There’s something apocalyptic in the air. Donald Trump has come to figure as something of a secular antichrist figure in the popular imagination, and has provoked artistic response, as is pretty understandable. Two examples that prompted this post for me as The Handmaid’s Tale TV series and The Shape Of Water film, both of which I have seen described as parables for Trump’s America, or something similar. I have also noticed some clumsy, jarring ‘preachy’ episodes in Season 4 of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Season 2 of Anne With an E.
Art is a way of communicating warnings, protests and competing ideals as well as simply purging and processing fears. So it makes sense that concerning political trajectories spark new waves of artistic expression.
Some people criticise political art as ‘bad art’: merely a vehicle for a simplistic message than genuinely good art for its own sake. A term for this that arose out of Soviet Union propaganda is ‘agit-prop’: art whose simple, primary and obvious purpose is the communicate a political message. ‘Agit-prop’ is normally used pejoratively. This can be said of political protest art, simplistic moralising fables or religious art.
But having a strong message doesn’t make art ‘bad art’ necessarily. Nor does presenting a fairly simplistic, black and white world. The Bible itself uses apocalyptic literature — in Daniel and Revelation for example, a kind of literature that characterised by its overblown portrayal of a cosmic battle between good and evil. There’s little room for shades of grey in apocalyptic literature. Does this make it bad art?
It’s never easy to define what makes makes good art, there’s a lot of factors that feed into it, including a great deal of personal taste. In the case of the two secular examples mentioned above, I personally find The Handmaid’s Tale to be good art, but The Shape of Water bad art, although both have been critically applauded.
Can apocalyptic literature and propaganda and modern political fairy tales other things like that be ‘good art’? A few factors:
- If the images and stories they tell are beautiful or terrifying. Rather than working on subtle narrative arcs and sophisticated character development, these forms are more like a series of striking impressions, splash pages, posters.
- If the symbolic events/people/images are satisfying and convincing portrayals. They may be simplistic, even a little cartoonish, but if they still capture Something about the way the world really is and the way people really are, then they can still work.
- If there are moments of genuine human depth. Apocalyptic and polemic art can have moments of depth, sophistication and humanity that carry us into the story.
- There are wild ‘fringes’ to the stories, where the simplicity of the story’s own world breaks down. A tame and thin fairy tale is safe and reassuring, a satisfying fairy tale may have a simple message, but also has strange, unpredictable and unexpected elements.
Part of what these things do which make things ‘good art’ is that the work of art is able to have impact beyond its intended message. It can be read in different ways, or even admired with a step of remove from its message entirely.
‘Good art’ succeeds in keeping you engaged, as well. Either you are not fully aware of being ‘taught’ by the artist, or you are aware, but engaged in the lesson, you are carried along. In bad art, you are painfully aware of the artist seeking to teach, but not necessarily engaged by them.
Is the biblical apocalyptic and polemical literature ‘good art’? Of course it doesn’t really matter. Does God intend to do ‘good art’ by some standard? On the other hand, God speaks with purpose, to teach and persuade and even stir our affections. In this sense, the apocalyptic and polemical literature in the Bible is at the very least not ‘bad art’!