The latest burst of debate about the relationship between politics and art is wending its way around the literary blogosphere. (Perhaps the locus of the current debate is this post by Mark Sarvas--itself a well-expressed bit of reflection.) This is of course a highly charged subject, one that frequently applies a heavy jolt to those who touch it, since it quickly gets to the core assumptions many readers bring to the act of reading works of literature. Better in most cases not to question these assumptions too strongly, rather than risk embroiling literature in the very dispute over politics that I, for one, always want to avoid in the first place.
In the present round of commentary, however, one claim in particular requires some response. Scribbling Woman makes the following assertion:
. . .all writing — all human endeavour — is political in one way or another. It could not be anything but, as we are all political creatures who exist in the world. The absolute disdain for politics of the aesthete is in itself a political choice. Of course, to a large extent when we are talking about artistic products, given our culture's continuing Romantic hangover, the inherent politics are not always overt or even conscious. But that does not mean that they are not there.
My criticism is not directed primarily at the author of this passage. Unfortunately, she repeats what has become a mantra chanted incessantly by many current academic critics, an invocation of "politics" so all-encompassing as to make any disagreement with it almost literally impossible (anything you say is "political") and so final in its judgment as to safely keep anyone who wishes to study literature rather than its political exploitation decidedly in his/her marginal place.
I'm perfectly willing to accept the label of "aesthete," although I know it's meant to be a term of horrible abuse. Speaking as one of these aberrant creatures, I will state categorically that my expectation that art will be "aesthetic" has no political content at all. None. It's not a disdain for politics, just a recognition that politics and aesthetics aren't the same thing. I have political views about politics and aesthetic views about art. You can mix the two if you wish, but don't tell me that in refusing to do so I'm doing it anyway. And I don't have any political views that are covert or unconscious. They're all out in the open (in the appropriate forum), and I happen to feel strongly about them. The assertion that they must be unconscious is just Freudianism smuggled into politics.
This totalizing view of the scope of the political is itself finally just a choice, a preference for politics over art, a way of maintaining that politics is the most important subject with which a serious person ought to occupy him/herself. It's a view that's now pandemic in the academy. If we are all "political creatures who exist in the world," are we not also "sociological creatures," "historical creatures," "cultural creatures," "economic creatures"? Such abstractions are so cosmically extended as to be meaningless. And to say that politics is everything, of course, is ultimately to say that politics is nothing in particular. If by saying everyone is "political" we mean everyone has his/her interests all well and good, but this is not the way "political" is used in the argument that all art is political art.
Frequently various "thinkers" are here invoked as authorities who have supposedly "established" that politics pervades everything (Marx or Baudrillard or Althusser or whomever). I've read these writers too, and to the extent they say that art is always political they don't know what they're talking about. They trivialize art and politics alike, and collapsing the distinction between the two is actually a way of avoiding thinking. (Although it's often the uninformed distortions of these thinkers that are really to blame.) No matter how many such thinkers are piled atop one another, the belief that "all writing is political in one way or another" is just a way of justifying one's own preference for politics and polemics over literature. I understand why some people prefer these things (although most can't seem to understand why I don't), but simply repeating the formula that all writing is political doesn't make it so.
There's nothing "Romantic" about my status as as aesthete. I think in fact that it's quite pragmatic. There's art and there's politics. "Political art" does exist, but it's not all art. Sometimes when we read works of literature we have an "aesthetic" experience, sometimes we can limit this experience to whatever political implications we can squeeze out of it. I think this latter is a very impoverished concept of reading, but I would. To say finally that all human endeavor is political (including the effort to create art) would be a pretty sad commentary on human potential, if it were true.