Why Activism Leads To So Much Bad Art

When artists turn to activism or introduce politics into a work of art, it’s usually taken as something virtuous, an act of conscience on behalf of justice. But artistic and political values are not the same; in some ways they’re opposed, and mixing them can corrupt both. Politics is almost never a choice between good and evil but rather between two evils, and anyone who engages in political action will end up with dirty hands, distorting the truth if not peddling propaganda; whereas an artist has to aspire to an intellectual and emotional honesty that will drive creative work away from any political line. Art that tries to give political satisfaction is unlikely to be very good as either politics or art.

Last month, 92NY, a Jewish cultural center in New York, canceled a long-scheduled event with the novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen after he and 750 other writers and artists signed an open letter in the London Review of Books calling for “an end to the violence and destruction of Palestine.” The organizers insist that the event was only postponed, but that’s not how it looked. The cancellation was part of a wave of suppressed speech following the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel: Pro-Palestinian student groups have been banned, speakers disinvited, and employees fired; a ceremony honoring a Palestinian writer was canceled and an Islamic art exhibit withdrawn; the only Palestinian American member of Congress was censured. All of these acts are hostile to the values of free expression in a liberal democracy. So are boycotting Israeli individuals and institutions and ripping down pictures of Israeli hostages. Nguyen should have been heard, questioned, and challenged—not canceled.

Listening to ideas you find hateful is unnatural and even painful, which is why the subject of free speech is riddled with hypocrisy. In 2020, Harper’s published “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” whose 152 signatories advocated wide latitude for thought and expression at a time of intense emotion and protest. (I was involved in drafting and circulating it.) The Harper’s letter was criticized by many of the same people who are now defending pro-Palestinian speech. One of the writers who declined to sign it was Viet Thanh Nguyen, who later that year denounced “liberal pearl-clutching about cancel culture,” which he described as an exercise in free expression. Critics of the letter said then, as their adversaries are saying now, that the problem was exaggerated, or not even a problem; the time wasn’t right; speech should have consequences; words can be a form of violence. But you can’t claim to support freedom of expression if you won’t extend it to speech you detest. Passing the test only when it suits your side means you’ve failed the test.

That might sound like the end of the subject of artists, free speech, and political controversy. It’s not. The question remains whether creative people have something worth saying about an issue like Israel and Palestine, and what saying it means for their work.

Defenders of free expression argue that the best response to speech is more speech. There’s never been more speech than now. During the past decade, politics has intruded on daily American life more than at any time since the 1960s; in the same period, technology has given a microphone or printing press to anyone with an internet connection. The result is the feeling that everyone should say something whenever anything happens. Not just Harvard, Amazon, and the Writers Guild of America—every individual is expected to become an electronic billboard flashing regular public pronouncements on important events. And the constant pressure to comment brings suspicion on any failure to comment. Silence on October 7 means support for Hamas’s terrorism; silence on November 7 means support for Israel’s killing of civilians.

The point of all this nonstop messaging is to take a stand, but also to be seen taking a stand, to position yourself on the appropriate side, and to head off criticism for not taking a stand. It isn’t just private institutions that are trapped by their recent habit of making statements about current events as if they were government press offices. Every one of us is trapped. (I’ve had the cheap satisfaction of endorsing my share of public statements; one I don’t regret is the Harper’s letter, because defending speech is the job of writers.)

Once you join this game, it leads you straight into a tangle of hypocrisy and double standards. Earlier this month the government of Pakistan began to expel 1.7 million Afghans who had been living in the country for as long as 40 years. Border crossings filled with tens of thousands of poor and desperate people, stripped of money and possessions, without food, water, medicine, shelter, or any prospect of survival in Afghanistan as it nears its third winter under Taliban rule. #saveafghanrefugees did not take over social media. Universities and corporations didn’t issue carefully worded statements of concern that drew furious replies. American colleges didn’t erupt in protest. Young people in London and Washington didn’t wear burqas to show solidarity with Afghan women forced into lives of oppression and misery. Pictures of Afghan refugees weren’t put up on walls and torn down from walls.

