Saturday, January 16, 2010

Grassroots + Power VI: Separation Between Arts and State ctd.

So I was wondering the other day about the separation between arts and state, and I want to return to that subject, because I don't think I delineated exactly what I meant. The arts are, for instance, used by the State Department. They're used by the MTA. To discuss "arts" and "the state" blithely as though it's all the same is not the level of specificity I'd like to leave the discussion on.

Let's start with political content. One thing you'll notice is that many artists, even when they strive to be political, try not to be ideological -- they at least say they want to present "both sides" or "provoke debate." They certainly aren't out there to propagandize. I occasionally meet an artist who has an agenda, but rarely, so very rarely. It's a taboo. (I also tend very much not to like their work, so I'm definitely part of the taboo).

The reason I bring this up is because recently, I've been watching some vintage Capra with my family off of Netflix. Specifically, we saw Meet John Doe. What a fantastic, fantastic, film.

Also, a very blatantly ideological one. Most of the characters are incredibly one-dimensional, in a way that isn't bothersome -- the setting is basically that, in unstable and corrupt times, people are reduced to base instinct or strategy. The female protagonist will do anything to keep her job, the paper owner will do anything to sell papers, the politician will do anything for votes. The only character who doesn't fit into this is the film's "John Doe." But he doesn't have an ideology. He's just pushed around, a vessel. You spend the length of the movie debating within yourself which ideology he should allow himself to accept (a sneaky way of saying you spend the movie wondering which strain of thought is right). Finally, at the end, everything ends discredited except common human decency.

Or the Frank Capra we saw last night, You Can't Take It With You. (By the way, I think Eugene Jarecki should have used this instead of It's A Wonderful Life for the Move Your Money campaign -- here too the antagonist is an evil banker). The Turner Classic Movie synopsis says it all: "A girl from a family of freethinkers falls for the son of a conservative banker."

It's a far cry from the way politics is tackled in my favorite film, 12 Angry Men. There, each character is represented, and -- like the trial it mirrors -- each side gets to make its persuasive case. There are shades of emotional complexity and doubt in each character, and each character honestly believes he's out to do something good. The victory of 20th Century Realism over 20th Century pedagogy.

I'm mulling over: what are the rules of making a piece that emphatically asserts an opinion? I've heard before that art is about the question, not the answer. For a while I've believed that. And I still think it's usually true.

But a while back I spoke about my conviction that culture is a conversation, and each cultural act we perform, be it an ad or a play or a book is just a moment in the conversation.

If that's the case, then why the hell isn't there some way of asserting something? Just as we don't have to find ourselves trapped permanently in the passive-aggressive mode as we talk naturally, there has to be some way we can assert the things we believe in ways that are respectful, insightful, and useful.

It's surprisingly tough in spoken language. I've seen plenty a conversation where somebody had the gall to assert an opinion -- on some topics, not others -- and the conversation has ground to a halt.

When I was in Prague, I had the strange experience of living with one of those conservatives we're always seeing on the news. Someone whose approval of Sarah Palin grew when it turned out that she tried to ban books, and who didn't believe that we should have national health care. The fact that he supported Mitt Romney and Romney's health care reform didn't particularly sway him.

He was a very well-educated young man from a wealthy background, he was studying to be in the communications industry, and every time he went to downtown Boston he carried a concealed weapon tucked into the back of his pants.

We were all at lunch, and somehow the conversation turned to gun violence, and someone said something along the lines of how problematic it was that guns are so easy to get access to, and he hotly stated that anyone who wanted to limit access to guns was taking away his right to defend himself. There was a halt in the conversation. Slowly, we tried to discuss the issue. I was fascinated simply watching people slowly figure out what they could or couldn't say. Nobody wanted to argue, but they wanted to discuss, and clearly this was something he was very passionate about, and nobody wanted to say the things that would explode the anger.

At the same time, sometimes he would say things that were absolutely horrifying. I won't repeat them on my blog, but a lot of time people would simply let it slide because it was easier than arguing with someone that angry about issues. He felt persecuted, because every time he would drop one of these incredibly offensive statements, people would get angry at him.

It reminded me that sometimes -- just sometimes -- we have to stand by what we believe. Not on everything. I, for one, believe that a public option would be important. But it's not the battle we should fight to the death, certainly not at the expense of the health care bill as a whole. But on the other hand, the fight against torture is something that I'm willing to say is an imperative. There are some things that we can assert, decidedly.

Some of our most beautiful cultural legacies -- the Declaration of Independence, Edward R. Murrow's address from Buchenwald, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the execution from the Vietnam war -- these cultural legacies are not handed down because they were a question. They also were not handed down because they were the "answer," a single, immutable, truth. They don't speak a single universal moral. But they speak to one moment, one crucial crossroads that our culture faces, and it passes a specific judgment, asserts a specific impact.

That's why I get mad about media equivalency, about headlines like Reid's Race Comments: Was There Truth In His Comments? Sometimes -- not always -- you just have to say what the hell is on your mind. There are times when it's simply not appropriate to use the question mark.

This doesn't mean we have to yell, or vilify, or engage in all of the rancor that is attached to fighting over passionate issues. It just means we sometimes have to find the way to make our case clearly, concisely, and with a period at the end of our statement.