Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Political vs. Poetical

It is difficult to completely separate politics from art1 as any work focussing on human relationships and/or social constructs is political2. However, not every work of art is Politically3 motivated, i.e. they do not all have an intentional Political stance. The reason I’m raising this issue is to challenge the view of the functionality of art that some members of The Rhexis seem to hold. For example, the recent writings and music of Mr Black, which may I say I rate very highly, do seem to be (dare I use the word) obsessed with Politically re-educating his audience. From what I have read, Mr. Veins also seems to have a strong political stance in his writing (I am thinking about that remarkable piece, currently absent from The Rhexis, with chapters titled (a), (b), (c), etc.). My problem is not actually with the fact that works of art have a political message. It is, of course, important in a society with so many disparate opinions to have literature and music which is polemical. I am instead concerned with the explicitness of the polemic. If memory serves me correctly, Mr. Veins piece is disguised as a manifesto and therefore through its form, it justifies its somewhat unsubtle content. I am sorry to say, however, that I find that some of Mr. Black’s pieces of music suffer as a result of their lack of subtly. It is all very well to have a surprising and amusing line such as "I can detonate Nuns with the force of my mind", but I find that it is weakened in juxtaposition with the all too explicit "Counter culture’s coming to get you"4. [Music file here for reference - Ed.]

Moving away from this potentially devastating critique of The Rhexis editorship, I’ll try to show how other writers have conveyed a political message effectively, without being unsubtle and overtly explicit. Virginia Woolf’s The Years is set apart from the political arena but shows its support for Irish Nationalism by exposing the narrow viewpoint of a character who delights in Charles Stewart Parnell’s death. In another Woolf novel, Mrs Dalloway, Lady Bruton, a woman who believes that man, "but no woman", holds a "mysterious accord... to the laws of the universe", is subtly ridiculed. It is only through this subtle ridicule that the novel suggests Lady Bruton’s opinions to be similarly ridiculous, and Parnell is only briefly mentioned in The Years. To a careful reader, Woolf’s novels carry an equivalent political weight (at least for the time they were written) to many more explicit polemics. I personally find this technique more effective in exposing flaws in society. Is an ambitious political statement really more effective than a subtle one? "To a careful reader" – I presume the retort will make something of the issue of audience. In order to make an audience fully understand a political issue, does one really need to hit them in the face with it? Does Mr. Black’s intended audience really deserve this lack of subtlety? Surely his intended audience have similar perceptive abilities to Woolf’s "careful readers". If not, then perhaps his attentions would be better directed at activism rather than the creation of esoteric music

There are, of course, some works which are explicit and effective both as art and polemic: Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, for example. However, Moore’s graphic novel is far more subtle than this reading would give him credit. Whilst it is true that the graphic novel seems to sympathise with the anarchic actions of its protagonist, it never explicitly condones them. Moore instead allows his readers to decide for themselves.

The use of comedy as a Political tool in contrast to an obvious and explicit message is frequently more effective as its audience is generally wider and less suspicious. Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show delivers a powerful anti-Republican message which is not impeded by unsubtlety, where as The Clash’s Know Your Rights delivers a much stronger message, but in order to do so is considerably less subtle: " a crime. Unless it was done by a/Policeman or aristocrat". The Clash’s audience are mostly people that want to listen to the music, people who probably share the political views of the musicians. I am actually being a little harsh on The Clash here, as the song is delivered with much humour in an appropriately ironic tone. In contrast to Mr Black, however, The Clash were not writing for quite as esoteric an audience and so by making their lyrics less subtle they are more easily understood by the masses.

There is also the issue of context, i.e. when the works were written. Moore and The Clash were writing in opposition to Thatcherism, where as Mr Black is writing in a time of Thatcher - oh, wait! Maybe his unsubtlety is justified after all...

