Artistic dissent; a performance of Philip Glass’s The Trial, based on the novel by Franz Kafka, at the theatre in Magdeburg, Germany, 31 March 2015. Photo by Jens Wolf/dpa/Getty


What does art do?

Good art, laced with irony, ambiguity and suspense, is not obviously political. That’s what makes it politically interesting

by Vid Simoniti + BIO

Artistic dissent; a performance of Philip Glass’s The Trial, based on the novel by Franz Kafka, at the theatre in Magdeburg, Germany, 31 March 2015. Photo by Jens Wolf/dpa/Getty

When we look back at the early 2020s and ask which work of fiction held up the mirror to society with greatest clarity, my bet would be on Michaela Coel’s television series I May Destroy You (2020). Narrating a young woman’s rise to fame as a cultural commentator, and her struggle with the consequences of rape, the series cut into several social and political conversations that have defined the first decades of the century: the power of social media, racial prejudice, sexual violence, and even climate change.

When the series aired, politics had already entered a febrile state: the tail end of the Donald Trump era in the United States, the height of the Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd’s murder, the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Democratic societies were faced with key decision points but, within the strange new logic of social media, so much energy seemed expended on battling unreason, on acrimony and paranoia, that hope for progress seemed but scant.

In this charged environment, Coel’s choice of comedy felt not only perceptive, but wise. In one scene that stayed with me, Arabella (the protagonist, played by Coel) takes a job as an influencer promoting a vegan start-up, but begins to feel she is selling out to a company aligned with white, middle-class interests. Finally, she sabotages the company’s message, gorging herself on fried chicken during a live stream. Coel is a master of crafting what we might call moral suspense, where the audience hold its breath not for the plot twist, but for the moral stance the show will take. Does the author want us to agree with the protagonist’s viewpoint here, to think that climate change is a white, middle-class issue? Coel sustains this worry with supreme pacing. When Arabella parties with her friends, having terminated her contract with the vegans, it feels like a satisfying act of rebellion for her. But at the very end of the episode, just before the credits roll, we are shown a quick montage of climate-caused devastation.

Works of fiction like I May Destroy You are one of the ways in which we engage with political issues of the day. I say ‘works of fiction’, but we can also speak of ‘the arts’ in the broadest sense: novels, pop music albums, feature films, computer games, art installations. Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) critiques patriarchal oppression; Beyoncé’s album Lemonade (2016) asserts anti-racist values; Guerrilla Games/Sony’s series of PlayStation games Horizon (2017-) revolves around the consequences of the climate disaster. But while the skill of the artists who weave such themes into their work is impressive, we may wonder whether works of art contribute to political conversation, or simply reflect it. Does I May Destroy You simply show us what conversations were ongoing at that point, or does it move those conversations forward, in a way that a theorist, journalist or academic might try to do?

The question of art’s role in the political sphere goes back at least to Plato’s invocation of the ‘ancient quarrel’ between poetry and philosophy, over which form of thinking best reveals the path to justice. In the 20th century, the political role of art has been a topic central to the work of many philosophers, from Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, to the dispute between W E B Du Bois and Alain Locke. Today, however, it seems reasonable to pose the question of art’s relation to politics in the context of the specific crisis that democracy seems to have entered within the past 10 years or so. The dominant intellectual responses to this crisis have, if anything, pushed the arts further outside the sphere of political relevance.

The crisis in question is by now familiar: polarisation, disappearance of consensus, the brutality of public discourse, the spread of disinformation. One response to this situation has been a kind of return to order: a call for facts, impartiality, objectivity. In the public imaginary, various scientists and judges have come to embody this persistent need for calm rationality. We may think of Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, walking on with dignity as he was accosted by two COVID-19-denying thugs, or of the poised delivery of Lady Hale – the former president of the UK Supreme Court, of the spider-brooch fame – who ruled that the then prime minister Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament was unlawful.

Analytic philosophers, like Michael Hannon recently, have pointed out that, to defend against polarisation, we must cultivate the virtue of objectivity; and even within film and art scholarship, traditionally given to postmodernist critiques of rationality, some critics, like Erika Balsom, have suggested that the old Enlightenment principles and empiricism itself ‘might need salvaging’. Meanwhile, social scientists have trialled various approaches to make the electorate more rational: to guard against fake news, for instance, colleagues at my own university in Liverpool (along with researchers from the University of Dundee) have even trialled a chatbot that attempts to think more like a philosopher. All this points back to attempts at clawing ourselves closer to the ideal public sphere, which Jürgen Habermas memorably described as one in which nothing but the ‘force of the better argument’ should structure our communication.

