The very concept that art inescapably has to be political bar-none is dubious at best, but I think there's a couple of good places to start with that epitomize exactly why.
When I use words like "inescapable," that's because this is the type of thing that the all-art-is-political partisans describe their beliefs as. The general claim usually rings something along the lines of, "All art can be considered political if you reach enough." Obviously these are not their words, words like "inescapable" and "inherent" are the buzzwords they're throwing around. I don't want to create a straw-man of them or their arguments to attack, so I'll be using the actual claims of a few of these people word-for-word, critiquing the substance of their arguments rather than just going after them. (I still might throw some shade though.)
Launching right off into the fray, what is their argument in the first place?
I'd describe their point of view as, "If you search hard enough, you can find a way to describe how something is political."
In the first few lines of Claire Ryan's blog post, titled "All Art is Political," she launches into a monologue about the ability to create art being a byproduct of race, gender, and privilege. While I have a lot of strong words against this nebulous concept of privilege, that is not what we'll be talking about, because for the sake of her argument, it doesn't even matter if "white privilege" is real or not; because if it is, she'd still be wrong.
She begins with saying:
All art is political. I would venture to say that, even further, art is inescapably political; every single part of it, from conception to production to end product, is imbued with politics and privilege. Our ability to create art is shaped by our political environment just as much as art itself is.
So here, she seems to be implying that not only is the art itself political, but because politics affects a person every day, it has somehow become irreversibly intertwined with the art itself.
This completely goes against the teachings of separating the art from the artist. More often than not, it's the stuffy art-puritans of old who constantly insisted that art exists independently of its creator, and is looked at objectively and in the context of its own existence rather than the context of the creator's personal or political life, and more often than not it's these same art puritans who are now insisting that art is forever morphed to the politics that lead to its inception.
Like Nina and her dog fusing together in Full Metal Alchemist.
|I'm not apologizing.|
^Yet, this concept completely ignores intention. There's so much to be said about art and creation as a medium, and one thing that has been debated for literally thousands of years is whether art should be interpreted the way the creator intended or not. One flaw with my own assertion about art existing independently from its creator is that it does technically mean that we can ignore the intentions of the creator when analyzing its themes and messages, i.e., "art is subjective, and it tells me something different than its creator might have intended."
Although, there are genuine merits to that claim. I for one experienced this sort of consumer-creator friction when I watched the movie Parasite. I really enjoyed the themes of verticality; the movie utilizes vertical changes to introduce a lot of interesting concepts and subtle subtexts.
For example, the poor people lived at the bottom while the rich and powerful lived at the highest point in the city. When it rained, it flooded the ghetto areas with sewage and destroyed many homes, but when it rained for the rich people, it was only a mild disappointment.
I also connected the dots between this movie's use of height and verticality in The Witcher 3. In the city of Novigrad, they also have the poor people living at the city's lowest point with the richest people living at the top. These visual ques give off the distinct impression that there's a tangible difference between these social hierarchies. In Dark Souls the vertical nature is used to either signify hope and ascension, or despair and hopelessness, where the game has you ascending and growing more powerful by climbing higher and higher up the Parish to the Church, and then subsequently descending into the lowest bowels of Blight Town, where you feel small, helpless, and powerless. Humbled. But then you get to ascend again, climbing up the deadly Sen's Fortress and eventually reaching Anor Londo and The Duke's Archives. The links between the vertical nature of the game and the corporeal emotions the player experiences are so potent that you can practically grasp them in the palm of your hand.
In Parasite, verticality is also a theme; when they descend, something bad happens or is about to happen, and when they ascend (go up stairs, drive up a steep road, etc.), things are usually good again. I connected that to the same concept in Dark Souls and it made the movie much more interesting when I looked at it that way.
But in an interview, the director of the movie said that the vertical nature of the film was meant to represent the struggles that poor people would experience from global climate change.
That explanation felt really flat and anti-climactic to me--the film was so much more interesting to me when seeing it through the lens of social indifference and ascension vs descension. Yet does that mean that because my subjective opinions of the movie differed from the director's that they're automatically wrong? Perhaps not. So I will give credence to the people I'm arguing against in that I think more can be derived from art than only the messages intentionally caked into them by their creators.
