Poetic Rule

Liberty is a work of art

painting by eugene delacroix
Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi (1826), Eugène Delacroix Egyptian General Ibrahim Pasha besieged the strategic Greek outpost of Missolonghi in April, 1825.The Greeks held out for close to a year until Egyptian and Turkish forces finally breached the town’s defences. The surviving Greeks were massacred. / Courtesy of Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux, France/The Bridgeman Art Library

Although Pierre Elliott Trudeau was not an artist, he was a journalist, a photographer, an editor, and an author, and he must have considered a turn of phrase here, a photograph there, with an artist’s customary concentration and delight. In one of his articles for Vrai, Trudeau wrote: “We are going to be governed whether we like it or not; it is up to us to see to it that we are governed no worse than is absolutely necessary. We must therefore concern ourselves with politics, as Pascal said, to mitigate as far as possible the damage done by the madness of our rulers.”

Absent from this precept is the idealism of Kennedy (“Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country”) or even the aphoristic practicality of Churchill (“Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”). Instead, we are instructed that although politics is damnable, we must accept this damnation and participate in it, lest we be damned even further. Moreover, one may read into Trudeau’s quip a call to a defensive violence. If politics is, as Carl von Clausewitz declared in the nineteenth century, war by other means, then those citizens who do not want the state to ride roughshod over them had better get themselves to the polls and the ballot boxes to defeat oppressive initiatives and lousy candidates, or to promote their own progressive programs and vote in excellent candidates. In other words, the notion of “participatory government,” a slogan crucial to Trudeau’s 1968 federal election campaign, is not a call for tea parties and soirées, but a call for consistent dialogue. For citizens to acquiesce to the vagaries of government is to accept poor governance, rotten governors, and bad laws. As Northrop Frye reminds us, “we live in subjection to secular powers that may become at any time actively hostile to everything except their own aggressiveness.”

Artists have not always been convinced that they should engage in public service, especially when it is conceived in political terms, and politicians and political philosophers have generally agreed that artists have no place in the legislatures of a nation. Even when its message is clear, art may be neutralized, nullified, ignored—and thus the United States and its sundry allies argued cavalierly for the illegal invasion of a sovereign state in the very building, the United Nations, where the tapestry reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica should have reminded them of the consequences of illicit international violence.

One reads in Book X of Plato’s The Republic that the ideal state should banish poets, for their lofty ideas foster phantasms that pervert the image of the gods and defy law. What can dreamy artists and hallucinating poets add to political discourse, to the real world? In Three Intellectuals in Politics (1960), James Joll opines that the “tragedy of all political action is that some problems have no solution; none of the alternatives are intellectually consistent or morally uncompromising; and whatever decision is taken will harm somebody.” Vincent Sherry warns all artist-intellectuals that “history will betray clercs who intrude into politics.” In the face of such preachments, Romantic—or even Post-Modernist—creators should perhaps confine themselves to their papers, canvases, and song sheets, and leave the policy formulation and cost projections to elected officials and bureaucrats.

John Fraser, in Violence in the Arts (1974), suggests that one salutary effect of artistic creation, as evinced by the tragedies of Shakespeare, is to bear witness to “the intensity with which some convictions are held, and the implacability with which some people act on their beliefs, and the fact that in some conflicts both parties cannot be winners and that beyond a certain point one has to choose between them if one wishes to retain one’s intellectual self-respect.” Fraser’s insight allows us to appreciate that, far from being utopian and impractical, artists are at “the cutting edge of ideas and ideologies.” In the presence of clairvoyant art, one is aroused, provoked, agitated, and, perhaps, inspired to act. Such creativity impels one to consider, as Fraser posits, “the clarity, integrity, and validity of one’s thought, the completeness of one’s commitment to one’s own ideas, and a clear-sighted understand-ing of the ways in which, in the short or the long run, those ideas connect with the physical world.” Good and engaged art reminds us, says Fraser, “that all things come back ultimately to judgment and thought.”

The engaged artist is simultaneously an aware citizen, and, no matter how superficially fantastic his or her idiom and theme may appear, its meaning carries import for the understanding of the state. In totalitarian regimes, direct statement in poetry disappears into surrealism, but both the police and the people know that the essential fact of such verse is a demand for freedom. Fraser suggests that when art speaks back to society it provides audiences with “the focused intensity [that] comes from a powerful sense of what gives life dignity and of what boundaries cannot be crossed without an intolerable self-betrayal or betrayal of others.” An example is Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, where Alice’s “situation is still continuously one in which she must defend herself or be put down, and in which constant alertness is demanded.” Finally, Fraser notes, “as one passes from the Alice books—with their risks and traps, and astonishing rudenesses, and insistent claims of people to authority over the heroine—to the world of Jane Austen, one is reminded anew that a really worthwhile kind of polite culture is one that doesn’t dull the mind and blur responses but heightens and sharpens awareness and makes for more effective conduct.” Similarly, imaginative and thoughtful art is not an escape from reality, but a preparation for a more incisive interrogation of its organization and impact. In other words, artists should make reality more real. The late Canadian Marxist Hardial Bains believed that a just society would appear only when words “once again assume their true meanings and the real quality of things and events will emerge.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley asserted that, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World,” because of the revelatory aspect of their art. In his “Defence of Poetry” (1821), Shelley alleged, “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar….” With this conception, the poet is a kind of supreme investigative journalist, finding beauty and enlightenment in the most unlikely places or revealing crime and decay where they are hidden. The artist, in seeking beauty, speaks truth to power, and through the heart of any politics flows the blood of aesthetics—and vice versa.