Irony, wonder, allusion: too inexact for objectivity, too non-committal for activism

The other response to the democratic crisis has, by contrast, called for a departure from calm deliberation: for anger as a political force, for indignation, for speaking truth to power. You might remember the success of the political pamphlet Indignez-vous! (2010), in English Time for Outrage!, by the French diplomat Stéphane Hessel, then 93. His rage was directed chiefly at the treatment of Palestinians and at the greed of the financial class (Hessel’s title was adopted by the Spanish anti-austerity movement Indignados) but, since then, the case for passionate speech has been taken up by movements ranging from Extinction Rebellion to Black Lives Matter. At a time of crisis, intractable discussion becomes, as Greta Thunberg proclaimed at the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, just more ‘blah blah blah’, which we can contrast with her own strident position-taking. Within philosophy, impassioned speech has likewise attracted renewed defences, as, for instance, in Amia Srinivasan’s much-cited analysis of anger as a productive political emotion.

Deliberative rationality and impassioned speech – or, as we might call them for short, objectivity and activism – have thereby emerged as the twin ideals of public discourse for our time. As ideals, they have been invoked both against each other and jointly. They are appealed to across the political spectrum, though political opponents will doubt each other’s claims to objectivity, and question the legitimacy of each other’s activism. What is interesting to note, however, is that neither of these ideals can make much sense of the aesthetic realm, if by this contentious term we designate the characteristics of speech more readily found within the arts. Ambiguity, irony, open-endedness, unresolved complexity, wonder, bemusement, allegory, allusion: such modes of discourse are too inexact for objectivity and too non-committal for activism, and so cannot be endorsed by either.

Consider, for instance, what either ideal of political discourse might say about the more aesthetic elements in an artwork with political themes, such as Never Gonna Snow Again (2020), an excellent Polish feature film that deals with climate change. Of a magical-realist bend, the film charts the arrival of Zhenia, a handsome Ukrainian masseur with mysterious powers, into a privileged, gated community in Poland. Zhenia goes around offering his dream-inducing massages to the Polish nouveau riche, momentarily relieving them of their loneliness and existential dread, but it is not until towards the end that the film’s allegorical significance begins to emerge, as a portrayal of an anxious but inactive global society, sleepwalking into a global-warming disaster. Set during a particularly snowy winter, the film ends with a title sequence that proclaims: ‘Forecasts predict that there will be no snow past 2025.’

The film is undoubtedly artistically accomplished – one reviewer hits the mark, describing it as ‘rich in sociopolitical allusions and delicate, shivery modulations of mood’. But such artistry might still seem pretty useless from the perspective of our twin ideals. From the point of view of activism, all this chin-stroking about magical masseurs isn’t enough to jumpstart us into action. From the point of view of objectivity, the film’s allegory is a poor guide to truth. Even its final prediction does not seem to be based on some verifiable scientific fact.

These kinds of doubts might be expressed directly by those hostile to the arts, but are recently even more noticeable within the arts themselves, where the very idea of political art has become conflated with the push to make the arts either more factual or more activist. The turn to facts and objectivity can be observed, for instance, in the work of the London-based collective Forensic Architecture, whose art installations present empirical counterinvestigations of various human rights abuses (they were nominated for the Turner prize in 2018). Praising this new spirit of artistic research, the curator and artist Paolo Cirio has called for a turn to ‘evidentiary realism’ in the arts: an end to postmodernist relativism, and a turning to comparatively dry, research-based presentations of fact. Activism, on the other hand, has been a visible force within contemporary art for longer – occasionally referred to as ‘artivism’ or ‘socially engaged art’ – and can be witnessed, for instance, at this year’s Documenta exhibition in Germany, which has been entirely dedicated to the presentation of grassroots, artistic activism along anti-globalist and anti-imperialist lines.

As valid as these trends might be politically, however, they do not explain what, if anything, might be valuable about those aspects of the arts that differentiate it from other forms of non-art political activity. We might agree that the arts should be allowed to pick up a political banner, but this still leaves us wondering what good art might be politically, other than as an extension of politics as usual. If we agree that democracy presently finds itself in a crisis, might there be any benefit to those artistic modes of discourse – ambiguity, open-endedness, allusion, complexity, wonder, and so forth – that seem only obliquely related to the political struggles being waged?

