In a weapons producing nation under Jesus
In the fabled crucible of the free world
Camera crews search for clues amid the detritus
And entertainment shapes the land
The way the hammer shapes the hand
(From “Casino Nation,” on Jackson Browne’s The Naked Ride Home)
Not long ago, the New York Times noticed that Hollywood was making less noise about the forthcoming war than usual. What’s more, the noises coming from the “community” were hardly of a piece. Barbra Streisand was peddling a bogus Bill Shakespeare soundbite to buck up Dick Gephardt, who, it turns out, is playing for the prowar team this time. Warren Beatty was unusually demure. The Times reporter was so curious about Rob “Meathead” Reiner’s views on Iraq, he found himself reduced to quoting an assistant because Meathead would not deign to be quoted himself. A better question is, Why in the world do we care?
Nobody has quite figured out the relationship between art and politics. Do artists matter politically simply because of celebrity? Do they matter because of the cultural power they enjoy? Do they speak, to some degree, as secular priests, able to see farther and higher than the rest of us, owing to their talents and special callings? Or do we indulge them because they move magazines and raise cash simply by showing up, and, basically, that’s really all there is to (media) life?
Danny Goldberg, the record company executive and progressive activist, explains the equation this way: “You can’t look to artists to be on the cutting edge of political ideas. Artists can become important megaphones and adjuncts, but their proper role is to create art, not propaganda.” True, but too simple. Nothing prevents good art from being good propaganda, too. Isn’t The West Wing great propaganda for the liberal side of things, even though it’s also great television? Wasn’t Traffic a marvelously eloquent brief to end the destructiveness of the drug war? Can’t I win this argument simply by saying the words Guernica or Grand Illusion?
Well, maybe, but knowing that war is ugly and the drug war is a failure is not the same as knowing what to do about either of them. I loved Bulworth and likely agree with Warren Beatty on most political issues, but I’m not sure I want him to be President. Ditto Bruce Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt and Steve Earle, much less Pablo Picasso.
Not long ago, I sat around a New York hotel suite with Jackson Browne trying to make sense of these questions. Browne is often singled out as an artist whose audience abandoned him once he became explicitly political in the mid-1980s and started writing about the murderous effects of US foreign policy in Central America and elsewhere. The Washington Post‘s Richard Harrington described one album as being composed of “sharply etched political songs [that] question cultural imperialism, foreign policy and the current state of the American Dream.” Not your usual pop-song topics. Browne is no longer playing arenas, as in the early 1980s; he is warming up for Tom Petty, who is playing arenas.