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October 14, 2004

TT: Guarantee

A reader writes:

I appreciate your reviews and your guidance. I must also say that I am so surprised that I agree with you so frequently because my politics are very different.

I hear this kind of thing a lot, by e-mail as well as face to face, and I never quite know what to say in response. I'm sometimes tempted to reply, "I know you think you're paying me a compliment, and I appreciate your good intentions, but I wish you'd take a closer look at what you just said. I'm surprised that anybody who thinks the way you do about politics could possibly think the way I do about art. Isn't that what you meant? If so, it's not complimentary, it's condescending. Besides, my aesthetic views aren't governed by my political views. Why should they be? Are yours?"

If this blog has a credo, it is that the personal is not political. Anyone who believes it to be, or tries to persuade other people that it is, will find no comfort here. Needless to say, my own political views are far from secret (or simple), but I check them at the door of "About Last Night." I think it's important that there be at least one politics-free space in the blogosphere where people who love art can read about it--and nothing else.

Beyond that, I believe deeply that art and politics are essentially separate enterprises. Essentially, I say, and I chose that word carefully. Of course an artist who lives under a totalitarian regime cannot help but engage with it in some way or other, as Dmitri Shostakovich did in his music. But it's one thing to seek to evoke the terror of life under Stalin in a symphony and another to write a novel (or paint a painting or choreograph a ballet) whose purpose, whether in part or whole, is to encourage its audience to take some specific form of political action. To do that, as Kingsley Amis has argued, is to compromise the very essence of one's art:

Everywhere in the world literature is in retreat from politics and unless resisted the one will crush the other. You don't crush literature from outside by killing writers or intimidating them or not letting them publish, though as we've all seen you can make a big fuss and have a lot of fun trying. You do better to induce them to destroy it themselves by inducing them to subordinate it to political purposes...

I can't say it often enough: first comes experience, then understanding. I don't think Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony is a great piece of music because it's tonal--I think tonality is valid because it is the basis for great pieces of music like Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony. No more would I allow my response to a work of art to be conditioned by my political convictions. If anything, it's the other way round: my experience of reality, which includes the reality of art, is the ultimate source of my philosophy, from which my political convictions spring. In art, experience is truth, and there is no greater sin than to say, "I know I liked that novel when I first read it, but it can't be good because it's inconsistent with my theory of fiction, so I guess I won't like it anymore." That's the trouble with political art and politicized criticism: they start with theory instead of experience. I can't think of a more efficient way to make bad art.

The only time I engage with political issues as a critic is when I'm covering specifically political art, and even then I always try to start with the immediate experience. Did the play I just saw excite me? Was I moved? Puzzled? Bored? In my experience, most political plays tend to be boring, precisely because the political playwright voluntarily places himself in an ideological straitjacket and thus is rendered incapable of responding freely to the call of inspiration. That leaves me with nothing to talk about but his beliefs, which then become fair game for fisking. On the other hand, I don't want to write about plays like that, and given the choice I won't waste time going to see them in the first place. They're too predictable, and usually too smug as well. (In my lexicon of critical invective, "smug" is the supreme pejorative, worse even than "dull.")

I'm as imperfect as the next guy, and no doubt I've written a few reviews in which I let my political opinions color my critical responses. But I don't think it happens very often. I can't tell you, for instance, how many of my readers are surprised to discover how much I love the films of John Sayles (which at their best seem to me a touchstone of how "political" themes can be treated in an unpoliticized, open-minded way) or the dances of Mark Morris. A fellow critic whom I admire recently described me as "a strong personality--and spectacularly unpredictable." I myself wouldn't put it that way: I don't think unpredictability is a virtue in and of itself, just as I don't think my aesthetic opinions are arbitrary. Still, I know what he means, and I treasure the compliment, in part because it is a compliment and not condescension in disguise.

My criticism comes with a warranty: I can't promise that you'll like what I like, but I do promise that I like what I like--and not because I think I ought to, either.

Posted October 14, 2004 5:40 AM

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