Politics in Art

The first point that made an impression on me in the excerpt of Betsy Erkkila’s book Whitman the Political Poet is her statement that, “this split has been at least partly the construction of critics who, under the influence of the Modernist and New Critical insistence on the separation of politics and art, have been eager to rescue Whitman’s poems from the charge of political contingency in order to save them for the universality of art.” (Erkkila pg. 6).  It was Whitman’s intense interest in the politics of this country that was the basis for many of his works.  Whitman took relevant issues of the day and wrote about them in forms that were artistic, making them much more enjoyable to read than a text book.  Most of Whitman’s work came from his life experiences.  Politics were a big part of his life.  He lived through and played a part in the Civil War.  He witnessed the industrial revolution first hand.  He experienced corruption in political and government offices.  He worked in Washington, DC for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  From these very public, political experiences came many of his poems and prose works, his art.  Whitman’s political experiences cannot be separated from his art.

Erkkila’s criticism of the critics’ attempts to separate politics and the issues of Whitman’s time from the “poetic development” (pg. 6).  of his work is central to the theme of her book.  It is an injustice to the American people to censor Whitman’s work in the way critics have done.  Whitman would be appalled.  The intent behind his work was to inform and incite the people.  He wanted them to be aware of what was going on in their world and to become active participants.  He believed it was his purpose in life to make people aware.  He did this through his writing which was done in artistic formats instead of formal, scientific styles.

New Critics believed that literary analysis is separate and distinct from political analysis.  While research writings may differ in form and methodology from poetry or other artistic writings, the critics are incorrect that the two cannot mix.  Expressing one’s views about politics through artistic medians has become a tremendously popular genre.  All one has to do is google ‘art in politics’ and instantly 155,000,000 results appear.  Among these results are “Positions in Flux – Panel 1:  Art Goes Politics” and “The New School/The Vera List Center for Art and Politics.”  In the New School’s mission statement they say, “dedicated to serving as a catalyst for the discourse on the role of the arts in society and their relationship to the sociopolitical climate in which they were created.”  Was Whitman years ahead of himself?

One Response to “Politics in Art”

  1. Carol Singley says on :

    Great post! No doubt: Whitman was ahead of his time in expressing the beauty of politics and vice versa

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