When it comes to other people’s tragedies, we’re all hypocrites. No one can care equally about Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, Syria, Darfur, Xinjiang, Ethiopia, Ukraine, Armenia, Mexico, and Lewiston, Maine. Personally and geopolitically, this inequity of concern makes sense; morally, it’s empty. Choosing sides means accepting these double standards, and you can’t choose a side without wading into a riptide of accusations, counteraccusations, and sheer dishonesty. Writers and artists swim in these waters at their peril.

It seems natural for creative people to speak out at a time of crisis. We look to them for words and images that provide clarity and inspiration and consolation—for truth. But in practice this expectation turns out to be perverse. Instead of bringing their special talents—imagination, an ability to sustain competing thoughts and articulate them with nuance, a knowledge of complex history, a sense of tragedy and common humanity—to a subject like Israel and Palestine, writers and artists are more likely to abandon their qualifications at the threshold of a political controversy. Upon entering, they begin speaking in a characteristic tone of outraged conscience. They indulge in rhetorical excesses and resort to euphemisms and omissions that amount to outright lies. They use the passive voice and abstract language to gloss over the killing of children on one side or the other. They ignore any facts that taint their purity of belief. They squarely refuse to face the trade-offs and dirty compromises that politics requires. They avoid the devilish question that a sense of responsibility should require them to ask: What would I do if I had real power? This question always has a dissatisfying, even tragic, answer—so it disappears in the glare of moral certainty.

In taking political action, writers and artists are likelier to betray than fulfill the demands of their vocation. They might be the last people to turn to for wisdom in a crisis like this.

A political ideology, whether left-leaning or right, puts heavy pressure on a work of art. The work stands or falls on the depth, breadth, and vitality of its vision of human truth; ideology narrows and abstracts human truth to fit its messy contingencies inside an impersonal framework. Lionel Trilling wrote of “the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet.” Dark and bloody because the values of art and politics are always in tension, if not open conflict; crossroads because they’re often bound to meet.

In our daily lives we ignore or deny unresolved contradictions in order to stay loyal to a political commitment—to go on being progressive or conservative, liberal or populist. For example, fossil fuels provide vital jobs in depressed communities while they destroy the planet; America is the cause of much of the world’s troubles, yet most of the alternatives are worse; Israelis and Palestinians both have a claim to a homeland between the river and the sea. Ideology is at odds with intellectual integrity; activism requires dishonesty. Artists’ unwillingness to face this conflict is what makes the forays of so many into politics disappointing.

I don’t believe that creative people should avoid political engagement any more than other citizens, nor can they. In an intensely political time like ours, it’s inevitable that artists will turn to activism, and that politics will inform their work. But they should keep a vigilant watch on the border between the two so that neither does too much damage to the other.

The idea that such a border even exists may seem obsolete today. The invasion of politics into every crease of the cultural terrain is happening on both the right and the left—the right through government action and campaign rhetoric; the left through institutions of media, academia, and arts. These incursions require you to massage your artistic standards until they become identical to your political loyalties, and the notion that these could ever differ is rendered incomprehensible. It ought to be possible to say “This is a politically wrongheaded and well-written book” or “I share the author’s views—too bad he’s a terrible writer.” But you can guess the general outlines of a book review or prize competition if you know the politics of the authors, critics, and judges. Progressive orthodoxy has a strong grip on important institutions such as the National Book Awards and the MacArthur Foundation. If conservatives controlled them, the results would be equally predictable.

In 2021, the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie criticized “people who claim to love literature—the messy stories of our humanity—but are also monomaniacally obsessed with whatever is the prevailing ideological orthodoxy.” She worried that the constipated correctness of today’s literature would result in a generation of unreadable novels. In this atmosphere of rage and fear, where everything is public and everyone needs a tribe, political art becomes just another form of activism. Rather than disturbing our peace, this art has the reassuring effect of a petition with familiar names at the bottom, or the same sign held by thousands of protesters. It conveys a feeling that something right is being done about injustice. In a 1949 essay, James Baldwin wrote that “the ‘protest’ novel, so far from being disturbing, is an accepted and comforting aspect of the American scene … We receive a very definite thrill of virtue from the fact that we are reading such a book at all.” This fiction fails the main task of art, Baldwin wrote, because it denies human complexity and insists that our “categorization alone” is real.

