Ambivalent best describes my opinion of whether artists have an obligation to address political topics.
Some of the writers I admire most made it pretty clear where they stood on the matter. George Orwell returned often, in both fiction and nonfiction, to issues that concerned him, such as fascism and imperialism; he wanted, he said, “to make political writing into an art.” Barbara Kingsolver puts the environment and its degradation at the center of her work, making climate change a key element in the plot of Flight Behavior, for instance. James Baldwin’s reflections on racism resonate decades after he wrote them, testament at least as much to his insightfulness as to the intractability of the problem. I could go on and on listing examples, but that seems unnecessary. Writers – like painters, singers, playwrights, filmmakers and artists of all types – repeatedly demonstrate a desire or perceived need to apply their imaginative minds to the news of their days.
Perhaps the epitome of the artist as engaged intellectual is Albert Camus, who wrestled with some of the same subjects as Orwell in his essays and novels as well as in reportage for the French resistance newspaper Combat during and after World War II. In 1948, he described the role of the writer this way: “To my way of thinking … there is one ambition that all writers ought to possess: the ambition to bear witness and to cry out whenever possible, to the extent that our talent permits, on behalf of those who share our servitude.” Writing in 1945, a year after the liberation of France, he asserted that “we remain convinced that this country and this world cannot be saved until they find the right words, the right vocabulary,” which would seem to indicate a special responsibility for those who work with words.
Yet it’s not hard to detect some hesitation – a bit of hedging – in Camus’s call for writers to bear witness. Phrases like “whenever possible” and “to the extent that our talent permits” suggest that there are times when writers can’t or ought not to speak out. In a 1957 magazine interview reprinted in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, he also said: “It seems to me that the writer must be fully aware of the dramas of his time and that he must take sides every time he can or knows how to do so.” The last half of that sentence seems just as important as the first: sometimes a writer might not know enough to comment intelligently about the dramas of his or her time or be sufficiently informed to pick a side. (“It is better for the intellectual not to talk all the time,” he remarked in another 1957 interview.) There’s always plenty of real-world drama, but ill- or misinformed commentary about it isn’t likely to further the cause of justice.
And Camus wrote long before the internet and social media. Immediately after some outrage – an episode of police brutality, for instance – I frequently see people, including fellow writers, call for people to speak out, often using a variation of the formulation “silence equals consent,” a notion that significantly increases the level of responsibility Camus described. Not only should writers take sides and comment on events; if they fail to attack an injustice they effectively become guilty of perpetuating it. Such an unqualified position leaves no space for remaining quiet due to limitations of talent or knowledge.
As a result, one frequently sees on social media the equivalent of political bumper stickers: passionate sloganeering completely lacking in nuance, which is to say flagrant failures to search for let alone to find the right vocabulary. One also finds a peculiar degree of certitude regarding not only what happened but what motivated the actors in the drama. As Christopher Hitchens pointed out, “It is a frequent vice of radical polemic to assert, and even to believe, that once you have found the lowest motive for an antagonist, you have identified the correct one.”
The urge to cry out often overwhelms what ought to be another aim of all writers of nonfiction: to try and locate facts and to refrain from relaying falsehoods. Determining what actually happened, or waiting until sufficient, reliable information becomes available, rather than jumping to whatever conclusion affirms your already-held beliefs, takes time, and it may be less immediately gratifying than rapid denunciation. Denunciation abounds, and too often it precedes actual knowledge of facts. It seems to me that commentators often rush to take a side, and to be visible as having taken what they believe to be the most virtuous one, and forget about Camus’s “whenever possible” warning. Sometimes it’s not possible for a writer to know enough to contribute meaningfully to the conversation, and ignorance should impede the formation of opinions. Further, the flipside of “silence equals consent” is a smugly complacent sense that expressing one’s views on its own amounts to real political activism. Loud dissent alone rarely achieves much, especially when it’s directly mainly at like-minded peers.
But these are not my only reasons for reluctance to endorse the idea that writers and artists must commit to a political purpose. Even Orwell, who was always motivated by “a feeling of partisanship” and “sense of injustice,” was no less devoted to his aesthetic enthusiasm. In the 1946 essay “Why I Write,” he says he “could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience.” He insists that his work, even when it’s “downright propaganda,” always “contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant.” He sees no reason to change this. “So long as I remains alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.” Camus echoes this idea that writers cannot exclusively be scribbling politicians (anymore than they can be aloof from politics). “And so the artist of today becomes unreal if he remains in his ivory tower or sterilized if he spends his time galloping around the political arena,” he explains. “Yet between the two lies the arduous way of true art.”
