Magazine

A Point of View: Art v politics

  • 19 April 2015
  • From the section Magazine
Portraits of George Washington and Chairman Mao side by side Image copyright ALAMY

It's better to look for the answer to life's questions in art and literature rather than politics and politicians, argues Howard Jacobson.

Years ago, when a friend meant someone you knew and an opinion was something you arrived at after thought, a schoolteacher told me that if I wanted to get into university I'd be advised to read a better class of newspaper than the one I'd told him I was already reading. By a better class of newspaper he meant the Manchester Guardian. The paper I did read was the paper my parents got - the Daily Mirror, famous in those days, in our house at least, for a comic strip about a young woman called Jane who was always in her underwear, the columns of William Connor who wrote under the name of Cassandra, and Donald Zec's wonderfully witty interviews with beautiful Hollywood actresses. "You'll find the Manchester Guardian's politics are pretty much the same as the Daily Mirror's," the teacher told me, "but the words are longer".

It shocked me to discover that there were politics in the Daily Mirror. Politics! Where in its pages was the Daily Mirror hiding its politics? Even when I got to university I struggled to recognise the political affiliations of any newspaper. How did people know the Daily Telegraph was right wing? What gave the game away? And couldn't you have politics without being on any particular side?

I ascribe my naivety - you may call it ignorance if you choose - to the entirely non-ideological atmosphere in which I'd grown up. My parents voted Labour - "Labour is for the working classes and I'm a working man," was how my father justified his vote - but thereafter we had no politics. What we thought about rail privatisation on Monday we would not remember to think on Tuesday. I did have an uncle who was said to be a "communist" but the word was enunciated so sinisterly that when he took me rowing one day I was convinced he would throw me overboard. Why did my parents let him take me out? Maybe they'd forgotten he was a communist.

It was the same with religion. A few simple markers, bearing on our 13th birthdays and whom we married, defined us - the rest was fanaticism. I see now that essentially we were bohemians, without the drinking, the drug-taking, the lazing around and the promiscuity. Like many other families in those gloriously uncommitted days we cherry-picked at life. My father made merry with the world, doing conjuring tricks for children in a many-coloured patchwork suit, my mother read and listened to serious plays on the wireless, my brother and sister went to art school and I daydreamed about being a novelist. When I think of the political and religious burdens many of the people I met at university carried not knowing whether to honour what their parents had instilled in them, or to jettison the lot of it - God, Marx, republicanism, nuclear disarmament - I consider myself fortunate to have been brought up in a state of dogma-free grace.

Today, I hold fast to all tenets of mistrust - refusing anything that looks like a system, owing no allegiance to a party or a line, believing in nothing other than the necessity of believing in nothing. Maybe it's a form of laziness. You don't have to work to be a sceptic. Or an anarchist, come to that. Whereas I imagine a politician of today has to work very hard indeed cranking up accountancy procedure into a credo and a handful of domestic dos and don'ts into a doctrine.

Image copyright Getty Images

As the election proceeds, you can hear the wheels of ingenuity creaking and the ties of loyalty tearing, not only in the televised debates between the principals, but in those post-op inquisitions of their lieutenants, each one of whom is more breathless than the last with admiration for the lacklustre performance of the person he serves. In the perpetuation of this charade the broadcasters are more culpable than the players. If they gave less space to electioneering, they would be less dependent on dross to fill it.

In the absence of surprises, the entire exercise is only marginally less futile than our complaining about it. I can see why activists bewail the lack of ideology in contemporary politics. Where's the philosophy, where are the big ideas? But maybe we should be grateful there aren't any. The humdrum has its virtues. There are still people alive who remember suffering at the hands of the last century's big ideas. Show me a scheme mapped out by ideologues to make the world a better place and I'll show you an apparatus for killing. Those ideologies that don't kill us with boredom, kill us with guns.

We should learn from art. An artist with an agenda is dead meat unless he leaves his agenda outside the door of his studio or writing room. I'd like to say that no great art was ever born out of an agenda, but that might sound as though I have an agenda about the making of art. So I'll settle for saying that the point of art is to refute whatever it is we've made up our minds about.

A novelist with a tendency to Christianise decides to write a cautionary fable about a meretricious society woman who has an adulterous affair with a worthless cavalry officer and ends up throwing herself under a train. He chooses as the novel's epigraph, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay." The novelist in question is Leo Tolstoy and his novel, which no one reads in order to savour the Lord's vengeance, is Anna Karenina. Whatever Tolstoy intended as a moraliser, his art tells a different story. Not because Anna is a harlot whom we happen to like despite everything, but because her adultery is costly and affecting, ruinous and exhilarating, beyond the words of preachers.

Image copyright ALAMY
Image caption Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina in the 2012 film adaptation

Art is a thing of flux, or it's nothing. It weighs one line against another, finds the vitality of this colour by presenting it in the company of that, presents lives as they are actually lived, not in the vacuum of a belief system, but in fits and starts of aspiration and failure, forever wanting more and falling short, of use to us as examples only in that they show the exemplary is of no use to us at all. For this reason, though there are such things as political novels, they only become good novels when their politics surrender to art.

It doesn't follow from what I say that we should hand over the reins of political power to artists. They wouldn't make a better job of it. But we would all make a better job of thinking about politics - indeed of thinking about anything - if we refused that daisy-chain of affiliation which the ideological hang around our necks, with the promise that we'll never again have to make a decision of our own. Only believe "a" and it will follow as night follows day that we will believe "b", and so on through the corrupt alphabet of the doctrinaire, as though a single code can crack the mystery of life, and we can purchase every article of faith we need - anti-colonialism, anti-monarchism, environmentalism, ecofeminism, anti-capitalism, anti-Zionism, libertarianism, vegetarianism, absurdism - for the price of one.

Our beliefs should come as a surprise to us, and a shock to one another, just as Anna Karenina's humanity came as a surprise to Leo Tolstoy and his principles of ascetic renunciation based on the teachings of Jesus Christ. Otherwise we are no better than those historians who went on hymning the praises of the Soviet Union in the face of the show trials and the gulags and assassinations, because their systems of thought wouldn't permit them to do otherwise.

They are the dead men, who peg out their postulates on a single line, and cannot start again each day, noting the flowers individually, finding beauty in what will not cohere, and giving thanks for everything that makes a fool of their convictions.


More from the Magazine

We can learn a lot about the art of living from Tolstoy's War and Peace. It acutely observes vanity and folly, sexual jealousy and family relationships. But we can also learn from the life of the master novelist himself, writes Roman Krznaric.

The secret of a happy life - courtesy of Tolstoy (January 2015)


A Point of View is broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 BST or listen on BBC iPlayer.

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