Monday 29 June 2009

Art and Politics

Can art be political? Politics are about how society should be arranged and, except under repressively authoritarian regimes, there is always controversy. One set of people is always seeking to get another set to feel, think, and sometimes vote, in one way rather than another. The language of politics is persuasion.

The language of art is quite different. It is in another register. It is not about persuasion, but understanding. It’s about enabling people to feel their own feelings and think their own thoughts in the contexts that the artist suggests. Wayne Booth's (1988) idea is that the best metaphor for narrator, or story character, or even author, is friend. So art offers the kind of friendship that enables one to be oneself, and to enlarge the relationship.

Art can, of course, have political implications. Having thought or felt something for oneself, one can come to make certain political choices. So for instance, some of the great novels of the nineteenth century—Pride and prejudice, Madame Bovary, Middlemarch, Anna Karenina—were about the place of women in society. Perhaps they enabled people to understand more clearly the issues that would, in the twentieth century, contribute to the political currents of women's rights. In the same way, in the twentieth century, there are political choices about rights for homosexual people and about the issue of abortion. Mike Leigh’s excellent film, Vera Drake, offers a certain context on the abortion question.

Vera (played brilliantly by Imelda Staunton) is a warm and generous woman who lives in a very small council flat (public housing apartment) with her husband, and with her son and daughter who are in their twenties. She works as a cleaning woman and, occasionally, without accepting money, she goes with a rubber syringe and disinfectant to help out young working-class women who have got in trouble. "Got in trouble" is 1950's English for "become pregnant." In Britain in 1950, when the film is set, abortion was illegal.

One of Vera's young women becomes infected. A doctor is called, and then the police. The police arrive at Vera's flat, and she is arrested, kept in custody, taken to court.

The real politics that come into view in this film are those of social class. None of the middle class women whose large houses Vera cleans is willing to appear in court as a character witness for her. The daughter of one of them is pregnant, and she has enough money to pay a psychiatrist to issue her with a certificate that says she should have a medical abortion because to bear a child would endanger her mental health. The film is about what happens when a person, who believes herself to be acting honorably, is devalued and degraded. Already living towards the bottom of the social class scale, she descends further. It is a film about the self-annihilating emotion of shame, under the disapproving eyes of society.

Vera Drake is a film that is thoroughly worthwhile whatever your views are about abortion, because as a piece of art, it does not seek to persuade. It is a totally engaging film, that offers an astonishing range of beautifully acted emotions from the whole cast. It shows us what it can be like to be a certain sort of person—kindly, warmhearted—who has no strings to pull, who is confronted by the unkind, coldhearted, apparatus of the criminal justice system. A longer review has been put in our archive of Film Reviews (for which please click here). The film is easily worth four stars on the five-star scale we use.

Wayne Booth. (1988). The company we keep: An ethics of fiction. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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