Politics in art and the value of escapism

Warning: it’s a real load of bullshit this time. I talk about politics, angry people on the internet, and the end of the world, and it’s probably a mess. Maybe. Judge for yourself. I had to get this out, anyway. Next time I’ll post something more normal.

I’ve written about politics here on occasion, usually in the context of law when it relates to the main subjects on this site — games, anime, etc. Anyone who knows me well in real life can tell you roughly where I fall politically (because I probably went on about it once in a caffeine-fueled rant to them, something like this one): I believe in maintaining the rule of law, in fair and equal process without discrimination, in improving both the access to and quality of essential social services like public education and health, and in rebuilding and repairing the national infrastructure. I consider one of the most important roles of government to be the maintenance of a balance between individual freedoms and the good of society as a whole. And I wish we’d have a metro system where I live that’s not a complete fucking embarrassment.

Even the shitass train and highway system in my old, long-gone SimCity 2000 save is better that what we have in my city.

But why am I talking about my politics now? Because apparently the subject just can’t be avoided, even if I were to stick to writing about games, anime, and music on this site without any reference to politics. Because the concerns I’ve brought up in past posts on the subjects of access to art, on public censorship and private pressures to freeze out NSFW/18+ work, apparently put me in the alt-right camp where some of these are used as talking points. So I’ve been told in a few conversations. Sure, I’m alt-right… even though I’d be thoroughly despised by just about everyone in that camp for most of the views I expressed above.

But no, they’re correct. I must actually be in the alt-right without knowing it. Well, it makes sense — after all, people with anime avatars and by extension anime-styled game-themed avatars are probably mostly extremist trolls. And do you like the wildly popular Attack on Titan? Be careful — it’s also a favorite of the far right.

Of course, some people believe that all art is political and so it’s only natural that the conversation involves politics. But then I don’t agree with that stance at all. Is some art political? Absolutely. Art has been used to express political ideas for thousands of years. And of course, anime and games are included in that set of work: it would be ridiculous to suggest Legend of the Galactic Heroes doesn’t involve politics for example; it can’t even be talked about meaningfully without bringing its politics up. And some works that don’t explicitly address such issues can still be examined from political, social, and economic angles.

And LOGH is more relevant now than it’s ever been since it aired.

But is all art political? Is a pure jazz album without lyrics or any apparent message like MSB political? What about an ultraviolent over-the-top gangster story like Vice City? What about a surrealistic slapstick gag comedy like Asobi Asobase, or a silly romantic comedy like Uzaki-chan Want to Hang Out? Where’s the politics behind these works? According to the definition of “political” I’ve sometimes seen used, any work of art that deals with any aspect of life at all is political. To me, this definition is so broad that it becomes completely meaningless.

And even if we agree that a more ambiguous work of art deals with politics, how can we pin down what sort of politics it espouses? The New Republic article above is a good example: the author, a professed left-winger and a fan of Attack on Titan, comments on how both left- and right-wingers have interpreted the series in very different ways that fit their own worldviews. By the end of the article, he notes that manga author Hajime Isayama doesn’t want to tell his readers how to interpret his work — a feeling that I understand and sympathize with myself. But the writer of the article seems almost to blame Isayama for not correcting posters on the virulently right-wing sections of 4chan and elsewhere about what Attack on Titan is supposed to mean. As if that would prevent such people from making their own interpretations of it anyway.1

Another problem I have with this “all art is political” argument is that it often seems to be used as a way to argue some work or other is socially harmful to justify its removal from a private platform, or to try to discourage and freeze out NSFW styles of art. I already addressed this argument here, so I won’t go through it again in detail, but the gist of my response was that if a great enough social harm can be shown to justify removing access to the work in question, I’m fine with having it kicked off platforms. However, the justification I hear so often of “because I think it’s distasteful/disgusting” without more isn’t enough to prove this kind of harm. The burden of proof on those arguing to remove access to artistic works has to be set extremely high, otherwise it’s too easy to turn out any work with anything near a sharp edge that might put a few people off. Granted, I’m not talking here about a legal burden of proof — I leave that for arguments involving the First Amendment, which this one doesn’t necessarily. But I think the concept can and should be applied in a similar way when considering not just the creation of art but of access to it.

