A couple of days ago Meryl Streep used her speech opportunity when she won the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes to make a plea for social justice. She didn’t identify new president-elect Donald Trump but it was pretty clear that she was condemning his public mocking of a reporter’s disability. Her punchline? “When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.”
I don’t plan to spend a lot of time talking about this particular incident but the example is relevant to my concerns. In addition to the widespread positive feedback, there’s been a massive backlash spearheaded by the Twitter tantrum President himself, He’s called her “over rated” (something he invariably directs at all of his critics) and denied what he did (another predicable go-to response from this guy who’s denied everything he ever said despite the overwhelming body evidence) – no surprises there. It’s classic Donald.
It’s what his supporters are saying that really irks me. Social media is exploding with the sentiment that celebrities and artists shouldn’t express political opinions. That’s the bit I’d like to call bullshit on.
Before discussing the general principle, though, I’ll just address Meryl’s critics in this particular example:
- You don’t need a political science degree to say “don’t be mean to people with disabilities”
- People shouldn’t have to say it at all, so why are you defending it?
- Donald Trump is the most illustrative example of a celebrity who stuck his nose into then political arena. How come a reality TV star is allowed to talk politics but an award-winning actor isn’t?
- America is rightly proud of it’s democratic position in which it allows all of it’s civilians and stakeholders to express civic opinion. Is that right being wound back now Trump is in power? Or is freedom of speech for Republics only?
OK, moving right along… let’s look at the arts and whether artists have any right to make political statements. The majority sentiment right now seems to be that they don’t. Being a contrary person, I’m going to argue that they do.
This might be because most of the music that’s ever been significant to me has been political in nature. I’m too young to have experienced the whole counter-cultural hippie movement of the sixties that my parents aligned with. I’m also a little too young to have been directly involved in anything from the punk movement at the time. But I grew up with the music of both and embraced them. Punk challenged the establishment and it’s more intelligent examples, pointed out the establishment’s incongruities and absurdities. Even “Smash it up” or “Anarchy” are implicitly political statements.
When it comes to music the significant movements are, indeed, movements. Even the Motown scene, from which releases are characterised by pop songs with lightweight lyrics about dating and dancing, was actually an important cultural revolution with significant racial and societal implications. And when the Temptations got political, they did it very well – check out Ball Of Confusion for some very politically charged lyrics.
Along folk and hippie music of the sixties, punk bands and the emergent rap scene in the eighties were all changing the world with their music – which is arguably what art is supposed to do. Bob Dylan, Billy Bragg, The Clash, The Jam and Sleaford Mods sing about stuff that matters. All power to the vapid “oh baby I’m gonna fuck ya” songs that abound today – they’re great – but you can’t tell me that music should never have substance.
You also can’t tell me that everyone in society is allowed to speak their mind except for people in the arts. That’s an unfair and bizarre condition of employment, and there’s no good reason why it should be the case. We can’t sit on our sofas making sweeping uninformed statements to the TV about the situation in Syria and then follow it up with a pronouncement that an actor (who might even have been over there at some point) isn’t allowed to do the same.
We can’t condemn a generation of celebrities for being vacuous while we forbid them to discuss anything of depth. Surely celebrities and musician and artists have the same right to express political opinions and even be wrong (as many are) that we enjoy? It’s hard enough trying to eke out a living in the arts already. Telling people that they’re not allowed to express ideas (which might arguably be in their job description) is a shitty condition of employment.
It’s also pretty obvious that the sources of the “You can’t talk about politics. Your job is to be entertaining and fuckable and nothing more” ideology is very much from the right side of the political spectrum. All the important movements in music and art all speak to social conscience, equality, revolution and subversion. There is music and art that Tories and right-wingers have put together but it’ll never take a place alongside the significant and respected musical movements in history. Clearly, the ones who want artists excluded from political discourse are conservatives.
This goes right back to Plato, who wanted to exile the poets and allow only music chosen by the government to preserve the slave-owning aristocratic status quo. If someone’s telling you that an artist should stay out of the debate, it’s because they recognize that that artist has credibility and relevance and the power to challenge the conservative regime. He took this stuff seriously because he implicitly knew that art (and music and poetry) is political. Separating the politics out of art is like trying to take the maths out of economics. The act of creating is a political statement in and of itself.
Politics isn’t just management of the state. That’s part of the job of a political entity but it’s not the totality of what politics is. Politics is concerned with what we deserve, what others deserve, what we owe other people and what they owe us. It’s how we treat each other. This is consistent with every definition of politics I’ve ever come across. So. while it’s not as explicit as when The Special AKA sang “Free Nelson Mandela”, when someone sings that you shouldn’t cheat on them or break their heart, they’re making a political statement. And yes; an actor telling us we shouldn’t mock the disabled is also a political statement.
We shouldn’t be discouraging people from expressing sincere ideas about how to be better, and we definitely shouldn’t be telling our artists not to. Keeping artists out of political discourse doesn’t just weaken and rob politics – it also weakens and robs art.