Sunday, February 27, 2011

WEEKEND ROUND-UP: ART AND THE POLITICAL IMAGINATION

Just a pair of notes this weekend!


LITERATURE AND THE POLITICAL IMAGINATION: A 2005 essay by Christopher Lehmann from the Washington Monthly looks at "Why Americans can't write political fiction." (I don't share the author's pessimism; while I'm hard-pressed to identify many successful novels about the ambiguities of politics, narrowly defined, there is no shortage of nuanced literature about difficult moral questions, which themselves are political. A work of fiction doesn't have to be about politics in order to inform our political lives.) In any case, Lehmann discusses Walt Whitman's cry for a literature that would animate our politics. "Walt Whitman--a former clerk for the U.S. Department of the Interior--recognized that the true frontier of America was not, in fact, geographic, but political. With the most deadly political failure fresh in the nation's memory, Whitman, in 1871, issued his famous call for a distinctive, politically minded American literature in this essay 'Democratic Vistas.' A new national literature, Whitman argued, was the only force adequate to heal a newly sutured American nation. The country's 'most fundamental want,' Whitman wrote, was 'the clear idea of a class, of native authors, literatures, far different, far higher in grade than any yet known, sacerdotal, modern, fit to cope with our occasions, lands, permeating the whole mass of American mentality, taste, belief, breathing into it a new breath of life, giving it decision, affecting politics far more than the popular superficial suffrage, with results inside and underneath the elections of Presidents or Congresses--radiating, begetting appropriate teachers, schools, manners, and, as its grandest result, accomplishing, (what neither the schools nor the churches and their clergy have hitherto accomplish'd, and without which this nation will no more stand, permanently, soundly, than a house will stand without a substratum,) a religious and moral character beneath the political and productive and intellectual bases of the States.'"
 
ARTISTS AND NARRATIVE: The PBS series Art:21 has an episode on "Stories." Anybody despairing of a supposed dearth of artists (if not writers) who are dealing with social problems in contemporary life will find a pick-me-up in this provocative and -- perhaps more importantly -- entertaining episode! As per the episode description on the website: "How do artists tell stories in their work? How does contemporary art reflect and reveal narrative traditions? How does the art of today record and describe the world around us. The Art in the Twenty-First Century documentary 'Stories' explores these questions through the work of Charles Atlas, Kara Walker, Kiki Smith, Do-Ho Suh, and Trenton Doyle Hancock." Filmmaker John Waters introduces the episode in this way: "I'm John Waters, and I love collecting art--because it makes other people insane!" Find out more about what he means in the episode.

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