The topic of politics and art came up recently in a Facebook debate, and I had some perspectives to share. Rather than overwhelming my friend’s Facebook wall, I’ll share them in this post. Here are a few of the assertions made:
“Censorship, even self-censorship to abet a political agenda, is anathema to art.”
“Mixing politics and art doesn’t do art any favors.”
In this post, I’ll start by generally considering the concepts art, politics, and self-censorship. Then I’ll put it in the context of the feminist movement and finish up with a work of political art by Frida Kahlo.
There’s no defining the term art, but as a rough start I’ll say that it is something produced by people that speaks to the soul of those who receive it. (Except that nature makes art, too.) Art is created in a social context. It’s made many times–first by the creator, and then by the person who receives it.
Art is made for art’s sake, as self-expression, as commerce, as politics, or for any number of reasons. What makes it art? That it transcends those conditions of production and becomes something that speaks to the soul.
Art is shaped by culture, and in turn, it shapes culture.
There’s no defining politics either. In the Facebook discussion, everybody was using the term without agreeing on its basic definition, which in my opinion derailed the whole conversation. My own definition of politics is broad and expansive and stems from the feminist movement. That definition is so widely used that ignoring it will inevitably lead to confusion and pointless arguments.
The personal is political. There’s a world of meaning in that statement. When a publicly elected official can pass a law legislating what a woman may or may not do with her womb, the personal is political.
Politics, to me, is everything having to do with the power dynamics of human relationships. And as such, it’s an integral part of art.
Therefore, the assertion “mixing politics and art doesn’t do art any favors” makes no sense to me. It’s like saying “mixing salt and ice cream doesn’t do ice cream any favors.”
Art and social movements
For every broken human institution we’ve ever had, there’s been art to back it up. To justify it, to put it in a positive light. Our culture is the water we swim in, the air we breathe, and it is inevitably reflected in our art.
Then maybe a social movement comes along, intending to change the institution. Struggle ensues, and you’ll see resistance art. This is true for any social movement–feminism, civil rights, communism, or the push for democracy in the late 1700s.
For every social movement against a human institution you’ll have two kinds of art: that which strengthens the institution and that which resists it. They’re both political. There are those who believe in a third kind of art, that which remains neutral. I’m skeptical. Sometimes the people who say that just don’t see the air we breathe.
At the very least, whenever there is a struggle to change our social, cultural, economic, and political circumstances, art situates itself somewhere in the struggle. Maybe it’s actively building a wall against change. Or throwing rocks against a wall, or up in the picket lines fighting and getting tear gassed. It could be standing on the wall trying to simply observe–a risky business. Or sitting down and having a beer with the people who don’t want anything to change, feeling innocent. Perhaps, instead, it’s throwing pies at somebody. No matter what, though, art is somewhere.
And art has power: to change our hearts and minds, to change our culture, to start a revolution or to glorify a king.
Art, politics, and self-censorship
Because art has power, there will always be people making demands of it. Do this! Don’t do that! At some point, those demands rise to the level of censorship. Maybe the artists face execution for their work, or the loss of a job. This is terrible for art (at least until whoever is in power gets deposed).
In that context, I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment:
“Censorship, even self-censorship, is anathema to art.”
However, I don’t agree with this one:
“Censorship, even self-censorship to abet a political agenda, is anathema to art.”
To me, it’s only censorship if the artist is at risk of execution or loss of ability to get a job, or if a censor has the power to stop the work from getting out in the world. There’s a high bar, and for good reason. Censorship is terrible. We shouldn’t weaken the term.
By the same token, it’s only self-censorship if the artist limits or changes their work as a result of these kinds of repression.
Anything else is whatever the artist chooses to do with their art, which is their own business. If they want to change or limit their work to abet a political agenda, they can do that. Call it self-regulation, or editing.
People can even demand that an artist change or limit their work, and it’s not self-censorship. People make demands on art all the time. But art’s going to do whatever it does.
Art, censorship, and feminism
Feminist authors are often told their works are “too political.” We’re repeatedly told, by workshop reviewers and editors, that we should change or limit our literature. Or we’re not told that: our work is just dumped into the slush pile, because its political sensibilities offend.
We’re asked to change or limit our work. We are often rejected by fiction markets because we don’t conform to prevailing notions. I could call that censorship, but I’m not going to. I set the bar high, and it applies equally to both sides of the debate.
The feminist movement has gained in power, and people with feminist sensibilities have our own publishers and publications. We’re everywhere: writers, editors, publishers, reviewers, and on awards committees. We’re even approaching 50% representation in some of these areas, though we have a long way to go.
Now that we’re here, we’re making our own demands. We’re saying, “Artists, we want the world to be different, and your art is part of that. We want you to stop perpetuating obnoxious stereotypes. Or even better, could you take our side in this struggle we’re having just now?”
The demand itself–this is not censorship.
Art, feminism, and backlash
In the field of fantasy and science fiction, as in all the other fields of art, feminism has encountered a backlash. No surprise there. Part of the backlash is asserting that feminist fiction has politics, while good fiction does not. A lot of the people who believe that politics and art can be separated are really referring to politics that violate cultural norms. The politics that validate them go unnoticed.
Another part of the backlash is the accusation of “political correctness.” This accusation, ironically, is used to silence a demand. We want our culture to change the way we use language, especially the way members of oppressed groups want people to refer to them. These are not unreasonable demands. If somebody is calling me a b**h or a c**t, I would ask them to stop.
However, I don’t have the power to make anybody stop using words. I don’t have the power to enforce censorship. I don’t want that power, either. I want the power to effect social change as one member of a democratic debate.
The work in question
The work in question was “Five Signs Your Story is Sexist–Against Men.” This article considers five stereotypes: male heroes with no relationships, fathers that are distant or judgemental, men that are divided into winners and losers, male consent that’s disregarded, and feminine men who are mocked. And it offers suggestions for how to fix fiction that has those stereotypes.
I don’t agree with all the advice in there. In some places it overstates its case and makes political statements I don’t agree with. Nobody should take its proscriptions and follow them blindly. At the same time, I was so happy to see a feminist article that talks about how stereotypes hurt men, and to tackle them as an element of craft.
In no way does this article privilege politics over art. Feminist politics are all about the nature of human relationships, which is a proper subject of art.
So I don’t see this work as any less legitimate as another article on the same blog, “Five Characters That Are Too Powerful.”
I have disagreements with both articles, and I’d happily participate in a lively debate about them. But one thing they both do well: they start a fascinating and productive conversation about craft.
All art is created, distributed, and remade in a social, cultural, economic, and political context. It takes politics as its subject and it makes proscriptions. And if it’s really good art, it transcends politics, proscriptions, and context. Take this painting by Frida Kahlo, “Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick.” It is overtly political, and it leaves us face to face with the unknown, watching and wondering.