Two problems from the Union Arts debate

Isaac Castella McDonald 30 November 2020

This Thursday’s Union debate discussed whether art is necessarily political. The speakers ranged from Andrew Nairne OBE, the Director of Kettle’s Yard, the acclaimed playwright James Graham OBE FRSL, and Shona McCarthy, the chief executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, and saw wide ranging arguments spanning a range of criteria, asking questions like: ‘What is the difference between a pebble and a painting?’, ‘Does art care about its content?’, ‘What is the aesthetic stance?’

There was lots of discussion about the communal value of art, and the nature of artistic production, and the joy and beauty of art, which are all interesting and important, but what shocked me about this debate was that there was no mention of the political and critical movements that have provoked a radical reassessment of art and history in the last half-century: feminist criticism and post-colonial criticism. In fact, two of the arguments from Cambridge students, that I will focus on in this review, obliquely denied the power of these two all-important ways in which art is historicised and evaluated today, and which have proved that there can be little understanding of art without an understanding of the history it finds itself in, both at the time of its production, and the time of its interpretation.

What shocked me about this debate was that there was no mention of the political and critical movements that have provoked a radical reassessment of art and history in the last half-century: feminist criticism and post-colonial criticism.

Hugo Williams, a second year from Peterhouse, spoke for the opposition, radically arguing that ‘the moment you have stopped appreciating art for art’s sake, is the moment you have stopped appreciating art at all.’ He argued in favour of an ‘aesthetic stance’, which does not admit of the ‘dirty, rough and mean, backstabbing and dishonest’ world of politics: ‘No person fully engaged in that kind of business could create a true work of art.’

I am not sure what he means by this. We could take the Iliad, for example, and ask ourselves whether or not it’s considered ‘a true work of art’ (which it is), and ask ourselves if it is involved in the grisly world of the politics of the Trojan war (which it is). William’s argument de-historicises art, Romantically consigning it to some special realm and language: ‘it stands above everything else, aloof and imperious’, a word all too close to ‘imperial’.

William’s argument de-historicises art, Romantically consigning it to some special realm and language: ‘it stands above everything else, aloof and imperious’, a word all too close to ‘imperial’.

When a particular culture is seen to be ‘imperious’, separate, above the reality of the world, it not only loses a great deal of its meaning, but it becomes the basis for a worldview which values and prioritises one culture over another. Art does not stand above everything else – it is impossible to maintain this view after Said’s postcolonial analysis of the most unassuming novel, Austen’s Mansfield Park, explained in detail the fact that there can be no understanding of the novel separate from its contemporary; the British Empire.

This does not mean that art can never be appreciated, or that it is immoral to enjoy art, but it does mean that when we are speaking seriously about art as a cultural phenomena, it is naive and potentially dangerous to assume that art is transcendental, sacrosanct, in some cases just right, perfect, flawless, provoking meditations of the sublime and the real, of the good. When this definition of art is distributed, when some art is held as art and some isn’t, because it’s too ‘dirty’, there is no way for the delineation to not be political. William’s argument was less of a contribution to the debate, and more of a primary source.

After this, Toby Melsquiff, a fresher at Hughes Hall argued that because not all art exists in the public space, not all art is political. From this I guess he would argue that a tree that fell in the woods with no one to hear would make a sound, something I disagree with. It is possible that art can only really exist as a spectacle, in the act of its consumption – there is no essential material category for ‘art’, it is a category imposed on materials and form by a gaze, and as such cannot properly exist in a broom cupboard, where it is just another object.

It is possible that art can only really exist as a spectacle, in the act of its consumption.

Melsquiff went on to claim that Sylvia Plath stands as a ‘particular’ example of an artist whose art is not political. ‘At the moment of her suicide, or just before, or perhaps when she was composing the poem ‘Daddy’, she did not exist solely in terms of her transgressions, she did not exist solely in terms of Ted Hughes’, he says. Melsquiff seems to think that the primary value of Plath’s art is unrelated to her life, which was deeply and tragically oppressed by the patriarchy and by her husband Ted Hughes. Plath’s mental illness was tragically political, and the fact that Melsquiff cites her poem ‘Daddy’ to argue that, at the moment of this composition, she was not existing solely in relation to male figures in her life is beyond belief. Melquiff showed a frankly shocking blindness to feminist criticism and politics in his argument here.

Shona McCarthy, the chief executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society was a breath of fresh air after this, in the first minute stating that ‘art does not speak a special language’, art is not a precious category, and that art can not be limited by definition to things that are beautiful and things that are sublime: ‘Art is a central part of our communal living and has been since the start of time.’ She made the valuable point that art comes to us in a moment after the art’s production, and in this moment we are unable to interpret it outside our cultural and civil lens.

Art is not a precious category and cannot be limited by definition to things that are beautiful and things that are sublime.

She ended with some valuable expertise, explaining that state arts funding, which the sector relies on now more than ever, is always chosen to complement political imperatives. Capitalism necessitates the politicisation of art, as art that succeeds, and reproduces itself in its dissemination and consumption, is art that sells. ‘Funding of arts by governments is always tied to ‘good’’, she says, and the definition of this ‘good’ changes from government to government – the history of the Poet Laureate is one which does not primarily reflect the best poet in the nation at the time, but the most tactful politician (no offence Tennyson), the person who the state would hear Speak. Beyond this she explained that the world of British arts she is an eminent part of, is analogous to a political structure – it has leaders, influencers, editors, donors, reviewers. This kind of structure is inextricable from politics, and as such art, as a commercial, collective phenomena, is always political.

After McCarthy’s speech I felt more calm, but still unhappy. How does a debate on the politics of art at the Cambridge Union fail to mention the context of the production of art under the patriarchy and the empire, and fail to realise that these last decades have put the Romantic notion of transcendent art and artist in its place as a mystic curiosity – enjoyable, but not a subject of serious discussion. I haven’t even touched on Queer criticism here, but perhaps we’ll have to wait another decade for that.