I have no idea whether I’ve ever produced a piece of true art, but I have neither exiled myself in an ivory tower nor ceaselessly rocked a political hobbyhorse. Having written essays about boxers including Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali, musicians like Miles Davis and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and the city of Detroit, I wouldn’t have been able to avoid addressing racism even if I’d wanted to do so. Yet my considerations of those fascinating characters and that complex place are, I hope, more than condemnations of racial prejudice and discrimination and have something affirmative in them as well. When, after the killing of numerous unarmed black men by police officers, I felt compelled to speak out against such violence, in my writing I nevertheless strove for what Orwell calls an aesthetic experience and included anecdotes and details that a determined politician or propagandist might deem superfluous.
I remember seeing Hitchens at a bookstore event soon after one of his books on a political figure was published. The Orwell emulator expressed what seemed to be sincere sadness that he was probably thought of as a political writer rather than as a champion of literature, that he was usually identified with works like The Trial of Henry Kissinger rather than Unacknowledged Legislation, a collection of essays on writers that came out the year before. It must have been 2001, since that’s when the Kissinger book came out, but before September 11. Though he continued to write about writers after that date, he clearly felt he had to address world affairs, which he did in his characteristically spirited fashion, but I can’t help but wonder if that sadness lingered.
Hitchens also gives me another reason for my ambivalence: writing about politics often ages poorly. Hitchens more than once said he tried to “write posthumously,” which is to say to write text that will outlive current fashion and popular opinion and continue to merit readers’ attention long after the moment of composition. And yet…, to borrow the title of an actually posthumous collection of his essays, things don’t always work out as planned. And yet… contains a piece Hitchens wrote about Hillary Clinton in early 2008, when she was pursuing the Democratic Party’s nomination in the presidential race. His proclamation that “the case against Hillary Clinton for president is open-and-shut” looked different at the time, when Barrack Obama was the more appealing candidate, than it did eight years later. Clinton’s purported indifference to the truth cannot compare to that of the liar she ran against in 2016, when the other flaws Hitchens identified, such as issuing “vulgar libels” of critics and being “fast and loose with national security,” so obviously applied more accurately to her opponent than Clinton that an article making such claims about her but not Donald Trump would not be taken seriously if it were published at all. His essays about P.G. Wodehouse hold up better.
Further still, if writers must respond to the dramas of their days, then they surrender some of their independence. If I have to enter the political arena then I give up my freedom to wander where I may and write about whatever I choose.
I can anticipate objections to my position, or lack of a clearly defined position. As someone not likely to be the victim of excessive force at the hands of police or to be closely watched in a store or turned down for a job or a loan because of my skin color, I might seem to have what could be as the luxury to contend with such injustices or not. For those dealing with such malice and violence as a matter of routine, declining to deal with them may not be an option or even a consideration. It could even be argued that someone like me might have a special responsibility to speak out against injustice and refuse to be the silent beneficiary of an iniquitous political system.
I don’t wish to refute such possible criticism except to suggest that any obligations I might have I have as a conscientious human being and not as a writer. How I vote, any support I lend to organizations pledged to civil rights and economic justice, and even any marches and rallies I might join – all things that potentially make more of a difference than any social media remark or essay in a literary journal – don’t, I contend, require extensive public commentary from me.
Even people convinced that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, if they are honest, cannot conclude that artists have the capacity to tackle in their work all the incidences of injustice in the world. Writers who believe, like Camus, that their fellow writers ought to speak out often urge others to speak out about the issues that matter most to them, that are closest to their home. Another memory: in the summer of 2013, during a march down Woodward Avenue in Detroit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the original Freedom Walk led by Martin Luther King, Jr., I overheard a man turn to a union member beside him and remark, with either confusion or displeasure, on the presence of a group ahead of them carrying rainbow flags. As his carrying of his union local’s banner that day attested, he could see the connections between the labor and civil rights movements, but apparently he couldn’t see how LGBT people had anything to do with either. I don’t know whether he was a writer, of course, but I’ve observed writers doing something similar: insisting on the crucial importance of certain issues while not seeming to notice or care about others. I don’t intend this as disparagement. Rather, I think it’s unavoidable. We know and care most about what affects us most directly. It’s also a reminder to be humble: we have our limitations, of awareness as well as talent.
Ultimately, for me, it comes down to this: a painter should be able to paint a sunrise or sunset with no metaphorical component. The poet must be able to write about birds that aren’t phoenixes or eagles weighted with symbolism. Sometimes birds are just birds, and that’s sufficient.
Sometimes it’s better to listen than to speak, and perhaps we shouldn’t be so sure that the right words can save the world anyway.