Wednesday, February 6, 2008

What gives anyone the right to say anything?

As I caught the end of the democratic debate in broadcast from California last week, a different debate began in my head. It started when I realized that I recognized many of the audience members as the cameras panned for reactions to the candidates remarks. I found myself wondering "what does Diane Keaton think about the proposals on Iraq and healthcare from Obama and Clinton?" and then I reprimanded myself – "who cares what she thinks? She is a celebrity!" But then the camera panned again and I saw others in the audience, who , like Keaton probably have thought pretty deeply about these issues from their perspective. The guy from the West Wing was shown cheering several times and I thought, well hey, after all those years on a political show, he’s probably pretty tuned in to Washington. It takes a lot of research to stay fresh on a series like that. But in the back of my mind I just kept thinking – how silly that "The Nanny" is being singled out for a shot of her approval of what one of the candidates said.

And this revived a debate that has been in my head for sometime. What is the role of the artist in the political conscious of a nation (or the world for that matter)? I mean, it’s not like Paris Hilton was one of the audience members last night. These were serious actors who have worked very hard and been very successful at what they do, which is not easy by a long shot. Shouldn’t they be given the chance to weigh in? Why do we groan when we hear about another of Angelina Jolie’s UN Ambassador trips yet eat up the tabloid gossip? Is Sean Penn self-important or is he just taking advantage of his opportunity to say…something?

My husband is reading a book for a poetry class about the role of poetry in society. There was another book of poetry published which voiced opposition to the war and then this book questions whether poetry should ever be written about such things. Rather, suggesting that poetry is something else entirely and should not be used in this way.

So maybe this is two questions in the debate. Should art be used to explore and express political causes? And second, what right or responsibility to artists themselves have to speak on these issues? Or celebrities (which can certainly be a different matter.) Of course, in the US they have that "right," but I mean on a social level. What role does the artist play through their art and through their personhood?

Just thinking about this


Elise said...

oooh lisa you've hit on issues I've been wondering about for the past few days. i think the artist does have a role in shaping our political consciousness. however, it's so easy to marginalize both artistic modes of speaking and the validity of artists' voices for a variety of reasons.

First off, there's this whole democratic ideal that affirms everyone's right and responsibility to speak and contribute to the national dialogue, but then an inherent contradiction in the recognition that not everyone will speak up, is informed about what they say, and that some have mroe influence than others. So we find it offensive when someone who is no more of an expert than we are - no more qualified (we like to believe) to represent a cause than we are - who is able to do so "merely" because they have achieved some level of fame. that's the angelina situation, right?

And we make that judgment because we see her primarily as an entertainer. We either see a distinction between art and entertainment (and value art mroe than entertainment) or make them out to be the same thing. Both are problematic because if we view entertainment as something which collectively dumbs us down or numbs us to the ills of the world, we see entertainers as political activists being some kind of hypocrisy. On the other hand, if we view the arts as something that should lift us above our everyday condition, we also make it so irrelevant that the artists have no voice.

But I think there is space in the everyday entertainment we seek out and in transcendent, sublime works of "art" to be prophetic and speak about the everyday condition as it is and how it can be.

Josh said...


I hope that artists are allowed to speak out, and create art that speaks to, about, for, in the midst of, against, etc. the political milieus of our time. i would argue that while there is no set of objective standards to gauge whether or not the artist speaks "authentically" or in a way that will necessarily impact every viewer/reader (etc.), to not speak would or worse (since i'm not a great artist) to not listen, because someone is a celebrity, or is perceived to be less qualified would seem to be a wrong turn.

and if art is unable to speak into the situations of our day, who can?