The Politics of Art: Should Writers Keep Their Opinions To Themselves?

“I have always loved the Grammys but to have artists read the Fire and Fury book killed it. Don’t ruin great music with trash. Some of us love music without the politics thrown in it.” ~ Nikki Haley, 29th and current United States Ambassador to the United Nations

The tension between art and politics has long been debated, certainly since the 1960s, when the cultural revolution introduced neon posters, protest music, and lyrics that offered more than “ooh baby baby” to the national conversation. Lenny Bruce and George Carlin made politics and changing mores the bedrock of their humor. Films, TV, art, books, and music found the incitement of violent unrest, sexual freedom, social controversy, and evolving standards ripe for exploration. All the rules changed and, for artists, that was a glorious thing.

Yet here we are in 2018, once again debating the explosive merge between politics and art, with some sniffing that those who create the movies, TV shows, music, books, images, and comedy enjoyed by a rapacious public should keep their politicizing pie-holes shut. Nikki was peeved, Trump took on Jay-Z, and God forbid a certain red-headed comedienne made tasteless jokes about the man in the White House…satire is dead, color within the lines, banish them from the kingdom!

Some of us aren’t having that.

When Nikki Haley tweeted the above admonition on Grammy night, she threw herself into a social media frenzy that literally exploded with response, opening up a contemporary conversation about what artists are allowed to say, what they are advised to do when it comes to that provocative alliance between creative and political personas.

The zeitgeist on that question has clearly evolved over time. Swinging from earlier eras when artists and celebrities fought hard to keep their proclivities and idiosyncrasies—both personal and political—from impacting any part of their public brand (with McCarthy’s blacklist making it a matter of career life and death), current trends find politics and identity more readily meshed, making public not only what an artist has to offer, but who they are and what they believe.

Of course, that’s not true in all genres of the creative world. It’s well known that country music defines conservatism as the go-to party line and sticking your neck out too far to the left can shatter a career’s upward trajectory (see the Dixie Chicks). Some say that hard line has been softened in more recent years; when big stars like Tim McGraw and Faith Hill can throw their support behind liberal causes, and still maintain status as one of country’s power couples, perhaps the sharper edges of political witch-huntery have been dulled. Even the writers of the TV series “Nashville” have tackled police profiling and the outing of one of their most popular characters.

On the other side of the aisle, actors like Bruce Willis, Kelsey Grammer, and Tim Allen claim their conservative politics have contributed to backlash from liberal Hollywood. Clint Eastwood, he of the famous “empty Obama chair” at the 2012 Republican Convention, has been openly mocked not only for his support of right-wing politics, but the contradiction those views present when viewed against some of his more liberal narratives (Gran Torino or Million Dollar Baby, for example). It it also widely believed that conservative novelists are a rare breed, suggesting either their lack of interest in the form, or a lack of interest in their ideas. 

Writers, largely more private and introspective than their performing cousins, do seem particularly sensitive to the conundrum, as their commerce and community-building rely heavily on the goodwill of virtual readers and reviewers who may or may not share their civic opinions. Some, in service to that readership, refuse to reveal their political views in open forums, often advising others to follow suit for the sake of survival in a saturated marketplace. One author recently asked if I didn’t find it “dangerous” to be as vocal and public as I am about politics, if I might be scaring off, offending, or potentially losing readers who sit on the other side of the fence.

Maybe so.

But for me it comes down to this: the products of my creativity are built on the foundation of my political and social beliefs. The topics I cover, the characters I create, the messages of my stories are all imbued with one aspect or another of my perspective, either by echoing it or arguing it. In fact, it is my worldview—my philosophies, spiritual beliefs, and politics—that contributes to the whole of my assembled persona, and that persona is inexorably linked to my artistic expression. These things are inseparable.

If my views offend, put off, or otherwise dissuade readers from appreciating or buying my work, so be it. That is the price I willingly pay for authenticity. For me, there would be no point to creating art if it didn’t represent my voice, didn’t inspire conversation, elicit emotion, provoke thought, or offer illumination on topics I felt passionate about. Whether comedy, satire, suspense, science fiction, romance, or mystery, writers can weave their foundational beliefs into any plot, character, or dialogue. Nothing need be wasted. My Muse, in fact, will not allow me otherwise.

Given that, I’m particularly drawn to those who are propelled by the same impulse. I love that J.K. Rowling makes no secret of her views on Twitter, stirring trolls into Voldemort-like frenzy! Chelsea Handler’s fierce politics make her humor all the more pointed. Stephen King is artfully vocal and Anne Rice never fails to share her perspective on the state of things. But I especially applaud lesser known artists, who have more to lose by boldly going where their politics lead. They are countless and courageous in putting their artistry where their mouths are, whether music, books; films, or whatever their medium. 

So, to answer the titular question: artists cannot be afraid to mix politics and art. The power created by that synergy is what drives cultural revolutions, what makes change, what inspires new thought and innovative ideas… all of it pushed by the noise of our collective voices. If someone cannot tolerate the volume, they are free to take a seat in the other room.

Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

Follow Lorraine Devon Wilke on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and Amazon. Details and links to her blog, photography, books, and music can be found at www.LorraineDevonWilke.com.

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Comments
  • Pamela Fender

    Bravo!
    I have written political poetry since I was in junior high (Vietnam war protests.) Currently, the political climate has brought up some horrific things in my life. Hence, I'm writing political poetry once again.
    Thank you!

  • Melissa Zabower: Thank you... and beautifully put.

  • melissa zabower

    Every writer sees the world in which we live from a particular worldview. I believe it's impossible to effectively remove our beliefs from our writing. It's not a new phenomenon. I recall Johnathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" and Dante's Inferno, poking fun at their culture and demanding response. If we writers are to open our readers' eyes to the world as it is, then it's our responsibility to mix politics and art.