The Power of Art in Transforming Politics and Culture (2005)

Norman Lear on Business, Politics and Culture

Speech Excerpts, 1972 – 2011

The Power of Art in Transforming Politics and Culture (2005)

Art … can be dangerous to those in power.  As it reveals and comments on our world, it tends to raise embarrassing questions in very compelling ways.  It questions the Official Version of life told by politicians, and hands us instead the “Ground Truth,” as they say in the military:  the irreducible facts and the subjective experiences of real human beings.  By refusing to be inauthentic, great art helps us understand ourselves and our culture.  And with the help of the critic, we recover a sense of emotional and moral complexity in human affairs.

This, I submit, is precisely what so many cultural conservatives are fearful of.  To them, the idea that a work of art may have multiple meanings or, heaven forfend, contradictory interpretations, is moral relativism – and we know what kind of a slippery slope that is!  No sooner do you admit that there might be two sides to a story, or shades of gray, or historical complexities, and you’ll wake up as a secular humanist and start condoning condoms, or promoting the theory of evolution, or civil rights for gays and lesbians – or, bite your tongue, Norman – you might even toy with the notion of defending the separation of church and state.

Politics, of course, is all about collapsing human complexities into simple-minded stories and sound bites – “messages” highly crafted in manipulative ways to mobilize as large a base as possible for political ends.

The Official Version in politics, where power resides, tends to be simple and comforting and self-evident.  Life, of course, is almost exactly the opposite.  The best films and music and dance and art recognize that life is messy, inconsistent and complicated – and they strive to depict that messiness in all of its beautiful, evocative ambiguity.

So there tends to be an abiding tension between power and art.  Power aims to anesthetize and retain.  Art aims to probe and startle.  But what happens when the art of a given period fails to do this – when artists pull their punches, pander to their audiences, sell out to the power of commercial interests, and fail to take risks by expressing their real feelings?

This is where you critics come in; it is the reason you are so vital, no matter how media technologies and businesses evolve.  You are there to give us some perspective on how truthfully and skillfully creative works are speaking to power, and to point out when they are not.  You are our visionary guides.  The great critic is to an artist as the great psychotherapist is to a patient or the great editor is to a writer.  You have the insight to see the artist’s best potential and the talent to help elicit it.  The big difference, of course, is that the advice is not privately conveyed, but broadcast to the general public.  You are, in effect, the host of an ongoing conversation between art and the political and social culture of the moment.  It’s a conversation, I might add, that is not as alive and well in today’s world as one might wish.

In the wake of 9/11, the United States Government has become far more secretive, authoritarian and fear-inducing – and the American culture has become far more volatile, polarized and fear-full.  The disturbing truth-telling of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial or even the early Eminem – artistic entities that force us to pay more attention to those who suffer and to reconsider what we have taken for granted – are too much the exception.  More than ever we need the wisdom that only art and art criticism can provide.  More than ever we need its insistent humanity and its power.

What power?  At the United Nations, when the United States came to make the case for the Iraq War, the Bush Administration literally could not face up to the power of a painting that depicted the monstrous death and horror that occurred when the Germans bombed a tiny Basque village – and so the government of the most powerful country in the world had a blue drape placed over Picasso’s Guernica, one of the great works of art of the 20th Century.  Talk about the power to disturb and startle!

Not to be out-done, a little while later, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft demanded that the bare breasts of a statue of “Lady Liberty” be covered lest they send the wrong message.  This is, in fact, the core problem with the aesthetics of power.  All art must be politically correct.  It must either support the prevailing political mood or serve as a kind of aesthetic decoration, a pleasant amusement.  The banality, mediocrity and trivialization of culture are directly linked, I believe, to the degree of political correctness that is current.

The poet Allan Ginsberg used to rail against the “emotional fascism” of television and other media.  He was convinced that his poetry could stave off cultural insanity – or as Robert Frost put it more modestly, poetry can serve as “a stay against confusion.”  In the 1980s, one tactic that Ginsberg used to speak truth to power was to imagine Ronald Reagan as a homosexual.  It was an idea too outrageous for respectable opinion to entertain – and so it naturally broke through the bullshit.  It was Ginsberg’s way of defying Power – and re-humanizing it….

Artistic works – of whatever medium – are the most important forms of expression that we humans possess.  It’s the way that we survive.  It’s how we declare our individuality while affirming that we all belong to a larger family of man.  That will never change:  only the technology of expression and delivery will.

As you confront the next dance performance or sculpture exhibit or gallery showing or journalism review, that is what you must help us remember.  I recently encountered a brief paragraph by Albert Einstein that says this more eloquently than I have over the past fifteen minutes.  It goes:

“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us, ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space.  He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.

This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest to us.  Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Freeing ourselves by widening our circle of compassion – and, I would add, understanding – lies at the heart of any successful art.  And so, the best thing that you can do, as critics, is to celebrate this achievement wherever you find it.  We have so much ground to regain in helping the human heart be heard through the bullshit.  You have an indispensable role to play.

From “Seeing the Critics as Critical,” at the Art Critics Group Conference, Los Angeles, California, May 26, 2005