Yet that fact alone doesn't dispel the many other doubts that easily crop up when someone claims that all art has to be political because of its inherent qualities.
One reason that requires no research or fact-checking whatsoever is this simple a priori argument:
If everything is political, then nothing is.
Allow me to elaborate.
If everything is political, then how would we define the word? In order for some things to be described as political, some things would have to not be political. Otherwise the word means fuck-all. The dictionary has a couple of definitions for "political," but while they aren't super narrow, they definitely aren't broad enough to be all-consuming all-encompassing concepts. The dictionary defines political as:
"Relating to the government, governing or public affairs of a country,"
"Regarding the ideas or strategies of a group or party."
The second one is a bit more broad, but it's necessary. For example, let's say someone wrote a book about why "A wall between the US and Mexico was a good idea," or "Why a wall between the US and Mexico is a bad idea." While not directly about politics, a book about the border wall would definitely be political because it's about something that is actively and currently being debated in politics. The same could be said for any book about gun control or abortion--even if "abortion" doesn't equal "politics," it's very much a political arena. So when people insist that everything is political, that's kind of what they mean, but they're still wrong. Because not everything is a political arena. A book about abortion, while not being inherently political, would definitely be political in our current landscape because abortion is one of several political arenas of thought, but there is a limited number of these arenas. Abortion, gun control, taxes, immigration, and a few others make up the things we can call "political arenas," but zebra do not. There is no political party actively involving the concept of "zebra" in their ideology, so a painting of a zebra or a book about zebra would not be inherently political.
Since there are actively people debating political ideas through subjects like gun control, immigration and abortion, it would be virtually impossible to write about those things without the final product being political, but any subject that is not a political arena is fair game.
One time I got in an argument on Twitter (I hate Twitter. I should really delete that toxic cesspool one of these days, but I'm weak and enjoy arguing with belligerent assholes, so I probably don't have the guts to actually permanently erase all of that. Plus if I were to depart, then the belligerent assholes win, and we can't have that.) about whether or not art was inherently political, and I gave a few examples of art that wasn't political. One example I gave was a kid's picture book about a caterpillar.
This one, to be exact.
But this leads me to...
In one of my previous posts I went to great lengths explaining Occam's Razor, and on the off chance that any of you have read that one recently I'll spare you the bleeding eye sockets and get to the point. Occam's Razor merely means, "Whatever conclusion requires the fewest assumptions is more likely the correct one." In other words if you were in New York City and you heard hooves, you should assume it was horses and not zebra. Sure it's physically possible that there's a zebra trotting up and down the streets of New York, but it's almost guaranteed by merit of probability that it's horses making the sound and not zebra.
If we apply this same principal to art, we can argue that it's more likely that the creator of The Very Hungry Caterpillar thought that caterpillars were a cute, child-friendly subject for a kid's book geared towards teaching toddlers basic English.
The Twitter rando argued that the living conditions, upbringing, and racial privilege of the creator of any piece of art would affect the art's inception. Well, no shit, if the bar is set that low, then technically all art must be scientific too, because everyone who's ever made a piece of art has been affected by the laws of physics in some way, and every piece of art must also be religious, because every artist was somehow slightly affected by the existence of religion in some way, by virtue of the butterfly effect, and every piece of art must also be a commentary on zebra because if you connect enough dots you'll eventually be able to find a connection between the art and zebra.
This whole argument reeks of the slippery slope fallacy, almost to the dizzying extent of those old DirecTV commercials.
But it also reeks of a bigger sentiment, this nebulous concept that politics encroaches on every facet of human behavior. Shoe-horning this type of claim is an egregious sin in my opinion, because it implies that politics is the end-all-be-all of human interaction, psychology, sociology, and philosophy, that all of it comes back full-circle to politics somehow. And while to some extent that's almost true, the underlying problem is that it places a priority on politics as the final conclusion of the human condition and doesn't consider any of the other fields of knowledge in their gradation. Irrespective of the nuances and subtleties of human behavior, this type of mindset is damaging in that it implies, "We can't have nice things."
"Escapism is dead! Escapism remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us?"
