Monday, April 15, 2024

Exposing the Politics in Art

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“The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” – George Orwell

As some of you may know I have a podcast, Beneath the Screen of the Ultra-Critics with Thad and Kara. As of this month, we will be starting a year-long project, looking at fascism and anti-fascism in film. You thought we were political before, buckle up.

Every other month we will be looking at blatant propaganda as well as smuggled propaganda in regards to fascism or anti-fascism. We will be looking at the themes and aesthetics and looking at how the artist is attempting to get their message across. Primarily we will be looking at America’s own peculiar brand of fascism, that of authoritarianism. The idea came from a YouTuber, Kyle Kallgren, who attempted a series of video essays on the matter. 

I say “attempted” because he was quickly harassed and threatened to the point where he was forced to abandon the project. Harassed and threatened by-nazis. Fascism is real and it is one hundred percent at our front door.

We are not as polished as Kyle nor are we as popular or well known. One of the benefits of not having a sizable audience is the almost exhilarating and liberating freedom which comes from having no audience to lose. But the weeds of American fascism are growing and flourishing in our multiplexes and I can’t help but feel we are utterly ill-equipped to do the necessary gardening. This project is an attempt to give you the Antifa tools needed to do the gardening as well as to help us sharpen the blades we may already possess. 

For the past few years, I have been struggling with a terrifying thought. I have been plagued with the reality that movies, and by extension art, are failing us in a very real way. But then I started to notice how people were rallying behind such facile notions as “Separate the art from the artist,” or “Don’t let your politics affect your opinion of the movie”.

The first is the modern generation taking Roland Barthe’s very real philosophical critique about the death of the author and instead using it as an excuse to support rapists and pedophiles. The latter are either misunderstanding the word “politics” or mistakenly thinking that because they don’t see the politics that there is no politics. 

It’s the latter group that I think that has possibly the soundest argument. I mean this in the sense that I think what they are meaning to say is you don’t have to agree with everything you see. You should in fact, broaden your horizons, by experiencing art that you fundamentally disagree with. But where the road forks is when they then say we shouldn’t let those beliefs or opinions color our critique of the film.

Politics isn’t something that we pull out of our pockets every once in a while to punch a hole on the ballot. It is a worldview. Which is why all art is political. Even art which is essentially popcorn escapism is political. 

“All of that art-for art’s sake stuff is BS. What are these people talking about? Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren’t writing about kings? All good art is political. There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’ We’ve just dirtied the word ‘politics’, made it sound like it’s unpatriotic or something. That all started in the period of state art, when you had the communists and fascists running around doing this poster stuff, and the reaction was ‘No, no, no; there’s only aesthetics.’ My point is that it has to be both; beautiful and political at the same time. I’m not interested in art that is not in the world. And it’s not just the narrative, it’s not just the story; it’s the language and the structure and what’s going on behind it.” – Toni Morrison

So, if all art is political then it must follow all art has an agenda, which follows all art is propaganda. Propaganda is neither good or bad, obviously, for if all art is political and all art has an agenda then there is good propaganda and bad propaganda. The problem is not that art has failed us but we have failed art.

The biggest issue, to me, is how modern audiences, some critics, and some artists truly believe that having an agenda somehow taints the art. Or worse simply because they do not see the agenda that it is not there. 

Basic media literacy is staggeringly low considering how influential and all-consuming our culture is of art and mass entertainment. Many critics of my generation seem to pride themselves on their ability to be apolitical. Artists have even begun to tout this as a selling point, “I’m apolitical,” is a phrase which is both empty and dangerous. It suggests a desire to reach everyone but say nothing to them and allowing those whose views threaten the safety and liberty of others a safe space to escape where they may not be judged.

Let’s look at three movies, Sicario: Day of the Soldado, Rambo: Last Blood, and Terminator: Dark Fate. All three movies came out within the last four years. During the last five years there has been an intense and vocal attack against Latinos and especially Mexicans from both in the media and the government. Movies have opted for erasure while the government has opted for “camps” “detention centers”, “migrant labor camps”, or “hieleras”.

My point is that each of these three movies deals with the crisis on the border differently. Some are clear-headed and consistent such as the much maligned Terminator: Dark Fate in which the entire second act takes place at an ICE detention center. Others are muddled and inconsistent such as Rambo: Last Blood which spends it’s run time littering the ground with brown bodies while also openly mocking the supposed “impenetrability” of the border wall. Then there’s Sicario 2, which intentionally or not, seems to uphold every lie, racist generalization, and talking point of the central government or political actors seeking power. 

In fact, Sicario 2 is so in line with the racist and fascist views of the current government that they actually stole scenes from the movie to further their own fascist agenda and stoke fears within the population. Whether it means to be or not Sicario 2 is fascist propaganda.

All three movies are propaganda. But only one was used by the state to further its agenda in dehumanizing Latinos and Mexicans. To discuss the movie without mentioning the point of view of the narrative or the real world events it is mirroring correctly or otherwise is dishonest and cowardly. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum and it shouldn’t be viewed as such.

“Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.” – Pericles

It is no exaggeration to say that I have lost sleep not just over the humanitarian crisis on the border but in other areas of our country as well. The world is on fire, is a popular saying. But ignoring what the art is saying, intentionally or not, during this firestorm sweeping across our country only serves to fan the flames.

It’s a damn shame too. Movies big and small are saying SO MUCH now and days but it seems we are becoming deaf to them, or at the very least inured. When someone does try to analyze or point out the politics we bristle and complain about how people seem so “sensitive” now and days. There is an irony in a culture which loudly complains about people being “snowflakes” as a response to a basic criticism. 

“Today all art is political. But I’d say all art has to do with ethics. Which after all really comes to the same thing. It’s a matter of attitudes.” – Ingmar Bergman 

Apoliticism is the coward’s scream aimed at the oppressed as a way of silencing them and amplifying the voice of the oppressors. Most of us tend to look at movies as opposed to watching them. The difference is all the difference; the latter requiring an engagement with the message and themes of the film in a way that leaves us fundamentally changed or emboldened. We here at Beneath the Screen hope to change that if only a little bit.

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