Gimlet Eyes Dept.

Oliver Kamm: On German literature

One of the admirable consequences [of the reunification of Germany] is a flourishing cultural life no longer dominated by the notion of the artist as public conscience. Considering that, as we have lately seen, the artist is typically no more effective a vehicle of public conscience than the next person you pass in the street (and in Grass's case much less so), that's probably just as well.

I had to wrestle with this one for a good long time: why would Kamm believe artists might be no more effective a vehicle of public conscience than anyone else? I suspect the answer lies in that while many artists are known for being politically outspoken, they are not always also known for being astute.

There's nothing that says artists automatically have a more nuanced or genuine grasp of what are sometimes terribly murky issues than anyone else does. More often it's that they're skilled at drawing attention to such things or dramatizing them. Those skills are powerful and useful, but they don't automatically constitute analysis. Putting something up for display is not the same thing as thinking about it, and having the skill to express something with great drama doesn't automatically imply you understand its finer workings.

I'm not sure when or how exactly the idea that an artist is automatically also a voice of conscience and political truth crept into the public consciousness. If she is such things, it's because she's worked hard to earn them, to shape her insight in accord with evidence, and not merely refine the way it's expressed. People do not say wise things merely because they say them beautifully or in a novel way, but it's sure easy to believe they're wise because they're gorgeous or striking.

However it happened, we're at a point where we are rather in love with the idea that we can get both aesthetic heights and political wisdom from the same sources, that we can have one-stop shopping for our beauty and our truth. We turn to such people to be mouthpieces for this or that cause, and we like the fact that it gets the attention of millions. I think we'd do better in the long run to find the people who are in fact the experts in those domains and help them become the public face they need to be.

Note that I'm not saying we should excuse a brilliant artist for expressing politically despicable or naïve positions. (The former is more troubling than the latter.) Nor am I suggesting artists should not be politically engaged; if they want to get involved, they ought to. I'm saying that just because they are involved, that doesn't automatically make them wise or worth paying attention to, and that neither the fervor of their commitment nor the elegance of its expression are reliable measures of veracity. The truth is rarely pretty anyway.

Tags: art artists politics sociology writers writing

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This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the category Uncategorized / General, published on 2016/07/22 08:00.

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