This country's chief signifier is our staggering capacity to isolate ourselves from the effects of our political and lifestyle choices.
This is the reason, for instance, that so many people can vote for a party that believes gays are sub–human but still watch "Queer Eye For the Straight Guy," (because fags are so darn funny!). It's also the reason liberals can drive around in SUVs, while decrying policies driven by oil–dependency.
But of course it is one of the functions of art (yes, even popular art) to call people on such bullshit, to raise people's consciousness, to awaken their capacities for compassion.
William Faulkner probably put this best in his 1951 speech, upon accepting the Nobel Prize: "The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail."
It seems to me that the time has come answer this call.
I don't mean to suggest that writers should begin cranking out polemics. Art resides in an argument with the self, not others.
What I am suggesting is that artists need not regard their political identities as wholly separate from their artistic ones — especially given our unique historical circumstance.
Almond is upset because a number of readers, allegedly spurred on by a particular review at The National Review, objected to what Almond himself characterizes as the "lefty diatribes" in his book Candyfreak. And while he should have known that such diatribes would alienate certain readers of his book, I don't finally blame him for protesting against such responses. This is a work of nonfiction, the structure of which ("an account of my cross–country journey to various small, independent candy bar manufacturers") almost demands the sort of informal talk (the author's ramblings while rambling) these "diatribes" seem to be. Self-styled "conservatives" could surely have determined from reviews such as the one in National Review that Almond was a "lefty" and should have restrained themselves from buying Candyfreak if the expression of lefty views was offensive to them.
But I can't see why Almond would leap from this perfectly coherent defense of revealing one's polticial views in a work of nonfiction to a polemic on behalf of political art. Candyfreak was not a work of literary "art" in the first place. It was clearly some kind of hybrid of memoir and journalism, and although such a book can certainly be artfully written, it hardly warrants such a distinction-begging declaration that artists should become politicians. Does he think that the very readers who objected to his politics when expressed in nonfiction would change their minds if they read some politicized fiction? Since these are the very people who have to be persuaded that the current state of affairs in the United States has become unacceptable, to whom, exactly, would such political fiction appeal to other than those readers who already agree with it? And what would this accomplish other than further degrading the critical atmosphere in which literary art is received and discussed?
(I especially cannot see what connection the Faulkner passage Almond quotes has to do with the need to create political art. Surely Faulkner was himself not "calling" for such a thing. The "props" and "pillars" he speaks of are decidedly not of the sort that would substitute for a political soapbox. Faulkner is speaking of the much more durable qualities of art and literature as consolation and distinctive modes of understanding, the qualities that allow art to transcend historical circumstances. If Almond means to suggest that even now art might act as such a bulwark--although I don't really think our circumstances are "unique"--against frustration and outright despair, I might agree with him, but I don't think this kind of mere consolation is what he has in mind.)
The purpose of art is not to "call people" on their political derelictions. It might be about hypocrisy, but almost never directly (where it becomes a sermon) and, it is be hoped, never about liberals' hypocrisy in their driving habits (where it becomes just boring). Similiarly, while art might in some instances "awaken" our compassionate impulses, almost always when works of art or literature take this as an explicit goal the effort fails, often devolving into didacticism or sentimentality.
Moreover, artists and writers should "regard their political identities as wholly separate from their artistic ones." As soon as artists become political commentators, to that extent they cease to be artists. I know that many, perhaps most, people who care about such things disagree with me, but I simply don't understand how art can be art unless its effects are primarily "artistic." If instead they can also be "political"--that is, if the art in question also seeks to express the artist's opinions about this or that--then we might as well agree that "art" is no longer a term with much meaning. It's just a fancier way to talk about "our political and lifestyle choices" (as Almond puts it elsewhere in his essay).
Almond quotes from one of his "lefty diatribes":
. . .The Bush tax cut had sopped the rich and wiped out the federal surplus. The economy was in the crapper. Dubya was doing everything in his power to hand the planet to Exxon.
Two years earlier, I'd sat in front of another TV and watched him steal the Presidency in broad daylight. Then a bunch of vicious air–borne murderers had come along and scared the commonsense out of everyone. In one morning, they'd managed to bestow upon this evangelical simpleton an air of presidential dignity.
I don't much disagree with any of that. But believing such things to be true makes me want to express my beliefs directly, to convince others through real political argument to believe them as well, perhaps makes me want to become more active politically by joining groups or supporting candidates. It doesn't make me want to write a story or a novel to encapsulate my beliefs. I'm afraid that, under our admittedly dismal political circumstances, too many writers will take Almond's admonitions to heart, will try to merge their identities and produce equally dismal fiction that won't either make any difference to Bush voters or be very fun to read.