Of course, the obvious flaw with this line of thinking is that if art is subjective and we can ignore the intentions of the creator (which we can, and I have, such as with the creative vision of Parasite, which I left with a completely different interpretation), that also means anyone can ignore your interpretation. In other words, you can leave a movie or book with a political message of some kind if it suits your fancy, and you can think that there were political undertones in the story even if they weren't intentionally put there by the creator, but that doesn't mean every other viewer / reader has to leave with the same impression. Trying to turn subjective opinion into objective fact is something art critics have been trying to do since the dawn of time, and it's never worked.
Although now instead of the stuffy art puritans of old trying to tell us that there's no such thing as "abstract" art, now it's angsty journalists who can't have nice things. Because of their egotistical obsession, they believe that since politics permeates every decision that they make, that it's impossible or inconceivable for anyone else to enjoy something for its own sake and not for a political agenda.
The problem I see forthright is that when they take something as complex and nuanced as politics and insist that everything ties back to politics in some way, they tarnish the very nature of the word by stretching its definition so thin that it becomes a shapeless, amorphous blob and not a well-defined concept.
It also spawns innumerous contradictions; if the intent of the creator doesn't matter, then how does their life experiences leading up to the art's creation matter? If their own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that they poured into the media can't even affect whether or not it's political and what its subjective message is, then how on Earth is their skin color, upbringing, or economic status able to fulfill that role? Do they mean to imply that your skin color or subconscious political bias more directly affects the art than your conscious choices and intentions?
Saying that a picture of a butterfly some little kid drew is political because of the political concepts that affected them growing up is like saying the drawing is about science because particles from the Sun hit them while they were drawing it. It's so mind-bogglingly irrelevant that people sound like moon-landing conspiracy theorists or flat-Earthers when they try to reach that much.
Not to mention that claiming all creation is inherently political bastardizes the entire concept of art by prescribing all art as propaganda. The goal of art is to be honest and authentic to its vision; it doesn't owe its allegiance to political doctrine, or to philosophical or religious ideology. Art doesn't need to justify its existence with politics. This mindset implies that art isn't good enough to exist on its own, and that they only exist as a vessel for political rhetoric. Little separates the adherents of the "all art is political" crowd and 13th-century clergy insisting that art can't exist independently of religion and that all art must either be a religious dedication to God or else it's a direct attack on God himself.
|This is what art becomes when you make it political. Look at what you did, Claire Ryan.|
Right off the bat, I feel there's something I ought to clarify; art can be political. Just like how art can be religious. Many books and paintings were made with the clear intent to display a political message. Yet the capacity to be political doesn't instantly make all art political.
And of course, something might have been imbued with a political message from its creator but give off a different message altogether to those with different subjective tastes; after all, we've already established that you can see subjective themes and ideas differently from the artist. And if not, then case closed--not all art is political because not all art was created with political intent; checkmate.
Another problem with the claim that all art is political is that words exist to convey information, and while not literally all words do (like the word "the", which doesn't really mean anything and is just a visual and auditory link. If you want to confuse somebody, ask them to define "the" for you), all adjectives do convey something specific. An adjective is defined as, "A word that denotes an attribute," and the word "political" is an adjective.
If I said, "That person is skinny," or "that person is fat," the adjectives skinny and fat denote a specific quality or attribute that can be distinguished from others. A person cannot be both skinny and fat. They could be "average," which is in-between, but being average is neither skinny nor fat.
Saying a dog was "cute" denotes an attribute, and that attribute is cuteness. So what attribute does "political" denote? It denotes something linked either to the governing of a government or its public affairs, or the ideology of a political party. If it does *not* do that, then it is not political. If "political" can mean anything and everything--which it would if literally everything was political--then "political" can't even be a real word because it's an adjective, and all adjectives denote a specific quality. If everything is political, then what information does the phrase "It's political" convey? Absolutely fucking nothing. If everything is political, then telling me something is political does not give me any information or denote any attributes of any kind. However, if some things are political and some things are not, telling me "This book is political" or "this book is not political" conveys an attribute, or the lackthereof, giving meaning and substance to the word. In the latter scenario it actually means something and can be measured and defined.
The claim that all art is political also ignores the honest intentions of the common person.
Take the concept of "cool" for example. I'd be lying if I said that I didn't write 1/3 of the things that end up in my story just because I thought they were cool.
