We live in a political world
Everything is hers or his
Climb into the frame and shout God’s name
But you’re never sure what it is
I was thinking a day or so ago about some issues that used to be on my mind. I had endless debates with a mentor in photography, Harry Wilson, about the relationship of art and politics. Harry’s work carried with it a degree of political charge, though it wasn’t necessarily jingoistic or even overt. I felt that political posturing is responsible for a lot of bad art. For example, it has taken me decades to warm to Robert Adams. His photographs always reeked with judgment about the man-made landscape, usually making it out to be an entirely negative thing. In contrast, in a more contemporary example, I don’t find that to be true of Edward Burtynsky. He photographs the man-altered landscape as well, and you are free to judge it as beautiful or ugly, necessary or a blight, depending on your own politics.
I’ll never forget a conversation with a director of the Kern County Arts Council around that time, where she related to me (to the best of my recollection) this statement: “I don’t mind politics in art as long as I agree with the politics.” Makes sense, I suppose, but it’s hardly that simple. For example, Harry always loved Les Krims (because of his humor, I think, rather than his conservative politics) while I hated his work. I never cared that much for the contrived. I was interested more in the real world as a thing in itself, rather than judgment of it. When I shifted my emphasis to photography in rhetorical studies, I wasn’t interested in politics for much the same reason. I didn’t want to produce any sort of writing that judged people for their political opinions and/or failings in that regard.
It dawned on me what the central issue for me is. While it’s possible to accept that we live in a political world, everything is not “hers or his.” I reject the idea that people and their relationships are the entire universe. There is a world, surrounding and dominating the political, that is far more interesting than the people who pass through it. People have an impact on it, to be sure, but understanding the world as it is (which includes people but also things) frequently involves agents and forces that are not human. Things matter more than politics, at least in my opinion. When politics distracts us from things, I think politics detracts from a complete understanding of the world.
The usual dodge “everything is political” is simply wrong. No, it isn’t. Everything can be savagely misunderstood and treated as a pawn in the pursuit of the political, but because the world is not merely of the people, by the people, or for the people— it isn’t exclusively or even dominantly political.