The (political) madness of art?

‘Poetry makes nothing happen,’ said the poet W. H. Auden. How wrong he was.

My essays, On Art and War and Terror, now available in paperback, are dedicated to the proposition that art matters, ethically and politically, emotionally and intellectually – that poetry makes something happen after all. Not only does it make us feel, or feel differently, it makes us think, and think again. We go beyond ourselves, as a philosopher said, by penetrating deeper into the work.

The credo and manifesto of the book is the affirmation of another poet, Seamus Heaney, that ‘the imaginative transformation of human life is the means by which we can most truly grasp and comprehend it.’ Whatever is given, he writes in his own idiom, ‘can always be reimagined, however four-square/ Plank-thick, hull-stupid and out of its time/ It happens to be.’ The words come from his ruminations on what he calls the redress of poetry: the notion that poetry – art – can function as a kind of moral spirit level, an agent of equilibration, ‘an upright, resistant, and self-bracing entity within the general flux and flex’.

That is an inspiring notion. Walt Whitman proclaimed something similar:

Of these States the poet is the equable man,
Not in him but off from him things are grotesque, eccentric, fail
of their full returns,
Nothing out of its place is good, nothing in its place is bad,
He bestows on every object or quality its fit proportion, neither
more nor less,
He is the arbiter of the diverse, he is the key,
He is the equalizer of his age and land,
He supplies what wants supplying, he checks what wants checking,

For the great Idea, the idea of perfect and free individuals,
For that, the bard walks in advance, leader of leaders,
The attitude of him cheers up slaves and horrifies foreign despots.

The essays take seriously the idea of the artist as moralist – an unfashionable idea – or moral witness, in Avishai Margalit’s phrase, with a moral purpose and a sober hope. Hope for what? Hope that there is, or will be, an audience of sentient spectators, viewers, readers, absorbed in the work: a community, a moral community, for who it stands up and who will stand up for it. Art is the highest form of hope, as the painter Gerhard Richter has finely said.

The essays also take seriously Auden’s cautionary words: ‘The primary function of poetry, as of all the arts, is to makes us more aware of ourselves and the world around us. I do not know if such awareness makes us more moral or more efficient: I hope not. I think it makes us more human, and I am quite certain it makes us more difficult to deceive, which is why, perhaps, all totalitarian theories of the state … have deeply mistrusted the arts. They notice and say too much, and the neighbours start talking.’

Armed with art, in other words, we are more alert and less deceived. My essays seek to investigate these claims. They put the imagination to work in the service of political, historical and ethical inquiry, as I have tried to explain in an interview for the American publishers, Columbia University Press.

Poetry outbids prescription. ‘We work in the dark,’ wrote Henry James, ‘we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.’

Have a care, gentle reader. Beware the madness of art.

Alex Danchev

Of politicians and pogosticks

Yesterday evening, Radio 4’s Four Thought – which you can listen to here – featured a lecture about a teenager from Hull who back in 2003 had taken to writing to politicians to ask them if they had ever been on a pogo stick or space hopper.

As I explained in the lecture, ‘Jason Whiley’ never really existed – him and his letter having been dreamt up one night in the pub.  But the replies he got from politicians were all genuine: his (appalling written and frankly moronic) enquiry produced more than 80, including from 27 Cabinet Ministers, four Prime Ministers, three Chancellors of the Exchequer and two European Commissioners, many of whom also enclosed pictures of themselves. ‘Jason’ used the replies to create a website, called Statesman or Skatesman, which back in 2003 attracted widespread coverage, from the BBC to the Stuttgarter Zeitung to the Times Education Supplement. ‘Occasionally’, as the TES put it, ‘a pupil comes along who has just a bit more spark than average’.

Part of the reason I agreed to give the lecture, and to ‘out’ Jason, was to make a (small) apology to all those who replied – many of whom were busy enough responding to real enquiries from constituents without having to deal with fictitious ones from imaginary teenagers.

But I also wanted to explore quite why so many did reply. Part of the explanation is simply that MPs are more ready to do this kind of thing than they used to be.  In an era when we talk a lot about the political class being increasingly remote and detached, it’s unfashionable to claim it, but all the evidence is that MPs today are much more in touch with their constituents than they were 40 or 50 years ago.

