A more meaningful pursuit?

In awarding this blog a measure of sincerely appreciated praise, Kyle Szarzynski of Forward Thinking in Madison and the Daily Cardinal articulates a thesis which he’s proposed to me in the past but which I’ve never quite known how to respond to: Art (and by extension, art criticism and art theory) is a more meaningful pursuit than politics.

I understand and sympathize with Kyle’s position: Politics is a loser’s game in the sense that, depending on how pronounced one’s personal messianism is, one must endure ten defeats for every victory, and often those victories prove only to be defeats in disguise. In politics we encounter figures who strike us as being real live villains, while in art we can breath a sigh of relief upon realizing that Mephistopheles or Jason Compson or Maldoror or whoever are beings confined to the world of fiction and can’t literally ruin your life.

But I disagree with Kyle on the matter of whether one domain, art or politics, is more meaningful than the other. In fact, I don’t think the two domains are any more segregated than are nature and culture, society and the individual, psychology and technology, and so on. Both art and politics are systems of theories and practices which change the world by filling it with objects, whether those objects be works of art, laws, ideologies, etc. Moreover, an artistic gesture seldom has as immediate and decisive an effect as does a political act, while a political act is seldom as rich with significance and metaphysical profundity as is an artistic gesture.

Rather than asserting the superiority of one pursuit over the other, perhaps it’s more constructive to stress the differences and similarities between the two in a non-hierarchical manner. Reality wouldn’t be what it is without either of them, and one wouldn’t be as effective without the existence of the other (the Republican congressional resurgence of the mid-1990s needed the transgressions of modern art in order to ignite the culture wars; French cinema of the late 1960s and early 1970s needed the psychological and political scars of May ’68 in order to develop its disillusioned sensibility; etc.).

So rather than championing art at the expense of politics or politics at the expense of art, what we really need is for local artists, art critics, political activists and political commentators alike to carry out a more rigorous, intensive fusion of art and politics. We have no shortage of grassroots political organizing here in Madison, but rarely do we see any of these movements recruiting and mobilizing local artists or critics to help transmit their message; likewise, if local artists are concerned with politics, it’s often with vague national and/or global matters, like ecological negligence or racial and sexual intolerance. In Madison we have an art scene and a politics scene, but not a politics-savvy arts scene or an art-savvy politics scene; this division is ridiculous given that, as I said before, art and politics are by no means isolated worlds: they are equally important elements of this world, equally significant pieces of a single puzzle.

I tend to agree with Serge Daney when he says that all films are militant films of a sort, that is to say, all art is agit-prop, and likewise, all politics is founded partly upon a clash of sensibilities, a conflict of aesthetics manifested through the conflict of ideals.

These thoughts are vague and melodramatic as hell, I realize; but in a sense, they must be.


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