If a story or movie features lots of big fights, dramatic explosions and cheesy lines of dialogue, odds are it was created and consumed--not because of its commentary on capitalism, social status or Donald Trump, but because "they thought it'd look cool."
A lot of people think explosions are cool. I think cheesy action movies are cool. There's nothing deep or meaningful about some wall of muscle like Arnold Schwarzenegger swinging around a mini gun and mowing down incompetent generic baddies, but I'd be damned if I didn't enjoy watching that type of shit anyway because he has a cool accent and looks badass as hell.
|The flames in the background tell a very compelling message about the social-geological climate of Siberia.|
It's quite interesting looking at art through the Schrodinger's Cat lens. It means that all art is simultaneously political and not political; every piece of art can be interpreted as political by one person and as non-political by another.
That almost technically makes Claire Ryan and other followers of this cult correct in their claim that all art is political, but it also means they're simultaneously incorrect and that no art is political.
Isn't philosophy fun?
They seem to actually believe that the mere existence of politics is a black hole from which nothing can escape, therefore everything is political and all art is political. Nevermind that we already talked about how that makes the word "politics" so watered down that it wouldn't convey anything (gonna try not to repeat myself), but it also means that ideas and concepts like "cool" can't exist. Something is perceived as cool if it's seen as fashionably attractive or aesthetically appealing. That's why sunglasses are "cool." That's why explosions are cool.
And if you don't think sunglasses and explosions are cool, that's fine because what's cool or not is subjective. Yet one thing most people can acknowledge is that not everything is cool. While people will inevitably have differing opinions on what things are cool and which ones aren't, virtually everyone would agree that not everything is cool. This is actually the subject of the Steve Lichman comics for the most part. The very concept of something being cool implies that in order for something to be called "cool," it has to be cooler or "more cool" than something else. That's why words like "lame" exist; to describe things that aren't cool.
Language is malleable and constantly evolving, yet there are some concrete base ideas that will never change because they'd be at odds with their own existence and would create a paradox.
All bachelors are unmarried, because if they were married they wouldn't be a bachelor in the first place.
So back to the Syndrome meme, if everything is cool, then nothing is cool. If everything is political, then nothing is political. But it also means nothing can be cool that was created and consumed purely for its cool factor, since that would be at odds with the stipulation that all art is political.
Then there's subject matter.
Then there's the gray area; some stories might have politics in them but not be about the politics. I'd say Game of Thrones was an example of this, as is The Witcher 3. This is because politics exist in The Witcher 3, but the story is focused on the characters, primarily Geralt, and not on the politics. Also there are other things besides politics in The Witcher 3. There's also a sky and grass, but the story isn't about grass or clouds. There's buildings in The Witcher 3, but the game isn't about architecture. The mere existence of something in a piece of art doesn't make it the focus of that art. Of course, these loons believe that politics is more important than architecture, more important than any other subject, so if a video game featured both politics and a focus on architecture, they'd argue it was about politics and not architecture, which might disgruntle a passionate architecture nerd somewhere.
"What's that? You really like world-building and character development and think The Witcher 3 is about those things since they're a prominent feature of the story? Fuck you, it has politics in it so it's not about those other things."
I'd say with Game of Thrones it's a bit different because some people will experience it as a story of characters and character arcs while others are only interested in it for the politics, since a pretty massive portion of the show is dedicated to the politics of Westeros, so in that regard I'd say Game of Thrones can definitely be interpreted as more political than The Witcher 3, but whether or not it's the characters or politics that are the focus of the story is something you'll have to decide for yourself.
Yet if the subject of a book is "Hero struggles, eventually beats bad guy, the end," even the existence of politics in that story wouldn't make it political. Most stories in fact can be labeled as having the "hero's journey" as their subject matter. My current WIP Enid has loneliness and social dissonance as the subject matter (I changed my mind about The Pen Pal, I'll write that one after Enid). You'd need a tremendous suspension of disbelief to make every piece of art accommodate the worldview that all art is political. You'd have to ignore spoofs and gags that were created for cheap laughs, jump scares in horror films that were made for cheap scares, and fiery explosions that exist only to look cool. You'd have to turn a blind eye to anything that exists for its own sake and doesn't justify its existence with some random political message that was shoe-horned in at the last second.
