What do we think of the sentiment ‘all art is propaganda’ when placed beside it’s apparent opposite, the idea of ‘art for arts sake.’ But, to paraphrase Boris Groys, art that claims to be apolitical is in fact propaganda for the market. In another sense, art for arts sake does not claim to be apolitical, it claims to be fighting for the cause, for the purity, of art itself. (Then there is the more pernicious dilemma that, political or not, everything can be recuperated.)
Many of the things that are most effective about Orwell are also the most politically specious. (And propaganda is nothing if it’s not about efficacy.) His lone-man-against-the-world stance is romantic and (I believe) compelling. It is also the exact opposite of what an effective socialism would actually look like. So he’s fighting for socialism with tools that undermine the cause. I am thinking of this as a kind of metaphor for political art. Because Orwell’s propaganda is also filled with all-too-human confusions and contradictions. (While at the same time claiming to be utterly consequent.) And yet the contradictions are always housed in a clear, forward-moving narrative.
In an interview the American artist Paul Chan once said that he attempts to keep his activism and his art separate, because in activism you need a common, somewhat simplified, goal that everyone can push towards together, moving in the same direction, while in art you need complexity, paradox, metaphor, poetry, etc. The ‘lone man’ that is Orwell’s central romantic myth is a metaphor that undermines a more general socialist solidarity, but as art it can be potent and resonant. Is it only potent because it re-affirms the Western, over-individualized mythology of the status quo? This must, in part, be the case. But, I think, it’s also potent because, as stupid as this sounds, he ‘really means it.’
I am trying to turn these questions around in my mind, with (irony of ironies) no one else to talk about them with. There is no solidarity without leadership. A leader is not an isolated romantic hero, in fact, almost the opposite: a leader has the wisdom to bring people together. What I admire most is someone who can effectively admit when they’ve made a mistake (and change accordingly), and what I am most afraid of is someone who purposely makes mistakes only to disingenuously admit to them later and get away with it.
The Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan once said: ‘when you’re an artist you have to admit you want to be famous’, and this reality will always be at the heart of the problem with political art. At the same time, a contentious political cause also, in some sense, has to become ‘famous’ in order to be heard.
Solidarity is so difficult because we each want to see ourselves as the lone warrior against the world. But this is only one possible fantasy among many.