Letter to the Editors re: “Being Right: Politics, Popular Culture and Patriotism”

While I am reluctant to weigh in on the editorial perspectives of Colgate students as a Colgate faculty member, I find myself in a position of feeling unable to restrain myself from the deep misapprehension of history, art and culture asserted in the article “Being Right: Politics, Popular Culture and Patriotism” in this recent issue of The Colgate Maroon-News.

 The article’s assertion that “Art based around politics is, in fact, not art” promulgates an idea I think we should all examine closely. As a student and teacher of film and art history, I routinely examine films that are both overtly political and more subtly offer political commentary. I am guessing that the article’s author(s) may be confused by, or have a different definition of the word “political” itself, which refers to both governance in relation to the affairs of the public within a broader country and to the distribution of power in communities, and extending into features of everyday life (taxes, utilities, civic architecture, public space, interpersonal relations, etc.). If we can agree on this definition, I would implore the author(s) to consider that, in fact, all art is political. Furthermore, any exaggerated attempt to make apolitical art is a supremely political move in and of itself.

 For example, scholars like Sigfried Kracauer examined popular German cinema to chart the rise of fascism in his book From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film. Ironically, Kracauer directly links the escapist cinema of Weimar Germany, which was largely apolitical in nature, to the rise of fascism. His study is both incredibly persuasive and has become a rubric for how we examine cinema.

I like to show students film posters from different periods of cinema history as a way of highlighting how the psychology of a nation determines the success of popular film. I can show posters from 1950s science fiction films and my classes can determine that the threat of nuclear war and the fear of the spread of communism might explain the popularity of films about giant mutated monsters like Them! (1954) or aliens replicating humans in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) (a film which was selected to be preserved by the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”).

Like art history, film studies is, in large part, an examination of cultural expressions through historicism, or the theory that cultural texts are expressions determined and influenced by a specific moment in time. But art is not just responding to the political, it is also constantly asserting a political sphere or a desire for the political. Bertolt Brecht’s adage that “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it,” might be said to inform the some of the most important works of cinema. While today I find the film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) to be clunky and uneven, it was a milestone in representing interracial relationships at a time when 17 states still outlawed interracial marriage. This film was both supremely political and influential in the public discourse. Its importance as a political text is why we still talk about it today.

The writers of the play that inspired Casablanca (1942) were directly impacted by the rise of Nazism at a moment when Americans were still ambivalent about being involved in a distant European war. The story of Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) a former gun-runner for the Spanish Republicans, who becomes an ideologically neutral bar-owner during Vichy control of Algeria, was a direct attempt to argue for American involvement in WWII. This was topical, controversial and, yes, extremely political.

Countless other historic films known for transforming the technical art of cinema were directly political. Much of what we understand about film editing today derived from a group of Soviet filmmakers attempting to interject politics into cinema: Esther Schub, Lilya Brik, Sergei Eisenstein, Elizaveta Svilova, Dziga Vertov and Lev Khuleshov. These are the people who invented the techniques of contemporary cinema, but who were also committed communists. The politics of these artists have left indelible marks on cinema today. It’s my belief that every film, from The Avengers to Moonlight are political texts, asserting a perspective on the world we live in.

There are two particular points in the article worth addressing directly. The author states, “As politics becomes more and more present in popular culture, art and media, one simple fact emerges: it’s not all that pretty,” and, “you risk alienating people,” in the pursuit of drawing attention to the political sphere in art. True. Most powerful art (which is inevitably political) will alienate people. For example, I find the recent trilogy of Batman films by Christopher Nolan to be abhorrent, irresponsible and facile. I find that in this story of a man, who through inventions from the military industrial complex, is deemed to be the conscience of a city (thinly veiled as New York City), who engages in unconstitutional surveillance and whose moral center is deemed greater than a monstrous horde of low class politically opportunistic city dwellers with no moral compunction, to be rather naïve and ultimately conservative.

Now my politics are on full display. Having said that, the idea that these films are not artistic, that they lack remarkable cinematic acumen, that they don’t convey some of the best sequences of parallel action in contemporary narrative Hollywood cinema, or that they don’t reaches a level of iconicity, does not need to be threatened by my overarching feeling that the work is pure fluff. In other words, films do not need to conform to my political vantage point to be considered art. To go a step further, deciding what is or is not art is a losing game. More succinctly stated, it is a loser’s game. You don’t get to decide what is, or is not, art. Art is art. Just like music is music, and sports are sports.

Is John Lennon’s “Imagine” not art because of its extremely political vantage point on war, religion and everyday life? Is the work of Woody Guthrie, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, The Temptations, The Chambers Brothers, The Beatles, Led Zepplin, N.W.A., KRS-One, R.E.M. and Kendrick Lamar rendered “not art” because of the explicitly political nature of the songs? One would have to be a fool to say so.

There are a number of logical mistakes in this article. The most glaring is the conflation of sports with art. This is not to denigrate sports, but sports are not an expression of human emotion or expression. And yet, the history of politics in sports is no less rich. To the author(s) I ask: Are you aware of Jesse Owens? Are you aware of the 1968 Olympics and actions of Tommie Smith and John Carlos? Do you know about the controversy surrounding Muhammad Ali’s conscientious objection to fighting in the Vietnam War? Sports have always been a site of political language and action, and some of the most iconic moments of political speech in the history of America have occurred in this milieu. The assertion that politics is corrosive is true. My question to you (the author) is: why are you so afraid of what is divisive? What is corrosive about asking questions about our culture? What bothers you about what forces us into conversation?

On a final note, the author writes that somehow politics might lead to the death of an art form.  W.E.B. Du Bois writes in the text “Criteria of Negro Art” (1926), “Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.” The substance of Du Bois’ assertion, that all modes of representation, that forms of shaping, contouring and detailing reality are reflective of a form of argumentative assertion from an author, appears to be a good way to characterize art of all kinds: from narrative cinema and documentary, to the objects displayed in bookstores, galleries, podcasts, etc.  

To end on a pointed note, a question to the author: “What art, that is worth discussing, is not political?”

Letter submitted by Professor Eli Horwatt, Visiting Assistant Professor of Film & Media Studies