Thu. June 7
What Is the Relationship between Art and Politics?
by Erik Kain
There’s nothing inherently wrong with politics in pop culture. In literature and film especially, politics is practically inescapable. The real question is whether art is made secondary to politics in the process.
Good art will stand or fall on its own merits, whether or not it conveys a political message. But the effectiveness of pop culture at conveying that message exists in inverse proportion to its dependence on that message for success. In other words, the more overtly we try to convey our political message through pop culture, the more our art will suffer.
Diane Ellis calls my argument that conservatives can’t do pop culture only half-right. “ The truth is that liberals can’t either,” she writes. The third season of Glee, she argues, has fallen apart as its changed from feel-good comedy to ill-disguised morality play.
“On the other hand,” she writes, “good pop culture —that is, the stuff that sells— is very rarely driven by an overt agenda.”
Ed Driscoll agrees, noting that when “David Zucker directed and cowrote An American Carol in 2008, the laugh-a-minute humor that dominated his earlier films such as Airplane and The Naked Gun took second place to overt jingoism.”
The word “overt” comes up time and again when describing political pop culture, and not in a good way.
Lee Siegel argues that both the left and the right are largely shaped and motivated by similar cultural conditions, with the almighty dollar sitting at the center of both liberal and cultural pop culture. At least in pop culture, the culture war has been itself subsumed by a higher calling.
“The truth is that high and popular culture in America, such as it currently presents itself, satisfies neither the liberal appetite for dissent nor the conservative desire for eternal verities,” writes Siegel. “With some embattled exceptions, the pursuit of the almighty buck has consumed everyone in every cultural realm, from poets to producers. Even as they slug it out over the nature of American culture liberals and conservatives are more and more determined by the same cultural conditions. No wonder both sides, hamstrung and helpless, scream so loud—though the tired old charge that culture is sneakily or conspiratorially liberal is the most foolishly abrasive of all.”
It may be abrasive, but it motivates much of what passes as conservative pop culture these days.
In my initial blog post on the matter, I likened conservative pop culture to conservative politics: a reactionary, rather than creative, force. So much of today’s conservative pop culture is, at least on the surface, a reaction to the belief that liberals dominate pop culture and the media. Instead of carving out new ground, conservative pop culture reacts to real or perceived liberal bias as though it were an existential threat.
Even if liberals do dominate the media and pop culture, the reason they’re so successful at it is precisely because they’ve internalized the thinking behind the arguments Ellis and Driscoll are making. Sure, there are some overtly political and preachy shows out there. I don’t watch Glee so I can’t comment on that, but I’ve seen plenty of bad left-leaning shows. Even M.A.S.H. started going downhill when its political undertones became political overtones instead.
But most left-leaning television is more subtle and complicates its liberalism with nods to the free market or other issues commonly associated with the right.
A show like Parks and Recreation manages to tell a story specifically about politics while focusing most of its screen time on the relationships between characters. Its message about the important role of government never takes precedence over its themes of friendship and community. And its treatment of nonliberal voices is handled with a surprising level of respect: Ron Swanson may be a caricature of libertarianism, but he’s hardly the frightening face of small government one would expect from an ostensibly liberal television program. Indeed, Swanson may be the most endearing libertarian character ever to have graced television screens.
Conservatives “should realize it’s enough to contribute to pop culture without agonizing over whether their contributions are adequately or truly conservative,” James Poulos argues.
The phrase RINO is thrown about plenty on the right. Republican-in-name-only is used to box out insufficiently conservative Republicans. The litmus test for True Conservatives is long and growing longer and depends largely on being properly versed in speaking the right language. To be a conservative in modern America is to be something of a paradox. Patriotism and the notion of American exceptionalism are wound close to the heart of the modern conservative movement. In pop culture, perhaps only Nashville conveys these ideals with the same fervor as conservatives themselves. But conservatism is just as concerned with American decline as it is with American greatness. Poulos is not alone in his worries over a Pink Police State: the bread and circuses of American decadence and big government animate a great deal of conservative thinking, and often place conservatives and their libertarian friends at something of a philosophical impasse (though one often ignored for the sake of pragmatic alliances.)
But there’s something strangely contradictory about this dual belief in America as the greatest nation on the face of the planet and a nation in the dregs of moral decline. Rather than exploring this paradox and what it says about life as a contemporary American, too often conservative pop culture attempts to do what conservative talk radio does best: extol the virtues of conservative America while heaping the blame for its decline on the left. This is a fine strategy for talk radio or electioneering, but blame is a blunt instrument when it comes to pop culture.
As Driscoll points out, the creators of South Park ”sneak in libertarian themes on a regular basis.” When it comes to libertarian satire, South Park works precisely because its politics are tucked away around the edges of its sense of humor. The show’s brilliant episode “Two Days Before the Day After Tomorrow” manages to indict just about everyone, from liberals to conservatives to the media, but it does so by lampooning first and foremost the silly disaster film The Day After Tomorrow. Rather than tackling the science of global warming head-on, the show lampoons our society’s tendency toward alarmism and blame (terrorists, global warming, etc.)
If conservatives insist on the same litmus test for pop culture as they apply to members of the conservative movement, the politicization of art is all but certain. No art can survive this sort of thematic inquisition.
It’s not that conservatives can’t do pop culture, it’s that they’re trying much too hard to enforce the same rules about art as they do about politics. The left has this problem from time to time, but they’ve managed to learn from past mistakes, infusing their pop culture with a broadly left-leaning cultural narrative. Indeed, these days liberals are often better at artfully inserting conservative messages into pop culture than conservatives themselves. In films like Juno, the prolife argument is given as sympathetic a treatment as you’re likely to see, but the film’s writer, Diablo Cody, is hardly known for her conservatism.
The best conservative pop culture often only hints at its own conservatism. Whether that’s a film like The 40-Year-Old Virgin–a potty-mouthed movie about the importance of love and marriage and the emptiness of casual sex–or Gran Torino–a film that extols the twin virtues of tolerance and community in preserving America against violent decline–conservative themes, like liberal themes, work better when they’re shown rather than told. Neither film is recognizably conservative but both manage to sneak conservative ideas into the eyeballs of audiences largely comprised of people who would never make it to CPAC.
Erik Kain is a contributor to Forbes and the editor of The League of Ordinary Gentlemen.