All Art Is Political

It isn’t much of an exaggeration to say that in the past several years, the performing arts have been dominated by Lin Manuel Miranda. The Broadway version of In The Heights was followed by the overwhelming event that was and is Hamilton and more recently, we’ve had the updated movie version of In The Heights. 

These productions secured Miranda’s reputation as an impresario, and his activism and demeanor secured his reputation as a nice guy with good political values. Given his prominence, it wasn’t a surprise to come across recent references to an essay he wrote in December of 2019 for the Atlantic.

It was titled “The Role of the Artist in the Age of Trump,” and it argued that the arts are always and inevitably political.

I was particularly open to Miranda’s thesis because I had just finished reading Louis Menand’s The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War. I lived through the events of that time-period, and I was familiar with many–but certainly not all–of the artists and philosophers and cultural icons that Menand meticulously describes (and frequently deconstructs), but I hadn’t recognized how deeply they were influenced by the times they lived in, nor how deeply they influenced those times in turn. (I recommend the book, but with the warning that it’s a pretty dense read.)

Miranda’s opening paragraph makes his thesis explicit:

All art is political. In tense, fractious times—like our current moment—all art is political. But even during those times when politics and the future of our country itself are not the source of constant worry and anxiety, art is still political. Art lives in the world, and we exist in the world, and we cannot create honest work about the world in which we live without reflecting it. If the work tells the truth, it will live on.

What Miranda’s essay and Menand’s book both underscore is that “art” and “political art” are not the exclusive province of the more rarified and snobbish precincts we call “high” art.

Miranda makes that point by looking at the messages conveyed by–of all people– Rogers and Hammerstein.

Consider The Sound of Music. It isn’t just about climbing mountains and fording streams. Look beyond the adorable von Trapp children: It’s about the looming existential threat of Nazism. No longer relevant? A GIF of Captain von Trapp tearing up a Nazi flag is something we see 10 times a day on Twitter, because all sorts of Nazis are out there again in 2019. As last spring’s searing Broadway revival of Oklahoma! revealed, lying underneath Hammerstein’s elephant-eye-high corn and chirping birds is a lawless society becoming itself, bending its rules and procedures based on who is considered part of the community (Curly) and who is marginalized (poor Jud … seriously, poor Jud). Or consider your parents’ favorite, South Pacific. At its center, our hero, Nellie Forbush, must confront her own internalized racism when she learns that the new love of her life has biracial children from a previous marriage. Let your parents know if they forgot: Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals form the spine of Broadway’s “golden age,” and they also deeply engage with the politics of their era.

In the essay, Miranda discusses the “message” of In The Heights, and its depiction of immigrants as human beings (a “radical act!”), the contrast of that portrayal with the dehumanizing rhetoric of then-President Trump, and the reason such portrayals are important.

What artists can do is bring stories to the table that are unshakably true—the sort of stories that, once you’ve heard them, won’t let you return to what you thought before.. ..I believe great art is like bypass surgery. It allows us to go around all of the psychological distancing mechanisms that turn people cold to the most vulnerable among us.

At the end of the day, our job as artists is to tell the truth as we see it. If telling the truth is an inherently political act, so be it. Times may change and politics may change, but if we do our best to tell the truth as specifically as possible, time will reveal those truths and reverberate beyond the era in which we created them. We keep revisiting Shakespeare’s Macbeth because ruthless political ambition does not belong to any particular era. We keep listening to Public Enemy because systemic racism continues to rain tragedy on communities of color. We read Orwell’s 1984 and shiver at its diagnosis of doublethink, which we see coming out of the White House at this moment. And we listen to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, as Lieutenant Cable sings about racism, “You’ve got to be carefully taught.” It’s all art. It’s all political.

No wonder so many reactionaries hate Hollywood.


The Kids Are All Right

I routinely apologize to my graduate students for my generation, and the mess we’ve made of the world we’re leaving them. I tell them that it will be up to their generation to clean that mess up, and generally speaking, I find most of them up to the task. Unlike people who wring their hands and bemoan the state of “today’s youth”–a practice that began with Socrates’ Athens, if I’m not mistaken–I find the students who populate my classes to be, on balance, thoughtful, fair-minded, evidence-based and public-spirited. They give me hope that they really will improve our common institutions.

Of course, these are graduate students I’m talking about, and self-selected ones at that. So it was interesting to get an email from my sister, who created and runs the art program at Sycamore School here in Indianapolis, about one of her eighth graders.

In my eighth grade class, my students are to keep a notebook.  Each week, I hand out a quote or comment or question about art, and they must respond.  One week, the question was, “Is there any time when art, no matter how well done, should not be displayed?”