There’s an illuminating example of Baldwin’s insight in the work of Viet Thanh Nguyen. In 2020, shortly after Donald Trump’s defeat, he published an op-ed in The New York Times, “The Post-Trump Future of Literature”—a kind of artistic credo. Nguyen claimed that Trump’s presidency forced white writers to become political in a way that marginalized writers always have to be. The question was whether, without Trump, white writers would “retreat back to white privilege,” which meant composing pretty poems about flowers and moons. Nguyen’s contempt for this literature extended beyond white writers to certain of the marginalized who “do not get a pass.” He called out immigrant writing that affirms the American dream without showing it to be “a mask for the structural inequities of a settler colonial state.” Good literature will tear off the mask. As a model, he pointed to a poem by the Palestinian American writer Noor Hindi called “Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying.” Nguyen’s essay equates good art with the right politics. Whatever a work’s literary merits, his approval is conditioned on ideological orthodoxy, prescribed with the rigidity of a Stalinist tract updated for the postcolonial age.

One can trace the working-out of this credo in Nguyen’s own fiction. His short-story collection, The Refugees, was published two years after The Sympathizer, the novel that brought him renown and a Pulitzer Prize, but the stories had been written several years earlier. They are quiet, finely observed portraits of Vietnamese refugees caught between memory and longing. They don’t exactly affirm the American dream, but like the immigrant fiction Nguyen would later condemn, their energy doesn’t go to unmasking the structural inequities of the settler-colonial state. With The Sympathizer, an antic thriller about a refugee in Southern California who is also a spy reporting back to the ruling Communists in Vietnam, Nguyen invented a first-person voice—witty, philosophical, capable of lengthy detours and bitter riffs—that permitted him to say all he wanted about the country where his uprooted narrator has found an uneasy home. The same narrative exuberance with which Saul Bellow burst forth in 1953 to embrace a Jewish immigrant’s America in The Adventures of Augie March freed Nguyen to damn the empire that destroyed his homeland and then turned it into a Hollywood staple.

Speaking of other Asian American literature, and perhaps his own early stories, Nguyen told an interviewer: “I sensed a reluctance to be angry at American culture or at the United States for what it has done. That’s why, in the book, I adopt a much angrier tone.” But in The Sympathizer, and even more in its 2021 sequel, The Committed, set in a 1980s Paris of existentialists and drug dealers, this adopted tone intrudes on the storytelling in a way that strains belief in the narrator and leads to improbable plot twists. Nguyen’s writing seems pushed in two directions: toward stories of action-packed picaresque and linguistic dazzle spanning high culture and low; and toward sternly ideological attacks on the ideologies of colonialism, capitalism, and communism, introducing hard nuggets of opinion into a narrative that can’t digest them, and sounding less like the protagonist than the author of the Times op-ed.

The problem with political art is not that it’s political. The list of great fiction situated at the bloody crossroads overlaps with the list of great fiction—both include novels by Dostoyevsky, Eliot, Conrad, Koestler, Lessing, Wright, Ellison, Naipaul, García Márquez, Solzhenitsyn, Gordimer, Coetzee, Morrison, Atwood, and Ferrante. Stendhal compared the appearance of politics in a work of literature to “a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, something loud and vulgar, and yet a thing to which it is not possible to refuse one’s attention.” We pay attention because the shot becomes the action of ideas in the characters’ lives.

Though political literature might express the opinions of the writer, they aren’t layered on the narrative like a shiny coat of varnish. They’re embodied in it and continually contested by the perversity of human motives. George Eliot described “the severe effort of trying to make certain ideas incarnate, as if they had revealed themselves to me first in the flesh.” Ideology is impersonal, but its exposure to experience and emotion lays bare its tensions and contradictions, ultimately leaving it transformed by prolonged contact with life. Reader and writer can disagree about politics and still, in the words of the critic Irving Howe, “enter an uneasy compact: to expose their opinions to a furious action, and as these melt into the movement of the novel, to find some common recognition, some supervening human bond above and beyond ideas.”

For this reason, it’s possible—it’s necessary—for a progressive to be able to value Conrad or Naipaul and a conservative to love Márquez or Morrison. But if ideas remain at a temperature where they never melt into particular and therefore universal human flesh, then political literature fails.

There is no reason and no way to keep politics out of art, or artists out of politics. But these are different realms, and the values of one can be inhospitable—even deadly—to the values of the other. Climb down from the ivory tower, traverse the frontier, approach the crossroads, but be aware that artists can perish there.

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