One key storyline in Coel’s I May Destroy You begins when, during a consensual sex act, Arabella’s partner removes his condom without her consent. After much hurt and anger, she reveals the man’s act publicly, leading to his exclusion from the literary scene to which they both belong. This story of Arabella’s moment of empowerment, however, also becomes a narrative about her addiction to power: online, she becomes a voice that calls out various injustices, and her zeal leads her to fall out with her friends. The series thereby foregrounds two issues that were at the centre of the public debate – the real sexual violence experienced by women, and the so-called ‘cancel culture’ – and brings them into a tense proximity.

Again, Coel stages that moral suspense: the trepidation we feel as viewers about which way the author’s moral judgment will fall. Is Arabella, who is also dealing with the trauma of a previous rape, justified in her righteous anger; or has she gone, as it were, too far? But instead of answering these questions, the show’s focus is steadily and simply on the situation itself. The prevalence of sexual abuse, and the awful emotional cost for survivors, are shown to exist. And the pleasure of revenge, and the addictiveness of power on social media, are also shown to exist. The title of the series, I May Destroy You, lends itself to all these themes. What is so masterful about Coel’s treatment of these issues, however, is that she keeps them in focus without jumping to ethical conclusions.

An artwork – a novel, a TV series, a play, a painting – can suspend us in such a space of contemplation of a political reality without forcing us down a path of a conclusion. Art, unlike an argument or a call to action, can keep us in that space before the final ‘therefore’. It is this inconclusiveness of art that separates it both from the objective and the activist approaches to political deliberation, where the speaker is attempting to get the audience to agree with some statement or a demand, on the basis of either argument or sentiment. So, what might be the benefit of hovering before the conclusion in this manner, of stopping thought before the final call to belief or to action?

We could benefit from forms of thinking that are not based on a clash of positions

Here is one hunch. Both objective and activist modes of discourse, necessary though they are to a functioning democracy, are predicated on a dynamic of opposition. Whether this opposition is on the grounds of correctness or of morality, the underlying dynamic of these modes requires one party to lose, to yield to the greater force of the ‘better argument’. Among ideally rational beings, that would happen easily, without resentment. But in real political life, it is impossible to disentangle political disagreement from group-belonging and self-interest. Social psychologists studying the so-called ‘backfire effect’ have found, for example, that even neutral presentation of evidence leads study participants to become entrenched in their beliefs to the contrary, if the evidence conflicts with their party-political orientation. And this is confirmed readily enough in everyday experience: if a political opponent is making a convincing argument, rarely do we simply adjust our beliefs, but instead retreat into an aggravated silence, thinking of a comeback. Like the dispute in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) in the nation of Lilliput over whether to break an egg on its little or big end, even the most banal disputes can become a matter of life and death when they are animated by group antagonism.

None of this is to say that rational argument and activist persuasion are not needed in democracy. Of course they are. But if one part of the current crisis in democracy is entrenched polarisation and group-antagonism, then it seems we could also benefit from forms of thinking that are not based on a clash of positions. Art can offer just such a strange, open-ended space of thought, where oppositionality temporarily ceases. Artworks offer a change of rules in the game of discourse; they make it possible to think about shared social issues without invoking the humiliating opposition between those in the right, and those in the wrong.

If we zoom out from Coel, and think about the contribution the arts have made to the various social changes of the 20th century, I think there is something to be said for this model. For instance, the slow advancement of gay rights in most democracies over the second half of the century seems to have been, at least in part, enabled by those works of art that, while not exactly adopting an activist position, have habituated their audiences to observing gay relationships as deserving of interest. James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room (1956), David Hockney’s painting Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool (1966) or, to take a later example, Jul Maroh’s graphic novel Blue Is the Warmest Color (2010) do not present political demands so much as create fictional worlds, in which it is possible to contemplate queer lives.

Even if we think about issues more specific to particular societies, it seems we can make political discussion more bearable by removing the need to take up a stance. For example, as Italy and Germany reckoned with the memory of fascism and Nazism in the decades following the Second World War, the impossible question of what degree of guilt ‘ordinary’ citizens should bear inevitably had to be addressed, and re-addressed, over several decades. Federico Fellini’s film Amarcord (1973) or Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader (1995) both present, albeit in very different styles, the behaviour of ‘ordinary’ people who get caught up in unforgivable political fervour, but neither work passes clear moral judgment on them. This is not, importantly, a case of exculpation. Rather, if we consider such works in their original contexts, we may think of them as allowing citizens of Italy or Germany to think through a still-contentious subject, without immediately reaching for conclusions, without the fear of being wrong, without immediately dividing themselves into the saved and the damned.

