Missed Opportunity
Music of the Week &mdash July 30, 2006

Sunday Night Journal &mdash August 13, 2006

Poetry and Politics: Guernica with Graffiti

Patti Smith (famous in the late ‘70s as a sort of beat-punk poet singing rock-and-roll) has made available a song, “Qana,” about the civilians killed by Israeli air strikes in the Lebanese city of Qana. (You can download the song here.) It’s a powerful piece, a Guernica in words and music, with a striking and vividly apropos Catholic touch at the end—Qana is held by some to be the biblical Cana. But the emotional effect is undermined for me by Smith’s odd singling-out of a villain: Condoleeza Rice. Even if you hold the U.S. partly responsible for those deaths, to skip over the parties actually waging the war and lash out at an American statesman comes across as a leap from poetry into ideology. Suddenly you can’t simply participate in lamentation for the dead and anger for the sheer evil embodied in the violence—either you agree with Smith’s views about the global political picture, or you’re out of the song and into an argument. It becomes Guernica with a couple of Republican (Spanish) slogans added like graffiti.

If you do agree, of course, the specific political statements combined with the horrific and piteous imagery will get your outrage going and perhaps motivate you to some sort of action. And maybe Smith is more interested in accomplishing that than in making a work of art. If so, she moves thereby pretty far beyond the vague and ever-shifting boundary between art and propaganda, and really has no grounds for complaint if those who disagree with her politics dismiss the song. Whether in the long run the song would, if shorn of its specific political statement, do more or less for the cause of piece is anybody’s guess, but I feel certain that it would be more effective and live longer as a work of art.

I say all this as someone who rather admires Patti Smith and has no desire to belittle her or her work. Although I’ve never heard the albums from the ‘70s that made her famous (a gap which I’ll fill someday), I ran across her late ‘80s album, Dream of Life, more or less by accident some years ago, and heard in it a voice I liked and respected; likewise for her 1996 Gone Again.

Punk rock, with which Smith’s best-known work is associated, never meant much to me. At the time it appeared I was already a parent and trying hard to be an adult, and punk seemed by and for adolescents. But Dream of Life is the work of a woman who’s more interested in raising her children than making rebellious gestures: a grown-up living in, well, if not my world exactly, at least one that has a lot in common with mine. It’s not her political views but the common and universal cares of human life that I share with her.

Why, in general, should anyone give any particular weight to the political views of an artist, especially to his views on specific topics of the day? We find Johnson’s Tory principles of interest mainly insofar as they touch on questions that still occupy us, his views on American independence of interest mainly as they reflect his personality and principles, and his views on inheritance laws hardly at all. But there’s an impulse, at least on the part of those to whom the arts are very important, to attribute some sort of authority on political and social questions to artists. This I think is a leap from the sense, only partially justified at best, that the artist possesses deeper insight than the average person. The more I know of people in general and of artists in particular the less truth I see in this.

It is not intelligence or depth of feeling or accuracy of intuition that distinguishes the artist from others, it is a specific skill—a verbal, musical, or physical skill which is above all a matter of aptitude and development, not of sensibility or intelligence. Where politics is concerned, the artist may actually be less worth attending to than the average person, because he’s likely to see life too much in dramatic and aesthetic terms and to be a pushover for whichever political party most successfully appeals to his emotions and his taste.

There has been since sometime in the 19th century a toxic cloud of cant surrounding art which can be dispelled by recourse to the ancient and simple definition: art is skill in making. A poet is not, as poet, a prophet or a statesman, and neither is a songwriter, much less a painter or a singer or a guitar player. And it’s no service to either the artist, his art, or his audience to treat him as such.

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