A response to The Harper Review’s spring 2023 proposition, “Art must be political.”
I am in a chorus made mostly of young women, and many of the pieces we sing are commissioned for us, oftentimes with our input. One of my favorites, “The Ragged and the Beautiful,” is an exploration of doubt. And that doubt seizes upon the listener immediately; the music begins with the unnerving timbre of a cello solo, followed by our sung poetry, soft at first but then louder, louder, louder: Doubt is a storming bull, crashing through the blue-wide windows of myself.
On the surface, nothing political is happening here. But not too long ago, the typical choir would have been of preteen boys performing safe classical music, not young women singing a song in which our deepest emotions are embedded. Many of us were born with music already humming in our throats, but had we lived in a different century, or within a culture that viewed our singing as sinful temptation, all our potential might have died there untapped, drowned out by the current of male domination.
The history of art is always one of exclusion, both by artists and the art world. The artist partakes in this exclusion by deciding from an endless list of possibilities what is worth their labor and energy to depict. Everything, from the subject of their art down to the materials used, reflects upon their resources, worldview, and experiences, which are themselves steeped in wider systems of exchange, exploitation, and politics.
But the art isn’t done yet. The rest of us, or rather, those of us with the privilege of jurisdiction, play a crucial role in the process by deciding what is worth being remembered as art and what dies less than the sum of its parts. Every choice made and every road not taken reveals hidden assumptions about what is acceptable. This is the essence of politics.
All of this is to say that there is no such thing as art for art’s sake. It’s a delusion we artists like to indulge in: the idea that at the bottom of our creativity, covered in the disruptive sludge of politics, circumstance, and context, lies some pure Art. If only we could push away all the distractions, all the pressures to make something useful or meaningful, we could make Real Art. Real Art—so the comforting delusion goes—doesn’t care if others are watching. It doesn’t do or say anything; it merely is. This idea, while romantic, doesn’t acknowledge how art reflects upon our environments.
“The Ragged and the Beautiful” does not end in a pleasing consonant counterbalance as is expected in Western music. The song is wildly dissonant. It uses unsettling chord progressions, or chord progressions we have been taught to find unsettling to the point where they invoke an emotional response without us even realizing (think horror movie; think Hitchcock). In fact, the song ends on a cluster of closely wound notes, eerie, atonal, and unresolved. It’s ragged, it’s beautiful, and it’s revolutionary, without saying a word of politics.