There is the famous story of the MP who arrived at his constituency in 1945 to be asked by the top-hatted stationmaster if that would always be the date of his annual visit. There are no MPs today who take such a detached view of constituency work – and any who tried would not last very long.

MPs are now increasingly likely to live in the constituency, to come from the constituency, to have offices in their constituency and to spend more and more of their time working in or for the constituency.  A study by the Hansard Society into the behaviour of the 2005 Commons intake found that constituency work was on average taking up more than half of the time of an MP.  Their central or primary role — or at least the main draw on their time and energies — was no longer at Westminster but in the constituency.

In other words, I suspect that any imaginary Jason Whiley who’d tried a similar exercise in 1953 would have got a much less enthusiastic response than the one in 2003 – simply because MPs then were not so used to replying to letters.

The public should be pleased by this, because surveys of voters show that they rank constituency work as the number one priority for MPs – looking after their constituents is exactly what the public think MPs should be doing.

Yet there must now be a real concern that MPs are so focused on the parochial they have no time for the national, let alone the international, picture.  One MP who responded to the Hansard survey spent 97% of their time working on the constituency, which suggests that they were not a terribly effective MP in the remaining 3%.  There is a real danger that MPs spend so long sorting out Mrs Miggins’ pension problems that they don’t spend long enough scrutinizing the Pension Bill – with the result that millions of future Mrs Miggins’ will suffer.  The problem MPs face is that voters want, and expect this relationship with them; and any MP in a marginal seat who decided to make a virtue of prioritising Westminster over the constituency would soon find that the voters had different priorities.

But it is possible simultaneously to value the constituency link – the link between representative and represented – and still think that this has grown out of all proportion.  Many MPs enjoy their constituency work – they find it satisfying, and a good way of keeping in touch – but some will privately admit that they think it has now got out of hand.

In other words, perhaps it would have been better if more MPs had simply dumped Jason’s letter in the bin.

Philip Cowley

Bastards or B’stards?

According to a 2009 Eurobarometer survey 62 per cent of Britons believed that ‘the giving and taking of bribes, and the abuse of positions of power for personal gain’ was ‘widespread’ amongst MPs. This view was obviously influenced by the Daily Telegraph’s revelations about expenses. But 44 per cent already thought corruption was rife in 2007 and since the 1980s big majorities have claimed to believe that MPs lie and put their selfish interests before those of the nation.

Much of this hostility is due to perception rather than personal knowledge. While a huge majority think our national politics is corrupt only 3 per cent claim to have first-hand experience of it.

So why do we perceive politicians so negatively? Political scientists have their explanations. The decline in social capital is the leading favourite: simply put, many argue that as society has become more individualised so we have stopped trusting each other, especially those in the public realm, in particular our leaders. Others believe that this is only part of the explanation. For, students of politics have hardly started finding out what politics means to citizens: they have not yet got inside people’s heads to find out why they imagine politics is corrupt when they don’t know that it is.

Something that influences how we imagine politics to be, is the way it is depicted on the screen, stage and page.

Nottingham’s Centre for British Politics held a conference on fiction and British politics in December 2009; and to coincide with that Steve Richards interviewed me for Radio 4’s The Week at Westminster. You can listen to the interview here:

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Parliamentary Affairs has now published some of the papers spawned by that conference. The special edition of the journal looks at many different aspects of the subject, from Shakespeare to The Thick of It (and the article on the latter is available as a free download).

One of the most novel aspects of the conference was the participation of some writers of  recent political dramas and comedies – and we transcribed their contributions. Unfortunately we did not record the last session of the conference.  This was when Lawrence Marks – co-writer of The New Statesman – talked about how his experience covering the 1978 Jeremy Thorpe trial for the Sunday Times changed his perception of politicians. While often seen as a critique of a certain kind of Conservative MP, Alan B’Stard (pictured above) was, it seems, the result of a wider and earlier disillusion with politics.

Marks’ example suggests that if politicians acted well then they would be depicted well and we would think better of them. Of course, reality plays its part in how we think of politicians – and even imagined politicians like Alan B’Stard are a distorted reflection of that reality. But sometimes fiction can also play a direct role in real politics: it can construct how we think about politics. Who, by the way, was the star of the recent No to AV campaign broadcast but none other than … Alan B’Stard!?

So, while many Britons firmly believe that their politicians lie and are corrupt, why do they imagine that they know this?

