All Art is Political

Jan 1, 2018 | Opinions


All art is political. I would venture to say that, even further, art is inescapably political; every single part of it, from conception to production to end product, is imbued with politics and privilege. Our ability to create art is shaped by our political environment just as much as art itself is.

I’m getting into this now because, obviously, of something someone said on Twitter.

A character is not the writer. A narrator is not the writer. A character’s attitudes and opinions may or may not be the writer’s. A narrators attitudes and opinions may or may not be the writer’s.

— Robin Hobb (@robinhobb) December 28, 2017

To be completely fair: I know nothing bad of Robin, and I’ve never read any of her books. But this alone rubs me the wrong way, because I take the view that characters actually are the writer. Narrators are the writer. Everything that plays out in a novel is the writer.

We are the stories we tell, even the make-believe ones.

What I mean by this is that art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and there is nothing inevitable or immutable about how we tell a story. There’s a truly horrible tendency for creators to throw up their hands and disavow all responsibility for the narratives they create, as if every word placed on the page isn’t a conscious choice we make as the story is formed. Consciously or otherwise, everything that gets into a story is on us. Novels, more than anything else, are the product of a single imagination.

Of course, it’s fair to say that we are not our villains; it’s perfectly possible to write a character who likes to kill for fun, for example, and it’s reasonable to assume that the author who produced this villain isn’t a serial killer. But what if the character in question is Christian Gray? Should we consider that E.L. James might honestly believe that BDSM is supposed to be horribly abusive?

Ah, and therein lies the problem.

No, Christian Gray is not E.L. James. But she wrote him into a particular role, and handed him a script, that turned him into an abusive rapist that we were supposed to like. She bears the responsibility–and the rightly deserved criticism–for producing a piece of art that is irredeemably foul, that propagates lies about BDSM, that presents twisted, harmful relationships as desirable. We are not our characters, sure… but we have absolute power over them.

All art is political. All artists carry their political self–their views about the world as it is and as it should be–into the act of creating art. If a reader thinks, somehow, that writing about a serial killer means that the author must be a serial killer, then we can safely dismiss them as being just a bit weird. But if a reader points out that the narrative itself is flawed and propagates harm, then we should sit up and take notice.

You can’t write a story about the Nazis returning in the modern day, and make them the good guys.

You can’t write a story about white people “bringing civilization” to brown people or their in-universe analogues and play it like this was a great idea with no drawbacks.

You might believe wholeheartedly that Nazis are utter scum and colonialism is completely fucked up, but it doesn’t matter. Once you make the choice to tell a certain kind of story, then readers will start asking some very hard questions about your personal motives and opinions. You had the power to write anything, and… look what you did with it.

Look what you did with it.

Why else would you think that story is okay?

Maybe there’s a case to be made for good intentions, or plain ignorance. A white author tries to write a “reverse racism” story, and inadvertently propagates all the same tired old bullshit of actual racism. A male writer writes a slasher horror story where the only girl who survives is the virgin, without once considering the kind of message that sends about female sexuality. Unfortunately, damage is not negated by intentions or ignorance. Those are explanations, but not excuses, and these narratives do cause damage regardless. (How narratives cause harm is a topic for another day.)

We may not embody our characters, but we embody every choice they make, every word they speak, and the sum total of them and the plot and the setting and the novel itself is an expression of us and our politics. If you’re not prepared to receive criticism on that level, then I would suggest that you’re not really prepared to be a professional writer, because such criticism is as much an examination of culture and society as it is of you yourself. And saying “I am not my characters”? That looks like a cop-out to me.

All art is political. Perhaps it’s time we accepted this and gained a better awareness of just what kind of politics we’re putting into our art.