This morning's Literary Saloon points out that two Jonathan Franzen interviews discussing the recent Downtown for Democracy readings are available only from German newspapers. The posting prompts me to blog about something I've been thinking about since my NY visit with Terry Teachout, and that's political art.
Terry and I talked about this subject over lunch and we both agreed that politics generally doesn't make for great art. There are exceptions of course but I do think that art that's pressed into the service of the purely political tends to be didactic and formulaic. (I haven't seen Tim Robbins Embedded, and even though I am completely sympathetic to its - and his - politics, it isn't hard for me to imagine it's probably not a very good play.) On the other hand, art with political underpinnings but a broader vocabulary tends to sustain - think Guernica - even if one can question its efficacy.
I've also mentioned previously that when I told Terry I was off to see an exhibit of German Expressionism, he responded with some disdain. I can understand why one might not warm to such art, but as I visited the exhibit what struck me most was the visceral chronicle of the decaying moments before Europe committed suicide. It's an art that was deeply engaged in its time - without being didactic or reductive.
And it set me wondering about where are today's equivalents to be found among American artists? Who are the chroniclers of this time which, in many ways, is as divisive and radicalized as any period in American history? Perhaps this is just another backwater of the literary/genre high/low serious/entertainment argument but I am hard pressed to think of artists - obviously, novelists in my case - who are responding to these times with more than the superficially didactic (although John Barth's new collection of short stories, The Book of 10 Nights and A Night, has caught my attention). Now there are obvious problems in terms of timing - how long it takes to write and publish a novel - and I suppose that some issues can pass their "sell by" date by the time a book gets out there.
One thinks of The Grapes of Wrath. Whatever your opinion of Steinbeck, he managed to build a literary take on a political agenda. Perhaps that role has been ceded by novelists to other forms and media - hell, rap music presently engages the vagaries of the political situation more directly - but if you accept the notion of the artist as engage (as I do), you can't help but notice something missing out there today. It may be that the European tradition has always been more political than the American, which has tended to tilt toward entertainment. Or it may be that the academic directions in which serious fiction have moved in this country have removed it from engagement with the merely day-to-day.