All art is political. As Toni Morrison put it in a 2008 interview with Poets and Writers (issue 36.6):
All of that art-for-art’s-sake stuff is BS […] What are these people talking about? Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren’t writing about kings? All good art is political! There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’ We’ve just dirtied the word ‘politics,’ made it sound like it’s unpatriotic or something.
If this is true (and I believe that it is), what kind of politics does the historical monster mashup represent, and how does this play out in the texts themselves? To help me answer this question, I’ve been reading up on contemporary political theory. Today’s selected readings were on populism – specifically Twenty-First Century Populism: The Spectre of Western European Democracy (2008), edited by Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell, and Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat or Corrective for Democracy? (2012), edited by Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser. At first glance you might be wondering what the historical monster mashup could possibly have to do with populism or populist art. Surely it’s impossible for the realm of art, as a space of ‘free speech’, to conform to a populist aesthetic.
Populism in Europe and the Americas is specifically interested in whether populism should be seen as a good thing for democracy (and all its associated rights) or bad thing. First, though, it is tasked with actually defining populism and democracy, which have both been approached from a wide number of directions. The introduction by Mudde and Kaltwasser ultimately concludes that populism can be minimally defined as an ideology
that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) or the people […]. This means that populism is in essence a form of moral politics, as the distinction between ‘the elite’ and ‘the people’ is first and foremost moral (i.e. pure versus corrupt), not situational (e.g. position of power), sociocultural (e.g. ethnicity, religion), or socio-economic (e.g. class). Moreover, both categories are to a certain extent ’empty signifiers’ (Laclau 1977), as it is the populists who construct the exact meanings of ‘the elite’ and ‘the people’ [pp. 8-9, emphasis modified]
In other words, depending on the context and culture populism can potentially be found everywhere – among all social classes and backgrounds, and in both left-wing and right-wing politics.
Twenty-First-Century Populism likewise opens by pointing out the frequent abuse of the term ‘populism’ in contemporary politics:
Much like Dylan Thomas’ definition of an alcoholic as ‘someone you don’t like who drinks as much as you’, the epithet ‘populist’ is often used in public debate to denigrate statements and measures by parties and politicians which commentators or other politicians oppose. When an adversary promises to crack down on crime or lower taxes and yet increase spending on public services, it is ‘populist’. When one’s own side does so, it is dealing with the country’s problems [p. 2]
Before we can go about deciding what populism means, then, Albertazzi and McDonnell argue that we first need to account for the term’s negative connotations in politics and popular culture.
After an extensive definition of democracy (and its different facets and levels), Mudde and Kaltwasser conclude that populism is generally beneficial to a democracy when it opposes it from the outside [p.25], serving to critique the system and keep its power in check. Populism becomes most harmful to democracy when emerges from within the government, subverting the system’s own ‘checks and balances’ [p. 24] in the name of the popular majority to undermine minority rights, or for personal gain.
Neither of these books comments in any depth on the function of art in populist politics (though Twenty-First-Century Populism does contain a chapter by Gianpietro Mazzoleni on the role of the media in promoting and exploiting populist figureheads). Could historical monster mashup be categorised as populist? That will have to be a future blog post, but at the moment I’m just enjoying learning about a subject area I had never really engaged with. This week’s reading should come especially handy in the light of the American presidential elections.