Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Art for Whose Sake?

Okay, you've got art for art's sake, art for propaganda, and a slice of personal horn-blowing in between. What goes with this sandwich? The pickle we're in. My first need here is to define "propaganda." Remember Brenda Lee's ancient hit, "I'm Sorry?" I sure do, with love, but I also remember a line in it that I was raised on by my parental generation: "Mistakes are part of being young." Oh yeah? Well... yeah, actually. True enough. The young make lots of mistakes characteristically. What's not true is the implication: that older people don't, that when you "grow up" you grow out of making mistakes, so do as I say not as I do, blah blah blah. And that implication is the lie hiding behind the truth, because making mistakes is part of being older too. (My own experience is that the young tend to make varied experimental mistakes, whereas older people tend to make the same tired old mistakes over and over.) So propaganda is a lie hiding behind a truth.

Thanks to Steven Leech for the Laura Bush/Poetry story, which I missed at the time, and which is instructive-- in microcosm it was just yet one more ugly american assumption that the rest of the world is no more than a classroom of sing-along children (it's a small world after all, it's a...), and that implication is the lie. A lie that this time around got revealed. Propaganda by gently coerced default.

Phil Bannowsky touches this base as well. What's wrong with an overt message in art? Is the problem fundamental, or just a slippery slope issue wherein the message might overwhelm the medium and hammer us where a magic wand might weild more savvy weight? From another angle, is it even possible to open your mouth and not advertise? Is there a love-poem in creation that doesn't advertize me or mine above others in the marketplace of life?

I have never deliberately been a "political" poet in the sense of instrumentally serving a specific organized cause, but I have also never tried not to be, understanding that truth is not something that fits in a box. Or, to put it the other way around, if it does fit in a box, it's probably not the truth-- which is why art for art's sake is probably a lie, since it chooses to live in a box. And so, (at long last) I vote for advertising, provided it is honest. It is simply physically impossible at any moment to see the universe except from one place instead of from all the others. That doesn't mean the truth will sell or not hurt. It just means that if you don't want to live under a box-top, but under the sky, you've got to accept the weather, rain or shine.


  1. For my part, when I hear political poetry I tend to feel *very prepared to wince*, because about eight times out of ten I usually end up hearing unbearably didactic, polemic stridences that seem to contain no art other than the passion of the speaker (I am speaking of the "live experience" here, as opposed to reading politically-motivated poetry on the page). Which is to say, I have become used to political poetry that smells and sounds like, at best, political humor.

    I feel removed from politics, and so for me there exists a freedom to toy with political people and political hot potatoes: let's see what happens when I claim that Sean Hannity is actually Rachel Maddow's roommate, let's see what happens when I declare that the countries of Israel and Palestinian are fighting over the back of 7-Eleven, etc.

  2. douglas.morea@gmail.comMay 18, 2010 at 2:05 PM

    In answer to Rich, yes I agree: in my own terms, much political writing is preaching to oneself-- the ultimate choir. Political humor, however, can be very good (witness Dailey/Colbert), and is in fact very close to poetry. And, unlike most poetry, enjoys the specific kick of a promised punch, raising it almost to the level of music in its visceral appeal.

    Alas, there rises here the danger of sentimentality. For example: Hallmark type love greetings and porno. In real life sexual feelings can be intense, complicated, and above all unpredictable. That's all hard work and scary. But reducing sex to either rosy or stinky reduces it to something easy and safe-- at the cost of being fake. Thus it can be with political humor. If the easy and safe way is taken, it sinks into the mere sentimentality of clever silliness, which, while hardly a crime, is a loss.