Saving truth, Part 3 – in which I reach no conclusion whatever

Harold Pinter was emphatic about “political theater”: don’t preach. “Sermonizing has to be avoided at all costs. Objectivity is essential. the characters must be allowed to breathe their own air.” 

The artist can be as angry as hell about the lies he/she hears from politicians, but in the art itself, in the plays Pinter wrote, there can be no hot and heavy rhetoric about them (unless, of course, there’s a character whose wants to give vent). So how is the search for truth in literature, painting, or piece of music going to have political consequences? How is it going to help the current political climate? Can it? 

I’m trying to think back into American history about some of the “political novels” that have had real verifiable consequences. Usually,the results aren’t that obvious and direct. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the first book that’s cited, and there can be no doubt that the book made a difference in the movement against slavery. It’s also not a very good book. 

Eliza Crossing the Ice, Uncle Tom's Cabin. A theater poster. 1881.

Upton Sinclair’s books were important politically (The Jungle was responsible for the Pure Food and Drug Act influential. Ayn Rand’s books (The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged) influenced, and still influence, many. And they’re full of polemic, and again, not very good books as books. 

1984 and Animal Farm are considered classics, and both books are cited by politicians of every stripe. Have they made a difference? How, and is it possible to measure it?  

It’s much harder to know whether or not a book like Moby Dick has made a difference in the lives of its readers, or in the life of this nation or any other. The best literature helps us understand the world’s complexities. There is no high Truth pronounced at its end; life isn’t that way. It’s full of ambiguity. 

The final chase of Moby Dick. 1902.

It seems to me that the world inhabited by many of the country’s most outrageous liars is one where everything is very simple, black and white, good and bad. 

At any rate, the artist has to do whatever the artist has to do, and that doesn’t often mean recounting the misadventures of a lying politician. Though, of course, it could, and has. 

So does the artist have a special role to play? Can he be another Diego Rivera and paint murals that will help shape the disposition of a whole nation? Is she any less responsible if she chooses instead to be Frida Khalo and paint herself in hundreds of varying contexts (a few of them overtly political, but most not). Will Khalo have less to say to us about what is true than Rivera? 

I wish I had as many answers as I have questions.

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