Art Is Power

The movie Howl helped me to understand a role art can play in the politics of regulation. Art done well can have a very high status, a status which transfers to the actions used to create or express this art, as well as to the actions depicted by the art.  And by making some examples of an action high status, one reduces political support for regulations limiting such actions.

For example, since most folks are uncomfortable with explicit sexual conversation in public, obscenity laws limit such public conversation. But when artists create high quality and hence high status art with explicit sexual discussion, people are reluctant to let obscenity laws apply to it.  So they’ll either have to make an exception in obscenity law for high status art, which will lead to many disputes since art evaluation can be subjective, or they’ll have to just allow a lot more public obscenity. Similarly, having high status art depicting homosexuality, being created by them, reduces support for laws against homosexuality.

Of course this can also work the other way – high quality art that presents a low opinion of an example of some type of action can raise support for regulations limiting such actions. So the power of art isn’t only a libertarian power – it is a power of status, which can be directed toward many ends. But since art is an expression, it will more often conflict with laws forbidding expressions than with other sorts of laws, and so will tend to push for freer expression.

So does art tends to be a force for political good? Well if you favor freer expression, you’ll think so. But beyond that, it depends on the taste and judgment of the artists, relative to the many other forces pushing for more or less regulation. I suppose I’ll give artists the benefit of the doubt, and assume they helps a little, just as I’ll presume all other sources help a little on average. But it would sure be nice to get better data to make a more refined judgment.

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  • Brian

    Art is not a mirror
    Art is a hammer.

  • cournot

    If artists tend to be drawn from a subpopulation with a distinctive set of values, beliefs, and biases then art — esp high status art — is likely to skew the debate in ways that favor those values. On some margins things will open up, on others debate will be closed off. Which is exactly what we’ve seen in the last 50 years, especially as art has gotten more monolithically leftist and anti-rightist (I use this term because socially libertarians and leftists tend to skew in similar directions).

  • http://akinokure.blogspot.com agnostic

    This is mixing up cause and effect. The audience (consumers of art or the voters) determines both what art enjoys high status, as well as what regulations the regulators can get away with or even feel compelled to instate.

    Artists are slaves to their fickle fans, and regulators to the fickle median voter.

  • cournot

    Artists may be slaves but the supply of artists may not be perfectly elastic. If certain groups are more skilled in arts the audience wants you’ll get a skew in idea influence.

    Furthermore, if the audience wants (let us say) slam-bang action films but people likely to be action stars are more libertarian, then the status they derive as action stars may be shared with their political views even if their political views in and of themselves don’t help them become better action stars.

    • http://twitter.com/afoolswisdom sark

      You got it. Your analysis applies to agnostic’s case of regulation and voters too. Policies can hitchhike on other more popular policies.

  • richard silliker

    perhaps a better definition of what “art” you are talking about would lead you to some answers.

    You do indeed cast a very wide net with your postings.

    political art is dogma
    religious art is fetish
    art as ritual evokes engagement or disengagement.

    i feel certain there is more ideas about what art is.

    anyone?

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    I’m not much for poetry, but even for a poem “Howl” doesn’t strike me as being very good.

    Scott Sumner argued that narrative art is liberal here. He also said complaining about the liberalism of the media is like complaining about the Catholicism of the Pope.

  • Evan

    This is mixing up cause and effect. The audience (consumers of art or the voters) determines both what art enjoys high status, as well as what regulations the regulators can get away with or even feel compelled to instate.

    Artists are slaves to their fickle fans, and regulators to the fickle median voter.

    That’s not necessarily true. An artist can produce a piece of art with wonderful characters the audience loves, and a brilliant, intricate plot, and also include some controversial politcal element that their fans may disagree with. Because the rest of the art is really good, some fans are persuaded of the rectitude of the political element by the Halo Effect.