Ellen and I recently saw the Barbie movie (more on that another time), and some of the comments I’ve seen online reminded me of this piece I posted a year ago on the Blackbird Writers website.
Do artists have a responsibility to speak to the human condition? Lin-Manuel Miranda thinks so. In his December 2019 article in The Atlantic he writes, “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.” He goes on to use The Sound of Music as an example. The story of the singing von Trapp family, he points out, isn’t so much do re me as it is an indictment of fascism.
Toni Morrison takes the idea a step further. In a 2008 feature in Poets and Writers magazine she calls out her fellow authors. “Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren’t writing about kings? All good art is political! There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’”
Are Miranda and Morrison right? And what do we mean when we say something is “political.” Is politics merely voting every few years for the yutz who might inflict the least amount of harm on the world? Is it community involvement? Is it culture? At a time when people are voting for or against book bans, censorship, teaching uncomfortable histories, and recognizing issues of sex and gender, I’d say that culture is as political as it’s ever been.
Are stories in the detective canon political? Sherlock Holmes? Phillip Marlowe? Maybe. Conan Doyle’s and Chandler’s sleuths often traveled between the classes, touching on the economic disparities of their times. Or, as Freud may have said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
There are, of course, plenty of people who don’t want artists to comment on politics or culture. In 2003, the country group Dixie Chicks voiced their opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and were told, ironically, to “Shut up and sing.”
So what, if any, responsibility does the artist have to acknowledge the political in our lives? One of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, is famous for infusing his fiction with criticism of humankind. He doesn’t charge his fellow authors with this responsibility, but, as a witness to, and survivor of, the firebombing of Dresden in World War II, felt it was his personal duty. In a 1973 interview in Playboy magazine he states, “Mainly, I think (writers) should be—and biologically have to be—agents of change.” He would have agreed with Spider-man creator Stan Lee that, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
But what makes us purveyors of little amusements think our opinions are worth foisting on our readers? Most of us aren’t political scientists or economists. We’ve simply learned to arrange groups of letters in ways that tell stories. Isn’t it hard enough to keep an audience interested for two or three hundred pages? My own writings are attempts to entertain, infused with small takes on subjects like bigotry, class, and greed. Putting up with a little pontification is the price (along with a few bucks) my readers have to pay. I often wonder if these are the parts where they skip ahead. ;^)