When the hero of “V for Vendetta” blows up a London landmark — the Old Bailey at the beginning of the movie and the Houses of Parliament at the end — Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” surges from the speakers. Back home in his subterranean hideaway, this self-consciously cultured revolutionary delights in precious artifacts that the government in this techno-fascist near future has outlawed. V’s verboten stash includes paintings and statues, a working jukebox and a copy of the 1934 film “The Count of Monte Cristo.
Even viewers put off by the movie’s Orwellian overkill and blood-spurting mayhem may find something awfully enticing about the aesthete avenger himself (a masked Hugo Weaving as V). At the heart of this goony, rhapsodic fantasy based on a 1980s graphic novel is a persistent, alluring idea about the force and efficacy of art — namely, that it can change the world in substantive, material ways. “Artists use lies to tell the truth,” V tells his captive and eventual acolyte Evey (Natalie Portman).Order now
Drawn in by his musical tastes and his flair for quoting Shakespeare as much as by his oppositional politics, Evey joins the cause and helps V bring down the repressive regime in a frenzy of explosives and a convulsive Tchaikovsky reprise. Music, literature and visual art aren’t just a backwash for V’s deeds, they’re instrumental to what he believes and why he acts. Every age, every artist, every observer sorts through the question of art’s real-world effects. Daumier, Zola and Dickens believed devoutly in the power of their work to assail injustice and precipitate social change.
Oscar Wilde believed (or pretended to) the opposite: “All art is quite useless,” he wrote. The artist as engaged revolutionary and/or social reformer is a well-established trope in Western culture. So is the notion of a “pure,” apolitical agenda — free art. Today, in a centrifugal-force new century whirling with change, the issue has a fresh urgency.
Where does individual artistic expression fit in an image-crammed digital age? Is form-changing originality possible in a culture of relentless self-reference, replication and commodification? Has art ceded its incannot tory power to science, with its promise of unspooling the genetic mysteries of life and measuring the distant reaches of space?
Absent the Tchaikovksy-fueled superhero powers of V, does the artist even register on a world stage filled with the stark deeds of terrorists and the mounting folly of Bush administration geopolitics? Some of the responses to those questions are built on worthy, if modest, claims. Maybe it’s no coincidence that the mainstream acceptance of “Brokeback Mountain” parallels an apparent growing acceptance of gay marriage and civil unions and adoption by gay parents.
And who knows, “Crash” may well have deserved its Oscar win over “Brokeback” by contributing to a similar consciousness shift on racism. Locally, in the continuing debate about arts funding in San Francisco, the call for devoting more dollars to neighborhood-based programs carries the conviction that the arts do ameliorate social ills and imbalances. Crime, drug abuse, school truancy — advocates come armed with studies showing the arts can address them all and change behaviors. Other arguments for the arts as a force for change have a retrospective cast.
In a new book of essays on “The Poem That Changed America: ‘Howl’ Fifty Years Later,” editor Jason Shinder sees the imprint of Allen Ginsberg’s angry, unruly, ecstatic anthem in “homosexuality, politics, drugs, tyranny, loneliness, music, madness, and death. ” Watching the closing credits for the magnificently sad South African film “Tsotsi” the other day, and only then realizing that the script is based on a novel by Athol Fugard, I began thinking about the connection between that great writer’s plays (” ‘Master Harold’ … nd the Boys,” “The Island,” “Sizwe Bansi Is Dead”) and the end of apartheid.
And then I thought about Solzhenitsyn and the fall of the Soviet Union. And then about the writers and composers and painters we still haven’t heard from China or the Middle East or Africa, and how history might be bending right now under the force of their work. Last year, the online journal Adbusters conducted a survey on the question, “Does art have the ability to significannot ly change the world? ” Yes: 86 percent. No: 14 percent. Artists and art-world people love to say “yes” to this question.
It seems validating, especially at a time where bottom-line, provable results seem to count for so much. But in a follow-up discussion on the blog Eyeteeth: A journal of Incisive Ideas, Adbusters editor Paul Schmelzer quoted some more nuanced and revealing responses. Noting an ever more blurry line between art and commerce, Artforum editor Tim Griffin asked how the artist could be an adversary if he or she is no longer a genuine outsider.
Artist Thomas Hirshhorn stoked himself up as “a warrior! I have no time for doubts, I do not want to be self-critical, I do know I will be injured, I will be killed but I want to give! Robert Storr, a New York critic, curator and artist, wondered if “sometimes people who should be socially active take refuge in art and make art as an alternative to being involved in the sort of nuts-and-blots and oftentimes boring business of organizing and voting and demonstrating. ” The mind begins to swoon and reel. A small little bubble of hopelessness rises in the pit of the stomach. These are impossible, circular, unsolvable questions, larded with sophistry, self-justification and righteous accusations. And that’s all the more reason to ask them and ask again.
Right now, with the arts entirely absent from the national conversation and arts education squeezed to the vanishing point by the bogus imperatives of “leaving no child behind,” there’s a strong temptation to defend art as a force for social good. Make the case, arts advocates say. Just make the case for whatever support or funding there is. Let’s just hope we don’t end up turning the store over to those results-driven bureaucrats or to the real-world V’s with their schemes to enslave art to a cause. Art works its deepest transformations not by setting out to do so, but by being as true to itself as it can.
That in itself is an act of defiance to the cynical cannot and commercial junk that swamps the culture. Art takes us out of the bubbles of alienation that foaming flood tide creates. It pries open our eyes, awakens us to the rigors of language instead of its deceits; the ravishing complexities of a musical idea; the impetuous, ungovernable beauty of the world that makes us love and treasure and defend it more fiercely. “If art cannot change the world,” the philosopher Herbert Marcuse wrote, “it can help change the consciousness and drives of the women and men who would change the world.
No one can say where, when or how that might happen. But it only will happen if we foster art that’s unchained by objectives. The critic Arnold Weinstein puts it this way, in “A Scream Goes Through the House”: “The experience of art yields a view of human reality as something networked, criss-crossed with ties and bonds, quite at odds with the individuated world we take to be real. ” Art, as he says, “restores us to full circulation. ” Now let’s crank up the Tchaikovsky — or the Torme or Tupac — for that.