[I call this "part 2," because if you plan on reading the previous post, do that one first.]
I’ve always had a cynical attitude toward overtly political themes in art. Some of this comes from reading movie reviews, which often provide preposterous political interpretations. Thus New York magazine says last year’s Wall-E, a film about a society where a government-run corporation controls 100% of the economy, is a critique of “free markets.” Films about the Three Gorges Dam (which epitomizes Maoist economics) are critiques of capitalism. I know this is like shooting ducks in a barrel, but coverage of political art isn’t really any better at more highbrow publications, such as the New York Review of Books.
Apparently film critics feel that any portrayal of social injustice; is ipso facto a critique of capitalism. In frustration, Deirdre McCloskey once exclaimed:
“I don’t care how one defines capitalism, as long as it’s not defined as evil incarnate.”
Unfortunately, for many intellectuals in the humanities that is precisely its definition.
One problem is that the narrative arts tend to portray actual events, not institutional abstractions like ownership. A privately-owned factory where workers slave away at low wages in poor working conditions looks pretty much like a government-owned factory where workers slave away at low wages in poor working conditions. China has plenty of both, and when I see Chinese films I rarely know which type is being portrayed.
Because institutional arrangements are often hard to discern in works of art, many intellectuals are oblivious to the most important worldwide trend in recent decades, neoliberal economic reforms. In a recent NYT article Stanley Fish mentioned that most of his colleagues in academia weren’t even familiar with the term ‘neoliberalism.’ Fish had some inkling of what neoliberalism means, but I don’t think even he really understands the concept. For instance, he linked neoliberalism to right wing regimes like Reagan and Thatcher, even though neoliberal reforms have been, if anything, even more dramatic in countries with left-leaning governments (both communist and non-communist.) He also tried to explain neoliberalism by describing the Coase Theorem, and got that wrong as well.
BTW: There is nothing shameful about being weak in economics. I know very little about biochemistry, opera, tort law and mechanical engineering. But ignorance of economics does create some problems for political art, or at least some forms of political art.
Because the neoliberal revolution has been a profoundly liberal revolution, and because the arts provide no way of understanding the motives of neoliberals, intellectuals as a class are simply oblivious to the underlying forces changing the world economy since 1980. Of course they know about the downfall of communism, and may even know something about market reforms in western countries, but there is no context, no sense of why these changes are occurring. One often reads interviews of artists from the 1960s generation who speak wistfully of youthful ideals, and then contrast those ideals with the sad reality of the modern world. Later I’ll argue that they were much more successful than they imagine.
Let’s take a more serious look at this issue by examining the Chinese economic policy called the Great Leap Forward. Although I know more about China than the average person (having traveled there many times), I know little about this episode, which is itself very revealing. I recall reading that Mao herded the peasants onto communes during the late 1950s, and agricultural output plummeted (presumably because when one’s output is shared by thousands, there is less incentive to produce.) I also recall reading something about pots and pans melted down for backyard steel mills, although I imagine that anecdote represents an attempt by non-economists to make sense out of what might well have been the worst thing that ever happened, not just in China, but anywhere. (As many as 30 million people starved to death, which is just about the most agonizing way a person can die.) So let’s look at some well known artistic treatments of this great tragedy, or policy blunder, or crime:
. . . .
Well, that didn’t take long. It certainly doesn’t loom very large in the Western imagination, and more surprisingly, I don’t see any evidence that it is major theme of Chinese art. I’ve seen lots of Chinese films, but To Live is the only one I recall that touched on this tragedy. Interesting, I have no clear memory of how the film portrayed this event, whereas its portrayal of the (much less traumatic) Cultural Revolution is forever seared into my mind.
Consider the old Marxist maxim “From each according to their ability. To each according to their needs.” Taken literally, that means a society where workers have zero monetary incentive to increase production at the margin. (I guess the hope was that socialism would produce a “new man.”) At a superficial level, the GLF seemed to be an attempt to implement the “To each according to their needs.” I think this is precisely the problem, how can art critique a policy that is based on a virtue (sharing is good) that we all teach our children? On the other hand, the Cultural Revolution is an easy target, as it violated the “From each according to their ability.” In To Live, Zhang Yimou shows a hospital where the experienced doctors have been ejected, and unqualified medical students are unable to cope with the cases before them. The Cultural Revolution is an easy target for artists.
[BTW: In 1979, 20 years after the Great Leap Forward, a Chinese policymaker named Zhao Ziyang instituted a new (and more market-oriented) policy regime in China’s rural areas. This time there actually was a “backyard” industrial revolution in China’s countryside, as farmers rushed to set up factories. But there was no mass starvation, as food production also soared. The Chinese government rewarded Zhao for his reformist zeal by imprisoning him in 1989. No good deed goes unpunished. And this wasn’t just an ordinary good deed, but one that (in pure utilitarian terms) might be the best thing that has ever happened---anywhere. In just a few years, hundreds of millions were lifted above abject poverty and hunger. Zhao died in 2005, still under house arrest. Mao’s picture still graces Tiananmen Square.]