At a Liberal Party dinner in Montreal, in February 1971, then-prime minister Trudeau said, “liberty is not without form.” This idea suggests that liberty—like justice—is a work of art. The very notion of a just society requires the delineation of a sense of aesthetics. One does not carpenter together a system of justice, one sculpts it, and the same can be said of a system of government. The just society is, necessarily, also a beautiful society, and not just in terms of environmentalism or street cleaning or asking citizens to strive for physical fitness and healthy living. The just society is a beautiful society because of a harmony among its constituents, one that seeks to equalize imbalances in income, representation, and power, but also one that respects and supports the arts. To constitute such a society artists are es-sential. Their task is to articulate implicitly, even unconsciously, the necessity for improving the common weal.

Some may protest that such an imposition renders art political, but no art is created in a vacuum, and so it enters into a political arena, regardless of the intentions of its creators. Indeed, a potent work of art provokes debate and dissent, just like an enterprising government, politician, activist, or program. It is a silent advocate, a mute witness, to the dream of a better, more charitable, and more humane form of existence. Art is never innocent, even if artists claim naïveté; it has socio-political effects, and so it has socio-political consequences.

A comparison of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (2002), a film that is a grim inversion of Kubrick’s 2001, illustrates this idea. In the 1960s, we looked forward from the Age of Reason and the Age of Progress to the Space Age and the Age of Aquarius, and delighted in what seemed our irrefutable advance from primitive conditions. The optimism of that time was summed up in the scene, near the beginning of Kubrick’s film, when the prehistoric ape, Moon-Watcher, throws a bone into the sky and it metamorphoses into a spacecraft. The scene celebrates the ape’s escape, by way of the gift of intelligence and invention, from experiences of powerlessness and victimization.

In contrast, Noé’s controversial Irréversible, a film that unsparingly depicts murder, torture, and rape, captures the bleaker reality of our current era. Where Kubrick depicts the cosmically blessed arrival of rational man, Noé shows us a philosopher beating out the brains of a sadistic rapist. Indeed, the murderer’s use of the fire extinguisher to pummel his victim’s skull is an ironic updating of Moon-Watcher’s use of a bone to bludgeon a zebra. Noé depicts not the technical evolution of humanity, but our regression to a bestial state.

Viewed side by side, these two works of art indicate that, in just over thirty years, we have exchanged the revolutionary social and technical optimism of the Age of Aquarius for the reactionary militarism and pessimism of the so-called Age of Terror. Whether Kubrick or Noé intends to promote either opti-mism or pessimism is not the issue; their respective works of art are relevant to their times and, perhaps, all time.

In a May 19, 2004, lecture at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard commented on “ “—the violence perpetrated upon and with images. He claimed that the image is separated from reality, but that its revenge is to be exploited endlessly in documents and documentaries, so as to reproduce reality, particularly that of violence and misery, for moral, pedagogical, political, and advertising purposes. Images of assassinations, explosions, massacres, tortures, and other forms of violence in our Age of Terror are denuded of meaning as they are manipulated to promote competitive agendas: the American torture of Iraqis becomes the rationale for Iraqi beheadings of Americans. And all these crimes are captured on film and transmitted endlessly.

The violent image, dissociated from its causes, is always at once grotesquely visceral and repellently suspect. The only effective attitude in relation to violent images that stimulate, to use Fraser’s phrase, “the pain of consciousness,” is a constant interrogation of their meaning. As Northrop Frye insists, “We have revolutionary thought whenever the feeling ‘life is a dream’ becomes geared to an impulse to awaken from it.” The whole duty of art is to render reality more real, pain more painful, beauty more beautiful, and truth more truthful. And this function carries social ramifications.

The American poet Ezra Pound famously wrote, “Literature is news that stays news.” Perhaps we can fine-tune Pound and propose that literature is not news, but meta-news, hyper-news; it is the news not yet written. Like all art, arguably, it is irrelevant, finally, to action, but it is crucial for the reflection that effective action must be based upon. In this regard, American writer Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953), which envisions a future wherein possessing literature is a capital crime, was prescient. In Bradbury’s truly terrifying society, a television-like device “tells you what to think and blasts it in” and “rushes you on so quickly to its own conclusions your mind hasn’t time to protest.” In contrast, books allow argument; they “remind us what asses and fools we are. They’re Caesar’s praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, ‘Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.’”

Certainly, the literary record advises doubt regarding the positive outcomes of crusades and jihads, but it also advises recourse to the only real defenses against barbarism—reason, justice, and empathy. Mass literacy is necessary to counter Albert Camus’s truism that “an atmosphere of terror hardly encourages reflection.” There is something in literature, in the stories we tell, that insists on provocation. Reading can change everything by changing minds—especially if a text is memorized. Frye points out that, with memorization, “the work of literature [acquires] the existential quality of entering into one’s life and becoming a personal possession.”

According to Frye, “the written word is far more powerful than simply a reminder: it re-creates the past in the present, and gives us, not the familiar remembered thing, but the glittering intensity of the summoned-up hallucination.” If Frye’s perception is true, it is our failure to explore the resonant, real-world contexts of literature that reduces reading to a rendering of rote interpretations. A good book, like any good work of art, forces one into a realm of constant questioning—of self, of psychology, and of society. We cannot know ourselves and we assuredly cannot improve ourselves without con-fronting ourselves via the superior consciousness of literature and art. Frye puts the matter this way: “a specifically historical situation is latent in any enlightenment: man has to fight his way out of history and not simply awaken from it.” An insightful work of art incites discovery and self-discovery without regard to temporality; it is a revolutionary text that never ceases being revolutionary.

Ultimately, no artist can claim convincingly to exist outside the political realm. And if artists are not to be crushed or summarily silenced, then they have no choice but to engage in public life, while knowing that such engagement may exact a heavy price.

George Elliott Clarke
George Elliott Clarke teaches English literature at the University of Toronto.