So, does art contribute to political conversations, or simply reflect them? We can begin to offer an answer. Art, perhaps uniquely among the forms of political discourse available to us, allows for audiences to contemplate issues at the heart of political clashes, while temporarily suspending the judgment of right and wrong. The space of aesthetics is therefore neither fully political nor anti-political. The aesthetic realm sits, rather, askance to politics; it allows us to attend to politics but relieves us from the weight of taking on a political position. None of this is to suggest, of course, that this aesthetic, inconclusive mode is better than either objectivity or activism. Instead, the suggestion is that the democratic public sphere requires a plurality of these different modes of discourse, among which the arts play their distinctive role.

To conclude – as is customary in philosophical speculation – let’s take up a few objections. The first, commonly encountered by philosophers: where is the evidence, where is some empirical experiment that evidences the supposed benefits of the arts I have described? For instance, if we were to return to the magical-realist Polish film, Never Gonna Snow Again (2020), how would we be able to show that it made some measurable difference to the debate around climate change, either for individual viewers, or in society more broadly?

Are climate change sceptics going to go see a Polish arthouse film that is an allegory for global warming?

We might encounter such questions in the now-common practice of measuring the effects of thought as such; we encounter the tendency in the dreary demand of cultural and academic funders to demonstrate the ‘impact’ not only of the arts but also of academic research in humanities. However, giving out questionnaires to people who have seen art exhibitions or films, as for instance Arts Council England suggests its beneficiaries should do, is rather like trying to catch a butterfly with a hula-hoop: changes to people’s beliefs happen over time and through a multitude of experiences, among which any particular experience (be it of an artwork or otherwise) will form but a small and hard-to-pin-down part. So where are we to look for evidence? Some studies in social psychology measure the effects that certain common constituents of artworks have on political persuasion – such as uses of narrative or uses of humour – and these can perhaps provide valuable, but indirect evidence for the beneficial role of the arts in political reasoning. But perhaps the only real empirical experiment measuring the effect of the arts on public discourse would have to involve running two parallel societies – equal in all respects, apart from emptying one of them of all artistic production – and then seeing whether the arts-free society negotiated its political problems more or less effectively.

To my mind, instead of giving out questionnaires after exhibitions, we ought to look to the history of the arts for evidence. Here, it seems clear enough, there are many sociopolitical changes to which the arts have indeed not contributed positively (the closing of the ozone hole, the smoking policy). But it is hard to imagine, say, the significant political change in the realm of multiculturalism, women’s rights or gay rights in modern democracies over the past 50 years, without invoking the way in which such issues have been treated in the sphere of artistic and cultural production. And I would also venture to say that political positions that have failed to be translated into a broader cultural moment through the arts – for instance, activism against tax evasion, or the recent effective altruism movement – have, for this reason, failed to implant themselves into the awareness of a broader segment of the population.

Meanwhile, the second qualm often expressed about the possibility of artistic contribution to political discourse pertains to their reach. Perhaps, you might grant me, exceptionally crafted artworks can allow citizens to attend to divisive political issues without the pitfalls of antagonism. But are climate change sceptics going to go see a Polish arthouse film that is an allegory for global warming? Were homophobes reading Giovanni’s Room in 1956? Is I May Destroy You already appealing to largely a metropolitan, liberal audience? And, if so, do the conversations that the arts provoke occur only among those already in agreement?

The question ‘but who has seen the work?’ points to a broader problem of the public sphere: who is talking to whom, and through which media. If we conceive of the arts broadly enough – to include, say, video games and popular music – their reach is certainly broad, though it always splits along different demographics. To invoke a stereotype, it might be the case that conservatives will be drawn to traditional artforms, and liberals towards artforms that, either in content or form, challenge the status quo. When this happens, when an artwork sets out primarily to put forward a position, it may well feel that the arts are preaching to the converted. But, if an artwork instead attempts to create a space of thought, in which open-endedness is possible, and where something other than position-taking occurs, then argument begins to point the other way.

If the value of art is that it allows us to attend to politics without group-based antagonism, then we should feel comfortable to engage with those artworks, regardless of our political persuasion. The value of the arts, in other words, becomes intertwined with the value of democracy itself; and this, if anything, is a reason for the state to support and promulgate the arts.