Politics undermines the purpose of art, according to an insightful American Purpose essay (but let’s agree to disagree over Atlas Shrugged)

By Michael Grossberg
Libertarian futurists dream of unleashing the potential of every person to flourish, cooperate, innovate, progress, profit and pursue their happiness in peace and freedom – both here on earth, and perhaps eventually, beyond.

Yet, the politicization of society and increasingly, of our culture and arts, threatens that goal – and in the long run, undermines civility and could destroy civilization itself if this disturbing trend approaches authoritarian extremes.

American Purpose magazine logo

In a thought-provoking article “Enslaving Art to Politics,” published recently in American Purpose magazine, writer Daniel Ross Goodman argues persuasively against the “politicization of literature.”

His essay should interest Libertarian Futurist Society members, even when Goodman makes some points about particular works and artists that we might respectfully disagree with.

“The best novelists, like all great artists, are not narrow-minded agenda-driven partisans but adventurers in the unbounded universe of the human imagination, who, through their fictions, help us better perceive vital truths about ourselves and our reality,” Goodman wrote in late September in the online magazine.

In a penetrating critique of a recent New York Times review of Languages of Truth, novelist Salman Rushdie’s new essay collection, Goodman opposes the central assumption of the “ruthless” review, which “perniciously casts writing and literature as politics by other means.”

Libertarians certainly share many of the central concerns of Goodman, a writer, rabbi, and scholar from western Massachusetts who holds a Ph.D. from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and studied English & Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

Author Daniel Ross Goodman

Goodman is the author of Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Wonder and Religion in American Cinema and the contemporary 2020 novel A Single Life.

In fact, the LFS’ Prometheus Awards judges are well aware of the tensions between art and politics, because we wrestle with them every year in weighing the merits of potential award nominees in selecting finalists.

To some extent, at least, such tensions are inevitable in an award like the Prometheus Awards, which have an interrelated dual focus by their very nature.

On the one hand, libertarian sf fans, like any other fans, want to enjoy reading good books and superior science fiction and fantasy that entertain and move us – mostly through believable characterizations, imaginative settings, intriguing plots, interesting ideas and fruitful and truthful themes.

On the other hand, we also want to find and honor such fiction through the Prometheus Awards when they focus in particular on themes, plots and characters that grapple with the perennial conflict between Liberty and Power. (And of course, only a small percentage of the science fiction and fantasy published annually happens to focus on such themes – or if they do, do it well and make it central to the story.)

An outstanding Prometheus-caliber novel or story (and frankly, the most outstanding are to be savored, since they are uncommon) not only is well-written, imaginative, intelligent and dramaticaly gripping but also champions individual rights and personal liberty and/or highlights the dangers of tyranny – obviously political themes.

As I suspect Goodman would not deny, at least some of those “vital truths” inescapably involve ethical-political dimensions, since they pertain to basic prerequisites of civilization – including the tremendous value of all individuals being able to live in peace and freedom with mutual respect for each other’s human dignity, individuality and moral autonomy.

As libertarians understand, perhaps more consistently and deeply than some classical liberals or conservatives who share in part our overriding concern about preserving and advancing freedom, that means, at a civilized minimum, that society should recognize and enforce a moral and legal prohibition against the initiation of force and fraud. (But at the same time, beyond keeping the peace, an extremely limited government should have no other role or coercive purpose.)

Without that restrictive focus, as both harsh history and great literature (including quite a few Prometheus Award winners) reveal all too clearly to the observant, our basic humanity can be denied and often is crushed through different forms and degrees of tyranny, slavery, violence and the myriad other forms of institutionalized and legalized coercion.

Sadly and tragically, that is the basic reality of the State. Government, as first properly defined by the sociologist Max Weber, is the only human institution that has a legitimated monopoly on the use of force within a given geographical area – and whenever that basic and brutal fact is obscured or forgotten, humanity suffers (especially the poor, the oppressed, the disfavored, les miserables and the innocent).

From George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged to Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Marsh Mistress and Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, among others, many of the dystopian novels that have been recognized over the past four decades and more of the Prometheus Awards do focus in different ways and to varying extents on how politics, tyranny, war, slavery and other government-enforced oppressions and injustice harm society, often grievously.

Politics is all about power, after all, and both politics and power tend to corrupt, while “absolute power corrupt absolutely,” as the great 19th-century British Catholic liberal historian Lord Acton famously warned.

