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.

 

 

 

31 thoughts on “All Art Is Political

  1. Likewise “Inherit the Wind” about the Scopes money trial is art about politics – a powerful story. So is “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and so many others. If they would be true to the actual details of our history of slavery and racism, it’s history we need to know. I’m white and it may embarrass some whites. Big whoop. I can handle it. Bring it on.

  2. Thank you, Nancy Papas, for calling out my all time favorite movie, “Inherit the Wind.” Professor, don’t forget “The Wizard of Oz” as an example of the Industrial Revolution. Great column, Professor

  3. Miranda is making very relevant points about truth. I’m not sure that I’d heap a load of praise upon Hollywood as a place of great truth-seeking, or great artists, because much of it isn’t worth watching. They’ve pursued the path of greed with quantity over quality. Commercialism.

    I believe that can be said for all professions and not just artists—the pursuit of truth or to sell out our truth for profit or popularity.

    It’s why one of my theses was about politicians being servant leaders as defined by the constitution. A servant leader is a moral leader. But, as a politician, the truth isn’t exactly your friend in 2021. It’s gotten to the point that laws have been passed saying that politicians can’t be held accountable for lying — they’re allowed to lie as a public servant since that’s what politicians do.

    Luckily for us, we have the faithful and powerful free press to hold our politicians accountable. LOL

    Us peasants do value the truth. Humans value the truth. “To thine own self be true.”

    However, power doesn’t like the truth, so sometimes great artists disguise the truth with painting, comedy, or drama. It’s a diversion. The great irony is when those in power appreciate the masterpiece mocking them because they can’t see the truth beneath the object.

    Speaking of truth, John McAfee died in a Spanish prison yesterday as he was to be extradited to a US prison. In October, he got a tattoo with the words “$whackd” to say that if he is found dead in prison like Epstein, it wasn’t a suicide. Great art?

  4. “The Ox-Bow Incident” If you’ve never seen it,
    it’s best movie you’ve never seen: political art
    at its finest. “The Third Man” is also political
    art at its finest, but you’ve certainly seen it!

  5. While it is more of a niche audience, I am a lifelong science fiction/fantasy fan, and the best exemplars of that genre (in any format) cause you to view “the real world” differently when you have finished reading/watching. Gene Roddenberry’s vision for Star Trek is just one example, but the reboot of Doctor Who also tackles uncomfortable facts about our world. And the books, the authors…Ursula K. le Guin, Lois McMaster Bujold, Sharon Shinn, Nnedi Okorafor, Octavia Butler, and Sheri stepper, to name a few, have influenced my thinking about our world in ways uncountable, by showing how things play out in a fictional world where things can be carried to extremes. Yes, all art is political. I can usually make a fairly accurate guess at an author’s politics if I’ve read more than one of their books.

  6. We are inherently political and that’s why our good art is political.

    I’m not sure I would consider the Puerto Ricans in “In the Heights” immigrants, since they only moved from one area of the US to another, even if one of our Presidents didn’t realize that.

  7. How about any movie with John wayne! A guy who rode small horses and carried small guns to make himself look bigger and more impressive to the white folks that love his westerns! He was the epitome of white strength and how the white man could change the world by riding a small horse and carrying a small gun, lol! He roiled on Johnny Carson about black folks, and obviously didn’t pay much of a price for it. That’s why on channels that promote white evangelicalism, he’s considered a god! He was considered such a patriot but never served in the military, even though he made his bones playing military heroes in some former fashion either in wars or the old west, go figure!

  8. An old saying Art imitates Life. Many years ago Gangsta Rap made itself known. It was a punch to the head and gut, in terms of the lyrics, with the “F” word Ho’s, drugs, violence and living on the edge. It was for many unpleasant to say the least to listen to. Yet, the Gangsta Rap told a vivid story of how a segment of our population lived.

    The lyrics were condemned for “X-Rated” content, the circumstances the lyrics described were ignored.

  9. Watched the 1951 version of “Show Boat” last night– first time– which deals with miscegenation. A bold subject. (I think Indiana still had an anti-miscegenation law on the books in the mid 1960s, even as my wife and I were in the wedding of friends, presided over by Rev Bill Hudnut in 1st Pres; she became the governor’s press secretary and a local tv reporter. I’ve never read Ferber’s 1920s novel on which the movies are based, so I don’t know if liberties were taken.

