Politics and Art

Vladimir Nabokov did not like the novel of ideas. Artists often have their idiosyncratic dislikes, contrary expressions of the unique aesthetic vision that drives their own work. Particularly, Nabokov did not like the work of those monuments of great-idea novels, Dostoyevsky and Mann, though there is no reason his distaste should have excluded the novels of Camus, say, or those of Malraux, like Man’s Fate, which is, also, a political novel. I’m wary of this kind of work too, though I love all of the above mentioned, which rise greatly above the limitations of their conception. I’m especially wary of political art because political art tends to be long on the political and short on the art, and if what I really wanted was political opining, I would read a blog post. Political expression is polemical and polemics is usually the death of art.

Nabokov offered good reason for his distaste. By ideas he meant

general ideas, the big, sincere ideas which permeate the so-called great novel, and which, in the inevitable long run, amount to bloated topicalities stranded like dead whales.

He himself preferred, evident in his own work,

the specific detail to the generalization, images to ideas, obscure facts to dear symbols, and the discovered wild fruit to the synthetic jam.

Any creative writing class will teach this.

Political art that seeks to transcend the mere, sentimental “boo” or “yea” is a specific type of the work of big ideas, and in seeking to ascend to the intellectual ether, it generally leaves human particularity behind. “Not ideas about the thing, but the thing itself,” Wallace Stevens wrote. “No ideas but in things,” said William Carlos Williams.

Here is an especially bold, exemplary contrast below.

When James Agee and Walker Evans produced their landmark work on the lives of three Alabama sharecropping families, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, they famously presented the prose and images separately, not interspersed, and Agee informed in the preface that the photos were not intended as illustrative of the text. Further, after extended amounts of seeming throat-clearing about the nature of the project and the human and moral complexity of inserting oneself professionally and journalistically into the lives of an “appallingly damaged group of human beings,” Agee went on to produce prose that, at an extraordinary level of particularity, presented a verbal equivalent of photographic realism, but going beyond the photograph, as the human sensibility can do in words, to attempt to capture the texture of objects and even the multifarious contributors to the odor of a tenant shack, or the smell of his own blood from a crushed bed bug .

In the preface, Agee wrote,

The nominal subject is North American cotton tenantry as examined in the daily living of three representative white tenant families.

Actually, the effort is to recognize the stature of a portion of unimagined existence, and to contrive techniques proper to its recording, communication, analysis, and defense. More essentially, this is an independent inquiry into certain normal predicaments of human divinity.

The immediate instruments are two: the motionless camera, and the printed word. The governing instrument – which is also one of the centers of the subject – is individual, anti-authoritative human consciousness.

Ultimately, it is intended that this record and analysis be exhaustive, with no detail, however trivial it may seem, left untouched, no relevancy avoided, which lies within the power of remembrance to maintain, of the intelligence to perceive, and of the spirit to persist in.

… If complications arise, that is because [the authors] are trying to deal with it not as journalists, sociologists, politicians, entertainers, humanitarians, priests, or artists, but seriously.

The photographs are not illustrative. They, and the text, are coequal, mutually independent, and fully collaborative. By their fewness, and by the impotence of the reader’s eye, this will be misunderstood by most of that minority which does not wholly ignore it. In the interests, however, of the history and future of photography, that risk seems irrelevant, and this flat statement necessary.

The text was written with reading aloud in mind. That cannot be recommended; but it is suggested that the reader attend with his ear to what he takes off the page: for variations of tone, pace, shape, and dynamics are here particularly unavailable to the eye alone, and with their loss, a good deal of meaning escapes.


This is a book only by necessity. More seriously, it is an effort in human actuality, in which the reader is no less centrally involved than the authors and those of whom they tell.

(Emphasis added)

In the vaguest manner of speaking, any true work of art is a political statement, but Famous Men, through its subject, and in the reverence of its authors for their subjects, is both much more political than vaguely so, yet not remotely political in the manner to which Nabokov might object.

Agee is both febrile and puckish in his multiple hems and haws by way of beginning, and this is his most provocative guttural clearance, as epigraph:

Workers of the world, unite and fight. You have
nothing to lose but your chains, and a world to win.

However, he footnotes this quote from the Communist Manifesto so:

These words are quoted here to mislead those who will be misled by them. They mean, not what the reader may care to think they mean, but what they say. They are not dealt with directly in this volume; but it is essential that they be used here, for in the pattern of the work as a whole, they are, in the sonata form, the second theme; the poetry facing them is the first. In view of the average reader’s tendency to label, and of topical dangers to which any man, whether honest, or intelligent, or subtle, is at present liable, it may be well to make the explicit statement that neither these words nor the authors are the property of any political party, faith, or faction.

Not the property of any political party, faith, or faction. Then what?

Walker Evans: Sharecroppers Family - Hale County, Alabama 1936

This is the book’s dedication.

To those of whom the record is made.
In gratefulness and in love.

Those are the politics of the book, in detailed confrontation with “certain normal predicaments of human divinity.”

In contrast, we offer Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a resurgent libertarian-conservative favorite and a “dead whale” of a book, concerned only, in its grandiose fantasy, with a different level of existence, where “the lowly and invincible of the earth” are merely clots of soil thrown from the wheel ruts, and dedicated, rather, to the egoism of a different conception of “human divinity.”


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2 thoughts on “Politics and Art

  1. I’m similar in my direction of worry about politics in art, though for different reasons than “dead whale” theory. The books can beach like dead whales over time (L. Frank Baum’s politics mean nothing to most modern Wizard of Oz readers), or you can shrug them off and call them stupid the day of their printing, and they’re just as dead to that reader as the one born two hundred years later. And the flipside is there are those who still take Rand’s works to heart even though you’re labeling them dead whales.

    1. Yes, you’re right; it all depends on what we mean by “dead whale.” Nabokov meant it as an aesthetic category. Given the revivified philosophical appeal of Atlas Shrugged, it is clearly not a dead whale in that sense.

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