Leave The Artists Out of It

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Jun 15, 2016 12:01 AM
Leave The Artists Out of It

The candidates for president this year are already lining up stars of stage, screen and radio plus social media to plug their campaigns. Imagine all those groups of singers and dancers, comics and clowns, appealing for our votes. Plus the kind of celebrities known for nothing but being celebrities. Think of them all waiting for their cue to take center stage. Dancers for Donald! Bernie's Marching Band! Hoofers for Hillary!

A true artist, the great poet W.H. Auden, gave an interview to the Paris Review years ago in which he explained why artists should stick to art and politicians to politics. Politics or art. Choose one. Don't mix and match. Why not? Because each of them is a sufficient challenge all by itself, and mixing them only dilutes the quality of both. Wouldn't it be something if just this one election year we left the artists out of it? That way they could devote themselves to their art. They could entertain us without presuming to lead us.

"Writers seldom make good leaders," Mr. Auden observed. "They're self-employed, for one thing, and they have very little contact with their customers. It's very easy for a writer to be unrealistic. I have not lost my interest in politics, but I have come to realize that, in cases of social or political injustice, only two things are effective: political action and straight journalistic reportage of the facts. The arts can do nothing. The social and political history of Europe would be what it has been if Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Mozart, et al., had never lived. A poet, qua poet, has only one political duty, namely, in his own writing to set an example of the correct use of his mother tongue which is always being corrupted. When words lose their meaning, physical force takes over. By all means, let a poet, if he wants to, write what is now called an engagé poem, so long as he realizes that it is mainly himself who will benefit from it. It will enhance his literary reputation among those who feel the same as he does."

It doesn't take much talent, conviction or courage to preach to the converted and be hailed as a great poet by those who wouldn't know good poetry from bad. Ideology doesn't make poetry; it corrupts it. The applause meter is no more reliable an indicator of great poetry than it is of great politics.

Yes, even poets must keep up with the news, depressing as it may be. Why? Civic duty and all that. Mr. Auden never turned on the television set -- a wise decision considering the quality of TV news, or rather the lack of it. He did watch movies, but only classic ones -- Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers. His tastes were those of an old man who'd seen much and didn't like most of it.

"I don't see how any civilized person can watch TV," he tells his interviewer at one point, though he did confess to liking the detective stories like the Father Brown series. But he did not confuse them with art, any more than he believed young artists should be politicians. There was an English sense of propriety about the man. That sense is much missed. And not just among the English.