  10. Let’s not forget the pushback to that era of films with blacklisting of writers/directors and much anti-Semitism aimed at the studios.

    Yes, the films were political, I’m sure they made much more than “a dime’s worth of difference” to the viewers who focused on the entertainment.

  11. Lester,
    Yep, great point.

    How many suicides did that cause? How many lives did that ruin? And how many turned a blind eye to the injustice?!?!

  12. Typed too fast – my comments should have read: I’m NOT sure they made much more than “a dime’s worth of difference” to the viewers who focused on the entertainment.

  13. Lester; “Gentlemen’s Agreement” with Gregory Peck produced a pitiful attempt to attack anti-Semitism in this country. The same way movies depicted pitiful attempts to show racism and bigotry during those years; but they were all we had.

    Nancy Papas’ mention of “Inherit The Wind” brings back memories of the court scene which gave the best interpretation of creationism vs. evolution in any movie. An issue which is ignored today except in politics which has become the worst route to take to resolve a major issue.

    Anne; the movie “Giant” concentrated on caste system, rich vs. poor, throughout the movie along with the Anglo vs. Mexican-American which has become a national issue due to Trump, et al, and their inhumane “solution” to our problematic southern border.

    JOHN PETER SORG; kudos for your description of John Wayne’s movie persona being mistaken for being the man. In reality he played a major part in creating the infamous Hollywood Ten Blacklist, destroying lives of his fellow Hollywood stars.

    And for those of you who see Atticus Finch as the epitome of the attorney brave enough to confront racism in the south; do NOT read the sequel to “To Kill A Mockingbird”, “Go Set A Watchman” (actually written first but published years later). You will be greatly disappointed to learn he was an avid segregationist.

  14. Sorg @ 8:38 am good call. I remember from my Boomer childhood all the Westerns and Crime shows on TV where you could watch killing after killing, night after night. Interspersed were the perfect White Families, Dad had a job, Mom toiled in the home, kids knew not disobey or question their elders and they lived Happily Ever After at the end of the show.

  15. There’s political art and then there’s POLITICAL ART. A note from an actual POLITICAL ARTITST.

    Sheila hits on my pet subject today. ALL ART IS POLITICAL, but some more than others. a lot more–I’ve been making that argument (and promoting my political paintings) to the gatekeeps of the art world for fifty years…and they laugh in scorn. I’m talking about art of paint and canvas origin, art that if it happens to be political, or contains actual content, the art world discards as inferior and unimportant. But, you say, if you’ve paid attention to the high priests of the art world, Look at all the protest art selling for mega bucks nowadays.

    To date, NONE of the vast array of art, classified as political art but is merely protest art, has passed the means test of superstar-quality impact. Why? Because while acing all the questions in regard to how awful things are, which we already know and which tragically advertises the tyrant’s power to injure, and getting all the easy questions right in regard to choosing issues against which to protest, political art has gotten all the difficult questions wrong …all the questions about quality and style and metaphor and draftsmanship and poetic symbolism and philosophical irony and content subtlety and classical and contemporary artistic concerns, and worse–political art has totally failed at effective tactics and strategy. And it has been too cowardly to be EXPLICIT, to name names and call a spade a spade.

    The political artists up until now have shown a lot of rag-tag passion but have displayed little professional discipline. They have not understood whatsoever the enemy’s weakness …or how to strike at it…or how to look appealing and smart while doing it…or how to truly speak to the host population.

    The great lesson protest painters need to learn about the their real power and the most effective tactical employment of that power may best be learned from the world’s great newspaper editorial cartoonists–attack the idea not the person; ridicule the idea; turn the idea into laughing-stock; avoid the universal; depict actual faces; name names; be explicit. Despots know that they cannot survive brightly lit exposure of the ridiculous and unnatural nature of their regime’s underlying philosophy.

    In 2011, masked members of Mukhabarat, Syria’s security forces, attacked the Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat. They broke both his hands and dumped him by the side of the road, then published a notice that said, “This is just a warning”. His art was guilty of ridiculing an idea held by authority.

    In 2006, the Iranian government jailed the political cartoonist, Mana Neyestani, in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, killed nineteen people associated with the artist, stoned his home, burned his newspaper’s office and exiled his family. His art was guilty of ridiculing an idea held by authority.