I await with anticipation the responses on the merits of subtle and unsubtle polemic. Perhaps you could also elucidate the merits of political writing over aesthetic writing, or vice versa. Also, quite a big topic here, how effective is art as a means of conveying a political message as opposed to just activism?

Apologies to Mr Black for some the above comments. I do not necessarily agree with all of them. My purpose in directly questioning his works was to get a response from the horse’s mouth (not that he actually looks much like a horse). [Bastard lovechild of Wilde and Bowie is the standard estimation - Subed.] You will have also noticed, attentive reader, that my argument does not always follow through on the claims which it makes. This could be one of two things, that the argument is wrong, or that I am too lazy to complete it... *also I want to apologise for the number of notes below.

1Read as an umbrella term for literature, fine art, music, etc.
2See the last chapter of Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory – An Introduction.
3I use a capital "P" to denote the difference between socio-cultural politics, and issues surrounding what might be described as organisational or governmental Politics. (I hope this makes sense. ‘Politic’ has multitudinous denotative meanings and I have only selected two in order to make my argument more workable. In any case, my two meanings overlap heavily.)
4I know this is an old song and Mr. Black’s style may have changed by now, but I am afraid that I cannot remember any of the lyrics to his new songs. It should also be noted that not all of the songs are like this.


At 12:20 pm, Blogger Sable X. Veins said...

Again Garth, you have qualified yourself out of existence. You make some fine arguments, but do try sticking your balls out occasionally. If you're wrong we'll let you know.

As far as the lyric on which your entire position seems to be based:

1) Rock and roll is an art form rarely noted for, or improved by, its subtlety.

2) The purpose of the line "Counterculture is coming to get you" is, rather than to unnecessarily elucidate the contracultural (I am moving away from the term "counterculture" for reasons I shall moot until such time as someone cares to ask) message of the song, to provide a summary rallying point. Politicised (capital P) art can benefit from inveigling its worldview into the audience's consciousness (as in the Woolf); however, if one is already, as you seem to intimate, preaching to the converted, subtlety can be abandoned in favour of war-cries.

Also, well done for spotting the manifestic/instructive point of my (a), (b), (c) structure. The endpoint - (z) - of that story will be amibguity and suicide, which should further justify my (drunken) lack of narrative subtlety within your aesthetic ideology. Not that that was ever the point.

I shall leave Mr. Black to defend himself further.

At 5:21 pm, Blogger Garth Wintergreen said...

Go on... Tell us why you don't like the word 'counterculture'. I think I'm going to agree with you, but I'd like to hear what you actually have to say before affirming that.
For response comments see future article.

At 7:39 pm, Blogger Sable X. Veins said...

1. Because counterculture is easily confused with counter culture, which we are quite clearly not.

2. Because counterculture is a term that was originally used to describe the hippy movement, which I personally abhor - not for their ideals, which are pretty enough, but for the fact that so many seem to have been purely decadent, selfish, vacuous leeches.

3. Because I ran across a Focus on the Family-style youth website a while ago that described evangelical Christianity as the "counterculture".

So, to avoid confusion with these pejorative cultural paradigms, I suggest we all switch to "contraculture".

At 7:50 pm, Blogger Garth Wintergreen said...

Right - I wasn't aware of all of those reasons, but now that I am, I whole-heartedly agree. Except for point 3. It is obvious that one would not want to align oneself with Christianity in the US, but evangelical Christians are only the counterculture in the US, being the minority with conflicting views. In the UK, the rules somewhat change.

At 9:00 pm, Blogger Sable X. Veins said...

"It is obvious that one would not want to align oneself with Christianity in the US, but evangelical Christians are only the counterculture in the US, being the minority with conflicting views. In the UK, the rules somewhat change."

Not the point. Might I remind you that:

1. I am an American citizen.

2. Most of our readers log on from UK IP addresses; in statistical second place are the United States.

3. Contraculture should be a transborder Western phenomenon, even if, at the moment, it's little more than a gang of creative British drunks far too enamoured of their own intelligence.


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