I don’t think any of the points I’ve made here are particular to a right-wing mindset. To any right-wingers who might be reading, feel free to tell me if I’m wrong, but you’re not the only ones who profess to believe in free expression, are you? On the contrary, we’ve seen throughout history that those greedy for control and power, regardless of their political stance, are happy to deny freedom of expression and to deny the public access to artistic works they dislike. For the most recent major example, see Xi Jinping’s wide-reaching crackdowns on popular culture in mainland China — anything that even smells like a hint of diversity away from the standard he and his CCP hold up seems to be a target now.

But outside of those really oppressive examples, why does any of this shit matter? There’s still another argument I’ve heard that none of the above matters very much in the face of far more serious social, economic, and political problems — another one that I’ve addressed once before.

Again, I’ll acknowledge that the entire human race faces massive obstacles, some of which may not even be possible to get over. To me and to many others, climate change is the greatest of these obstacles. Together with the threat of civilization-scale suicide by nuclear war that’s been around since the 1940s and more generally defects in human nature that haven’t disappeared or arguably even diminished very much since ancient times,2 and with COVID on top of that, it’s no wonder there’s so much talk about apocalyptic scenarios these days (at least for us humans. The roaches will still be around, damn them.)

And yet again, I say: all the more reason to have a permissive attitude towards escapist styles of art. What the hell else are people supposed to do to let off steam? Yoga, exercise, and healthy eating just aren’t enough sometimes, and certainly not now. Art has practical uses in addition to its inherent value. One of these is its use as a way to express political ideas, yes, but another is the power it holds to let people escape from reality for a while into a novel, a game, an anime or TV series or comic — and of course, there’s nothing to say the two can’t be combined in the same work.

A lot of the anger over games and other popular art forms being “attacked” or “invaded” by people with political agendas is misplaced, I think — all art should be open to criticism, and it’s impossible to “remove the politics” from anime and games since some of these works clearly deal with political and social issues. Certain right/alt-right figures in the gaming and film spheres especially have used this anger to stir the pot for their own purposes, making and inspiring arguments based on racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other -isms and -phobias (see some of the criticism of the last few Star Wars films or The Last of Us Part II for examples — though of course some defenders of these works were all too happy to paint all criticism with that brush, which was completely inaccurate and disingenuous.)

At the same time, I understand the mistrust some fans feel towards the especially vocal critics who speak against works full of sexual and/or violent elements. This debate around the contents of popular media, and especially of video games, has been raging for three decades now, and for what? There’s never been proof (despite constant claims of it) that these kinds of expressions affect real-life behavior for the worse. On the contrary, it feels to me more natural to think that they act as a sort of “release valve” for people to indulge in extreme behaviors they never would in real life. If you’ve played GTA, for instance, how many wild, murderous rampages have you gone on in game? Does that mean you’d go on any in real life? Have these in-game experiences even made you more callous towards real-life suffering? Similar questions can be raised about sexual content in games, anime, and elsewhere.

I just wanted to play GTA for half an hour but suddenly I’m okay with murder as a result. Shit.

Too often I’ve heard it said with complete authority, but no factual support, that “fiction affects reality” with the implication that writers, artists, and others involved in the creative process have a duty to always create in a socially responsible way. Maybe it’s a mark of my embarrassing immaturity, but I can’t agree with that, or at least not in all cases. If the work is meant to address serious issues — if the creators opened that door — then I agree that such criticism is completely warranted. But there has to be room for pure escapism as well. Age-restricted if necessary, of course, but beyond that, without an extremely strong argument I don’t think it’s warranted to call for the removal of games or series from platforms, bookstores, or any other shops or the freezing out of such works on these grounds.

And I don’t think saying so puts me in a certain political camp. Unless that camp is “people who like lewd anime girls”, and despite efforts to make that seem like an alt-right thing, I’m also committed to helping defend democracy from the extremists who would destroy it. Quite literally: I took an oath to defend the US Constitution when I joined the bar, and I take it seriously. I’m also worried about the future of my country for perhaps obvious reasons. That said, I’m not going to simply fold up and drop this other subject, since I feel more than anything that they go hand in hand.

Yeah I picked this screenshot to place here because they’re holding hands, but it’s also relevant because The Expression: Amrilato was briefly removed from Steam for supposedly being too spicy. Which it really isn’t.

As usual, please feel free to tell me if you think I’ve lost my mind. More likely I’ve never found it.

