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10 November 2010

Brief thought on political art: Houellebecq, Bob Dylan, Kaiser Permanente, Shepard Fairey and the possibility of making a difference

I won’t pretend like I trust or respect political art. I think it’s inherrently suspect. Which is not to say that art cannot have a powerful galvanizing effect on politics, or that it cannot be great art.

My problem with political art is not qualitative; it’s that political art is destined to become logically incoherent in the long run.

Political situations are fixed in time; history only sort of repeats itself. Art, by contrast, should be eternal; music lasts even as the interpretations of a given piece of music change and shift; in fact, I’d argue music’s meaning should be allowed to shift over time. Viz:

Frankly, the use of the archtypical protest song — Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin‘” — in an advertisement for insurance company Kaiser Permanente does offend my sense of propriety in a fairly intense way. But the question of whether it truly ruins or modifies the meaning and significance of the song is much more complicated. Dylan’s position within & belief in the protest movement of the 1960s was at least partially opportunistic; the most important aspect of his participation in the protest movement was that it helped align his art with the interests and experiences of his generation; and, circa the 21st century, what is more aligned with the interests of his generation than health insurance?

In any case, this brings me back to Michel Houellebecq who I was quoting here just the other day. I’ll make no great claims about his art. I’ve only read a couple of his novels; I was intrigued by them but I can’t say they struck a particularly deep chord in terms of their poetry or artistic resonance. But the thematic resonance = wow. This guy has thought deeply about the ailments of our age and, in many ways, he’s got our number.

Does he understand the joys of our age? I’m less certain of that… Anyhoo, without further adieu (that’s French!), here’s another great passage from his interview with The Paris Review.

    Interviewer: What is your concept of the possibility of love between a man and a woman?

    Houellebecq: I’d say that the question whether love still exists plays the same role in my novels as the question of God’s existence in Dostoyevsky.

    Interviewer: Love may no longer exist?

    Houellebecq: That’s the question of the moment.

    Interviewer: And what caused its disappearance?

    Houellebecq: The materialist idea that we are alone, we live alone and we die alone. That’s not very compatible with love.

    Interviewer: Your last novel, The Possibility of an Island, ends in a desolate world populated by solitary clones. What made you imagine this grim future in which humans are cloned before they reach middle age?

    Houellebecq: I am persuaded that feminism is not at the root of political correctness. The actual source is much nastier and dares not speak its name, which is simply hatred for old people. The question of domination between mean and women is relatively secondary — important but still secondary — compared to what I tried to capture in this novel, which is that we are now trapped in a world of kids. Old kids. The disappearance of patrimonial transmission means that an old guy today is just a useless ruin. The thing we value most of all is youth, which means that life automatically becomes depressing, because life consists, on the whole, of getting old.

(Image at the top of this post via Kotaku. It’s by Shepard Fairey. It’s for a video game called Civilization Revolution.)

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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