Art and Politics

Todd Henderson —  19 December 2009

When I first met my father in law, he spent hours trying to convince me of the cultural superiority of his tastes. Some of these were indeed triumphs. I’m thinking here of “Dr. Strangelove,” “The 400 Blows,” and the music of Richard Wagner. (Others were not. I’m thinking here of “Children of Paradise,” a movie about mimes.) His love of Wagner is curious; he was born in Israel and almost his entire family was murdered in the Warsaw ghetto. This is not a trivial issue. Hitler loved Wagner too, and used his music for political ends. Wagner was himself a hater of Jews. Accordingly, Israel banned public performance of Wagner’s music nearly six decades ago, and the taboo was not broken until 1995 when “The Flying Dutchman” was played on Israeli radio. Six years later Daniel Barenboim (a Jew) led the Berlin Staatskapelle in a performance of an overture from “Tristan und Isolde” at an Israel Festival, which only reignited the controversy.

I respect my father-in-law’s ability to separate politics and art. But this is also just a necessity for me; listening to only Ted Nugent and watching only Chuck Norris movies would make my leisure time quite depressing. So I pay to see movies by Nora Ephron and Steven Spielberg, and I listen to music by Bruce Springsteen. But maybe there should be lines.

I love the music of “The Clash,” agreeing with a British critic who called them “the only band that matters.” But what should I make of their 1980 album “Sandinista!”? With its red and black colors and vehemently anti-American lyrics, the album is a political disgrace. For instance, the song “Washington Bullets,” which is not an homage to the NBA team of the (then) same name, tells us where the Clash were coming from:

   For the very first time ever
   When they had a revolution in Nicaragua,
   There was no interference from America
   Human rights in America
   Well the people fought the reader,
   And up he flew ...afdb
   With no Washington bullets what else could he do?

But the music is pretty wonderful. Should I put aside the political idiocy and just listen to the music? I’m not sure this can be done. After all, I would never buy an album called “National Socialists!” or “CCCP!”, no matter how incredible the music was. For now, I’ll pass, belieiving that, as cultural critic Wayne Booth wrote, the company we keep matters.

8 responses to Art and Politics


    Absolutely. The ideals of many people are shaped by public displays of disagreement such as lyrics or music. How can we as those who fundamentally disagree ever create change without understanding the message?


    Anyone expressing his thought, is worth listening, but not to accompany you while you’re writing your essay etc, it deserves to be listened.


    Given that music often provides a window into emotions and thoughts that are hard to quantify or pinpoint, and given that it is impressions of the world that form the basis of political opinions, I for one enjoy the opportunity to become better acquainted with the mindset and feelings of those with which I disagree politically. It’s the humanity of those I disagree with that continues to remind me of the need for respect and discussion.


    A saying I once heard and have repeated to my kids when they choose music is: “Poetry moves the heart through an appeal to emotion while philosophy satisfies the mind because it does not. Do not confuse the two.”


    Of course every rock and roll fan should own Sandinista, along with London Calling, two of the best albums of the 1980s. Clegg seems right about the tradeoffs involved in our consumption decisions. It surely seems relevant here that, whatever one’s views of the politics of the time, the sandinistas can’t in good faith be compared to the nazis or the cccp. (and there were, as JJ says, a lot of washington bullets.)

    One question is how heavily to weight the expressive element in the calculus of our consumption decisions. In a liberal society, we ought to cut opponents a little slack. Thus, the boycott of the Dixie Chicks seemed quite wrong to me,and qualitatively different than boycotts aimed at processes of production (e.g. products made with slave labor, or from rainforest hardwoods, or whatever.) Ideological diversity has independent value so we ought not give too much negative value to ideas that we are uncomfortable with in our purchasing decisions.


    Maybe you should read a bit of history re: the despicable role the US played throughout Central and South America (Nicaragua specifically). The lyrics are hardly sophisticated – but neither were the torture tactics and terrorism that, for many decades, the US has supported throughout the region. Indeed, the lyrics are only annoying, the actions of our proxies were brutally violent.


    My view is this: Let’s be honest, rock song lyrics are rarely all that wonderful. They’re usually trite and forced to rhyme. But if you think of the voice as just another instrument–making notes and sounds that are essential to the song the way the lyrics aren’t, rock music becomes occasionally sublime. I rarely listen to lyrics anymore, even though from a misspent youth I still know the words to essentially every Beatles song and most Grateful Dead songs. Save Dylan, the Beatles and a few others, the lyrics are secondary to the sounds the voice makes. Meanwhile, to the extent the lyrics are important–and important to the feel of a song–this is usually a function not of the specific message but of some general theme or sense being conveyed. Thus I spent a lot of time singing incredible music in the Cathedral Choir at Rockefeller Chapel, music that was clearly beautiful and meaningful, even though I am Jewish and was certainly not moved by the specific content of the lyrics.

    So I say, buy Sandinista! It has about 100 songs on it, of which 50 are fantastic–still way more than most other bands manage over their entire oeuvre. And just ignore the lyrics and enjoy the underlying sense: power corrupts and the government sucks.


    Prof. Henderson, I think you’ve gotten the issue more or less right. I have struggled with the same question and I generally use a sliding scale with at least two variables: how good the artist/work is and how much the politics detracts from my enjoyment of the work.

    The Clash are fantastic (and, important to the history of Rock), so I listen to most of their stuff, even though some of the politics grates.

    A key example from scripted television: I just love Aaron Sorkin. Sports Night was one of my favorite shows of all time. And I thought West Wing was brilliant. It was sometimes difficult for me to watch West Wing, because Sorkin is so ham-handed in the way he crams liberal dogma into his work. But, it was a show about a Democrat in the White House, and it was exceptionally well-written and acted, so I watched it and, occasionally, had to cringe or bite back my bile.

    The same holds for Sorkin’s American President, despite the fact that it featured a ridiculous scene of an actual smoke-filled room with evil Republicans plotting the destruction of the heroic Democrat in the White House. Again, shows need to have antagonists and you have to find a reason to root for the protagonist: I get it.

    But when Sorkin’s politics completely dominated Studio 60, which was supposed to be about a sketch comedy show like SNL, it was just too much. I get that comedy is hard, Mr. Sorkin, so I will forgive how self-important and *serious* your characters were about the art of comedy, but these were not White House policymakers! I kept expecting Martin Sheen to wander into the frame and give a speech about a very special tomato. Or was it the girl that was special?