Art, History, Politics: A Short Note
Ironically enough, given the topic of my last post, I have been sidelined from this blog for a while because I've been painfully sick wth what my oncologist thinks (but doesn't know) are new chemotherapy side effects. But I am better now, and I am back. Happy reading.
Politics, history, biography all inform and sometimes even deform art (style can be seen in one sense as the scar history leaves on art, what Adorno calls a hardening against the pressure of suffering), but they enter into art as artistic materials, and are transformed within it. And art speaks back to these things; it is not merely subject to them. To treat art as a social or economic or historical epiphenomenon is to strip it of its identity as art, and of its liberatory potential. This is why I am an adherent of what Adorno calls immanent critique.
The reader always brings him or herself to the poem, and must do so; there is an interaction, an almost interpersonal transaction. (I do believe that poems have, that language has, a kind of agency, an intentionality, if only the sedimented intentions of all those who have used those words, inhabited that language--language is always stained with its use.) The poem, like the musical score, only comes alive in its performance, if only its mental performance in the mind of the reader. In both cases, there is always room for interpretation. But there are also parameters defining the limits of a legitimate or a plausible interpretation. One cannot play notes that simply are not in the score, or ignore notes that are--at least, one shouldn't.
Partly because of own sensibilities, partly because most of my teaching experience has been with students who believe that a poem is or means anything you want it to, and partly because the dominant contemporary trend for some time has been to read literature as a social symptom or ideological document, I always insist on the text: the final appeal is to what's on the page. I don't know where else one would start, or end.
As for the question of the relationship of art to politics and the social, politics, history, biography all inform and sometimes even deform art, but they enter into art as artistic materials, and are transformed within it. They condition but they do not determine the nature or value of art. And art speaks back to these things; it is not merely subject to them. To treat art as a social or economic or historical epiphenomenon is to strip it of its identity as art. In How to Read a Poem, Terry Eagleton points out that "if we read Oliver Twist for historical information about Victorian workhouses, we are not reading the work as fiction" (35). It’s also to denude art of its liberatory potential. As Eagleton writes, “Simply by existing, poetry fulfils a utopian function, testifying to a form of life which would be less in thrall to labour, coercion, and obligation” (58). This is why I am an adherent of what Adorno calls immanent critique.
Art, good art, art that lasts, art that speaks across barriers of time and class and race and gender (and I know much art does that, if only because it has for me), isn't just a reflex of ideology or social circumstance. Otherwise it couldn't outlast or live outside its social context. And unlike Tennyson's "Ulysses" and "Tithonus," or Browning's "My Last Duchess" and "Fra Lippo Lippi," there are many nineteenth century poems that haven't outlasted their time, for numerous reasons. Has anyone read Edwin Arnold or Felicia Hemans lately?
Art emerges from and is conditioned by its social context, but it isn't determined by it. If it were, we could never read the work of other periods or other cultures. At its extreme, it would mean that that works by someone of a specific gender, race, class, culture, or time period couldn't be read by anyone who didn't share those identity parameters: men could never read work by women, white people could never read work by black people, etc. Ultimately, that viewpoint leads to solipsism: no one could read anyone's work but their own, since no one can ever share or even fully understand anyone else's experience. To reduce art to its social context is to strip it of one of its most valuable properties, the capacity to make connections across boundaries of space and time, culture and identity.
Poet and editor Reginald Shepherd was born in New York City in 1963 and grew up in the Bronx. He earned a BA from Bennington College and studied at Brown University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first collection, Some Are Drowning (1994), won the Associated Writing Program’s Award in...