"This world which is in the making fills me with dread… It is a world suited for monomaniacs obsessed with the idea of progress - but a false progress, a progress, which stinks. It is a world cluttered with useless objects which men and women, in order to be exploited and degraded, are taught to regard as useful. The dreamer whose dreams are non-utilitarian has no place in this world. Whatever does not lend itself to being bought and sold, whether in the realm of things, ideas, principles, dreams, or hopes, is debarred. In this world the poet is anathema, the thinker a fool, the artist an escapist, the man of vision a criminal." – Henry Miller, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare.
At some point everyone who puts pen to page or paint to canvas wrestles with the same question: is there a moral obligation for writers and artists to be political?
On the face of it art and politics seem opposed and irreconcilable. There’s a lingering old-fashioned feeling that politics is an ugly thing and art should be something of beauty. Politics springs from society with its tabloids, its curtain twitching and its gossip while art comes from culture that ethereal treasure trove. And while there are occasions when the two undoubtedly combine with immense power – Picasso’s Guernica, The Battle of Algiers, the films of Eisenstein, Shelley’s Oxymandias - these are seen as remarkable exceptions. In a way politics asks too much from the artist, it challenges them to take sides, to brace themselves for a lot of inevitable flak. Stick with what you know, fire out another meaningless abstract expressionist canvas and the critics will pin some meaning on it and praise it to high heaven. Everybody knows in the backs of their minds how difficult it is to be political without sounding like a daft prick.
The Internet is littered with the shipwrecks of many’s a piece that tried to be political and ended up a depressing, clichéd pile of steaming horseshit directed against Bush or globalisation or how boring working in an office is. It’s nigh on impossible to write a decent poem containing the word “capitalism” and if you could what would the point be? All the stockbrokers and oil merchants and management consultants are hardly quaking in their boots because you’ve written a sonnet, multinational capitalism is hardly teetering at the brink of collapse because you scribbled, “George W Bush is a rotter” on a toilet door. Leave politics to the taxi drivers and the old women a voice says in the back of your mind. Go on playing your fiddle while Rome burns.
We are proud to present in this new instalment of Laika Poetry Review a work by the late great black poet Etheridge Knight that proves that politics and art can come together and in managing to do so it lays down a challenge for us all. Knight believed the disassociation of poetry from politics, from the day-to-day realities, from life on the streets robbed it of its potency. Art that says nothing of the world, of what is or what should be, even indirectly, is like a toothless dog scratching it's fleas and howling at the moon. Through honest, passionate personal accounts Knight created a microcosm for something wider. There is more truth and fury about the world in “Hard Rock…” than in a thousand political diatribes and crucially by getting under your skin emotionally it stays with you. Writing like this may not change the world but it changes the way we see everything in it.
In his deadbeat masterpiece Tropic Of Cancer Henry Miller inadvertently demonstrated that you can be political without appearing to be so, without talking drivel and even without knowing it. In his lengthy brilliant essay Inside The Whale George Orwell defended Miller’s book asserting that in fucked up times just living a free life and questioning everything, as Miller had, can be the most radical undertakings you can embark upon. Just to exist beyond the influence of priest or politician, tabloid or therapist. Common human decency and a life beyond faith were the cornerstones of Orwell’s thought and he recognised them right to the core of Miller’s work. You don’t need to write some rambling diatribe against totalitarianism, simply live your life beyond ideology and faith and, to an extent, you’re untouchable. The autonomous individual, who places more importance on the constant search for truth rather than its ownership, is the real embodiment of freedom. The “voice in the wilderness” as the Bible calls it. And lord protect us from those who have found the answers.
Under any system that claims to have found the answer, the one truth or the faith whether it's Christian fundamentalist or Islamic, whether it’s communist or fascist or Francis Fukuyama’s "end of history" capitalism the most unlikely things can become political. Simply creating any music or painting under the Taliban would be a bravely defiant statement as would writing something like “Johnny Walker’s Blues” in the aftermath of 9 11 and the Afghanistan Invasion. Though the graffiti of the street-artist Banksy (http://www.banksy.co.uk) is not polemic in itself when he paints it on the Israeli security wall in the West Bank it’s more potent than a million manifestos -(http://arts.guardian.co.uk/gallery/0,,1543331,00.html). In today’s climate with the clash of fundamentalisms, whether they’re in the name of God or Allah or Mammon, writing that is freethinking, questioning, ambiguous, individual becomes a political act in itself.
So here it is Laika’s latest transmission. Beamed out into space to be listened to by some distant civilisation in thousands of years when Mammon has finally finished us all off, last words from our cold dead star, mumblings into the black box recorder. The following poems and stories have nothing in common aside from the fact each, in their own unique way, seem to embody Miller’s practise of keeping an open mind, of documenting all the triumphs and disasters, all the doubts and imperfections that make us human. From beyond the grave Henry Miller, the patron saint of hopeless cases, is our guide, "Strange as it may seem today to say, the aim of life is to live and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware."
- Darran Anderson
Above image "Bomb" (© Darran Anderson 2006)
A variation on the above image has appeared on the Fact Magazine website.