Today as I was grading the notebooks, I came across this answer, which I thought might interest you.  (I could show you notebooks that would blow your mind!)
“No, I think blasphemy and profanity are only ever taken down by less enlightened people.  Enlightenment comes from not having a perfect society.  By not allowing both the good and the bad of living, true intellect is unobtainable..”
John Stuart Mill would be proud of this kid. He has figured out what the nation’s founders knew, but so many of our would-be contemporary censors still can’t seem to grasp–the proper response to bad speech is more and better speech–not suppression. Only when all ideas are available for examination can we ever hope to distinguish between truth and falsity.

The Art of Governing

Yesterday, I went to see the movie Les Miserables.  (The theater was full–evidently, going to the movies on Christmas isn’t just a Jewish tradition.)

Les Miz is one of our favorites, and my husband and I were prepared to be critical of the movie version. While we had some quibbles, it was very good; the production made use of the medium to do things that can’t be done on a live stage. As we compared the constraints of the two art forms, stage and film, it was hard not to compare the state of the arts with the state of the state, the state of government–especially since the storyline focused on the French revolution and its aftermath. (Talk about your 99%…..)

There’s certainly a lot of trash being peddled as art these days, but it would be hard to argue that the arts are not vibrant, or that the arts community is not robust. Even here in Indianapolis, hardly a mecca for high art, we have a robust and growing arts culture. Theater, visual arts, dance, literature….the explosion of galleries, theaters and other arts venues over the past 25 years or so has been dramatic. And Indy’s experience has been mirrored in cities around the country. Indeed, the arts are no longer simply a human pleasure; they have become an important economic driver (more important economically, I’m told, than sports).

Both the production and the enjoyment of the arts requires imagination and an appreciation of the complexity of human nature and experience. And audiences for the arts have grown exponentially. Which leads me to a question: why have we not seen a similar growth in the maturity and depth of those practicing that ancient art we call statecraft? We see those folks in business and in our burgeoning nonprofit sector–why are there so few in the public sector?

Why do we continue to elect cardboard cutouts who seem able only to approach the art of governing with trite, one-dimensional slogans rather than thoughtful analyses and innovative proposals?

What have we done to turn talented people away from politics and civic engagement? And what can we do to lure them back to the practice of the ancient and important art of government?


The Death of Satire

I can now officially announce that satire is no longer possible.

It was difficult enough with Sarah Palin–in her famous impersonation, after all, Tina Fey merely recited Palin’s actual responses to questions posed by Katie Couric. Efforts to satirize other political figures of our times–Michelle Bachmann, Peter King, Newt Gingrich et al–are doomed by the fact that their unselfconscious buffoonery is already so far over the top.

And just when I figured we’d reached the outer limits of embarrassing–voila! I give you the Governor of Maine!

From the Lewiston, Maine Sun Journal, we learn that  “Gov. Paul LePage has ordered the removal of a 36-foot mural depicting Maine’s labor history from the lobby of the Department of Labor.”

Evidently, acting labor chief Laura Boyett emailed staff on Tuesday about the mural’s pending removal, “as well as another administration directive to rename several department conference rooms that carry the names of pro-labor icons such as Cesar Chavez.” According to LePage spokesman Dan Demeritt, the administration felt the mural–a pictoral representation of Maine’s actual labor history–and the conference room monikers showed “one-sided decor not in keeping with the department’s pro-business goals.”

That should teach those union goons a thing or two–we’ll just paint out the image of “Rosie the Riveter” and rename the board rooms after the Koch Brothers.

At Political Animal, Steve Benen notes that Governor LePage has been working hard to earn entree to the (ever-growing) ranks of our most ridiculous public figures:

But facts that Paul LePage don’t like apparently have to be shuttered away. Celebrating working people is now, apparently, the kind of thing that might bother business interests. We’re approaching an odd sort of political correctness that restricts messages that might somehow bother the wealthy and powerful.

All of this comes on the heels of the buffoonish, far-right governor vowing to pursue a Wisconsin-like plan to undercut Maine’s public-sector unions

Which was preceded by LePage trying to roll back Maine’s child-labor laws.

Which was preceded by LePage paying for tax cuts for the rich by cutting services for Maine’s middle class.

Which was preceded by LePage picking a fight with the Maine NAACP in which he said, “Tell them to kiss my butt.”

The antics of our elected officials are making me seriously question whether democratic self-government is really possible–not to mention the theory of evolution.

When historians look for an appropriate label for our era, they might consider “The Age of Embarrassment.”