Do you agree with this Toni Morrison quote? Is that what an artist is? What does she even mean by “a politician”?
What Does This Toni Morrison Quote Mean by “a Politician”?
Here are a couple of ways I think this could be interpreted (out of context like it is here, of course, because I honestly think that’s how most people are likely to read it). Brace yourself – some of these are a bit, shall we say, out there.
- To be a real artist, you have to be a lying, low-down, greedy excuse for a public official. (I warned you…)
- All artists artists are actively involved in promoting political parties and social causes.
- All artists have beliefs that they present and encourage through their works.
Ok. You’ve read them (Sorry). Now, let’s break them down. (Why? Oh, there’s a point. You can skip to the end if you’re that impatient.)
1. The Connotative Interpretation
Is it just me, or is a string of insults the first thing that comes to mind when you see the word, “politician”? A liar. A thief. A selfish person who doesn’t do his/her job. Or uses it to benefit wealthy interest groups instead of the people as a whole. Those are pretty nasty, and I haven’t even used foul language yet (besides the word, “politician,” that is).
Whether those ideas are true or not, they’re what many people think of – politicians have such a bad rap that the word itself is imbued with extremely negative connotations (In the U.S., anyway). Which means that if you read the quote with that reaction to the word, she’s actually insulting artists.
By that definition, no way am I agreeing with that quote. Call all artists greedy liars who make unethical choices for their own gain? No way. Not gonna happen.
But I don’t think that’s what Tony Morrison meant, so I looked up “politician” in the dictionary. Which leads me to my second interpretation.
2. The Literal Interpretation
To save you a little leg work, here’s a paraphrase of the definition for you:
politician: n. a person involved in the activities associated with governance of a country or area, especially in relation to the conflict between parties and individuals vying for power
Not really sure that’s much better. I don’t think artists are active in politics. Or vying for power. Maybe some of them are, but all of them? That seems unrealistic.
Granted, it’s nicer than the first interpretation, but it doesn’t feel right.
3. The Inferred Interpretation
By this point, assuming that you’re still reading, you’re probably rolling your eyes and wondering why I even looked up “politicians” since what she meant is obvious – that every artist has specific beliefs related to social issues, rights, and laws. More importantly, she means that every artist supports those causes through his/her work.
I struggle with that a bit. No, I don’t disagree with the first part. Everyone has specific beliefs, so, of course, artists do, too. But do we all support and promote those causes through our work?
If she meant deliberately, then, no. Not every book was written to make a political statement. Or to promote a cause. Or even to reinforce a point of view. Sometimes, we write solely to entertain, without trying for any deeper meaning or reaction. And the same is true for song-writers, painters, and every other artist.
On the other hand, I would agree if the interpretation changed slightly. If she said that the art was always political or that the art was a politician.
That every artistic work makes a statement.
Personally, I try very hard to avoid writing about current politics and social causes – mainly because I don’t like conflict; however, my beliefs do flavor my writing. And that’s true of every writer or artist.
Our work is so intertwined with what we feel that it is difficult to do something that contradicts our personal beliefs. It’s definitely possible, but when looking at a body of works, that contradiction is more likely to be the anomaly than the norm. Because it’s so hard to think in a way that is contrary to our own beliefs, to fully embrace that point of view. To write about something we disapprove of as if it is acceptable or positive.
So, yes, artistic works do promote specific world views and moral compasses. Sometimes, it’s even deliberate. Some artists are trying to change the world through their art. But not all. I don’t even know if all of us should, whatever Toni Morrison says. But all of us do send little pieces of ourselves out into the world where they could influence others.
Which leads me back to the first two definitions. If you combine them, they say that we are liars who are active in the government or social balance of power. So if you should never let the truth get in the way of a good story, and books can change the world, then maybe there’s more truth to them than we like to think.
Are you a politician? What kind?