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The Marginalian

W.H. Auden on the Political Power of Art and the Crucial Difference Between Party Issues and Revolutionary Issues

W.H. Auden on the Political Power of Art and the Crucial Difference Between Party Issues and Revolutionary Issues

To be a thinking, feeling, creative individual in a mass society too often unthinking and unfeeling in its conformity is to find oneself again and again at odds with the system yet impelled to make out of those odds alternative ends — to envision other landscapes of possibility, other answers, other questions yet unasked. Because that is what artists do, a certain political undertone inheres in all art. Chinua Achebe knew this when he observed in his fantastic forgotten conversation with James Baldwin: “Those who tell you ‘Do not put too much politics in your art’ are not being honest. If you look very carefully you will see that they are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.”

What it means to be an artist inside but not trapped by the system and to labor at improving it from within is what beloved poet W.H. Auden (February 21, 1907–September 29, 1973) examines in one of the thirty-four splendid essays in his indispensable 1962 collection The Dyer’s Hand (public library), which also gave us Auden on writing, originality, and how to be a good reader and what it really means to be a scholar.


Auden begins with a taxonomy of social formations:

A man has his distinctive personal scent which his wife, his children and his dog can recognize. A crowd has a generalized stink. The public is odorless.

A mob is active; it smashes, kills and sacrifices itself. The public is passive or, at most, curious. It neither murders nor sacrifices itself; it looks on, or looks away, while the mob beats up a Negro or the police round up Jews for the gas ovens.

The public is the least exclusive of clubs; anybody, rich or poor, educated or unlettered, nice or nasty, can join it: it even tolerates a pseudo revolt against itself, that is, the formation within itself of clique publics.

Today, these clique-based pseudo revolts have reached a pinnacle in identity politics. Echoing Nobel laureate Elias Canetti’s foundational insight into the power of crowds and the paradox of why we join them, Auden adds:

In a crowd, passion like rage or terror is highly contagious; each member of a crowd excites all the others, so that passion increases at a geometric rate. But among members of the Public, there is no contact. If two members of the public meet and speak to each other, the function of their words is not to convey meaning or arouse passion but to conceal by noise the silence and solitude of the void in which the Public exists.

Occasionally, the Public embodies itself in a crowd and so becomes visible — in the crowd, for example, which collects to watch the wrecking gang demolish the old family mansion, fascinated by yet another proof that physical force is the Prince of this world against whom no love of the heart shall prevail.

Art by Ben Shahn from On Nonconformity

Nearly a century after Oscar Wilde proclaimed that “a true artist takes no notice whatever of the public” and more than a century and half after Germaine de Staël’s bold assertion that “contemporary glory is submitted to [the public’s] decision, for it is characterised by the enthusiasm of the multitude, [whereas] real merit is independent of everything,” Auden considers how the emergence of the capital-P Public and its modern ventriloquist, the mass media, has abraded the essence of true art:

Before the phenomenon of the Public appeared in society, there existed naïve art and sophisticated art which were different from each other but only in the way that two brothers are different. The Athenian court may smile at the mechanics’ play of Pyramus and Thisbe, but they recognize it as a play. Court poetry and Folk poetry were bound by the common tie that both were made by hand and both were intended to last; the crudest ballad was as custom-built as the most esoteric sonnet. The appearance of the Public and the mass media which cater to it have destroyed naïve popular art. The sophisticated “highbrow” artist survives and can still work as he did a thousand years ago, because his audience is too small to interest the mass media. But the audience of the popular artist is the majority and this the mass media must steal from him if they are not to go bankrupt. Consequently, aside from a few comedians, the only art today is “highbrow.” What the mass media offer is not popular art, but entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and replaced by a new dish. This is bad for everyone; the majority lose all genuine taste of their own, and the minority become cultural snobs.

In consonance with Achebe, Auden suggests that because all genuine art arises from a rebellion against the tyranny of conformity, all art is inescapably political. In an incisive dichotomy, he examines what “political” really means:

There are two kinds of political issues, Party issues and Revolutionary issues. In a party issue, all parties are agreed as to the nature and justice of the social goal to be reached, but differ in their policies for reaching it. The existence of different parties is justified, firstly, because no party can offer irrefutable proof that its policy is the only one which will achieve the commonly desired goal and, secondly, because no social goal can be achieved without some sacrifice of individual or group interest and it is natural for each individual and social group to seek a policy which will keep its sacrifice to a minimum, to hope that, if sacrifices must be made, it would be more just if someone else made them. In a party issue, each party seeks to convince the members of its society, primarily by appealing to their reason; it marshals facts and arguments to convince others that its policy is more likely to achieve the desired goal than that of its opponents. On a party issue it is essential that passions be kept at a low temperature: effective oratory requires, of course, some appeal to the emotions of the audience, but in party politics orators should display the mock-passion of prosecuting and defending attorneys, not really lose their tempers. Outside the Chamber, the rival deputies should be able to dine in each other’s houses; fanatics have no place in party politics.

In a passage of astonishing prescience, he contrasts party issues with other — and far more consequential — kind of political issues:

A revolutionary issue is one in which different groups within a society hold different views as to what is just. When this is the case, argument and compromise are out of the question; each group is bound to regard the other as wicked or mad or both. Every revolutionary issue is potentially a casus belli. On a revolutionary issue, an orator cannot convince his audience by appealing to their reason; he may convert some of them by awakening and appealing to their conscience, but his principal function, whether he represent the revolutionary or the counterrevolutionary group, is to abuse its passion to the point where it will give all its energies to achieving total victory for itself and total defeat for its opponents. When an issue is revolutionary, fanatics are essential.

Writing three decades after W.E.B. Du Bois and Albert Einstein’s little-known correspondence about “the evil of race prejudice in the world” and just after Dr. King’s timeless insistence that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Auden adds:

Today, there is only one genuine world-wide revolutionary issue, racial equality.

One of W.E.B. Du Bois’s pioneering modernist data visualizations of African American life.

Echoing Simone de Beauvoir’s conviction that it is the artist’s task to liberate the present from the past and James Baldwin’s immortal assertion that “a society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven,” Auden returns to the artist’s task as a force of wakefulness for regime-tranquilized society:

Every artist feels himself at odds with modern civilization.

In our age, the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act. So long as artists exist, making what they please and think they ought to make, even if it is not terribly good, even if it appeals to only a handful of people, they remind the Management of something managers need to be reminded of, namely, that the managed are people with faces, not anonymous numbers, that Homo Laborans is also Homo Ludens.

The Dyer’s Hand is an abidingly rewarding read in its totality. Complement this particular portion with Denise Levertov on the artist’s task to awaken society’s sleepers, Adrienne Rich on the political power of poetry, Robert Penn Warren on art and democracy, and John F. Kennedy on the artist’s role as an antidote to corruption, then revisit Auden on belief, doubt, and the most important principle in making art.

Published January 11, 2018




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