Such daunting truths are routinely explored in dramatic (and occasionally comic) form in the novels, stories and other works that have become Prometheus Awards nominees, and even more so in the LFS-certified works that have been recognized as Prometheus awards finalists and winners.

There’s nothing wrong, in principle, with art that dramatizes themes about social and political issues. The challenge, as we know all too well, is finding the best balance in art between narrow political themes, where warranted, and the far broader dimensions of drama, emotion and meaning within the human heart that largely transcend politics (but can be affected by it, for good or ill).

Goodman makes this basic point eloquently, informed by a rich sense of history and culture:
“Some of our greatest artists have had fervent political passions. Dante, Milton, Michelangelo, Beethoven, Thomas Mann, Camus, Cesare Pavese, and Joan Miró were all devoted to liberty and active opponents of authoritarianism,” he writes.
James Baldwin, Pablo Neruda, Maya Angelou, and Gabriel García Márquez were animated by the struggle for justice and equal rights. Many such artists sacrificed because of their political convictions. Some — Dante, Mann, Michelangelo, Neruda, Miró — were driven into exile because of their politics.”

“Yet what made them great artists rather than just exemplary political figures, like Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., and what makes their art stand the test of time, is that they were first and foremost committed to the creation of beautiful, affecting works of music, painting, poetry, and prose,” Goodman writes.

His American Purpose article is also worth reading in full because of his many examples reminding us of the very mixed historical track record when politics and the arts are entangled.

For the record, many LFS members may disagree with one of the essay’s specific critiques.

While in alignment with Goodman’s general observation that “literature suffers, at least from an artistic perspective, when it is written to promote a specific political agenda,” we are entitled to our own opinion about a particular favorite Prometheus Hall of Fame winner that Goodman mentions:

“In politicized works, characters become mouthpieces for political points of view rather than the kinds of fully-fleshed human beings that form the lifeblood of literature. In the same way, the plots of such politicized works are driven less by the momentum of the story than by the need to advance a certain ideology,” Goodman writes.

“Works like Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead suffer from these liabilities. The ideological arguments Rand makes in her novels are more compelling (or more deplorable, depending on one’s political leanings) than the stories and characters themselves.

“In the same way, today we see Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin as being more significant as a work of moral and political advocacy than as a great work of literary art.”

Interestingly, the late Prometheus-winning novelist J. Neil Schulman championed both the artistic and political merits of both Atlas Shrugged and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (the bestseller that did more to fuel the abolitionist movement and help achieve the end of slavery in America than any other novel.)

One can concede that both novels have melodramatic aspects that, despite being considered a flaw by many modern literary critics, achieved the goal of firing up readers in a moral crusade while perhaps simplifying some aspects of reality (as all fiction must do inevitably.)

One also can observe other similarities, most notably that both novels are abolitionist in theme regarding the evils of institutionalized coercion and unashamed to incorporate idealism and urgent morality into their stories.

One can even concede the possibility that Atlas Shrugged might have gotten a bit overbalanced towards ideology in some respects. If it did, the most obvious example might be its arguably overlong 60-page climactic speech that outlines and introduces Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. That exposition, while fascinating, does slow down at a rather late stage in the gripping saga what otherwise ranks as one of the most propulsive novels.

Yet, let’s not forget that Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged very consciously as a stunt novel, conceiving what she dubbed the first “philosophical thriller.” A writer’s intentions are relevant to considering the success of their work, and Rand actually achieved her audacious goal with an epic novel that in some ways was unprecedented in literature as both a self-styled “novel of ideas” and an sf-tinged action-adventure on a truly grand scale.

Ample excitement and just plain fun can be had for readers in “stunt” fiction that can add enormously to one’s pleasure in experiencing the overall work. And on that count, Rand delivers.

In some ways, Galt’s speech is the metaphysical solution to the central mysteries of Rand’s story. Not only “Who is John Galt?,” but also: Why is everything breaking down? What sustains civilization and what makes it collapse? And, as Rand herself explicitly framed and explained her themes, what is the role of the mind in human existence?

For any novel to ask and boldly answer such grand questions is a unique achievement. Like Dante, Milton, Camus and other artists, Rand painted on a vast canvas that very much incorporates basic questions about civilization, rationality, justice and yes, politics. So perhaps Atlas Shrugged, even if it arguably does go a bit too far into ideology, remains a rare “political” novel that is an exception to Goodman’s rule.

Or perhaps, indeed, Atlas Shrugged is the exception that proves the rule, since Rand’s culminating magnum opus is also a cautionary tale warning humanity against the very politicization of society that is also Goodman’s central and wisest theme.

