Inspired by “The Net (37)”

The Art of Politics and Politics of Art

O.G. Rose
7 min readMar 20

If art should avoid being political, art might be obligated to do the impossible.

Photo by Isai Ramos

Can art avoid being political? There seems to be a ditch on either side of the road, both in an art that denies it is political and in art that “overly” embraces its political role. During “The Net (37),” the point was raised by Alex Ebert that art cannot not be political, to which I agree: the question is only how art should be political. We discussed “between”-spaces thanks to Chetan, and Jacob Kishere noted how our relationship to death changes if we bring death from “the end of life” to the middle, as something we confront daily. This changes the quality of life, and also speaks to how I increasingly think we need to stop thinking of death as “the opposite of life” and instead think of it as “that which isn’t in life that gives life quality” (to allude to Wittgenstein). “Anti-Life” is increasingly the opposite of life in my mind, which I see as “the desire not to experience,” as elaborated on in “The Value Isn’t the Utility”).

Problems seem to arrive when art treats “a political message” as “something it arrives at or exists to say,” whereas instead politics, religion, and the like are better as “a theme” which the art is always expressing and participating in. This speaks to the work of Andrew Luber and Alex Shandelman, who are currently writing a book on story-writing which emphasizes that stories today often fail because they operate “to entertain” versus entertaining while also consciously and constructively “participating in theme.” Indeed, art should be very aware of theme and the impossibility of art not having political ramifications — the question is only how politics is to be artistic.

David Hume stressed that we cannot avoid being philosophical, hence why his thinking is not a simplistic “commonsense”-philosophy, but rather a philosophy which works with philosophy to make it dialectical with “common life” and thus “true philosophy” and/or “good philosophy.” If we try to avoid philosophy, we will suffer for it (as described in “Dialectical Ethics” by O.G. Rose), but we will also suffer if we engage in philosophy at the expense of “common life.” It can feel “heroic” to claim we don’t need philosophy, as it can feel “heroic” to claim we are above politics, but this feeling of “being above” (both either in “being practical” or “being apolitical”) is dangerous. If we claim it is better to “not be political” (which is actually impossible), we may contribute to problematic politics; if we claim to “not be philosophical” (which is also impossible), we may also contribute to a problematic intellectual climate. We cannot escape philosophy or politics, and thinking we can is problematic. Instead, the question is how we do both, a problem which seems particularly pronounced for the artist.

Art which merely “houses” political debates often seem low in quality, and art that tries to tell us “the right” political position becomes propaganda. However, a role that I think art does have when it is properly political is providing us “the right framework” through which to think about what politics exists to do. Martha Nussbaum in Fragility of Goodness argues that a role of Sophocles and Greek Tragedy was to teach the public that the nature of reality was tragic (a tradeoff of competing goods) and that thus the role of politics was the management of that tragedy and tradeoff. We do not exist in a world of “problems and solutions” but a world of “problem management,” but if we don’t have this “framework” we will carry ourselves differently and problematically when we engage in political activity. Art can help us absorb that framework in showing us how characters live and deal with complex and difficult situations. This is brought out in Sophocles, and perhaps a characteristic of “great art” is precisely that it is in the business of “frameworks” more than tell using what we should think. Perhaps art that doesn’t help us see and think “frameworks” is only entertainment or propaganda — hard to say.

Chetan noted that the moment an artist produces something and people can interpret it, then people can interpret the art and thus do a kind of “violence” to the artist work. Art can be commoditized, reduced, viol-ated — there are many problematic possibilities. Can this be avoided (or is this another example of why art cannot avoid being political)? I don’t think art can avoid this possibility, which suggests that if an artist is to create something violence against that artist must be risked, which might suggest that it is important what the artist primarily identifies his or her self as creating. Is it the product or the experience of the product? Obviously it is both, but what is the main metric according to which an artist determines if he or she “created?” Answering this might help us determine what else art is in the business of beyond just “frameworks.”

I cannot overcome “the subject/object divide” without objects, as I cannot create “relations” without creating things and differences, and that presents me with a problem. If I want to “create the experience of listening to Beethoven’s 9th” (for example), I cannot do so as Beethoven without creating the object of “Beethoven’s 9th.” Thus, to create an experience, I must take a risk. The object can be interpreted and misunderstood by my audience, and so if I primarily identify myself as “creating that object” versus the experience of that object (and hence “relations” to it), then I as an artist will greatly suffer “the violence of interpretation.” But if I primarily identify myself as “creating the experience of the art,” then I can see if people are “put in awe of it” and “made ineffable” by it, and thus I can “see” if I succeed. How people interpret the work matters but is secondary, and hopefully those (inevitable) interpretations will suggest people are motivated in the direction of new “frameworks” versus merely “ideas.” The fact though people might misunderstand the work or interpret it poorly is a necessary risk and suffering the artist chooses to take on so that the experience of the work might be underwent, that experience in which “awe” can occur and “the subject/object divide” fall away into an experience of “total relation,” as Alex Ebert puts it.

The artist has no control over how the work is interpreted, and I personally find it fun to treat the work as independent of me and “its own thing” when people discuss my stories (for example). I am interpreting it just like the audience, and though this might seem lame, I primarily intended the experience of the work, so there is a standard according to which I can tell if I succeeded or failed. I am not immune to critique because “I didn’t plan anything”; rather, what I am primarily concerned about is the quality of the experience which the art creates. This is my main concern, and though I very much think about meanings and intentions, that is because these considerations are necessary for the experience — concern about theme is necessary not because of the primacy of interpretation but because people do not experience “awe” unless they experience something that is also not “just” itself (A/B versus A/A). A theme is needed for an effect, a sense of transcendence and “pointing beyond,” and that means theme is necessary for the experience before it can be understood through interpretation. Interpretation is second, and though it matters, it only does so because the loss of the possibility of interpretation must mean there is either nothing to interpret or there is no theme. Without these, there likely can be “no experience” or “awe.”

To experience “awe” is to experience a feeling that “we should be here” (“belonging”), while interpretation is to experience a desire to understand (“meaning”). We ultimately need both to function as humans, and art that emphasizes “experience to interpretation” versus “interpretation to experience” is capable of both. In my view, this is the metric according to which the artist should judge his or her self and see his or her self as primarily creating — the product and object are simply necessary for that experience to occur. Critically, in this, we can also see a political ramification and roll of art.

Art can help us believe in “awe” and “beauty,” and so then, though we need both, we can treat political involvement as not just in the business of helping us survive but also facilitate being alive. A world of people who have undergone “the strike of beauty” (as I have called) will politically carry itself differently than people who have not, and then after that “strike” people can (re)approach the art in the effort of “interpretation” on terms of “frameworks.” Thus, there seems to be at least two ways here in which art can be political and yet not hindered and reduced by that political consideration:

1. In creating a “strike” (that open new ontoepistemological and “conditional” possibilities, please note).

2. In changing our “frameworks” through which we understand reality and thus understand the roll of politics. (Where art is melodramatic, for example, a mere “battle between good and evil,” then we are likely to treat politics as melodramatic as well. But if it is “tragic,” we could think differently.)

If interpretation is second to “the experience” and “event” of the art, this also teaches us to think of things as good beyond our subjective takes of them. Politics by extension then is not about merely managing opinions and finding “the right opinion,” but honoring what is greater than all of us, which ultimately is not a political project but a condition of beauty. The fate of beauty is the fate of us.




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O.G. Rose

Iowa. Broken Pencil. Allegory. Write Launch. Ponder. Pidgeonholes. W&M. Poydras. Toho. ellipsis. O:JA&L. West Trade. UNO. Pushcart.