Why Art is Inherently Political

Each Monday we feature an article from Capital Commentary, a weekly current affairs publication by the Center for Public Justice. To read more, visit http://www.capitalcommentary.org.

"In our age, the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act. So long as artists exist, making what they please and think they ought to make, even if it is not terribly good, even if it appeals to only a handful of people, they remind the Management of something managers need to be reminded of, namely, that the managed are people with faces, not anonymous numbers, that Homo Laborans is also Homo Ludens." —W.H. Auden, from "The Poet & The City" (1962)

Humans tend toward falsehood. Alone or in community, we continually develop wrong ideas about why we’re where we are and how we therefore ought to live. Our values shift like tectonic plates, metanarrative goes askew, and suddenly what appeared to be a civilized society is allowing slavery or committing genocide. Or our personal moral commitments erode, undergo scores of tiny revisions, and we find ourselves indulging in behaviors we ought not. As individuals and nations, we rationalize our lives. 

This is why books like Fahrenheit 451 and Animal Farm are valuable not only literarily but socially. Bob Dylan’s “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” is similarly valuable. McCarthyism needs to be checked and corrected whenever it arises, and it will always arise in various forms. But few debate the value of satire (which I nevertheless explained two years ago in Comment).

  "In our age, the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act."- W.H. Auden.

"In our age, the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act."- W.H. Auden.

Auden’s argument is broader: Art itself is necessary, because it embodies Homo Ludens, man at play. Can play correct falsehood or reset government priorities? Not directly, but a society that gives play a place is healthier not only culturally but politically. This is nothing new either, at least not for those of us who suffered through middle and high school. In school, social power and, to whatever extent possible, organization resorts to the playground and other outdoors areas. Students have almost no power in the classroom itself. The classroom feels like a dictatorship. “This is not a democracy,” teachers say when students question their instructions. 

In a real democracy, the playground helps self-government work. In urban centers, art galleries, bookstores, libraries, and concert venues are signs of vibrancy. They make a place feel habitable—pedestrian friendly. Writ large, that principle means a habitable country celebrates, among other things, poetry. When Oscar Wilde observed in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray that “All art is quite useless” (and later explained in a letter to a reader), he was speaking ironically. He compares art’s uselessness to a flower’s, its beauty being momentary and for its own joy, joy which might be shared by those who stop to look at it. It should not be useful in a commercial sense, he writes, or designed to incite action lest it be “of a very second-rate order.”

That effect of that simple joy, outside of instruction or apparent direction, is impossible to measure. Sometimes it’s hard to justify. Plato regarded poets as a problem for the well-ordered state and subject to banishment. Auden, perhaps because he was himself a poet, regarded them in precisely the opposite way. But Auden’s reasoning seems sound: Poetry tends to humanize us. It calls attention to our individual personhood; it elevates singular voices that are saying personal or unnerving or outlandish or dreamlike things in memorable ways. If it seems that Charles Bukowski, Charles Schulz, and Dwight D. Eisenhower were speaking different languages, well, they weren’t. 

The lesson here is that there is no need to justify poetry within a democracy—or to try to explain its enduring value. There’s little need even to explain poetry’s political importance. Human culture gives government its shape, especially in a democracy, because humans govern humans. We govern ourselves. And we are all, one presumes, if not art’s patrons, its consumers.

- Aaron Belz lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His third collection of poems, Glitter Bomb, is due out from Persea in June. Follow him on Twitter at @aaronbelz.