WF Pray on his beloved high desert of Nevada

The banner title to this section should raise one question: how is art political? In turn, this issue should raise two preliminary and underlying questions: What is politics and what is art, and how do the two interacts?

According to Aristotle, politics is the process that determines who gets what, how much of it do they get, and when do they get it. For Picasso “art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”  The political essence of art is speaking truth to power. It is this essential interaction between power and truth that lies at the heart of this section of study literature and politics.

The following quote from a former high profile political leader will come as no surprise.

“Literature and art are part of the whole people’s struggle for Communism . . . The highest social destiny of art and literature is to mobilize the people to the struggle for new advances in the building of Communism.”

Nikita Khrushchev, “For a Close Link Between Literature and Art and the Life of the People,” Kommunist Magazine, #12, Moscow, 1957

Whether the above sentiment of social destiny is actually realized through communism is beside the point of recognizing that the truth of art can and should be enlisted in the struggle for political goals.

We all enjoy fiction and devour it with little thought that such a feast might be influencing our thinking regarding the social order in which we live. So, in reading the above quote from the last leader of a Stalinist USSR—and indeed the last Russian leader who was an actual participant in the Bolshevik revolution—we might be quick to dismiss it as self-serving propaganda. However, such an easy dismissal will not be the position taken by this contributor of The Firebird Rising publishing house. This section of our site will be devoted to the approach that all art is political—and not just the communist variety—and thus the critical reviews in subsequent “essence of art and literature” essays will adhere to the analysis of literature as essentially political. To quote the US historian, Erik Barnouw:

“To me entertainment is a poisonous concept. The idea of entertainment is that it has nothing to do with the serious problems of the world but that it fills up an idle hour. Actually, there is an ideology implicit in every kind of fictional story. Fiction may be far more important than non-fiction in forming people’s opinions.”

Erik Barnouw, “Television As A Medium,” Feedback #1, The Network Project, Performance #3 (July/August 1972)

We recognize that this is an unfamiliar approach to fiction, so our base effort will be to outline what we mean by ideology and politics in literature? Then first, what we do not mean by “political” is party doctrine, partisan hacking or quixotic proselytizing. What we do mean by “political” in literature is the examination and analysis of underlying (and quite possibly, unconscious) ideological eddies and propensities existing in all fiction that serve to encourage us to form political opinions based on truth. Before delving into the first effort, it is appropriate to define our subject, politics, and what to look for in a search for the ideologies of the “Left” and the “Right” that are to be found in the fiction we read. What will we be looking for?

Ideological tripwires found in fiction can be sorted into three broad categories. By the very nature of the subject, one or all these categories will, with few exceptions, be present in all fiction. The subtleties and nuances of these categories will remain in the hands of the writers we have selected to study individual pieces of fiction.  For right now, though, those three general categories are:

(1) A writer’s attitude toward human nature and equality; how do you feel about the characters in the book: Hopeful or despondent – are the main characters uplifting or mean-spirited and despairing – are they generous and helpful, or flawed and uncaring?  All these have serious implications for the Left, that typically sees human nature in a positive light, and for a Right that typically see human nature as corrupted by selfishness and egoism (not to mention, original sin.)

(2) The writer’s attitude toward the existing social order (typically socio-economic distinctions, i.e., class): Are social distinctions evaluated critically or presented as inevitably produced by forces beyond human control? When friction develops between the fictional characters and a restrictive and hostile social environment, are the actors justified in seeking change, or resigned to their fate. Progressive and conservative world views on an existing social order are obviously in play here.

(3) The attitude toward the conflict between progress and tradition, that is change -vs- customary frequently emerge in literature. Related to #2 above, the question becomes: Is the world as it should be, supported by traditional values (a condition of the Right) or are there reasons to change things and remake the world (a vision of the Left?) It would seem apparent to most that conservatives tend to accept traditional values and rebuff progressive changes; the left opts for the reverse.[1]  Much conflict in literature can be reduced to elements of a hostile status quo being confronted with a dynamic need for change. Of course, such a confrontation takes many forms.

Because the above sounds more like political science than it does literature – and indeed, the main contributor does hold an advanced degree in political science – we have insisted that future contributors make very clear in their analysis the political nature of the elements found within each book or piece of art reviewed. Additionally, these books may be current bestsellers such as James Patterson, or past standards, even going back to James Fennimore Cooper. In other words, nothing is out of bounds for these reviewers.

What is clear here is that the literary value and structure of a piece is not evaluated. The focus will be on the impact of a piece of fiction on politics and social change, on speaking truth to power.

[1] It is true that conservatives offer critical evaluations of current events and institutions, but as a general rule the evaluation is rooted in past conditions and remedies, and presses for a return to past conditions and past social principles (i.e. the very definition of reactionary.) We might offer as a clear example of reactionary thinking: the long-running battle to overturn Roe v. Wade.