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There is an episode of The West Wing that irritates me greatly. It's called 'The US Poet Laureate', it takes place somewhat over midway through the third season, and as part of a spectacularly ill-judged swipe at fans and fandom it contains the following gem, stated by the US Poet Laureate in resounding Authorial Voice:
"You think I think that an artist's job is to speak the truth. An artist's job is to captivate you for however long we've asked for your attention. If we stumble into truth, we got lucky, and I don't get to decide what truth is."

Sorkin is disavowing responsibility for his fans. "Don't read too much into what I'm writing," he's saying, "I'm just here to entertain." It's a remarkable statement to hear from any artist, still more remarkable to hear it from a man who created a series so intimately concerned with Substance and Message as is The West Wing. And my reply is simply: Take some responsibility.

Then today in the Guardian, there's this piece by DJ Taylor:
And so here I am a dozen years later trying to establish - an exercise that seems to demand a great many thousands of words - what I, who know nothing but what I read in the newspapers and see on television, think about Iraqi corpses and slaughtered British military policemen. There is, it hardly needs saying, no point, just as there is no point - to descend a little further down the activist scale - in writing a letter to your MP. All you will get back in answer to your reasonable request for information - a recent missive to Charles Clarke bore this out in excelsis - is a sheet of platitudes.

In an environment where art has lost all formal influence, all the writer can do is to keep on writing, in the hope that somehow he or she can make an impact at bedrock, on the series of individual moral sensibilities that read books.

Now, we already knew that DJ Taylor was an idiot. And two data points emphatically do not make a trend, particularly when the points are separated by somewhat more than twelve months, and there are certainly others out there as vociferously active as ever (stand up, China Mieville) - and in any case Taylor doesn't seem as far gone as Sorkin; at least he thinks artists should try, even if they can't actually achieve anything. But then I think, and I wonder whether maybe there is something of a general artistic ennui settling. Maybe it's a product of the same forces that have homogenised and monopolised 'popular music' over the last ten years, and maybe it's starting to happen to the rest of the arts.

I don't really think it is; or at least, I certainly hope it isn't. But to see a piece such as DJ Taylor's in a paper such as the Guardian...well, it bothers me, is all.
 
 
 
 
 
 
I'm troubled by your use of the word "artist". If Aaron Sorkin is in artist, why not the writer of Eastenders? I prefer the term "creator" myself but perhaps that's just my familiarity with the tropes of comics discussion showing.

Anyway, creators have no responsibilty to the those who consume their work. They never signed a contract to us. If all they want to do is tell a story and pass our time for x minutes/pages, then they can do that. This is not a new concept.
I'm troubled by your use of the word "artist". If Aaron Sorkin is in artist, why not the writer of Eastenders?

Sure, they're artists too. They just suck. :)

If all they want to do is tell a story and pass our time for x minutes/pages, then they can do that. This is not a new concept.

It is, however, immature and irresponsible. You don't have to be an activist, and you don't have to make the promotion of a Message your primary goal (or even a goal at all), and god knows you don't have to answer to every fan who worships at your shrine (crazy sarin-spreading folks reading Foundation, please stand up) - but stories have meaning; art in general has meaning.

It's the same as the argument for the moral neutrality of science: In principle, you might believe that you can hermetically seal one aspect of our culture away from all others, but in practice you can't. And I say that it's bad practice for anyone to pretend that you can.

(But then, I can't really believe that Sorkin thinks he's working in a vacuum, which is why I wondered if maybe he had a dose of DJ Taylor's ennui, instead, and whether he'd just got fed up and wanted to get people off his back.)
You might be right about Sorkin - I can imagine that he has a lot of people after him thinking he's the second coming because of his apparent political ideals. Of course, he doesn't have all the answers, but they think he does. Maybe that was his way of saying "just because I'm a visionary doesn't mean I have the solution".
I don't think there's much point in discussing this as you and I clearly not only see things in different lights, we see different things entirely.
I don't think it's at all clear how much responsibility an artist should take, though.

Should Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino have taken responsibility for the acts of violence which were inspired by 'Natural Born Killers'? If so, how much?

Should Tim Minear have at least shown that he cared that people found certain aspects of 'Billy' offensive, instead of telling them to shut up?
Another way of reading that West Wing quote is not as a disavowal of responsibility, but a display of humility. Saying that no, the artist isn't qualified to speak the truth nor is it their job to do so, but that doesn't mean they're not searching, or that they won't occasionally find it. You just shouldn't expect it of them.

In fact, I'd be very suspicious of anyone who claimed that they did, or could, speak the truth, and it's most certainly not why I watch the West Wing.
Saying that no, the artist isn't qualified to speak the truth nor is it their job to do so, but that doesn't mean they're not searching, or that they won't occasionally find it. You just shouldn't expect it of them.

But that's not what the episode says. The quote is Tabitha's capitulation: That Toby and co. are the professionals, that they know better than her, and that she shouldn't be searching for the answers.

I have no problems with the idea that artists don't make the truth. I have some problems with the idea that they shouldn't be trying to comment on the truth - whatever truth they want, from the trivial to the vital. If they've got nothing to say - if they're deliberately trying not to say anything - then in what sense are they artists?

In fact, I'd be very suspicious of anyone who claimed that they did, or could, speak the truth, and it's most certainly not why I watch the West Wing.

Aw, c'mon. It's blatant left-wing fantasy, and we all know it. :)
I'd forgotten the details of the episode, to be honest.

In that context, it seems somewhat ironic, really..
"there is no point - to descend a little further down the activist scale - in writing a letter to your MP."

