Political art

Fernando Tesón has a post here and right above it at the Volokh Conspiracy attacking political art, condemning it as a “discourse failure” that tries to make its audience change its views without ‘real’ evidence. Plato was also a little nervous about this, as I recall. I think Tesón is trying on a sort of theatrical over-the-top positivist costume, because his case is so goofy, and it’s so hard to see who is supposed to do what differently on the basis of his argument. Are we to boycott art that has been declared (by whom?), or just might be, political? Are artists supposed to stop making it? Is government supposed to do something regulatory, to the art or to artists who step out of line?

Tesón’s big problem, it seems to me, is his implicit straitjacketing of all knowledge into a set of propositions with binary truth values like “big oil is responsible for all the evils of the world” ( he was dissing Syriana as a way to deliberate about it). His secondary problem is the modesty of acquaintance he reveals with the various ways art interacts with the mind; he seems to think it’s essentially (i) a one-way pipe (ii) for beauty, which is not only silly reductionism that came and went with Byron, but deeply ignorant of how either art or the mind works.

In any case the category is much too vague to do anything about, even to preach against it in Téson’s mode. What would be apolitical art? In music, probably instrumental music without a program, though if it seems martial in the finale, maybe it’s stirring up revolt (leftwing) or aggression against a nation’s enemies (rightwing?) or both; if anodyne in the largo, suppressing the appropriate will to action of the oppressed. Any love song fires up sexual politics neuronal nets. I guess completely abstract plastic art could be apolitical, especially if titled “Composition #13”, but anything representational is risky. Landscapes? Environmental propaganda. Still life of flowers? Poor people can’t afford cut flowers, and anyway they’re the product of selective breeding, otherwise known as genetic modification.

Tesón has one itch I do share, to wit: “why is all political art of the left?” This is quite an interesting question, though I’d elaborate it substantially. My version is as follows: until about World War I, there was a lot of good conservative art along with an increasing amount of good left-wing art.

Sometimes it’s not so easy to tell which is which, as in the case of Wagner, or David; more confusing when we try to infer from the known politics of the artist; and still harder when we look at the artist’s employment history (Goya). But the museums and concert halls are full of real masterpieces that, if they have any political message at all, are in the service of legitimating and admiring an established hierarchical order, (not to mention an autocratic, established doctrinal religion): Gainsborough and Fragonard are not in the business of subverting anything, or undermining our faith that the rich and powerful are appropriately so. (Another complication in this discussion is the tendency of art we regard as immortal to have been aesthetically revolutionary, or at least provocative and novel, even when the subject matter, argument, and/or artist were conservative (Brahms)).

Now there is practically no art that’s any good from, or on behalf of, the right, especially fine art. Some popular art could be taken as conservative, though ambiguity often remains: is Erin Brockovich an attack on reckless big business, or a bromide reassuring us that the system works and by implication should be maintained? Is misogynistic, violent rap from rich, arrogant, and self-centered artists left wing or right?

Why is this, and does it matter? Briefly, I don’t know, and Yes, respectively. Conservatives occasionally deplore a stranglehold on the outlets (criticism and presentation) by liberals, but the typical museum board of trustees is hardly a gang of lefties and revolutionaries, even if the curators are all reds. If there were good right-wing art being made, I think we’d have some evidence of it, on canvas, and I’m not aware of it. Perhaps conservatism is just always wrong and leftism is always right, and smart people like journalists, college professors, and artists naturally take the correct position? You know, like Milton Friedman, a conservative because he just wasn’t very smart…and what happened around 1917 to change this from the way it was?

I don’t have a good explanation, but I’m pretty sure it matters. I can’t imagine it’s good for conservatives, either personally or as political thinkers, that they should be systematically denied artistic embodiment of their perspective at the highest professional level. It’s certainly not good for liberals to have to engage the conservative perspective without this set of essential tools. Trying to understand the world without art is like trying to understand cuisine from nutrition labels, not to mention that it makes you ill-tempered, unsubtle, and jerky. If the arts community knows what’s good for it, it will be looking really hard for a way to reinvigorate the tradition of politically conservative art and get it seen and heard.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.