Art or Activism?

"L'art pour l'art,” or “art for art’s sake,” the slogan of the 19th century aesthetes, is a daring, perhaps controversial idea in our current climate of war, environmental danger and sinister government. How can I conscientiously write about my ash leaves raining a treasure chest of goldleaf while suicide bombers prowl the streets of Baghdad? On the other hand, never being in Baghdad or experiencing a suicide bombing, how could I write convincingly of them anyway?

For some authors, writing is simply an extension of lifestyle. Grace Paley (Suzanne Nielsen’s Cool Dead Person this issue) and Susan Sontag are known as much for their activism as their fiction, and Thomas R. Smith has taken up protest to Iraq as a major theme in his poetry (see review, page 29). Lord Byron, Philip Freneau, Victor Hugo and many other past luminaries freely wrote their opinions into their work. But many more have kept political and social issues at a distance—F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, and Emily Dickinson. Maud Hart Lovelace, who is profiled on page 19, was involved in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but her fiction remained safely in childhood memories and our historical past. Without a political agenda, these works are free to address fundamental questions that remain with us across the ages (how to live, how to love, how to make peace with the world). Politically motivated poetry and fiction, by contrast, is always in danger of becoming mere propaganda. Who can read Uncle Tom’s Cabin these days and not cringe?

If the writer’s “duty” is to raise public consciousness, might not the broad humanitarian approach be more successful in the end than narrowly targeting issues? Once their opinions are formed, readers seldom let written arguments change their minds. But they sometimes change their own minds, for subtler reasons. To give a silly example, say I wrote a poem about how driving a car spews out CO2, contributing to global warming. How many readers would find a different method of transportation? But if I wrote a poem about the joys of bicycling, the refreshing wind in your face and so forth, more than one reader might be inspired to sally forth on the old 10-speed.We write what we feel most deeply about, and readers respond to this. “L’art pour l’art” might save us yet.

- Joel Van Valin