To be more serious, I know my own life experience colors my feelings about all of the above, and though I do my best to consider my arguments fairly and without too much bias, it’s not possible to remove myself from them. It’s probably not advisable anyway, even if I could. Otherwise what would be the point of writing here? But for this reason and others, I’m always happy to hear differing opinions. In the end, after all, we’re all in the same boat — a boat that might be sinking.

 

1 This isn’t to say that an artistic work with an explicit political message is any worse than one with an ambiguous message or none at all. It all depends on how honestly the work approaches the beliefs and the issues it’s dealing with and how much or little credit it gives its audience. i.e. don’t talk down to me like I’m a child or try to pull some silly straw man bullshit to “prove” your stance is correct.

2 Here I’m starting down an entirely different path that involves history, psychology, sociology and a lot of other -ologies (all ending in eschatology, of course.) I love reading and thinking about history, but I’m an amateur at best in that field and can’t even call myself one in the others. Still, here’s my dumbass opinion: I feel we have far stronger norms these days generally speaking that keep us in line and cooperating to some extent (see international organizations and agreements that only became a standard thing after World War II — I’m not counting the clusterfuck that was the League of Nations) but in the end, human nature seems like it’s still more or less what it always has been. Read Thucydides to see a good example of that. What struck me most about his History of the Peloponnesian War, written 2,400 years ago, is how familiar all the political deceit and militaristic dick-swinging he describes felt, especially at the time I read it in the mid-2000s.

But that’s a debate that I won’t engage in any more deeply because, once again, I’m not really qualified to do so. I’m not academia and never have been. Though a gig as a law school professor would be nice — those people are so incredibly overpaid that it’s practically a crime.

12 thoughts on “Politics in art and the value of escapism

  1. Lots of good points! I can see myself nodding my head to all of them. (Though I still won’t play NSFW games. I’m not mature enough to properly deal with that.) (Question: Are you really alt-right, or did you say that as dry humour?)

    • Thanks! Yeah, I don’t expect everyone to enjoy NSFW work or to even personally approve of it. It’s certainly not to everyone’s taste, aside from the issue of age restrictions.

      And no, I’m not alt-right — you’re right that this was my attempt at dry humor. Not sure if it worked out; it’s hard to communicate that kind of thing through text alone.

  2. Going to apologize in advance: I’m on mobile so this is going to be more scatter brained then my normal replies which I write and edit before posting.

    The concept or idea of all art being political stems from the idea that any human creating art will be influenced by their experiences and personal politics. Like you indicated, you have biases that paint your views. It stands to reason then that you can assume all art is political on the basis of the creators politics or beliefs being expressed in some capacity through their work. As noted, the degree to which this occurs varies wildly on a piece by piece basis. That’s how you end up with works across the spectrum.

    Unfortunately, the nuances of that seem to be lost on the overwhelming majority of people for say it. In that way one could argue it now no longer has a meaning because it’s original meaning is entirely lost on a bunch of chundlefucks.

    This same group are also the ones that would go around blaming art for radicalization with no actual evidence. The discourse in politics has become entirely perverted by bad actors across the spectrum, many of whom use politics as a vehicle for spreading phobia based beliefs. What’s especially unfortunate is the ignorant masses have become increasingly influenced by this horrible bile.

    I can’t think of a way to tie this all together. Art will almost always reflect the values of those who created it, political discourse has been invaded by bad actors, lots of people are dumb.

    • No worries. And thanks for clarifying the “all art is political” concept. Not surprised this was a more nuanced idea that ended up stripped of its original meaning in the way most people use it now.

      These bad actors, no matter their ideologies, use these and other ideas as weapons to attack artists, or to attack groups of people by spreading venomous ideas, and as you say too many people are taken in by it. Actually facing social and economic problems and trying to come up with genuine solutions is just too hard — easier to blame problems in society on “those people”, whoever those people are that have fallen into disfavor, or on “filthy art” or whatever they’d call it.

      • Absolutely. I feel like I see it a lot in American media, but the problem appears to be pretty ubiquitous in any first world country. It is always easier to blame a convenient scapegoat and pretend like the problem is unsolvable as a result, or otherwise institute a solution that doesn’t meaningfully address the underlying issue and claim you’ve done your due diligence. Fucking hell people who aren’t in positions of power do the same thing. All these people out here doing work by raising “awareness” on social media, or otherwise signing an online petition so they can say they did their part and clean their hands of any guilt or responsibility. :\

  3. You make many good points in this article. Its not that you may not be right wing but that many people think you have to pick a side and all of your belief must adhere to the groupthink of that particular camp, if you don’t then you are seen as the other.

