(A disclaimer before you begin: This little essay should not be construed as a response to Darlene’s essay, “Coward, or What is Not Art.” I’m not like most of the other bloggers here who can toss off a few hundred words of keen analysis with barely a thought. I’ve spent days–off and on–trying to word this thing just right so that there will be no misunderstanding of my point, but I despair that I’ll ever be clever enough to be that clear. What I’m saying is, my thoughts about propaganda preceded Darlene’s by several days and have nothing to do with what she said.)
Most artists I know–perhaps I should say, artistes–abhor the thought of creating propaganda; they wouldn’t be caught dead using their work to further or perhaps even damage some institutionalized cause. Although I’m not sure where the notion comes from that only institutions use art to further or damage a cause, this seems to be the understood source of all that can be deemed propaganda. Apparently only oppressive monolithic organizations have agendas.
Oh, and, I used the phrase “wouldn’t be caught dead,” ironically, because in truth, after an artist dies is when the knives are truly sharpened and institutionalized critics are free to dissect an artist’s work and assign all sorts of intent–whether to further or damage–whatever pet cause it is to which the critic happens to adhere. What? The critics aren’t institutionalized?
Think about it now…just for a minute or two.
Everyone has an agenda. Everyone is institutionalized.
Ev. ‘Ry. One.
This is what life does to us. The mere act of living requires us to have a list of things to do. And only someone left completely–absolutely–alone is completely–absolutely–uninfluenced by some kind of society. That individual does not exist. Not alive anyway. We all have agendas, and we all are institutionalized by some society or another (or all actually): our families, our cliques, our schools, our jobs our religions our neighborhoods, our nations. And, those of us who call ourselves artists can’t help but include within the art we create our institutionalized points of view–our agendas. All art is propaganda.
And that’s a good thing. Otherwise we wouldn’t have anything worth saying. What kind of art does that make? Boooooring.
Even with that first little playlet, written at the age of twelve (See previous post: “How it Happens.”), I had an agenda. Apparently, I was sure that the world was suffering a dearth of Farleyesque wild-stallions-that-become-race-horses stories and held it a sacred duty to fill that need. And I have been doing this ever since. Well, not writing about horses, certainly (In fact, I don’t think a single horse has appeared in any of my stories or plays since then), but doing my best to strengthen the moral and cultural fiber of society. Which all of us do to a certain extent. We all perceive various deficiencies in the make up of civilization and we seek to find ways to correct them. “No, no,” I hear some cry. “All I’m doing is telling the truth as I see it.” Exactly. And why are you doing this? To make the world a better place, I’m sure.
This attitude is not limited to artists. I’m fairly certain that every human feels the urge to have influence. Undoubtedly, this urge is born of the most basic of human drives–to create. To have increase. To become a part of something that is bigger than our selves. To become an accepted member of the grand institution we are most drawn to–whatever it is. Ultimately, the human race, I suppose. And so, I don’t believe any artist who claims to be agendaless–it’s just not possible. At the very least, all works of art contain this statement from the artist at its heart: I think and feel this way, I think more of you should think and feel this way too.
I know that there are many who take issue with my point of view. I understand. Some of that disagreement may simply be a matter of semantics. If it is not, let me suggest an experiment. Pick any artist (for me this is easiest done with writers because that’s just the way my brain works) and devote some time to consuming their entire oeuvre, or, quite a bit of it anyway. With careful examination, I’m pretty sure you will find that a pattern of belief will emerge. From one work to the next to the next you will discover a discernable core belief represented in one way or another throughout, sometimes subtly, other times rather blatantly.
I’ve done this a few times myself. With Orson Scott Card’s writings, I could say–flippantly–that all his stories are about how much it sucks to be a child genius, but this observation is only true on a superficial level. In reality, to my mind, Card’s stories always seem to be an examination of the characteristics of a savior. At heart, Card’s purpose is to explicate the idea that the individual who does the most to build and further the cause of a stable community is the one who is willing to suffer the most degradation on behalf of that community.
At the heart of every Tim Slover play (that I’ve seen or read) is the notion that all people fall within the grasp of Christ’s atonement.
Eric Samuelsen’s plays teach us that everyone is a matryoshka doll. That there’s always another us inside the us that people see. And another and another. That we should never assume that we know someone, because it usually takes awhile to get to the inmost matryoshka.
Once my friend, Dave, set out to write a novel that would contain no message. It would be nothing more than a wild ride through space, full of fun and adventure. And he did it. And as far as I can tell, “The Golden Queen” is nothing more than a wild ride through space full of fun and adventure, though I suppose the point is arguable (Parkin and I have discussed it). Its two sequels, however, are loaded with powerful themes and provocative moral dilemmas: messages, as it were. I asked Dave, “What happened to the story with no message?”
“It turns out,” he said, “that it’s really really hard to write a book about nothing.”
There’s always a message.