Friday, April 25, 2003

# Posted 12:40 PM by Patrick Belton  

NUDITY, NUDITY, NUDITY: As is OxBlog's long tradition, this post actually is about nudity. More specifically, it's about Dixie Chicks, the relationship of art and politics, and some reflections on the politicized use of the body.

First of all, to begin with what I hope to be the quite obvious: any functioning democracy needs to create flourishing, broad spaces for conceivably quite brutal dissent, with bare-minimal (no pun) strictures imposed on dissenters (like, obviously, that they obey laws and don't become violent, threaten individual liberties, or give support to a foreign intelligence service: but these are, and should be, absolutely minimal strictures applying equally to all citizens regardless of their degree of support for the government in power). Strauss may have pointed out that Socrates and the city will perennially be at cross-purposes, but contemporary liberal democracy has taken the strong stand that the city must give a wide berth in the Forum to all those who would be the day's Socrates. Furthermore, this berth must not merely be legal and political, but also normative and moral: a polity which does not engage its dissenters in civic conversations runs the risk of fragmenting itself into poles which merely shout past each other, the greatest danger of our own republic. As Senator Fulbright put it (disclosure who paid for a large portion of my recent education, and whom I am therefore strongly disposed to think well of), dissent has become an article of faith in democracies. I support in the strongest terms possible performers' rights to criticize the President of the United States in their concerts - although frankly, it may detract from my aesthetic opinion of their art, as at least crassly-politicized art is generally less likely to be any good. And given the foreign venue of the Dixie Chicks' concert in which they criticized the U.S. President, there was something pandering about their comments. However, my response, and I hope yours, would not be to criticize the notion of artistic political protest, but rather to either (1) treat their opus on aesthetic grounds, or (2) to deal with the content of their political arguments, and not their propriety in making them.

We do a fair amount of the latter here, so I'd like to deal with the former for a moment - i.e., the aesthetic dimensions of politicized nudity, a frequent phenomenon in contemporary politicized art. Obviously, the Dixie Chicks' Entertainment Weekly cover had me thinking of Karen Finley, the famous "chocolate smeared woman" whom NEA opponents loved to attack. So I went back and read several interviews with Finley. Her work is confrontational, radical, includes copious amounts of profanity, and intentionally deals indelicately with controversial issues such as rape - and is, unquestionably, art. There's a complex structure of meaning and signification in her work, as clearly comes across in reading through several transcripts of her pieces. (I leave aside entirely for the moment the issue of whether she should receive public funding; frankly, I'm not sure what the role should be of politics, and, through it, popular aesthetic and other value judgments, in funding artists. Without having considered the issue much, I'm inclined to think that public funding for controversial artists represents neither a human right nor an abomination, but instead a public decision through complex layers of political process.) Now I'm not sure that the next time Karen Finley performs in Washington or in New Haven I'll necessarily go see her, but her work undoubtedly qualifies her as an artist - and, after all, I may even go see her in the end.

I'm not sure this is true for the Dixie Chicks, in their recent act of politicized nudity on the cover on Entertainment Weekly. In an attempt to seem profound and artistic, the band members had written on their bodies controversy-laden words like "Dixie Sluts" and "Traitors." The whole episode reminded me, more than anything else, of some of the exhibitionist displays I'd seen on various University of California campuses that attempted to legitimate themselves by pretending to be political, and thence, artistic and profound. Rather than artistic (and intentionally controversy-provoking) nudity like Karen Finley's adventures with chocolate, that of the Dixie Chicks seems rather more a combination of marketing stratagem with pretentious non-statement. After all, nudity is a wonderful way to recover popularity, since, first, people generally like or are at least well-disposed to it, and second, it doesn't force you to engage at all the arguments or opinions that you voiced that had made you unpopular. And writing the words "Dixie Sluts" on their bodies doesn't seem to engage their earlier debate at all, but rather seems only a diversionary tactic that seeks to divert ad hominem criticism of the president into issues of sexuality, and therefore to cover them (ironically) with the veneer of the more respectable feminist cause established by women such as Ms. Finley.

Politicized art is only generally, not necessarily, less valuable aesthetically: the tension seems to be more of an empirical than an essential matter, and it's easy to think of important and beautiful artistic works that have been both political and have endured as noteworthy aesthetic creations. Most of the spiritual repertory goes into this category; so does much folk music out of the labor protest genres, and jazz (such as many pieces by the recently-departed Nina Simone). A general pattern seems to be that the most memorable songs depict the particular in a way that gets at something universal. The duality is inescapable, since either one without the other becomes somewhat vapid and unsturdy. Thus when we hear the evocative words "Go down Moses, way down in Egypt-Land....Tell old Pharoah: Let my people go," we instantly know that they are simultaneously and powerfully about contemporary blacks, the ancient Hebrews, and sadness and the search for freedom as an inescapable part of the human condition. All would-be political artists of our day should take careful note.
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