    Both the above protest artists, not political artists, not quite, but willing to go with a bit of explicitness, and dozens more such artists, mediocre as most of them were, but with similar stories of brutal and desperate regime obstruction of their art, are examples not of the weakness of political art nor its ineffectiveness, but rather, importantly, they are clear witness to the opposite–the ability of political art, when done right, or even not quite right, to instill fear and a sense of panic in the establishment.​

    Real political paintings, such as mine, bring into art’s mainstream the bold, brazen, humorous, unique, outrageous, and lovable wiles of newspaper political cartoonists, together with all the questions and controversies attending such a heinous proposition, and my paintings call a spade a spade; they are explicit; and although they contain symbolism and generalities, they don’t cower behind it.

    A Despot Ridiculed Is Despot No More

  16. Are not politics always a collective choice to progress or regress defined by conflict? Isn’t that, except for the “collective” part also the heart of storytelling?

  17. True confession time: for me, personally, “true” art is a respite FROM politics. More and more I search in vain for simple beauty, harmony, thoughtfulness, human emotion as relief from the everyday, all of which is now politics. I find myself staying away from, rather than attending as I have in the past, “art” events – plays, exhibits, etc. as they are all starkly political, many straightforwardly hardline ideological. I think all this has really blunted/blurred their intended impact. There…got that off….

  18. John Sorg’s comment in re John Wayne reminds me of the reason he changed his name when leaving Iowa for Hollywood. His name was Marion Morrison, which sounds more like a desk-bound accountant than a rough and tough cowboy with six guns ablazin’. Interestingly, though he slew many an Indian in his career per films dominated by extras, the Indians won and Wayne lost in the real world. He was a heavy smoker and died of lung cancer from smoking tobacco, an Indian gift to the invading Europeans.

    All art may be political but it is not a stretch to claim that all politics is theater, thus completing the circle and bringing us back to where we started.

  19. To everyone this morning!

    A lot of you don’t always agree with my viewpoints, especially when I start quoting scripture, lol! But, today, you all are on fire and on point! This is a fantastic thread this morning. And from all different sorts of eyes, from all sorts of backgrounds, the same conclusion has been arrived at.

    That in itself is hopeful. I couldn’t be more proud to be part of it!

    ML,

    Take a look at a lot of the lyricists concerning gangster rap! You would be surprised at how many white lyricists were writing for some of these artists! Individuals who never lived that lifestyle, or, had never been a part of it! It was all about the Dead Presidents! Because people were sopping it up like biscuits sop up red gravy!

  20. My cynical self (coming up a lot more lately) suggests that making/experiencing a lot of today’s “political art” in all mediums is as much “virtue signaling” as BLM signs all over white suburbia. Sho is easier than direct political involvement…” Just sayin’

  21. John Sorg great point, many well intentioned artists needed to be educated to the their ways, our society is changing and artists like Morgan Freeman are pointing out how much our society has changed giving more freedom. Unfortunately racism is only pointed out by the mefia ehere political opponents are sayingbit, Hunter Biden used racisl dlurs and the media won’t report on it. Shameful
    Today art is also about a sexual revolution, men in art are still being taught that respecting a woman comes secondary to his own desires and needs. Unfortunately we arent moving fast enough in this area. When art is questioned then freedom is challenged and women in this arena are collateral damage. Artists need to understand how they can develop and destroy the person.

  22. From the very earliest beginnings of human tribes, human culture we have been story tellers. The earliest human civilizations created jewelry, pottery, and other forms of art.

    As a songwriter, I know that many of the songs I write are not per se political. Some are. I wrote a song “Don’t Look at a Nasty Woman” after the January 2017 women’s march. I wrote it in part because I wanted to write something more angrily assertive than the song “I Can’t be Quiet.” I use verses from the Magnifcat but use the pronoun she for Godde.

    The song I wrote titled “The Small Difference” is my rebuttal to hate crimes and was sung by the Indianapolis Women’s Chorus. It received standing ovations. It asserts that small acts of kindness or speaking truth to power are very powerful indeed.

    I remember the folk songs of the 60’s that confronted racism and classism. I sang those songs in college in a folk group I was part of. I recall watching people in the Civil Rights movement singing “We Shall Overcome” and “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round” as they walked in the streets. The gospel songs of slaves were coded messages about going North and getting free.

