Over on the previous rock, Jonas made a comment that I’ve been thinking about. My reply got a bit long, so I’ll quote sections of it and reply here.
“I do generally agree with what you’re saying, but I think it’s become harder than it was before to talk about certain things – even for purely artistic reasons. I recently watched an interview with Frankie Boyle, one of my favourite comedians, and he said that the kind of edgy, often very political material that he does has great trouble finding a venue nowadays. The crisis of capitalism seems to have produced a panic in the powers that be, and they’ve taken much tighter control of the media. The changing role of the BBC, from mildly progressive and vaguely objective to right-wing government mouthpiece, is a good example of that. Yeah, you can go out and say whatever you want on the internet, but who’s going to actually hear it?”
Yes, you’re probably right about the increased difficulty in art that contains serious criticism of society. I think it is important to speak out on this, and to act on it as best we can. Exactly how to fight it, I don’t know–that’s what a revolutionary party is for: to explain stuff like that to guys like me. (Well, okay, that isn’t what it’s for, but it’s one thing it does).
‘On the other hand, I think mass entertainment may almost be the better place for this kind of material. I have become very suspicious of “activist” art, which seems to consist mostly of identity politics and cliquishness.’
And I certainly agree with that.
But there are reasons for it. It’s a class question, isn’t it? Artists emerge overwhelmingly from the middle class, just because of the degree to which the working class is denied access to culture. Hence, the concerns are going to be middle-class concerns, and so we find identity politics so prevalent. At the same time, the hopelessness and cynicism of sections of the middle class are reflected in post-modernism.
On the one hand, this, I think, will to some extent correct itself as the mass movement of workers begins to be felt–a lot of that stuff will become irrelevant; the remaining supporters exposed as reactionaries; the best elements among the artists will find themselves drawn into the movement in their own way.
But, on the other hand, that does not mean we should be complacent about it–that we don’t have a duty to fight it. So, how do we do so? Well, polemics are always useful. But more to the point, we fight it in our work by (here I go again) telling the truth.
The point about identity politics and post-modernism is (in my opinion, of course): they’re lies.* One tells us that divisions of race, sex, sexual preference, &c &c are fundamental and real; the other tells us that there’s no such thing as progress, and we can’t actually know anything.
You do not combat those by preaching. Seriously. “Well,” said Brad, “the problem with post-modernism is…” or you make up a character who supports identity politics just to show that person as wicked and misguided. That’s dumb. That’s bad art.
Always, always, always play fair with the reader, the characters, and the story. Always.
But if your world-view is truly a part of you, you don’t need the phony stuff. You will write stories in which people’s decisions actually matter. In which characters are real, and the things that connect and divide them are the things that actually do connect and divide human beings. In which consequences flow from actions, and in which it is worthwhile to struggle. If you’re a materialist, you don’t have to preach materialism; without thinking about it, you’ll find that ideas in your stories–even fantastical ones–flow from being, are products of the “real world” you have created. Not because that’s what you’ve decided to write, but because that is part of who you are.
Three big things can get in the way of writer being able to express truth to the best of his ability: lack of technique, lack of understanding, and trying to force ideology on the story, rather than letting the story work it’s way through on it’s own terms. Those are where, in my opinion, an artist’s efforts are best spent.
*Full disclosure: My own work has some post-modern influence, just because I “went to school” with Zelazny. But I take a Pre-Joycean approach: mock it, abuse it, kick it, and use any part of it you like.