Another interesting example is the classic Ukrainian silent film Earth (1930), which depicts Kulak peasants as villains. I have read a number of rave reviews, none of which cited the sinister undertones of the anti-Kulak portrayals. The film came out just before the brutal Soviet policy aimed at exterminating this group. Instead, critics focus on the positive images of community and solidarity. (Contrast this with the reviews of classic films with obviously non-liberal messages, such as Birth of a Nation.)
Here is my thesis; it is almost impossible for the arts to critique either socialism or capitalism from within liberalism. That is, art cannot show how one of these ideologies can or cannot work in terms of liberal values (which are roughly utilitarian (or if you wish, egalitarian/utilitarian.) Artists have tried to show that capitalism is inconsistent with liberal values, but have always failed. In the case of socialism, it is hard to find any artistic critiques at all. (I haven’t read Ayn Rand’s novels—does she argue socialism fails to deliver the goods, or that it is inconsistent with the human drive to excel?)
Great art is generally about particular situations, not broad generalities. But the economic principles that apply to large complex systems are totally different from the principles we use in our daily lives. Hayek observed that:
“If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilization), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. So we must learn to live in two worlds at once.”
The arts can portray only one of those worlds.
Some might argue that there have been effective artistic critiques of socialism. Right wingers (correctly) note that Animal Farm and 1984, are (at least to some extent) aimed at the Soviet Union. But only Animal Farm has much to say about economics, and what is does say is profoundly misguided. I haven’t read the book since high school, but as I recall it portrays the ruling pigs as hypocrites, preaching equality but living high off the hog while other animals suffered. (Let me know if my memory failed me.) So Orwell was criticizing the farm’s leaders for not being socialist enough, not living up to their ideals. This should be no surprise as Orwell was a socialist.
When I think about how right-wingers revere Orwell’s critiques of the Soviet Union, I like to imagine what would happen if it was discovered that Mao had read a copy of Animal Farm in 1958, and if it had provided inspiration for the GLF. “Yes, we are a bunch of hypocrites; we need to instill real socialism in China.” And when I think about the GLF, I think about how some left-wingers complain that real socialism has never been tried, that the Soviet Union never lived up to the phrase “To each according to their needs.” That may be true, but the Chinese GLF came pretty close.
One subject that I would like to research in the future is the political attitudes of artists who suffered under communism. Rorty criticized Nabokov for rejecting political art as a sort of oxymoron. Nabokov adopted a sort of “art for art’s sake” aestheticism. At the other extreme, Solzhenitsyn responded to communism by reverting back to a nationalistic conservatism. In between is Vaclav Havel, who became a pragmatic neoliberal. And then there’s the former Pope. All very different political views, but none share the sort of starry-eyed admiration of socialist figures like Castro and Che that one often sees in western artists.
I’d be interested if anyone knows of a systematic study of the political views of writers from the Soviet bloc. If Rorty is correct that literature tends to make one more liberal, and if Orwell is correct that socialism is the common sense ideology of any good-hearted liberal, then where does that leave writers who suffered under “real existing socialism?” (Especially if they are unaware of the economistic worldview.)
Because I am a right wing liberal, I suppose one could argue that I cannot offer a dispassionate critique of political art. After all, most political art leans to the left, so naturally I don’t like the message. But that’s not really my objection to political art. I don’t object to political art that rejects right wing liberalism, rather I claim political art doesn’t know that right wing liberalism exists. Outside of economics, intellectual liberalism is completely dominated by the left. So just as Canadians know much more about the U.S. than Americans know about Canada, right wing liberals know much more about left wing liberalism, than vice versa.
Consider Paul Krugman, an economist with impeccable progressive credentials, but someone who occasionally takes a right wing position. He ended an essay defending sweatshops with the following admonition to his critics:
In short, my correspondents are not entitled to their self-righteousness. They have not thought the matter through. And when the hopes of hundreds of millions are at stake, thinking things through is not just good intellectual practice. It is a moral duty.
I have spoken with numerous left wing intellectuals over the years, and read countless others, and I am afraid that Krugman is basically right. The problem isn’t that they reject Krugman’s argument, but that they don’t understand it. Or to be more specific, then don’t understand the essence of the argument. One part they do get—the fact that sweatshop jobs might be better than the alternative. (Or I should say some of them get it, others still romanticize peasant life.) But even so, they ask, why shouldn’t these rich multinational corporations be required to pay decent wages? The answer is related to the earlier observation (in part 1) that elasticities are much larger than common sense would suggest, in other words, the answer is so hopelessly counter-intuitive that it is almost impossible to convince someone without a deep understanding of economics.
OK, so suppose I am right that economics and art don’t mix, there are lots of other political issues, and surely art can address those issues. Yes and no. I am not even arguing that economic issues are off limits, only that art cannot effectively critique liberal economic policies, whether right wing or left wing, if they are motivated by utilitarian values. And the same applies for any other political topic. There are lots of good artistic critiques of the death penalty, but none that address the liberal argument in favor of the death penalty, i.e. the argument by figures such as Becker and Posner. Why do I call Becker’s argument liberal? Because his work on crime places value on the welfare of the criminal, and thus is utilitarian (as opposed to conservative arguments focused on criminals getting their “just deserts.”)
