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Do Smarter Politics Make for Better Films?

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by Anthony Kaufman
December 2, 2011 10:16 AM
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In one of my first blog posts, in 2004, titled "Not My Passion," I took the somewhat controversial position that independent films should be evaluated by their politics. "When a movie caters to the tastes and prejudices of that [mainstream]," I wrote, "it just can't be considered 'independent.'" I recalled the argument after reading some recent remarks made to the Yale Political Union by ThinkProgress.org culture reporter and TheAtlantic.com correspondent Alyssa Rosenberg, who argues art shouldn't merely be judged on aesthetic grounds, but on political ones, as well.

She outlines a handful of reasons why this makes sense:

1) Given that we spend so much of our time consuming art and popular culture, it would be unwise to ignore the political subtext of those cultural products.

2) If our goal is to give art full credit for the power it’s capable of exerting, we should hold artists responsibile for how they express those ideas.

3)  When political and policy debates have become hyperbolic and unproductive, politically engaged art can be a particularly important forum for thinking about our values, and future.

"We do a disservice to art when we evaluate it only on aesthetic terms," she writes, "reducing it to a sensual experience and denying its power to influence us long after we’re finished consuming it."

"Part of what makes art compelling, and what lifts it over other forms of communication, is that it can intervene in multiple forums and on multiple levels. We can best show our respect for compelling art by engaging with its ideas as well as its beauty, and by holding artists at least somewhat responsible for their civic roles and impact on public debate."

Rosenberg goes on to cite many examples, from "Triumph of the Will" and "The Ides of March" to "Primary Colors" and "Avatar"  ("a useful spur to more timid studios and more timid filmmakers, a constant reminder that nudging your audience can be as profitable as soothing it").

"Demanding that our art be more politically incisive, diverse, and forward-thinking is a way of saying that we hope our art better fulfills [an] ideal," she concludes. "As Ray Bradbury wrote, “we have our arts so we won’t die of truth…Milton does more than drunk God can / To justify Man’s way toward Man.” Those justifications will be incomplete and imperfect, and they should be. With art, as with politics, we should be skeptical of the status quo and of promised utopias, and eager for imperfections, for pivotal moments, for the insight that makes possible growth and change. “There is a crack in everything,” Leonard Cohen sings. “That’s how the light gets in.”

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