There's also the existence of tropes.
Claire goes on to say:
Maybe there's a case to be made for good intentions, or plain ignorance. A white author tries to write a "reverse racism" story, and inadvertently propagates all the same tired old bullshit of actual racism. A male writer writes a slasher horror story where the only girl who survives is the virgin, without once considering the kind of message that sends about female sexuality. Unfortunately, damage is not negated by intentions or ignorance. Those are explanations, but not excuses, and these narratives do cause damage regardless. (How narratives cause harm is a topic for another day.)
I mean I could pick this apart for days; what if a black woman wrote the exact same story word-for-word where only the virgin girl survives the slasher? If a person like Claire Ryan was to look at a piece of art or read a story without knowing the race, gender and economic upbringing of the person who created it, she'd be forced to judge the product by itself and not by the context of its creator, which would probably make her uncomfortable because she wouldn't know whether to be offended or not. But nevermind that.
Ryan here talks as if tropes don't actually exist. The mere existence of a trope is not an endorsement or political stance. Sure you can argue that some tropes are probably over-used and lazy, but that doesn't make a story that features one automatically politically aligned with that trope. There's also condemnation.
For example, I'd say that for all the art that isn't political, one good example of one that is is Huckleberry Finn. The book prominently features discussions of racism and its affects, and because that is one of the main subjects of the book, that would make the book a political one. Yet many people don't see it as a book about racism, but instead as a racist book. I literally knew teachers in high school who condemned Huckleberry Finn as a racist book because it had "the n-word" in it and had scenes where black people were treated as inferior to white people.
But there's one tiny flaw with their line of reasoning....
That's the point of the fucking story. They're supposed to be the bad guys. The people who hate Huckleberry Finn and his escaped slave friend are the villains of the story. It's obvious that Mark Twain repeatedly makes racism a thing to be hated and feared in the book, but these simpletons actually close the book at the first display of racism and say, "This book is racist, Mark Twain was a racist!"
The book shows how Huckleberry was once entrenched in the same racist mindset that everyone around him was, and how his adventures with Jim changed all that. This paints a sad picture; that non-political art will be hijacked for propaganda, and that whenever art genuinely does tackle a political topic in an intelligent and nuanced way, it will be mistaken as an endorsement for its topic rather than a commentary about it. They mentioned something about writing a story where the Nazis are the good guys, saying that anyone who wrote a story like that probably harbored some form of political bias about Nazis, and in that specific case I'd probably agree, but then by that logic that would make Noughts and Crosses racist for exploring an alternate history where Africa colonized the world instead of Europe. Which is a shame because I thought that book handled the subject with tact and nuance, and while that story was definitely political and dripping with political undertones, it wasn't an endorsement of those undertones.
A person writing a slasher screenplay where the virgin chick is the only one who survives isn't inherently political. If we go with Occam's Razor, they're actually just lazy and unoriginal. That trope is really cliche and overused, but that's precisely why it's not political. A person writing that generic trash into a screenplay probably isn't passionately supporting caste roles of female virginity, they're most likely just indolent. It's far more probable that they just don't take their job seriously or don't want to come up with their own original ideas than this conspiracy theory that they're all virgin-worshiping creeps with detestable views about women. Again, that doesn't mean I like that trope, as I've said already I think it's lazy, but the fact that it's lazy means it's probably a byproduct of laziness and not a byproduct of abject sexism or politically-charged motives.
The claim that all art is inherently political because of the experiences "dragged in" by their creators also ignores obvious cash grabs.
While I'd hardly call anything written by Cassandra Clare Art™ because of how shit her books are, technically, because they're books, they count as art, so I will very begrudgingly admit that they technically count as art, even if I think it's the lowest form of art imaginable. According to Claire Ryan, Cassandra Clare's Shadow Hunter books--which is nothing more than a shameless and obvious Harry Potter rip-off, are political in nature. Does a person unabashedly copy-and-pasting someone else's story, changing a few names and selling it as "art" even qualify as something that can be political? Anything in the books that can be remotely interpreted as being politically charged can simply be written off as, "It's only in there because it was in Harry Potter, and this book is a Harry Potter knock off." This would also apply to every bad Hunger Games ripoff. After the Hunger Games came out to immense success, lots of newbie writers and plagiarists came out of the wood-works to steal most of the story, almost word-for-word at times, and pass it off as their own original piece of art. You couldn't really make much of an argument for any part of these obvious knock-offs being political because if it's a ripoff of Harry Potter, then the discussion would become whether or not Harry Potter is political, not the Shadow Hunter books, since anything that's in the Shadow Hunter books was only in there because it was in Harry Potter.