What about anti-war art, surely that qualifies? Again, not if critiquing a liberal stance on foreign policy. Artists can take either the pacifist or liberal internationalist position on the war in Kosovo (depending on whose suffering they chose to portray), but in neither case does the artist address the political views of the other side. Both sides want to minimize human suffering, so there is nothing to “show” that would advance the argument. In contrast, it is easy for an artist to critique a non-liberal position, such as a nationalist ideology that says certain people don’t count.
Don’t misunderstand my argument; I don’t doubt that artists can try to critique a liberal position from within. They might even succeed in persuading a gullible audience. But it is simply an empty exercise in propaganda, which isn’t taken at all seriously in the relevant field of inquiry (economics, criminology, foreign policy, etc.)
Why can’t art present complex political ideas? I suppose one could put on one of those marathon stage productions, and have the actors read long portions of dense scholarly treatises. But the art would drain out of the production ever bit as fast as the didactic lectures were added. The point of art is to show, not tell. I imagine that this was Nabakov’s objection to political art—it is either bad politics or bad art. For slightly different reasons, I share Nabokov’s contempt for most of what passes as political art.
And yet . . .
If I take off my right wing hat and put on my liberal hat, everything seems magically transformed. Now political art seems not just important, but the most important driver of political change. Artists become Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” To see why, let’s take a closer look at Rorty’s argument that liberal attitudes come not from philosophical treatises, or social science research, but from the narrative arts.
Rorty sees liberals as people who believe “cruelty is the worst thing that we do.” He argues that the narrative arts put us inside the mind of “the other” and show that they suffer like we do. This builds empathy, which is a core component of liberalism. (Think Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Road to Wigan Pier, or Brokeback Mountain.) I know that correlation doesn’t prove causation, but if you look at the huge generational difference in attitudes towards issues like interracial marriage and gay rights, it’s not hard to imagine that the narrative arts might have played an important role. There has been an enormous change in how these issues are portrayed in TV and film, for instance.
Some might argue that the narrative arts are also full of conservative themes (law and order dramas, patriotic war films, etc.) Yes, but although conservatism will always be with us, think about how it has been transformed by the liberal revolution in cultural attitudes. Contrast Eastwood’s two recent films about Iwa Jima, for instance, with the sort of film he made when he was younger.
In my earlier post on Denmark I argued that free market reforms were very closely correlated with liberal (or idealistic) cultural attitudes. In my view the causality mostly goes from cultural attitudes to economic reform, although in the long run there is also reverse causality.
One could argue that one subtext of much narrative art is that the Nordic sort of liberal culture is close to ideal. Think about the difference between conservative and liberal attitudes toward marriage, for instance. In the Nordic countries a very high percentage of children are raised by unwed mothers. The difference between them and us is that the father is also usually living with the mother, and helping to raise the child. Now think about what matters in the narrative arts, the form (a marriage certificate?) Or the substance (human interaction?)
If I am right about the connection between liberal attitudes and neoliberalism, then this sheds a whole new light on the laments of aging 60s artists and intellectuals. Maybe they did win in the end. The liberal social change is obvious for anyone who opens their eyes, but one could argue that the neoliberal economic reforms also mesh with their values, they just don’t know it. (I believe that Reason magazine makes this argument.) The world is much less bigoted, much less violent, and much less politically repressive than in the 1960s. And a much smaller proportion of the world’s population lives in abject poverty. What’s not to like about the direction of change?
Rorty argued that philosophers and artists should stick to what they do best, and leave the practical problems of implementing the liberal vision to social scientists. I realize that this sort of advice might seem a bit rich coming from an economist in 2009. Particularly given the, how shall I put it, “recent events.” But as Adam Smith observed “there’s a lot of ruin in a nation.” If you don’t like what the “science” of neoliberal economics has done to America, check out a country lacking input from neoliberal economists (such as North Korea.) Or to make the point from the opposite perspective:
“When you say ‘hill’” the Queen interrupted, “I could show you hills, in comparison with which you’d call that a valley” (Lewis Carroll, 1872.)
To summarize, if I think of politics as the art of combining values and worldviews, then the concept of political art seems an oxymoron. On the other hand if one simply focuses on values, then political art is not only possible, it may well be essential to a good society. Yes, I know that there is actually no sharp line between values and worldviews—after all values represent a sort of worldview. If you insist on definitions, consider my use of the term ‘worldview’ to represent ideas that cannot be conveyed through art. (That makes my argument pretty hard to refute!)
Update (3/30/09); The following was published exactly one week after my post in the London Times. Here is the key quotation from T.S. Eliot:
Eliot wrote: “After all, your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore the best qualified to run the farm – in fact there couldn’t have been an Animal Farm at all without them: so that what was needed (someone might argue) was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs.”
My point exactly.