Again, Goodman’s essay may be read as implicitly conceding that point. For he goes on to mention two more classic novels that have been inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame, and more favorably:

“There is nothing wrong with taking strong political and moral stances in written works. On the contrary, we are always in need of works of moral and political advocacy and writers who can marshal arguments for the causes of liberty, equality, justice, and peace,” Goodman writes.

“Some of our greatest literary artists have engaged in this type of political advocacy. Dante’s DeMonarchia, Milton’s Areopagitica, Mann’s The Coming Victory of Democracy, Baldwin’s essays, and Camus’s Resistance, Rebellion, and Death and Reflections on the Guillotine are some of the most important and effective works of political advocacy that any writer, artist or not, has ever produced.

“When the great writers sought to advance their ideologies, however, they did so through political treatises, not politicized novels or poems, because they knew that the politicization of art is as lethal to literature as dullness and cliché. George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 may be the only exceptions here (and just barely so) that prove the rule.”

Yes, as argued above (and as I’ve argued elsewhere on this blog), I’d add Atlas Shrugged to that short list – even while striving to remain eternally vigilant against the dangers inherent in the politicization of art.

About American Purpose magazine, from its website:
“American Purpose is a magazine, media project, and intellectual community. In the writing we publish, the podcasts we produce, and the conversations we host, we have three broad goals: First, we aim to defend and promote liberal democracy in the United States. We use “liberal” not in the modern American political sense, but in the classical sense. Liberal values—including equal protection under the rule of law, basic civil liberties, and respect for the rights of the individual and for the autonomy of institutions of civil society—once enjoyed nearly universal consent but have recently come under attack on both the left and the right. We also intend to examine the tensions within liberal democracy that leave it vulnerable to these attacks. We are proponents of reform and revitalization.  … Finally, because we believe that the political and cultural issues of the moment cannot be separated from questions of enduring importance — about the ends and purposes of life, about how to live well and wisely together, about beauty and consolation — we intend to offer criticism and commentary on history and biography, high art and pop culture…”

Note: For another interesting related essay about the modern development of the “novel of ideas” that helps put Atlas Shrugged into an illuminating context, check out this Paris Review article.

An excerpt:  “Arising by most accounts in the last decades of the nineteenth century, the novel of ideas reflects the challenge posed by the integration of externally developed concepts long before the arrival of conceptual art. Although the novel’s verbal medium would seem to make it intrinsically suited to the endeavor, the mission of presenting “ideas” seems to have pushed a genre famous for its versatility toward a surprisingly limited repertoire of techniques….
“Whether executed as science fiction, bildungsroman, or more recently, the satirical form Nicholas Dames calls the “theory novel,” the novel of ideas is “artful,” with all the equivocality this term brings. Willingness to court the accusation of relying on overly transparent stylistic devices is a consistent, perhaps even cohering feature of a notoriously unstable genre.”

* Read the introductory essay of the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade-plus history, that was launched in 2019 on the 40thanniversary of the awards and continues today.

* Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to all published appreciation-reviews of past winners.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the  international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

2 thoughts on “Politics undermines the purpose of art, according to an insightful American Purpose essay (but let’s agree to disagree over Atlas Shrugged)”

  1. That’s a fascinating literary/mythic parallel. Although I’d read about this ancient legend and knew some of the story, I hadn’t realized that Arjuna cases on the battlefield to set forth a comprehensive philosophy, now known as the Bhagavad Gita.
    Thanks for that interesting comparison.

  2. One comparison that might be made for Atlas Shrugged is to the Mahabharata, one of the two great Hindu epics. It tells an enormous story of five brothers, married to the same woman, who must struggle against their scheming relatives to take back their lost kingdom. But at a key point in the narrative, the central hero, Arjuna, pauses on the battlefield, overcome by doubt as to whether any purpose can justify killing in general or making war on his kin in particular; and his chariot driver, Krishna, an avatar of the god Vishnu, sets forth a comprehensive philosophical justification for right action—one that takes up over 700 verses of 32 syllables each, and that is now often reprinted by itself, as the Bhagavad Gita, considered a classic summary of Hindu beliefs. In offering a lengthy philosophical statement, Rand is doing something that fits the epic tradition—and in a closer parallel, just as Lord Krishna’s speech is directed toward Arjuna, calling him to right action, so John Galt’s is directed specifically to Dagny Taggart, calling her to HIS version of right action.

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