    I go by the believe that creators should be able to create what they want and if someone doesn’t like the content then they don’t have to consume it. It crosses the line when someone believes they have the right to tell another person what they can or cannot consume because then it goes into authoritarian territory. Authoritarianism is a dangerous trait that can be abused by both sides of the political spectrum.

    • Certainly a lot of people think “you have to pick a side”, yeah. I’ve been called a “fence-sitter” simply because I’m not on one extreme or the other — as if more moderate types don’t also have strongly held beliefs. And of course things in the US are worse than ever in that regard, at least in living memory. Not sure how far back you’d have to go to find a similarly poisonous political environment.

      I also believe in that “don’t like it, don’t look at it” concept more or less. I have no problem with negative criticism as long as it’s honest — I’ve given some of it here on the site myself. But if I don’t like a work, I’m more inclined to say that it just isn’t for me in most cases. And as far as telling people what they can and can’t enjoy, yeah, that is absolute bullshit, and that’s really what I’m concerned about.

  4. I don’t really buy into the whole “all art is political” thing. I get where the people making the argument are coming from, as one cannot create art in a vacuum completely devoid of societal influences, but it just comes across as a cheap platitude. I myself kind of think of it as a genre or even genre flavoring (i.e. political satire, political thriller, etc.), but there is some art you would have a difficult time making an argument for without resorting to some epic straw grasping (Tetris, anyone?). Regardless, I almost unilaterally favor those making that argument than I do those chanting “keep your radical politics out of our art” because I know the latter camp really means “how dare you try to be a halfway-decent person” because, let’s face it, to them, being a halfway-decent person is a controversial, radical stance.

    And while I do kind of see where the person who wrote that Attack on Titan article is coming from, the perspective being offered is one that seems to assume the problem is a new thing when it really isn’t. I think there’s the uncomfortable truth of having to admit you and some really abhorrent people are going to enjoy a lot of the same stuff. And I get it; it’s not an easy thing to reconcile because we expect bad people to have bad taste in art, and while that is often true, there are plenty of instances in which bad people latched onto a good work. An example I like to fall back on is rock music. You’d think the hippie ethos, with its emphases on peace, love, and understanding, would send someone as racist, sexist, and all-around batcrap crazy as Charles Manson running for the hills, but you’d be wrong. Similarly, the whole Nazi Punk movement in the 1980s is pretty baffling considering the punk ethos defines itself by its attacks on authoritarianism, you know, the exact thing Nazis revolve their own ethos around.

    It’s like I said in the past; when something is far enough from the mainstream, yet also popular, it tends to attract ostracized, well-meaning misfits looking to find their way in the world. If it attracts misfits for a long enough time, eventually, it attracts misfits who were ostracized for very good reasons, and from an outsider’s perspective, it is difficult to distinguish between the two. Indeed, the reason there seems to be a lot of that in gaming is because it along with anime (or at least in the West) are some of the least mainstream mediums out there. Then again, that doesn’t really stop other crazy things from happening such as Star Wars gaining a fascist following in the form of the so-called Fandom Menace despite, you know, Star Wars being a very fascist-unfriendly body of work. Unless they see it as a Shakespearean tragedy, in which case, how sad is that?

    • I feel the same way about the “all art is political” concept. If it’s taken to mean art isn’t created in a vacuum, that just seems obvious. But the way it’s normally used now does make it feel like a tool to attack “bad” or “irresponsible” art, and worse, artists, with. Without such art anyway we never would have gotten to where we are now; we’d be stuck in old stagnant traditions. Those irresponsible surrealists from the early 20th century certainly shocked some people, and they weren’t big fans of authority or tradition either as far as I’ve heard (not that I’m in love with all the modern artistic movements that have come as a result, but stagnation would have been worse anyway.)

      At the same time, I also feel closer to the people making these arguments than to those demanding that art shouldn’t carry any political message at all — the same people who think expressing support for any good cause or trying to bring up societal problems in an artistic work is “virtue signaling”, as if nobody can possibly be genuine in these beliefs. I can’t take that cynicism, and mixed with hypocrisy too, because the same people wouldn’t complain about a game or series that parroted their own beliefs.