(Except for the trashy dialogue and incest, I guess.)
|I didn't actually put this Garden of Sinners wallpaper here for any real reason, I just thought it looked cool.|
To wrap things up I'd like to go into what I think the worst thing about this toxic worldview is, and that's the simple fact that it reeks of, "If you aren't with us, you're against us." If your piece of media or art isn't a political statement about supporting my political views, then it must be a political statement attacking my views. This is a refusal to accept the possibility of disinterested third-party creators and consumers. If Claire wants to argue that everyone drags their political views into their work either consciously or unconsciously, what of those who don't care about politics at all and don't even check the headlines? The people who turned off Twitter and tuned out of social media and Reddit because they didn't care for all the political platforms and just wanted to distance themselves? I refuse to believe a person with no interest in politics and no knowledge of politics whatsoever would even be capable of dragging in political bias let alone be enough of a systematic problem to literally permeate every artistic creation in existence without exemption.
Tying into what I said earlier, if the ability for politics to affect a person automatically means that anything they make is political, then why doesn't it also mean that anything they make is scientific, religious, and about zebras?
Because politics is more relevant, of course.
I'm not actually saying that, but that's how they treat it. If politics wasn't a hotbed for "US vs THEM," I can guarantee you that far fewer people would try to insist that everything has to be tainted with political rhetoric.
I completely reject the appeal to popularity that is the "Politics is everywhere" argument. The mere fact that everyone on the Internet is angrily screeching political slogans and throwing their feces at each other does not elevate politics to a higher status than the other fields of knowledge, neither does it diminish the significance or practical relevance that the other fields of knowledge offer. The existence of science, creative writing, mathematics, religion, and philosophy is not threatened by politics. Politics may be more popular than those as it's basically become a sport, but that doesn't mean that the other fields don't affect people and permeate every life experience as well. I reject this ridiculous and nebulous notion that all art is political because everyone is affected by politics. Everyone is affected by gravity but that doesn't mean a painting of a bowl of fruit is about gravity just because the creator was affected by it at some point, and I'd sound pretty autistic if I tried to claim that everyone drags in their biased opinions of science and the laws of physics when they watch an episode of Bob Ross on Netflix and try to paint along. I don't award politics any special treatment nor do I accept this blind notion that politics is the end-all-be-all of human existence and that everything we make or do has to revolve around it. Politics is not a star that the Earth revolves around, and while there are some aspects of understanding the facets of politics that can serve an important purpose in understanding human nature, it in no way conquers or replaces the other relevant fields of knowledge.
People just get so riled up about their political beliefs and obsessed with political rhetoric that they stubbornly can't consider the possibility that there is more to existence and more to art than surface-level political banter.
No matter how much their lives might revolve around politics, that isn't what the world exists for, and nothing on this planet has to justify its existence with a political label. If anything it's quite the opposite, many forms of escapism are best because they have no tangible connection to anything that affects the real world. People don't tune into sci-fi and fantasy stories to be lectured to about real-world events, and people need to stop treating art as a vehicle for propaganda and political rhetoric and need to come to terms with the fact that art is itself an honest and uncorruptable neutral form of expression.
Again, art can be political, if the creator or audience really and genuinely interprets it as such, or if politics is literally its subject matter, but having political ties is not a prerequisite for a piece of art to exist.
It's none of my business to tell you what to do with your free time, so if you want to make everything about politics, go for it. But if you want to pursue the hobbies you enjoy without being looked down upon or having your hobby hijacked for political gain, you can always stand up to this wave of "Us vs Them" cultists and continue to enjoy your hobbies anyway, completely and utterly divorced of any connection or affiliation to any political side that wants to insist that your hobby is now theirs.
And as always,
may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,
and I'll see you in the next post.