Art, use and politics

Recently, there’s been much interesting discussion bouncing about Overland about whether literature can – or should be – ‘political’. And it’s not long before such questions transform into an argument about the use – or the necessary uselessness – of art. The various interlocutors seem to have found cautious middle ground in the agreement that the use of literature is to be literature.

As Jeff Sparrow commented earlier this month in a fascinating essay on the political in art, ‘literature matters as literature’. That is to say, in articulating the manifold complexities of being alive in a particular time and place, literature broadens our capacities to perceive and to think about who we are. As Sparrow comments of the war poets of 1914-18:

Counterattack is not The Junius Pamphlet, and anyone who mistook the one for each other was sorely mistaken. In terms of politics, Sassoon’s work didn’t – couldn’t – do the same work as Luxemburg’s. But that’s not to say that poetic engagement with the war was a waste of time. Poetry does different things, operates on a different level, provides different kind of knowledge.

I’ve made variations of my own on this assertion. And it’s fair to say that the merest hint that a utilitarian ethos be brought to artistic work makes me instinctively bristle. And yet … there’s an uncomfortable circularity in this argument that I can’t but prod. It might well be that this signals a certain defeat: that I feel that we are in such crisis as a culture and civilisation, that it is now all but impossible even to think about art without implying some extrinsic use.

Underneath my prodding lies a fundamental unease. Is it possible now for art to point towards an alternative reality that transcends its own complicities in the world in which it exists, without that being the merest nonsense, a meaningless fancy? It’s a doubt that was most harshly articulated by Theodor Adorno after World War 2:

Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself with the final stage of the dialectic between culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric… Absolute reification, which presupposed intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely.

This statement has been much misunderstood: Adorno wasn’t forbidding poets to write, or philosophers to philosophise. Speaking out of the great cultural scar of post-Nazi Germany, he was posing a fundamental question: whether culture, which is supposed to be the defining other pole of barbarism, might be implicated by the very processes of its thought in barbarism itself. It’s a question that has yet to find any satisfactory answer, although it’s generated endless discussion, not all of it ‘idle chatter’.

The idea of utilitarianism – the anaesthetising, as it were, of art – is central to Adorno’s extremely complex questionings about art, culture and society: he makes short work, for instance, of Jean Paul Sartre’s argument for the politically committed artist by pointing out that it differs very little from the conservative notion that art ought to ‘give you something’. And this polarity pretty much sums up the argument about political engagement that has been swirling around Overland: the spectre of utilitarianism, whether conceived as mass product or political didactism, versus the necessary moral and aesthetic freedom of the writer.

And yet …

Despite myself, I find myself asking: freedom to do what? To satisfy some individualistic thrill? To fiddle as Rome burns? To make art that justifies itself as art? Is that enough? Doesn’t standing proudly besides art’s essential uselessness in a time of such urgency seem a little … self-indulgent?

Unsupple questions, to be sure. Worse, they’re questions that stab at the heart of my vocation as a writer, which places itself passionately on the side of imaginative possibility and freedom. But they assert themselves nevertheless. What price literary purity if the planet can no longer support our civilisation?

The environmental crisis in all its myriad forms – climate change, mass species extinction, destruction of natural habitats and so on – seems like the ultimate fruition of Adorno’s warnings against reification. In turning ourselves, our work and our world into objects, we are suicidally destroying the natural world, and with it seriously threatening, at the very least, the survival of our civilisation.

In a dark Adornian nightmare, all values are now unquestioningly subsumed in economic value. And it may be, as George Monbiot conceded earlier this month, that the only way to defend the natural world might be literally to put a price on it. This might seem the very essence of corruption and oppression: the forced acceptance of certain values in order to defend what otherwise will be destroyed by those very values.

The Austrian novelist Robert Musil, writing in anguish about the expulsion of Jews from German universities in the 1930s, claimed that the ultimate political oppression for a writer was to be forced to be political. It may be that writers now face a similar dilemma: contemplating the current environmental crisis is an inescapably political act, yet is it possible, as a human being alive now, not to think about it? There’s no way of bailing out of Planet Earth.

If there is any way out of this bind beyond absolute negation or irony, both literary stances that have been gleefully appropriated by the mass media, you can send me the answers on a postcard. I don’t pretend to have any answers myself, or even to have proposed the right questions. It may be that the only answer is in the struggle itself. All the same, it seems to me that a literature that refuses to sully its purity with these urgencies is no more than what its critics claim: a self-indulgent middle-class wank.

Alison Croggon

Alison Croggon is a Melbourne writer whose work includes poetry, novels, opera libretti and criticism. Her work has won or been shortlisted for many awards. Her most recent book is New and Selected Poems 1991–2017.

More by Alison Croggon ›

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  1. I agree and disagree. I can see both sides of the argument, but I also can’t. Of course, I know what I’m saying here is completely contradictory, which is precisely the point. I think the only way to respond to such questions, such debates, is to be contradictory. We should really expect too much in that sense: we should expect literature to be both. We should also desire it.

    I don’t presume to know any of the answers either, but a few things did come to mind when I was reading this piece:

    1. in a sense, even “non-political” literature is political. Everything we do is political: our individual positions are a product of context. So even the most self-indulgent piece of wankery has an intrinsic political meaning as an expression of a certain being, at a certain time in history, within a particular cultural context.

    2. That being said, I really don’t understand writers who believe themselves to be apart from the culture and society in which they live and create, and write as if they are so.