      That’s a good point about our expectations for artistic taste. It’s always at least a little uncomfortable to know some people with vile beliefs like what you like. I never really understood how Nazis got into the punk movement for exactly the reason you bring up. The point was to protest the establishment, and you don’t get more establishment than a dictator, so what’s the appeal to them? I feel the same way about this kind of political extremism on places like 4chan — the sort of person who used to frequent such places would have been naturally against authority, so it’s weird that certain boards on the site and others like it would be a target for neo-fascist types. Like a fascist government would allow its people that kind of freedom.

      But then that might have to do with the misfits you bring up. I was and am kind of am one of the former type — I never felt right in mainstream society and took refuge in stuff some people consider weird, like anime. But then you also get that truly antisocial element as well. I’m still kind of torn about anime becoming more mainstream in the West for that reason — on one hand, I can see the benefits of it becoming a better recognized and appreciated medium over here, but on the other, I’m afraid that its edge might be blunted to appeal to those more mainstream Western audiences.

      And I can’t even imagine how a fascist Star Wars fan happens. That Emperor, he was a great guy, wasn’t he? Who wouldn’t want to be under his command? Maybe they really like the uniforms.

  5. I feel you on this. And I’ve been there plenty of times myself, being accused of being one of the lunatic fringe somebody holds as an enemy simply because I disagree with them on a single point. Which is really just a dumb way to disregard a whole person out of insecurity and an inability to back up ones own ideas, moreso than it is anything else.

    As far as the whole ‘all art is political’ stance, it doesn’t hold water for a couple of different reasons. Art is a great way to communicate feelings and ideas, but an incredibly bad way to communicate arguments, because anything that requires an argument is by nature rather complicated and involved in the real world, and the limited runtime and scope of art cannot possibly capture the meaningful nuance and complexity in what is, essentially a fantasy it’s being filtered through. And the ‘politics’ or whatever meaning one gets from art are really subject to the viewers’ interpretation, no matter what intention the author has behind it. So people who view everything through a political lens anyways are of course going to see that, as are the fascists, the alt-righters, the far left, the Democrats, the Republicans, whatever, who all view themselves as good people who are doing the right thing for others even as the other groups are convinced that they’re evil and fighting to hold onto a worldview in which they can keep seeing that. Like with Parasite, most people seemed to think the film was lambasting one side or another, when really it was throwing jabs at both the rich and poor families there. It’s all confirmation bias and ‘us vs. them’ nonsense, the mentality that makes the world a significantly worse place and seems to be getting more and more hold as people are willingly adopting it while pretending to fight against it.

    Some art is intended to be political, yes. Most is not. And the base of the ‘all art is political’ stance assumes that politics and culture are equivalent, when really politics is only a part of culture, and generally a small part at that.

    • When people on the actual fringes are that far gone, they really seem to lose all perspective. Not a new thing of course, but it does feel like the atmosphere has gotten more poisonous in the last several years, and unfortunately that seeps from politics into art and a lot of other areas of life.

      I agree that it’s pretty hard for an artist to communicate arguments in this way. Parasite is a great example. It’s a nuanced film, and absolutely takes shots at both the rich and poor families, but I can see how people could downplay or even ignore some aspects of the story to focus on how scammy the poor family was or how out-of-touch the rich family was.

      A similar example, the one I usually think of, is 1984 — another nuanced work, a novel about the body- and soul-crushing nature of life in a police state. But then of course a lot of people point to George Orwell’s obvious criticism of Stalinist Russia both in 1984 and Animal Farm and simply say “it’s anti-communist” without bringing up that Orwell was himself a lifelong socialist. Or they bring up his socialism along with his earlier writings about poverty and say it’s clearly anti-capitalist, which is also an oversimplification. The fact that the novel contains various points that people on both fringes as well as the middle can agree with muddles the message of the novel today to some extent — not through any fault of Orwell’s I think, but exactly for the reason you brought up.

      I hope we can separate out political expression from other forms of expression in our culture a little more in the future. I don’t hope that much, but at least to the extent that we stop getting articles with a million hits about how Thomas the Tank Engine is a fascist screed or how Sesame Street promotes communism or some other bullshit like that.

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