The Playgoer: Handke & The Problem of the Artist as Pundit

Custom Search

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Handke & The Problem of the Artist as Pundit

K.A. Dilday has a refreshing--though debatable--take on the Peter Handke affair at

Do artists inevitably get into trouble when venturing into political commentary because of their inherent appreciation of ambiguity, ambivalence, and seeing the other side?

When I worked as an editor on an opinion page we routinely asked novelists to write about political and social events in their country because they wrote well and engagingly; they made events vivid and real. Were they the sagest or the most politically astute? Probably not. But it is still the pieces by novelists that I edited that I remember most: Colm Tóibín on the road through Tara in Ireland, Javier Marias on terrorism in Spain and elsewhere, Emmanuel Dongala on the Rwandan genocide.

All were spectacularly beautiful, profound pieces, and as I remember them I realise the element they shared: the writers did not try to cloak the elusiveness of certainty - even as they advanced a particular position, they acknowledged its contradictions.

And that's perhaps why we give novelists fora outside of their medium. Pundits rarely admit ambivalence. They are like Isaiah Berlin's famous hedgehog, seeing only one big thing. There is little space for textured arguments in the age of television and lighting quick internet leaps, the pithy soundbite representing one particular argument is what producers are hoping for.

One could say that appearing at Slobodon Milsosevec's funeral is hardly an "ambiguous" gesture. Still the larger point is well taken, I think. This doesn't have to be considered a different standard, or lowering the bar of punditry. (As if that's possible!) Nor should this reinforce old saws of artists being insulated from "real world" politics and be allowed, like children, to play with ideas without consequences. It's just a different enterprise artists are engaged in than political scientists, or partisan hacks. A different way of interpreting and articulating the same problems we all live with.

Indeed, how does a work of art "argue" anything? I think that's a very, very complicated question.

1 comment:

freespeechlover said...

Aren't there other choices between inherent ambiguity and complexity and sound byte nonsense? What about political essayists like Joan Didion? Non-fiction writing can be extremely artful and still make a point, be situated in the world where sometimes human beings have to take sides, etc. The inherent ambiguity of the world seems like the flip side of sound byte ville. Both seem abstract to the point of meaninglessness. But we live in the world, can't see everything, do not transcend our own skin, are mortal, etc. I can think of brilliantly crafted non-fiction and fiction that do make points. Bella Canto on terrorism and Joan Didion's, America: Fixed Ideas," are both well crafted and make a point.

I would feel more sympathetic to the argument, if we were in 1968, but there is no "left" today in America imposing its aesthetics or anything else on everyone else.

In fact, there's precious little political theater in the U.S. except of the inadvertent "spontaneous" kind that we all participated in re: MNIRC.

It's easy to go after "political" theater in the U.S., because there isn't much. There's a lot of theorizing about it in universities, but practically, there isn't much here compared to Britain or Australia or Canada, to say nothing of the "developing world."