    3. There is also a very mundane problem: that these days, when writers tend to explicitly engage with current political debates, they are often accused of utilising such contemporary concerns in an opportunistic manner, which ironically turns people away from the problems.

    This is a tough one. I don’t believe there is such a thing as artistic “purity” as we are all coloured, one way or another, by our environment. But to prescribe to someone how to create something, or what they should write about, kind of defeats the purpose of writing for me. In the end, this can only be an individual, contradictory and complex decision.

  2. Thanks, Allison. Lots of great stuff in this post. Further to which there is the matter of writers venturing beyond the limits of their chosen form – poetry, fiction, non fiction, journalism – to engage directly in political debate in the public sphere. History is full of shining examples but, overall, here in Australia I think we are still a little reticent to use our skill as writers to further political debate. I’d love to read more big name writers weighing in to the debates of the times.

    Interested to hear thoughts on this from others.

  3. Fascinating and fiery Alison, thanks. Have to say I share your feelings about writing while Rome is burning and the environmental crisis. I’ve especially been thinking a lot about fact it seems that ‘the only way to defend the natural world might be literally to put a price on it’. Yes, it is ‘the very essence of corruption and oppression: the forced acceptance of certain values in order to defend what otherwise will be destroyed by those very values’ – and yet also chillingly apposite in our culture that recognises only one god, money/profit.

    I’m also extremely interested in the role of literature in shaping our belief systems, religious or otherwise, which I think lie at the heart of this environmental crisis (the reification you speak of, the Christian separation of ‘man’ and nature, among other things) – and I suspect that only by changing them can we effect the seismic shift needed to avert it. Otherwise the only hope we have is the pricing of the natural world.

    This came together rather neatly for me last night while reading Flannery’s (fascinating so far) ‘Here on Earth’ when he talks about the belief system of the Telefol hunters of New Guinea, who refused to hunt a rare marsupial (a long-beaked echidna) despite fact it had fattest and tastiest flesh of any animal around because of a taboo that related to one of their founding myths about their ancestress Afek. When the Telefol were discovered by Christian missionaries in 1950s they were told their myths were the work of the devil and within years the echidnas had disappeared.

    For Flannery it reinforces the importance of cultural beliefs in preserving ecosystems, something that’s obviously so amiss in this whole environmental crisis problem because our culture is predicated on money and profit, we cannot see beyond them. Flannery says: ‘I find it intriguing that Telefol protection of biodiversity, even if it has an ultimately Darwinian explanation, was executed via a belief – in the ancestress Afek.’ This is where I think literature comes into play. But not in any prescriptive or superficial way, only through deep thought and imagination, in the way it always has. I still believe poets are the unofficial legislators of the world.

  4. Thanks for the comments, all. Hila, contradiction and paradox is one of the means of dealing with this (it’s certainly the shorthand I used here – I don’t necessarily agree with myself either). Boris, perhaps we do have a somewhat timorous literary culture, but I don’t doubt that it is in part that in the mass media the arts only make the news when there’s some scandal: ie, the msm is not especially imterested in what artists have to say, even when they do speak out, and the substance of what is said is very seldom reported even when it makes the news. This isn’t necessarily the case in other places, Germany, for instance. Though we do have a strong strand of anti-intellectualism in litcrit here: thinking especially of critics like Peter Craven.

    Jane, Jonathan Mills said something similar about indigenous cultures and the possibilities of art in his State of the Arts lecture earlier this year. (I reported on it at my blog, if you’re interested). Certainly, from what I’ve seen and heard, this sense of urgency is widespread among artists.

  5. Remember that story about John Cage writing a book called ‘101 ways to change the world’? These were its first words: ‘You’ll only make matters worse’.

    He puts things neatly into perspective, does Cage. And perhaps perspective does matter here. For instance, the idea that values are ‘now unquestioningly subsumed in economic value’. Actually everything always was included in economics – economics is at root the study of exchanges, a definition so broad that it encapsulates the entire universe. In this respect it performs the same function as, say, physics, or mathematics, or philosophy, or (indeed) politics or environmental science or any other of a number of totalising studies. Of course this can be reductive and deleterious to aesthetics or morality but it doesn’t need to be. As artists I think we just need to keep our heads.

    Whether artists should get involved in politics, motivate to ‘save the environment’ (whatever that means), or to elect a certain politician… well, I suppose that’s up to the artists. But then, if an artist does try to make a change in these spheres, how can we really tell if they make the right change? (‘You’ll just make matters worse’….) On the other hand, I am attracted to the scurrilous nature of, say, political verse, but my appreciation of that is quite often at base aesthetic, rather than political. But on the third hand, when I think of recent examples of this – pro-Barack Obama art, for instance – I am revolted by the relationship implied, essentially a sycophantic artist-patron relationship. (Maybe that’s one reason to be an artist on the right-wing of politics – right-wing pollies generally mistrust artists, and vice versa. That strikes me as being much more healthy than the relationship between left-wing pollies and artists.)

    Yeats’ came as close as any, I think, to a ‘mission statement’ for art – and he would have probably had as little time as any for the idea of utilitarian art:

    Poet and sculptor do the work
    Nor let the modish painter shirk
    What his great forefathers did,
    Bring the soul of man to God,
    Make him fill the cradles right.

    And of course

    Cast a cold eye
    On life, on death –
    Horseman, pass by!

    What does that have to do with art? What use is that? What on earth are we doing on a horse? Perspective!

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