I’ve been meaning to disagree for a while with a December 6 Slate article on the impotence of art in the face of Trumpism. Looking back at the 2016 election, Adam Kirsch contends,
One illusion that will be particularly painful to part with is the idea that high culture and the arts have any effective power in American life.
I think Kirsch conjures up a straw man in his article and, in the process, denigrates certain artistic masterpieces, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Grapes of Wrath. But let’s look at the case he puts forward.
First of all, he talks about a time when it could be imagined that artists had power. In the 1950s, he notes, James Baldwin and Robert Lowell appeared on the front of Time Magazine and Norman Mailer and Lillian Hellman made regular appearances on talk shows. Significantly, he doesn’t comment on whether these writers had any impact on the politics of their time (like, say, the Civil Rights Movement or the Vietnam War) and seems to be more interested in their celebrity status. That’s how he looks at artists today as well. He notes that contemporary figures in the art world don’t command the same kind of attention and says that their irrelevance was exposed by the ineffectiveness of their anti-Trump letters and exhibitions:
During the 2016 campaign, a long list of prominent writers, including Junot Díaz, Amy Tan, and Dave Eggers, signed an “Open Letter to the American People” imploring them not to vote for Trump. There were entire gallery exhibitions devoted to protest art against Trump. But the response from outside the “coastal elite” was mostly silence. The emperor of culture turned out to have no clothes.
This ineffectiveness leads Kirsch to the arrogant contention that these artists don’t understand the “real purpose” of art. He’s confused by what he means by “real purpose,” however:
The central role that writers and artists have played in public debate and popular culture is a thing of the past, but that role was always secondary to their real purpose, which is to create works that help readers and viewers to shape their lives. Art is supposed to be a tool for interpreting our experience and determining our values.
So does that mean that an author like Amy Tan, who in The Joy Luck Club captures the complex dramas of Chinese women immigrants, is forgetting her “real purpose” by writing a letter opposing a bigoted, misogynist candidate like Trump? (Can’t she write letters and novels?) Furthermore, I would argue that Tan’s rich depictions of mother-daughter conflict and immigrant struggles are an implicit rebuke to Trump, whose modus operandi is to scapegoat people of other races and genders.
Kirsch seems to be saying that, because we used to give more prominence to poets and novelists, and because poets and novelists regained some of this prominence thanks to our cultured president, we got lulled into false optimism. Naïve fools that we were, we came to think that “a passionate poem or a rousing play has the power to change the world.” Kirsch, donning the mantle of courageous truth teller, declares, “They don’t,” and then goes on quote the Auden line, “Poetry makes nothing happen.”
Kirsch misunderstands Auden’s poem, and he caricatures artists and art lovers. Few believe that works of art lead to instantaneous changes. But that’s not the same as saying that art is powerless.
In fact, even Kirsch has to admit that some works have had profound political influence. To salvage his argument, however, he then says that these works are not great art:
Even the rare works that do have a political effect in their day—such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was said to contribute to the coming of the Civil War—usually lose their power and interest when that moment is past. In the 1930s, when the world was in worse shape than it is today, artists and intellectuals felt an all-consuming pressure to make their work serve the cause of progress—which meant, usually, the cause of the left, of communism and socialism. The result, at its very best, were works like Carl Sandburg’s The People, Yes and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, both about the perseverance of the American spirit during the Great Depression—and both unimpeachably democratic, but also simplistic, monochromatic, manipulative.
Kirsch is wrong about Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Grapes of Wrath (I can’t answer for Sandburg’s work). They are not “simplistic, monochromatic, manipulative” but profound explorations of race relations in the first instance and of class relations in the second. Kirsch seems to be coming out of a 1950s belief that art that wants to have an impact is suspect, one step shy of Soviet-style socialist realism. Real art for him is concerned only with private feelings, not about political action:
But art works most productively at the point where politics becomes a personal, even private experience. Art speaks most honestly and effectively of the plight of the individual at the mercy of historical events. That is why great political art is so often about the experience of dread and loss, and why it takes such difficult and unpopular forms. Indeed, the political art of the 1930s that remains most vital is often positively hermetic.
I honestly don’t know what Kirsch is talking about here. Is he saying that art’s only relationship to politics is that it confirms our sense that we are powerless? And that art that seeks to rouse us to action is lesser art? I’ll agree that some great art is hermetic, which is to say a kind of hermit’s shrine that one visits for meditation and renewal. But saying that hermetic art is the only legitimate art is reductive. There is plenty of great art that leads to effective political action.
Take, to pick a random example, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, whose modernist style broke with Richard Wright’s social realism but which has provided generations of activists with a powerful articulation of their situation. The narrator doesn’t tell people exactly what they should do, but he helps them develop a strong sense of self, which is an integral component of effective political action. Nor is the experience of invisibility a private one–members of oppressed groups feel this way all the time.
Kirsch writes that the “function of engaged art is not to change the world but to offer other people, now and in the future, a kind of testimony. Artists are not legislators but witnesses.” I respond that this is a false dichotomy. The Barack Obama that is inspired by Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon is the same Barack Obama who engages in delicate negotiations to make sure that 25 million more Americans have health care. Sure, it takes different parts of the brain to read a novel and to negotiate. But ideas, images and narratives move history as much as guns and armies do, and the arts specialize in the former.
Oh, and just because art doesn’t have an immediate impact doesn’t mean that it is fails to change history. British exploitation of Ireland continued for almost two hundred years after Jonathan Swift wrote “A Modest Proposal,” and yet that work is integrally tied up with the history of Ireland’s freedom movements.
Kirsch seems to say that either art creates a private space or it is political propaganda, and I’ll grant him that texts that function as political commercials are not true art. But few people see art functioning that way, and even Frederick Engels once chastised a novelist for making her working class heroes dry embodiments of class struggle as opposed to three dimensional figures in their own right. Art can change the world, only it does it in its own way. By changing the way we see reality, art gives us an expanded sense of what our choices are.
In the end, I always turn to Percy Shelley, who asserted that artists are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Poetry, Shelley argued, opens us up to the potential within human beings, and, furthermore, it does so in such powerful ways that readers may be inspired to work for equal rights and social justice. This is why art is antithetical to Trumpism.
America’s next president is pulling a con on America and thinks he can redefine reality to serve his purposes. Literature, which specializes in exposing bullshit, by its very nature will oppose him. In most cases it won’t mention his name –it will appear to be about entirely different subjects–but the expanded consciousness that it engenders is the very thing that Trump opposes.
Further thought: Some elaboration on the impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is useful in this discussion as it shows the roundabout way that literature operates. Lincoln may or may not have referred to Stowe as “the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war,” but it undoubtedly played a role. That being said, Stowe does not advocate for a war in her novel. Rather, she invests her characters with full humanity–something all great novels do–and after she did so, one couldn’t continue to close one’s eyes to the travesty of slavery. And it’s not only black complexity that she captures. For instances, she brilliantly captures the contradictions into which a sensitive slave owner like Augustine St. Clare is driven. Tom, meanwhile, is more complex than he was seen by Richard Wright and James Baldwin, who may have been responding to his depiction in the Tom shows than in the novel.
In short, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not an abolitionist version of Soviet-style propaganda, as Kirsch hints, but an exploration of how slavery distorts society. And rather than being dated, as Kirsch contends, it remains relevant in a society that still wrestles with racism. I’ve posted in the past on how two of my African American students find continuing value in the novel.