DOLT. No wonder he's feeling degage. Sorry, dégagé. There's a word for the day.

But, what I'm more interested in, is how do you feel about that from the perspective of your writing (commercial or creative)? Do you hit truth when you're down there?
But, what I'm more interested in, is how do you feel about that from the perspective of your writing (commercial or creative)? Do you hit truth when you're down there?

Interesting question, since we're talking about two very different types of writing.

My commercial writing is all about Fact; if I'm writing a manuscript, I need to emphasise these key findings, or those. And they have to be true statements, but it's hard to see how they could be truth - they are, after all, only one perspective, and it seems to me that truth probably has to emerge from a multiplicity of viewpoints (although not all viewpoints will carry equal weight).

In my creative writing, I wouldn't be so egotistical as to say I've articulated any truths. Fumbled for, perhaps; I think Sorkin is right in that aspect of things, at least. But I do feel I should be somehow trying, even if the truths I'm aiming for are small and mundane.

There's another wrinkle, just brought up by a colleague: It is generally agreed that artists often don't know what they're saying. Or they're trying to say one thing, and end up saying something entirely different. So is an artist's value determined by external consensus? And if so, how does that affect how an artist works?

Damn. Need to go to the bank before my lunch hour ends. More later.
Artists (not talking about factual writing although this can also be a craft, of a sort) work from an impulse to *create*, and a vision. Art is subjective, I believe entirely so (it requires context - the artist may have in mind a context of their own but this is frequently not appreciated by their audience until a wider context is apparent - all those 'unappreciated in their own time' genius-types).

An artist's value is, I think, entirely determined by external consensus. This is, IMO, largely arbitrary. Which is not to say that it's impossible to spot talent, but if I write, or paint, or sculpt, or sew something, my context is going to be very different from yours. Maybe you'll 'get' it, or maybe you won't - maybe you'll see it in the context of your *own* experiences and it will blow you away, far beyond what I had in mind.

The thing is, I don't think there *is* truth (just as I don't think there *is* art - what may be interpreted as truth, or art, is totally subjective). When Aaron sorkin was writing The West Wing, I assume he had a vision to which he tried to be faithful. We are lucky enough to share the context in which he was working, which is why I guess it's so popular. But we know it's only a vision and will never be real, no matter how strongly it appeals to our core values. I think it might be unfair of us to criticise Mr Sorkin for being self-effacing about any "truths" that he may or may not have uncovered. We're complicit in the illusion that he has created (not least in the fantasy that political government could ever be that black and white), and that's why we enjoy it - and it's also why we checked our right to call his bluff at the door.

[/wank]

Go on then, hit me. Apologies for any/all philosophical inconsistencies in this, it's a bit off the cuff really.
I don't set out trying to communicate truth because at the beginning of what I'm writing I generally really don't know what I'm looking for. At the end sometimes, too. (Doesn't seem to affect quality, that, but then I'm not sure that the writer's understanding of their work is more valid than anyone else's.) Writing for me is more like a process of exploration ... if it ends with revelation, that's an exciting bonus, but I don't know where that revelation lives; in you, the work, or between somewhere.

I'm loath to separate out writing into art and crafts -- thinking that maybe the information writing I produce follows the same process except that here the "truths" (banal as they are, they're still relevant) aren't so unknowable -- when talking about say, the health issues of smoking for young people you're groping for something you should be able to find in the dark with both hands tied behind your back ....
I'm seeing in my head a sort of black scaffolding structure with a light shining out from inside.

Quite pretty, looks like a Durer engraving.

But is it a distinction or just snobbery?
Untitled by Anonymous :: Expand
DOLT


So there is a point? Could you tell me what it is?

-- Tom
(sorry if this comes in a bit late for you to see, work was a bit dense yesterday afternoon)

The arguments frequently raised against voting, writing a letter to your MP, protesting or other forms of personal political expression are that the individual voice or action can do nothing to change the world. There is an amount of truth in this; the single vote is unlikely to sway an election, the MP will send you a stock letter, the most a protest is likely to do is stop the traffic and smash the window of your local MacDonalds (which could be seen as a net positive result but is hardly the societal change you may have been demanding).

However, as people who live in a democracy, we are not attempting to sway progress to the will of the individual. In fact, if that's happening, something is going wrong (and it's time to start protesting again). We are attempting to bring about collective change to the governing nature of the country (society, injustices, whatever). The only way to do that is to raise general awareness (protests, journalism, public statements eg. graffiti, billboards, advertising) specific awareness in decision makers (this is where the letter to your MP comes in, but also letter-writing and email campaigns, pressure on companies and company directors -- as we are living in a capitalist society) and censoring (denouncement, withdrawing of vote, prosecutions, exposes).

This process is also a filter; theoretically, at least the loony-toons get filtered out and the most important issues survive the process of rising up from being just another issue to be an important issue. Unfortunately, crazies, evil exploiters and religious nuts have a heck of a lot of staying power, more than your rational, sensible type.

And that's why there's not just a point in writing to your MP, it's absolutely crucial you do so. Being discouraged because your letter gets platitudes and a stock reponse is mistaking a gust of wind for the climate. One letter doesn't make any difference. 100,000 do.

I know this one because I was on their lists, Geneva will know others -- but Oxfam successfully stopped Nestle from demanding some ridiculous quantity of money ( £10m ? ) from the Ethiopian Goverment through an email/letter writing campaign. Crucial among these letters were the letters sent to politicians to win their political will towards achieving this.

That's the point. I'd also add, change is slow. Change should be slow. Fast societal change does damage.