10 November 2010
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.
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.
Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis
Tags: Bob Dylan, Ethics, Kaiser Permanente, Michel Houellebecq, Political Art, Politics, Shepard Fairey, The Paris Review, The Problem With Nostalgia, The Problem With the Avant Garde, The Sixties, The Times They Are a-Changin'
3 November 2010
Maybe I should have headlined this post “fuming,” per the photograph that accompanies it? Or perhaps not? This weekend I read an interview with French author Michel Houellebecq in the Paris Review. Only after the election has it occurred to me why I highlighted the passage I’ve excerpted below at the time I first read it.
But first, to add yet more throat clearing, here are my thoughts on yesterday’s electoral result: Any despair I have about the position of the tide against the shore at a given moment in time is more than tempered by my feeling that the water can’t hurt us — unless perhaps, a conscious effort is made to drown. In other words, I don’t believe things are that bad right now. I think things have been far worse. All things are matters of perspective.
Houellebecq: What I think, fundamentally, is that you can’t do anything about major societal changes. It may be regrettable that the family unit is disappearing. You could argue that it increases human suffering. But regrettable or not, there’s nothing we can do. That’s the difference between me and a reactionary. I don’t have an interest in turning back the clock because I don’t believe it can be done. You can only observe and describe. I’ve always liked Balzac’s very insulting statement that the only purpose of the novel is to show the disasters produced by the changing of values. He’s exaggerating in an amusing way. But that’s what I do: I show the disasters produced by the liberalization of values.
Interviewer: You have written that you are “not only a religious atheist but a political one.” Can you elaborate?
Houellebecq: I don’t believe much in the influence of politics on history. I think that the major factors are technological and sometimes, not often, religious. I don’t think politicians can really have a true historical importance, except when they provoke major catastrophes Napoleon-style, but that’s about it. Read more »
Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis