Should artists be political?

PAULINA. Does it bother you that we are so close to the Russian border here? Are you worried there might be war?

NILS. I went to the beach this evening. And I walked to the Russian border. Just to see how close it really is. Half an hour.


NILS. I have to admit I was surprised when you told me on our way to Nida that you were worried.

CORINNE. I think being born in Lithuania gives an accurate vision – and fear, as well – of the situation.

PAULINA. Were you tempted to put at least one foot on a Russian soil? If you had, would it have been a political or an artistic act?

NILS. The easy answer would be: I’m no politician. So maybe it could have been only an artistic act. At most. Or a childish act?

PAULINA. “Love for one’s country knows no foreign boundaries.” (Stanisław Jerzy Lec; 6 March 1909 – 7 May 1966) (born Baron Stanisław Jerzy de Tusch-Letz) was a Polish poet and aphorist. Often mentioned among the greatest writers of post-WW2 Poland, he was one of the most influential aphorists on the 20th century, known for lyrical poetry and sceptical philosophical-moral aphorisms, often with a political subtext.)

CORINNE. Should artist be political, you asked…  well, what do you mean by artist?  When I saw “the artist, Corinne Roche”, written on my contract, I felt like bursting out laughing. Not that writers can’t be artists, but only a few af them are. I can’t say I’m an artist, really (but if you think I am, it’s ok!) because being an honest writer is already quite a big job for me.

By the way, I feel much easier to write in this blog now, thanks to both of you.

PAULINA. One of you is no politician, another- no artist… Does that make the question pointless?

CORINNE. Not at all. I just had to know more precisely. By “artist”, did you mean a  person who uses his talent or fame to have a political activity or influence?

PAULINA. No, by ‘artists’ I meant writers, visual artists, composers, filmmakers, theatre directors etc., who as such are visible to the public or have access to a wider audience through their work.

NILS.  So let’s see, if we can find a way to better answers. I got this Link from you the other day. The article by Sofi Oksanen was quiete touching. She writes: “A new age has already begun. The inter-Cold War period – 1989-2014 – is over.” Do you agree?

CORINNE. Too early to say, in my opinion. this is where Europe has its role to play, I hope. Maybe I’m too naive.

PAULINA. Yes, I think Oksanen put it quite well and I agree with her. But what  interests me here is whether an artist in this broader sense, described above, as such have an obligation and should speak out directly and publicly through mass media about important political issues and ‘take sides’, or should he/she reflect these issues in their creative work, or both, or neither?

CORINNE. So, our definitions of the word artist are quite different. But in any case, the artist has a responsability because what he says or intends to say will have an influence. Sartre, for instance, spoke a lot, and many times his wrong judgements  led peole to believe in wrong facts. I do’nt know if an artist “should” be political, but I’m sure he or she should think thoroughly before he does.  And remain modest. The best thing an artist could do is to help other people to think by themselves. Sartre was so dogmatic that he didn’t allow that . Quite hard to write what I exactly think, because of the language, and time, as well.  I have to work now.  this is quite an old debate, but I didnt finish with it.    Well, see you later !

NILS. Art is not a effigy of reality. It creates reality. So reflection of political issues in creative work most of the time won’t work very well. But what about the other point? What do you think about speaking out directly – when and how should this be done?

PAULINA. I am using the word ‘political’ in a broad sense here. There is a third way for an artist to be political – that is not to participate in something, not to accept awards, etc. Is that efficient, meaningful? Yes, it is an old debate, but it comes up as a rather practical question when something politically important happens in a country, in a reagion, in a continent, or in the world.

NILS. But it’s really hard to find out these days what really is going on, isn’t it? You could read in The Guardian yesterday: “Ukraine crisis escalates as pro-Russia activists declare independence in Donetsk.” Who are these activists? And what does ‘independece” mean exactly in this context? So behind our question lies another, maybe more fundamental question, which is: Should artists be interested in politics anyway?

PAULINA. It is not so hard if you choose reliable sources and if you know the context and a bit of history and if you trust your intelligent judgement. In this case the “activists” travel from Russia to Ukraine (often for money) to destabilise the situation and to create a pretext for Russia to invade the neighbouring sovereign country. It has nothing to do with “independence” whatsoever.

“Politics” is a rather narrow concept and possibly is the realm of politicians, but if artists/writers are not interested in current political or social situation, is their work urgent or even contemporary? Or does it not have to be?

CORINNE. I also wondered : why should artists, more than anyone else, be political? or let’s say, more than personalities? or specialiste, or journalits? as artists, do they have a more accurate opinion than others on a given situation? concretely, I heard quite a lot of artists, most of them I really respected, but on some subjects I knew a bit better than they did, for many reasons, I had the feeling their opinion was both sincere and rough.

NILS. I found something on Facebook today. A quote by Thomas Mann: “A man lives not only his personal life, as an individual, but also, consciously or unconsciously, the life of his epoch and his contemporaries.” Sounds good. But does it answer our question?

PAULINA. Corinne, I still don’t know what your definition of an artist is, as you seem to disassociate yourself with ‘them’. The question of this theme uses my definition of an artist given above. As a writer you fall into that group because as such you have a language (literature) and an audience (your readers) that other groups you mentioned do not have. I did not want to restrict the question to ‘writers’, because the question is not just or so much about us, but more general: for example, there is talk about the position of conductors Dudamel and Gergiev regarding their rulers – others think the former is innocent, only the latter is guilty.

PAULINA. It was Sartre who maintained that the itellectual should be politically engaged. However, he “expressed himself elusively about the writer’s [in particular] political role (returning to the vague idea of mirroring one’s times)”. Apparently “Sartre was not changing in these years; he was merely presenting two increasingly separate sides of himself. The activist intellectual on the one hand and, on the other, the writer, creator of the singular universal.”

CORINNE. Thanks, Paulina, I’ll try to answer you. For me, being an artist implicates not only work, talent, or desire to be one, but also the result. (Not speaking even about people who write nice but superficial novels, for instance. I’m not judging anyone, as I myself can read one of their novels with great pleasure, while traveling, in a train, or lying on the beach.) There are also novelists who try their best to write good novels ; I’ll put myself in this category. I’m a sincere person, I wrote 6 novels, and people read and generally liked them. I’m a novelist, not an artist. Why? because, if I had to read some of my books, as written by somobdy else, I should problably choose something better. as a reader, I would like a higher level. Precisely the level I want to reach when I write, without complete success.

what I mean is: its not enough to write books and to have an audience to be an artist.  but in fact, as I now see what meaning you give to this word, the discussion can go on. No matter if our definitions are different, we just have to know it, and agree about some common meaning…

NILS. The activist intellectual here, the writer there. Separate sides. I think this is very true. I also think it is no handicap if a writer is no activist intellectual. There is no duty for her or him in searching reliable sources day by day to stay informed. The other way round – if you’re a writer and you see or know something which is politically interesting  and you have the chance to tell the public about it, I think, you should try to do so. Because everything else would probably mean, you’re not very interested in your job as a writer. (A bold statement, as we say in Germany.)