To properly answer this question, we need to develop the implications of the claim made by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, that: ‘The real is as imagined as the imaginary’. For, the stories we tell ourselves about politics have helped construct and reinforce an almost unremittingly hostile view of our politicians. Maybe that’s because we have such an awful, corrupt politics; but maybe not.

It’s time we took fiction more seriously.

Steven Fielding

Democracy Taiwanese style

Taiwan’s Central Election Commission (CEC) announced on 19 April 2011 its decision to hold next years presidential and legislative elections concurrently for the first time.

Ostensibly made to save money and streamline the crowded electoral cycle, many see darker motives behind a move made at the behest of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT).

As a specialist in political communications in Greater China and a keen observer of Taiwanese elections and campaigns, I am keenly aware that Taiwan has long been a polity where political trust is at a premium. Opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) supporters recall the KMT’s long rule during the pre-democratic era; KMT supporters are quick to speak of DPP ‘dirty tricks’.

When the DPP won the presidency in 2000, it was followed by two terms of poisonous inter-party relations that did neither side credit and set back the consolidation of democracy. Legislators became better known for pugilism than passing bills; the DPP-held presidency and KMT- controlled parliament were totally unable to work together. Public support for democracy and turnout in non-presidential elections declined alarmingly.

Things have calmed down since the KMT re-took the presidency in 2008, but mistrust remains high and conspiracy theories retain currency. Fed up with the ideological tenor of recent years, Taiwanese voters accepted KMT candidate Ma Yingjiu’s promise to improve both the economy and relations with China. In his three years as president, Ma has received many plaudits, mainly outside of Taiwan, for improving relations with Bejing. Ma’s policies have however failed to reinvigorate the economy and his approval ratings hover uncomfortably around 30%.

The DPP is historically the weaker of the two parties. Chairperson Tsai Ying-wen recently won the DPP’s nomination in a hard-fought primary. Taiwan’s first woman presidential candidate holds an LSE PhD, speaks fluent English and is seen as a moderate on China, with experience heading the Mainland Affairs Council. Opinion polls show Tsai and Ma currently neck and neck. With a coherent China policy to ensure recent gains are not lost (traditionally the DPP’s weak point) and a plan to fix the economy  Tsai is a serious contender. A lot can happen in nine months of course.

It was in this context that the CEC announced that the two elections would be combined. The decision, to some, smelled of conspiracy. If this was an important issue for the Ma administration why wait until now to push it through? The practical details looked fishy too. The combined elections will be held in mid-January 2012, a week before Chinese New Year, the major social event of the year. This will probably benefit the KMT. First, several hundred thousand business people based semi-permanently on the mainland returning for New Year will be able to vote. These voters favour stability in cross-Strait relations —a major advantage for the KMT. Second, voters must vote in person in the district of their household registration. Holding the election just before New Year will force (largely DPP-inclined) people who work in the capital Taipei, but are registered in the South , to make two trips in short succession. If they are going to sacrifice one arduous trip it is unlikely to be the one linked to the major holiday of the year.

If merging the elections is a KMT ploy, it is not however certain to succeed. The DPP has fewer financial resources than the KMT, but in a combined campaign the DPP could concentrate its finances. Furthermore, Tsai Ing-wen is a strong contender, and DPP legislative candidates might benefit from their association with her. The DPP has never been able to secure a majority in the Legislative Yuan, despite being favoured to do so on occasion. But after merging the two elections it is plausible that the DPP could win control of both. It is this scenario that gives rise to the biggest conspiracy theory of all.

The constitution dictates that the President’s inauguration take place on May 20th. In past elections this meant there was a 60-day handover period. In 2012, should Ma lose, he would be a lame duck for over four months. That worries the conspiracy theorists, who imagine much worse scenarios than the violence that accompanied previous KMT losses. Would the KMT provoke sufficient civil disturbance that China would intervene? Could the KMT be planning to sign a peace deal with the CCP, handing Taiwan back to the motherland? These questions are being asked, in all seriousness.

If such scenarios seem far-fetched, the outcome of the 2012 elections whatever it may be is likely to have a defining impact on the direction of cross-Strait relations. The impending campaign will therefore be of vital importance, not just to the Taiwnese but to the whole region.

Jonathan Sullivan