[Fernando Tesón (guest-blogging), December 15, 2006 at 2:39pm] Trackbacks
Against Political Art:

A noteworthy case of discourse failure is political art. Many people regard art as a legitimate vehicle for political views. Indeed, many have insisted that artists ought to be politically committed. The aesthetic experience may raise people’s political awareness. And, if one believes in moral-political truths, it seems natural to recommend that artists convey those truths in a way people can readily understand. Thanks to the emotional power of beauty, art can, at least sometimes, help noble ideals reach the general public. Many of these works have great artistic value (Picasso's Guernica, for example), and some of them have surely contributed to worthy causes.

However, political art is a special form of discourse failure. Art is a type of concrete imagery, and as such it evokes a “fact” that may activate default theories in the audience. Those willing to challenge the political stances represented by the artifact have to overcome the suggestive power of beauty. Political paintings (say, Diego Rivera’s murals) often suggest causal connections that, for the reasons I indicated in my previous posts, permeate theories that people hold by default. Political art’s appeal to emotion usurps reasoned political argument. If you think big oil is responsible for the evils in the world, make an argument. The movie Syriana will not do. (A related puzzle: why is all political art of the left? We have answers to this too.)

Political satire is an interesting case. One reason it is particularly effective is that it generates an additional cost for those willing to challenge its purported message, for in that case the challenger becomes the “party pooper” who spoils the fun by taking the satire seriously. So comedians like Jon Stewart not only ridicule political figures or views. Whether intentionally or not, they also preempt objections to the intended political message (“Give me a break! Where is your sense of humor?”).

Many people see political art as a healthy form of social criticism. For them, consuming and appreciating political art epitomizes the critical attitude. I disagree. political art hinders critical thinking. It reinforces people’s fundamental default beliefs, and sometimes it does so by questioning their superficial beliefs. Thus, a novel may convince readers that their prior belief in the kindness of the police is wrong, and that in reality the police are henchmen of the ruling class. No doubt these readers may regard this novel as having transformed their beliefs on the matter, and in that sense political art may be seen as challenging their beliefs. At a deeper level, however, the novel may well have appealed to the reader’s default theories, for example by showing the role of the police in making some people rich at the poor’s expense – a zero-sum explanation that is inferior to explanations derived from reliable social science.