Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Art as Revolution?






It occurs to me that for a couple of days I have been discussing art and politics. This is not such a bizarre association, of course, especially in our media-saturated environments. One of the most effective methods of pacification and control on the part of our corporate masters in America is "circus" (movies) and "bread" (Burger King).

We are amused and distracted as Uncle Sam and his corporations pick our pockets, offering us in return a post-coital (as it were) cigarette. Maybe. Our meanings and identities now come, mostly, from the entertainment world. Hence, a surprising number of students entering American colleges and universities identify their religious affiliation as "television." We no longer ask: "What would Abe Lincoln do?" But: "Would Napoleon Dynamite be seen in this outfit?" Professor Eagleton warns:

The aesthetic is at once, as I try to show, the very secret prototype of human subjectivity in ... capitalist society, and a vision of human energies as radical ends in themselves which is the implacable enemy of all dominative or instrumentalist thought. It signifies a creative turn to the sensuous body, as well as an inscribing of that body with a subtly oppressive law; it represents on the one hand a liberatory concern with concrete particularity, [see my earlier post "A Concrete Universal"] and on the other hand a specious form of universalism. If it offers a generous utopian image of reconciliation between men and women at present divided from one another, it also blocks and mystifies the real political movement towards such historical community. Any account of this ... concept which either uncritically celebrates or unequivocally denounces it is thus likely to overlook its real historical complexity.

In other words, art (like all of us) has become more complicated in the modern world. Offering us creative outlets or myth embodied in art works may be a substitute for the real community that we need. It may be an attempt to buy us off, so as to prevent us from asking hard questions about who has the money and power in our society. If so, it is a tactic that may backfire for those whom heaven, or the electorate, has placed over us. The power associated with artistic activity may not be so easily controlled once it has been released into the atmosphere. Never underestimate the ability of great art, or merely sincere aesthetic communication, to change hearts and minds.

A failure to appreciate the contemporary importance of aesthetic imagination, its real power of resistance and unification, is idiotic for anyone hoping to create or participate in a mass movement in our times. Control of the media -- and media-imagery -- is real power. The political parties have certainly understood this. If your message is too controversial, then rest assured that it will be difficult to get it out into the mass media. Noam Chomsky has spoken eloquently about this denial of "media access" to unruly intellectuals. (Does anyone know a publisher interested in my immortal thoughts?)

Before people on the political Left start to gloat, it should be noted that, in other societies -- including some societies claiming to be socialist -- dissidents not only fail to get their message out, but also tend to "disappear" or meet with a very unpleasant end, quickly enough.

In a post-religious age, in which the yearning for community is recognized but frustrated, while the mythic impulse is deviated into cinema and other forms of pop art, the only politically powerful message is one that can capitalize on these new forms of communication. If Marshall McLuhan wins, so that the "medium" is now the "message," then you better figure out how to get Keanu, Brad, Kate and Leo, Russell and Mel to articulate your political philosophy, or you will be ignored. John Lennon figured this out before anyone else really understood it. He decided to use the people who hoped to use him, in order to get out a message of peace and love.

Hollywood is a global player in the contest for power. But Hollywood is corporate, right? Well, yes and no. The money for the big films involves corporate control, to be sure, but the real power and an untapped people's "nuclear option" has to do with the importance of celebrity, that is, the cultural authority of the artists: film actors, writers, directors especially, who are defining personalities for this generation. Human subjectivity -- all over the world -- is reflective of cinema imagery, especially of American movies, which provide the universal metaphors in all of our lives. This is true power.

Movies now define identity for all of us. This is true -- and, if you really absorb this point, it is shocking -- for this cinematic shaping of identity governs over and above religion. The opinions of, say, Julia Roberts or Cameron Diaz may be more interesting to many Catholic Americans (let me pick on my own group!) than even the Pope's thoughts on matters of "faith and morals." Gee, I wonder what Cameron Diaz thinks about genetic engineering. (Her response may be: "How the fuck would I know?")

Popular music and literature both contribute to the shaping of world views, particularly in the First World, as the influence of traditional religion (no matter what anyone claims), even in America, wanes and dissipates. What is missing in Hollywood and New York is any appreciation of just how much power artists now have in our cultural settings. Also missing, for the most part, is genuine political awareness on the part of too many movie people, who still do not feel the full weight of their responsibility.

Media, films or entertainment products can be turned into instruments of liberation and used for consciousness-raising, see Bullworth and Bob Roberts, and/or (and this may surprise you) the Matrix films. Art works are increasingly ambiguous objects, yielding any number of messages and effects, including unintentionally subversive ones that may escape the studios, by flying under the radar. Time Warner was somehow responsible for "The Island," a film with a subtle anti-corporate message and sharp criticisms of contemporary American society. Maybe they don't care as long as the movies make money.

I have been discussing the British idealists of a pre-cinematic age, so I will borrow from Bernard Bonsaquet's 1898 masterpiece History of Aesthetics, as summarized by Professor Warnock:

A careful analysis of a single day's life of any fairly typical human being would establish triumphantly all that is needed in principle for the affirmation of the Absolute. ... It would show ... how evils can be transmuted into higher goods -- toil into happiness, by seeing it as a pledge of devotion, and pain into love by the depth of the tenderness it evokes, and hardship into courage by its revelation of what a man [or woman] is able to be. ...it would show us how our personality can be submerged in an experience which is deeper as well as wider than our minimum self.

These deeper and wider experiences -- Art, Science, Religion (defined as absorption in a good), social participation -- are what, on Bonsaquet's view, possess real value, so far as anything short of the Absolute can be valuable.

Art can serve as a doorway into a community. It is always a kind of politics. Bonsaquet's point about "a day in the life" might lead me to speculate, pompously, about James Joyce -- whose work I don't pretend to know or understand very well -- or the meaning of Ivan Desinovisch, or Kafka (whose work I do know and admire), but I prefer to remain close to artists and philosophers that I love, yet whose work I can share with young people today. What comes to mind is Eleanor Rigby and other Lennon/McCartney songs. So I will mention a political revolutionary, who is also a great artist and philosopher, John Lennon. "If it was another age," John Lennon said, "I would be called a philosopher." I do think of John Lennon as a philosopher -- and an important one. Gary Tillery describes Lennon as "The Cynical Idealist":

... Lennon stood for a secular approach to daily life and world affairs. God was not a personalized being to be worshipped but a nebulous, neutral energy pervading the universe. Lennon could only call himself religious in a humanistic way that would satisfy very few believers. "If being religious means being 'concerned,' " as Paul Tillich, the late Protestant theologian, once put it, "well, I am then, I am concerned with people." Lennon believed that humanity could reach a higher plane, one where violence and war were superseded and human relations were based on love and respect. He thought that average men and women had it in their power to help reshape their culture in that direction, if only they would recognize that capability, and he devoted considerable effort to trying to make them aware of their power.

He proposed in "All You Need is Love" that the key to this better world is self-transformation. [transcendence]

So let us be described as "Cynical Idealists," dreamers and poets ("fools" to some), builders of a better world. A better world is always possible, one without slavery or torture, in which the worst forms of suffering, that is, human cruelty, poverty and hunger can be alleviated through compassion and sharing, but most of all with and by love. In this age of cinema "images," it is useful to consider the etymology of the word "imagination." (It comes from the root word "image.") Imagine that, a better world is still possible. Imagine.

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