to exert power, to oppress.

Beneficial means that art enriches us, teaches us things, shows us how beautiful the world and people in it can be. It inspires us, changes us. Ultimately, art helps us imagine views of the world. Mental models that help us make decisions. And often art shows us what consequences certain decisions can have much more effectively than simply telling us. So, yeah… that’s politics.

It’s really politics

Of course, the above reasoning is pretty abstract. So, some examples.

Have you seen Indiana Jones Raiders of the Lost Ark? Or read Anne Frank’s Diary? Or any of another gazillion works of art about World War II? They show us that Nazis are bad. That’s politics. It shows us how bad Fascism is. That’s an opinion shining through the art.

But let’s also look at an example that you might think is not political. Let’s take a classic television show: Friends. Just a sitcom about a group of friends living in New York. No politics, right?

Well… How many characters in the show were black? Or Hispanic? Or Asian? And of course, I’m getting all ‘woke’ here, but the thing is: by making it all about white people, this show reinforces the political message not to change the status quo where white people have privilege. And I shouldn’t single out Friends. I grew up in the nineties, and many of the shows I enjoyed featured almost exclusively white people. That reinforces white privilege. It pushes the decision not to change the situation of inequality. In other words, politics.

On the flip side, Friends also featured a group of people who had lots of free time. It sometimes seemed they could sit around a coffee shop all day and never work. They had regular jobs, but they could afford apartments in New York that most people would kill for. It shows us a world that doesn’t exist (yet). But that influences our decisions, doesn’t it? If a politician were to run on that simple message “I want people to be able to afford homes with regular jobs, like they have in Friends.” or “I want people to have as much free time as the people in Friends”. So, really, is Friends not about politics?

Any story shows us a view of the world. Any art shows us a model that is used to make decisions.

Conclusion

Art is opinion. Art is political. Always.

We artists sketch out images, or sounds, or stories. And those things all show you what the world could be, and comes from how we see it. Choosing what to show influences the audience. So everything is political, all art influences decisions we make.

However, not all art is equally up-front or transparent about it. Both my post on communism and Friends push a political message. You just notice it less. And we especially don’t notice the political message if it matches how we already view the world. That’s not a problem. Art is about beneficial emotions. It should feel good to consume it. Just don’t think it has no politics in it because you don’t see it.

We privileged white people tend not to notice that privilege leaking into the shows we watch. We heterosexual people don’t always notice the absence of homosexuals. We cis people don’t see all the missing transgender role models. But that omission is still a political statement, even if comes in an easily digestible package.

So, I did think twice about posting opinions, and conclude that telling me off on my opinions is not about being apolitical, it’s about censoring my opinions. And even that I could do. If my opinions actively hurt people, I’ll listen. I don’t want that. But the argument ‘stick to your lane because I just want my existing world view reinforced’ isn’t very convincing. Especially when that world view does hurt people.

And with that I’ll end this post. Be political, art demands it.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands

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