The Partisan Imagination: Does being an artist make you a liberal?

From the Oct. 29 issue of the Charleston City Paper:

You don’t hear about it much, but it exists — the role of art in the democratic process.

We’re a pragmatic country. We don’t care much for shades of gray. It’s easy to see how the cost of education and a housing crisis affect the health of the citizenry.

But reading a novel or watching a play? That’s not so easy to see. Hence, we don’t hear about it much.

Even so, there is a long intellectual tradition of making the case for the arts in politics. In *The Poetics*, Aristotle said drama doesn’t show us what has happened as much as what might happen. In the 20th century, Alexander Meiklejohn, an early advocate of First Amendment rights, said Americans need the arts precisely because we vote.

“The arts cultivate capacities of judgment and sensitivity that can and should be expressed in the choices a citizen makes,” wrote Martha Nussbaum, paraphrasing Meiklejohn, in her *Cultivating Humanity*.

We must nurture a “sympathetic imagination,” she adds in her own words, to understand “the motives and choices of people different from ourselves, seeing them not as forbiddingly alien and other, but as sharing many problems and possibilities with us.”

For Nussbaum, art is a lens through which to understand other people, not a reflection of our political affiliation. Even so, most artists lean to the left.

Look, for instance, at contemporary American theater. You’d be hard pressed to find a play about conservative values.

“I don’t think I’ve come across one,” André Bishop, artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater for the past 16 years, told *The New York Times* two weeks ago.

No surprise then that Stephen Elliot, the novelist, asserted matter-of-factly that “literary fiction is character driven, and to write good characters you have to have empathy, and if you have empathy, you’re a liberal.”

It’s an elegant concatenation of logic, but is empathy really a result of politics? Or does one’s politics result in empathy?

Elliott’s remark was no doubt in response to eight years of “compassionate conservatism.” But it seems to reflect something more than one president’s enormous failings.

Rather, it speaks to the powerful political tensions that characterize American life.

**What do you really mean by ‘empathy’?**

For Andrea Studley, co-founder of the Deuce Theatre Company, Elliott is about right.

After all, liberals have become all but synonymous, in the potent words of linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, with “a tax-raising, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show.”

And let’s not forget that liberals have been for nearly a decade “God-hating elites.” For Studley, whose political satire, *The Emperor Is Naked?*, continues this weekend, liberals need to reclaim the cause of empathy.

“Liberal values reflect caring for the have-nots,” Studley says. “Those values are liberal and Christian, but religion has been identified by the right for many years now.”

Is empathy needed to be a good artist?

Not really, says Conseula Francis, director of African-American Studies at the College of Charleston (and a *City Paper* contributor): “You have to be someone on whom nothing is lost,” she says, paraphrasing the novelist Henry James. “I don’t think you have to like people very much for that to be true.”

As for empathy leading to a political bent, that might depend on how you see the role of government.

If you believe it should help people, Francis says, you might be a liberal. If you believe government should yield to the compassions of churches and charities, you might be a conservative.

But all art is political, says Frank Martin, a professor of art history at South Carolina State University. So empathy is political.

You can’t get away from it, because art’s expression is grounded in a context that is inherently politicized.

“True empathy implies liberalism,” Martin says. “If I feel the pain of the other, that means the other cannot be exploited.

“Thus, empathy is inherently liberal.”

Though the artist’s context may be politicized, as well as his art, how we understand that context can be manipulated, says Tim LaPira, a CofC professor of political science.

Pro-choice advocates, for instance, have empathy for the mother. Pro-lifers have empathy for the unborn. Empathy, therefore, is psychological, sociological and rhetorical.

Elliott’s remark seems to reflect two assumptions deeply rooted in the U.S. Constitution, LaPira says.

According to Thomas Hobbes, author of *Leviathan*, human nature is intrinsically bad. Government is meant to protect our rights and property from the corruption of power.

