Here’s an excerpt from a recent interview
with playwright Tony Kushner, published in Seattle Weekly:
How important is it to be political in the arts right now?
You can’t find any important work of American art, in theater or anywhere else, that doesn’t have a very powerful political dimension. [But] whatever you do with your day job–and writing plays is what I do–is no replacement for activism, which is a necessary part of being a citizen in a democracy. And not to be foolish and think that writing a political play is going to do it, because there’s only one thing that does it–organizing and voting and demonstrating and fund-raising and e-mailing and joining groups. Art is not [it]. I mean, I admire theater groups that mobilized around the antiwar effort, but I don’t think that’s essential, and it can be incredibly misleading because you wind up with everybody getting up and doing sort of a performance piece about the war. What we really have to be doing now is organizing people to get out and vote for the candidate that the Democratic party nominates for president. It’s the one thing that counts right now. And nothing else does.
I’m sure Kushner believes every word of this. But…all important American art is political? Really and truly?
Rather than belabor the blindingly obvious (though I can’t help but wonder whether Kushner is tone-deaf), I want to share another quote from you. As I was proofreading the Teachout Reader, I came across something John Sayles once told an interviewer. It struck me so forcibly that I made a point of including it in an essay I wrote last year about Sayles’ film Sunshine State. Asked why so few American directors make politically conscious movies, he replied:
It’s easier not to, and sometimes it’s really not the point of a movie. Sometimes it would really get in the way. I think more than being political or not political, it’s often the problem of being complex: The characters aren’t heroic. Sometimes they do things you don’t like, even if you may like them, and it’s hard to know exactly who the good guys and bad guys are, because everybody is a little bit compromised. And if you put that into your average adventure movie, it makes it complicated in ways that slow the movie down and really aren’t appropriate for that particular movie.
All of which goes a long way toward explaining why I love John Sayles’ movies and don’t much care for Tony Kushner’s plays, even though I doubt that Sayles’ politics are noticeably different from Kushner’s.