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BEDI: Why politicize art?

Column: Through a Glass, Darkly

Art does not need to be political — it should be enjoyed on its own merit.  – Photo by Unsplash.com

"Starship Troopers" is a cinematic classic. Received poorly upon its release, it has come to be hailed as a brilliant example of political satire. The movie takes place in a universe where human civilization is locked into a conflict with a race of aliens referred to as “Bugs.” The human society of the movie is a heavily militarized, quasi-fascist regime — the ostensible point of the film is to criticize the militarization of society.

But this is not how it has always been received. Indeed, watchers of the movie can come away from it without ever realizing it is a criticism of what it depicts. This is what most critics did in 1997, when the film first came out. This can be dismissed as a “misreading” of the movie — but it points to a larger problem with how media transmits messages. Even as a critique of war, the movie fundamentally makes war look cool. 

The late German media theorist Friedrich Kittler noted how the technology that made film and music possible emerged directly from the experience of the World Wars as propaganda technology. He asserted that it was impossible for artists to use these technologies in a way divorced from their original context. Hence, it would be impossible, at least very difficult, to make a movie about war that does not in some manner end up glorifying it. 

And, as the philosopher Walter Benjamin noted, the aestheticization of war is a fascist tendency. He noted that modern media technology allowed art to be received on a mass scale and how different ideological regimes could put this disseminating power to their own uses. In the case of fascism, the primary goal was to glorify war through artistic depiction that valorized it.

But there is an idea that may have escaped Benjamin’s original formulation here. Certain aspects of how media technology works will always lend themselves to glorifying what they are communicating, regardless of intent. Depicting certain images in a given sequence via film lends itself to interpretations that escape the author’s original intent because the very medium of film works on a psychosocial level different from older forms of art. 

The French filmmaker François Truffaut noted that “there is no such thing as an anti-war film,” and he was correct. It is impossible to show a war on-screen without valorizing the characters at the center of the film, without glorifying soldierly camaraderie and so on. The only alternative would be to not show battles, the lives of soldiers, the strategic decisions of war at all — but then you do not have a movie. 

When it comes to political art then, there is a constant specter haunting behind every brush stroke or movie still. Unless the message is hammered home in a context that is explicitly political — à la a talk show or NPR radio segment — there is little control over how the piece will be received. The problem then becomes: How can one create something that is truly art, without making it a boring lecture? 

Perhaps the way to approach this is to depoliticize art altogether. In a society that searches for the context and meaning of art outside of art — through commentary on political, social, economic matters — the risk-of-escape is ever-present.

In a context, though, where art is made for art’s sake, one can appreciate the artist as an artist instead of as some sort of propagandist or social thinker. The idea that all art must inherently be political is not a property of art as such but an idea affixed to the process of doing art. 

Robert Heinlein’s 1959 book, "Starship Troopers," upon which the movie was based, conveyed a very different message from the film. Heinlein made no attempt to depict human civilization as the bad guys, indeed, he valorized the militarized state. 

The directors of the 1997 movie wanted to flip this on its head by notching up the absurdity of military civilization — but the intent suffered due to the medium it was conveyed through. Instead of a movie obviously satirizing war, it was received as a movie glorifying it and it continues to hold that message among fans of the movie who reject the directors’ anti-war vision. 

Sumit Bedi is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in philosophy. His column, "Through a Glass, Darkly," runs on alternate Tuesdays.


*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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