According to John Locke, human nature is good if we can lift the chains of inequality and injustice. The Constitution, therefore, was designed to protect against tyranny but also to manifest humanity’s altruistic ideals.

So empathy is ideological, too.

Politics may explain why most artists are liberal, says JC Conway, who heads a late-night series at Footlight Players Theatre.

Conway is conservative, a rarity in theater. He believes his minority status has more to do with religious right “nut jobs” than neo-Federalists like himself.

“My personal preferences should not impinge on others,” says Conway, who opens *Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead* on Nov. 6. “Most artists are liberal, because they don’t want to be told what to do or how to live their lives.”

Social conditions, not art, shape one’s politics and one’s degree of empathy, says Lance Mannion (lancemannion.typepad.com), a commentator living in New Paltz, N.Y.

Peer pressure and self-interest, he says, will challenge even the staunchest partisan.

“If a young conservative does set out to become an artist, I don’t think he’ll stay that conservative for long, for the same reason a young liberal who enters the military or investment banking won’t stay liberal for long,” Mannion says.

Still, art can create empathy, says Carol Ann Davis, a CofC professor of English and editor of the literary journal *Crazyhorse*.

Davis believes “empathy is and should be a great democratizing force in that it disallows a certain type of ignorance from flourishing.

“It opens the possibility for hope.”

** The bad kind of empathy?**

Let’s assume for a moment that empathy is an inherent human trait and therefore apolitical.

Still, it may not serve well, as Meiklejohn asserted, the choices a citizen makes. The best empathy comes from a proper education.

A traditional view among metaphysical philosophers is that empathy has to be trained with “moral reasoning,” says Jennifer Baker, a professor of philosophy at CofC.

Otherwise, Baker says, “We act on behalf of those for whom we have empathy and forget about those for whom we have none.”

So empathy has a moral side as well.

In fact, we can empathize someone to death, says Mary Ann Kohli, a self-described liberal who heads the Clemente Project.

Her program offers free humanities courses, like philosophy and literature, to poor students, many of them battered women or former addicts, at Trident Technical College.

“You see it all the time in families with addiction,” she says. “You have to confront the issue, and that can be seen as cold. If you don’t, you can send them down the ladder.

“Destruction usually comes from within.”

So, to recap — does being an artist make you a liberal? Well … maybe. What if we reverse the question?

Does it make you a conservative?

Absolutely yes, says conservative blogger Ann Althouse (althouse.blogspot.com).

“[A] great artist is inherently right wing. A great artist … may have some superficial, naive, lefty things to say, but underneath … there is a strong individual, taking responsibility for his place in the world.”

But that’s another story.

Originally written for the Charleston City Paper.

November 2, 2008 6:13 PM | | Comments (4)

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4 Comments

No surprise then that Stephen Elliot, the novelist, asserted matter-of-factly that “literary fiction is character driven, and to write good characters you have to have empathy, and if you have empathy, you’re a liberal.”

It’s an elegant concatenation of logic, but is empathy really a result of politics? Or does one’s politics result in empathy?

Elliott’s remark was no doubt in response to eight years of “compassionate conservatism.” But it seems to reflect something more than one president’s enormous failings.

Not sure i agree here...

Artists have generally been left-wing, or liberal as they are called in the US, because good art inherently challenges the status quo, which is conservative. However, not all good artists were left-wing. Dali was a fascist, yet considered one of the best and most revolutionary artists of the 20th century (this because his art did not reflect his politics, and because in his art he was willing to push boundaries). Also, as has been alluded, once the left became institutionalized in the Soviet Union, it became indiscernible from the right, so art created under the socialist realist aesthetic was no longer considered progressive, and those artists were no longer considered progressive, liberal. It is more a question of questioning the status quo (whether that is left or right) rather than associating with one political position that makes and artist progressive.