    I think that sometimes art simply reflects the culture of America and does not engage in political confrontation. Some art is an escape. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was dismissed as escapism by some critics. His rebuttal was simply that people do want to escape sometimes. I would not, however, say that his work is totally escapist. There is an underlying confrontation of widespread industrialization and its indifference towards perserving the earth, the English country side. The land of Mordor is what he witnessed at the Battle of the Somme. It has a classic understanding of evil being that force which wants to bend everyone to its will, to turn them into automatons who have no free will.

    And then there are the comedians like Stephen Colbert , Wanda Sykes, and George Carlin who are politcal comics. Wanda Sykes and George Carlin are rudely confrontive. Carlin’s monologue on “Stuff” is extremely funny and confrontive about consumerism. When Sykes uses coming out as black to show how insane a parent’s reaction to a gay child’s disclosure can be, I found myself laughing till tears rolled down my face.

    The arts can be political,confrontive, escapist, humorous, uplifting. They help us process tragedy and the difficult struggles inherent in human nature. They help us celebrate and mourn. They help us confront injustice and the inherent evil of war. Without a song or a dance, a painting, a sculpture , a story or a movie, what would life be?

  23. No art is ART IN FULL until it is political. Non political artsy fartsy stuff lacks import and impact. No artist is an ARTIST IN FULL until his/her art deals with vital issues, projects the artist’s stand, shines truth on the despot’s philosophy, and forces the timid, like Lester, to confront their fear of conflict. True; only a very few pieces of art of any genre qualify as ART IN FULL, and they ONLY are the art that we speak of when purporting ALL ART IS POLITICAL. All other art is false and acquiesces to the status quo, an act, a flag of surrender—grandma’s watercolor of daisies, as are John Wayne’s movies, is part of the problem and zero part of the solution. Ninety percent of all the expressions we mistakenly call art are not art, because they are mere diversions, and therefore cannot be included in the statement ALL ART IS POLITICAL.

  24. Larry – Ho Ho Ho….count the white suburban folks who became activists/politically involved after proudly buying/displaying BLM signs (no doubt enriching Mr. Bezos who sold them). WADR – a lot. While not all “political art” is convenient virtue signaling, consider how the most political art (rightward or leftward) has actually contributed to our political divide, rather than brought us together…

  25. Guess I am “out of it” – Monet’s “Waterlilies”, Schultz’s Peanuts humor, “You’ve Got a Friend” music – none “woke” me…

  26. My son-in-law works as an art liason between Hispanic, and established art councils here in Indpls. Presently, he & my daughter are in Chicago to view Freda Khalo’s paintings & connect with the Mexican Museum outreach people.
    I’m a fan of Khalo’s, her depiction of her pain expressed in many of her paintings, etches through to the soul. The vivid colors and the personal settings invite you into her composition to find your own interpretation and outlet.
    My daughter’s husband is invited to visit some small cities in Northern Indiana to help set up arts programs promoting Hispanic (Mexican arts). Using the best of cultures (arts)to bring people together & promote human understanding has valuable unifying qualities.

  27. In regards to John Wayne, Ethan Wayne his son in a CNN interview clarified how his father regretted using the language of the interviewer in a contentious interview that lasted eight hours in 1971. He stated he worked in a progressive community with a diverse group of actors that his comments were taken out of context and in this contentious interview were an outlier to his life and the contributions he made. Outlier to those who haven’t taken statistics means that in this case in the whole of things its suggested that you throw them out.
    If Mr Wayne had repeatedly made these kind of comments it couldn’t be suggested by his family that this is a misrepresentation of who he is.
    My question is should art be political? Why cant it be spiritual? Why cant it be beautiful and in many ways noncontroversial where it is soul cleansing? In a world where there are suicides, crime, hate and dismay, why cant art also be unifying? Im not trying to miss the point of it is being used to direct us toward understanding the society we live in. A society where our forefathers had the wisdom to point us in the direction that we were created equal.

  28. Lester, au contrare. Establishing hispanic arts in the middle of Indiana is political. In the shadow of the trump regime empowering white supremists, and stoking mistrust & hatred toward immigrants it’s a white hot political issue.

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