Saturday, December 16, 2006

Does Political Art Subvert Political Discourse?

Fernando Teson:

A noteworthy case of discourse failure is political art. Many people regard art as a legitimate vehicle for political views. Indeed, many have insisted that artists ought to be politically committed. The aesthetic experience may raise peopleÂ’s political awareness. And, if one believes in moral-political truths, it seems natural to recommend that artists convey those truths in a way people can readily understand. Thanks to the emotional power of beauty, art can, at least sometimes, help noble ideals reach the general public. Many of these works have great artistic value (Picasso's Guernica, for example), and some of them have surely contributed to worthy causes.

However, political art is a special form of discourse failure. Art is a type of concrete imagery, and as such it evokes a "fact" that may activate default theories in the audience. Those willing to challenge the political stances represented by the artifact have to overcome the suggestive power of beauty. Political paintings (say, Diego Rivera's murals) often suggest causal connections that, for the reasons I indicated in my previous posts, permeate theories that people hold by default. Political art's appeal to emotion usurps reasoned political argument. If you think big oil is responsible for the evils in the world, make an argument. The movie Syriana will not do. (A related puzzle: why is all political art of the left? We have answers to this too.)


Many people see political art as a healthy form of social criticism. For them, consuming and appreciating political art epitomizes the critical attitude. I disagree. political art hinders critical thinking. It reinforces people’s fundamental default beliefs, and sometimes it does so by questioning their superficial beliefs. Thus, a novel may convince readers that their prior belief in the kindness of the police is wrong, and that in reality the police are henchmen of the ruling class. No doubt these readers may regard this novel as having transformed their beliefs on the matter, and in that sense political art may be seen as challenging their beliefs. At a deeper level, however, the novel may well have appealed to the reader’s default theories, for example by showing the role of the police in making some people rich at the poor’s expense – a zero-sum explanation that is inferior to explanations derived from reliable social science.

I will completely dispute that Guernica, or anything else by Picasso, has great artistic value. Otherwise, I generally agree with Teson. Political art has no more nuance than a street protest. Street protests have value, as well as art that protests injustice. But bothoversimplifyversimply complex issues.

The difficulty is that some issues are complex, and some are very simple. And we all seem to disagree about which is which.

My preference is that art remain untained by the ugliness of politics. In the midst of incessant bickering between angry, shouting voices, it would be nice to have a pristine refuge of sanity and peace. Who wants to be perpetually outraged?

Hat tip: Glenn Reynolds

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