There may be two distinct and essential kinds of imaginative acts in the arts, and both have serious political implications. One is fairly captured by the term "empathy," which involves both a sensitivity to the feelings of others and a capacity to see the world through their eyes, from their perspectives. The concept can be broadened to include the visual arts and music because all arts media, not just language-based media, require artists to frame a subject and establish a point of view.

On this day after our historic election, it is worth reflecting on the second kind of imaginative act -- envisioning something that is not there, the world as it could be, perhaps as it should be. This Aristotelian idea was central to Obama's campaign. It was distilled by the words "hope" and "change," and reflected in the critical role community organizing played in his life and the campaign. Organizers know their first challenge is to encourage people to imagine change in a world that has consistently taught them that nothing changes and that they can't make a difference. They often begin by focussing on relatively trivial issues so the learning curve is not too steep, and liberals sometimes don't take community organizing seriously because it sometimes seems stuck on the trivial. Obama's great instinct was that at this moment the campaign could inspire that grander vision.

Absent the capacity to imagine a better world, hope and change can't thrive. Cultivating that capacity is one of the greatest contributions the arts can make to a democratic society, so it is should come as no surprise that Obama gave arts education a meaningful place in his education agenda.

Artists have been deeply involved with efforts -- sometimes explicitly political and sometimes not -- to improve communities for more than a century. Jane Addams hired them to run the theater, music, and gallery programs at Hull House. They played striking roles documenting both struggles and hopes during the Great Depression. And those traditions have been revitalized by artists all over the country over the last thirty years or more. Again, it should come as no surprise that Artists Corps, an initiative that would place young artists to work in low-income communities and in schools, was a part of Obama's arts policy.

Artists who work in these contexts are frequently dismissed by an art world structured in so many ways as a hierarchy associated closely with social class. "Elitism" was key to the right's successful efforts to use the arts as a wedge issue during the ascendence of conservatism in the 80s and 90s, and it confounds and contradicts the democratic roles the arts also play. But there is much to be said for the idea that the future of the arts and our democracy is tied to efforts by artists (supported by policies) to create artistic experiences that expand our imaginative capacities and reframe the ways we look at and make meaning of the world.

This is a great column.

This discussion about the relationship between art and politics in part depends on what's meant by politics.

If politics means winning power, pushing an agenda, and using ideas as weapons in the fight to make one's side prevail (a good definition of "ideology"), then artists aren't political in this sense, at least while they're being artists.

Consider the literary artist, who must be driven by one goal: breathing life into a character and letting that character go and do everything that is unpredictable -- and yet inevitable if the character is well-realized --everything that people with a political ax to grind would prefer that they don't do.

There's a great interview with Mario Vargas Llosa on the Cervantes network about the whole question of the relationship between the arts and politics. LLosa argues that a contradiction runs right through writers of the Latin American boom. On the one hand, almost all of these writers are progressive politically. On the other hand, in their novels these writers are almost all reactionary. That is, in Llosa's judgment, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the rest present a highly pessimistic, even hopeless view of human prospects in their writing. Their political views, however, are something else again.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, great writers have always opposed the "modernity," where modernity = the bland, the fake, the inhuman, the mass-produced. Yet this opposition has entailed different political commitments depending on the writer and the country. In the United States, opposing the bland and the square moves many writers to the left. But in early 20th century Germany, opposing plastic, fake culture moved some writers to the right.

A case in point is Thomas Mann. In "Reflections of a non-Political Man," Mann defends tradition and conservatism against progressive politics -- which in his mind is bound up with leveling, conformist culture. (He cites the ultra right-wing Dostoyevsky in support of his position.)

Mann's political philosophizing became the basis for "The Magic Mountain" where the arts -- especially music, are bound up with death, reaction, and everything opposed to progress. Remember, it's the forward-looking progressively minded character Settembrini who thinks that music is "politically suspect."

Mann, of course, eventually became a political progressive. But the most fascinating thing about him is his conviction that aestheticism and barbarism aren't that far removed from one another -- a view that probably doesn't represent mainstream thinking among American artists today.

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