advocacy art

Been thinking about “advocacy art,” following a back and forth with Sefton in the comments to this post.

It seems to me that “advocacy art” is just another term for “engaged literature” (littérature engagée per coinage of Sartre, more on that in this post), but it seems to narrow the focus much more on to the artist. Trying to work out why that is.

I think of advocacy art as created by a member of the community being advocated for — so (to illustrate extremely) a female rape victim would create on behalf of abused girls and women; a discriminated-against Western Muslim for the Muslim community at large; a disenfranchised African-American for victims of racism generally, etc. 

When I think of littérature engagée, I think of broader, universally human themes — workers unite, maybe, or humans unite against the tyranny of the gods sort of thing.

I think of “transcendent” artists, not targeted, (single-issue?) “local” artists.

(And I realize that local particulars can, and often do, illustrate huge universal truths, but that seems an issue apart to me here.)

I wonder. Does belonging to an oppressed community require that one’s creative fealty be sworn to that community? What are the moral and spiritual imperatives here?

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Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

12 thoughts on “advocacy art”

  1. I see this more darkly: it’s a problem of artists and markets.

    I think your job as a writer is to pursue whatever interests you, and write about it as well as you can. What happens after that is out of your control.

    This is the theme of Martin Scorcese’s documentary on Bob Dylan No Direction Home. There’s just terrific footage of Dylan being booed by his former fans right around 1966, and being called a traitor, because the sixties protest movement felt that he’d abandoned them. He was their darling when he wrote acoustic songs like Hard Rain, which they readily coopted, and their pariah when he decided to used an electic guitar and write songs with much looser associatons, like Like A Rolling Stone. The film exposes the questionable projections of his fans, critics and colleagues, and at the center of it is Dylan, who at times seems like a calculating huckster, and at times seems like an artist simply pursuing the next thing that grabs his attention, popularity be damned.

    I like Nadine Gordimer and Athol Fugard, but I like them because they write well. It just so happens that what they generally write about has political implications. I’d be just as interested in what they were doing if they both announced they were writing comic novels set in Cleveland. I doubt, however, that many of their fans would be as intrigued, because it would amount to genre-hopping by writers known for a single genre (sorry, but that’s what serious, politically charged fiction amounts to). I bet they’d get the Dylan treatment.

  2. Interesting, especially the bit about Gordimer and Fugard. It is true that when you speak on behalf of a community, you are expected to follow particular rules, so to speak, so that the danger of producing engaged literature is that the group for whom you speak tries to define what it is you represent or choose to say. Ideally, it seems to me, a writer ought to challenge even those parameters, and to be true to himself or herself (as Sefton says).

  3. Greetings!

    Yes, when you really start to follow the career of a writer, you’ll read anything and everything they’ve written.

    Somewhere, however, we’ve lost sight of the fact of the difference between a great artist and a famous artist. Greatness is within the control of the artist & manifests itself in the control of the craft and the imagination to manipulate memory and make the tradition alive in one’s time and space. Famous writers may do this. But Fame is generated by popularity which is outiide the artist’s control. Greatness isn’t.

  4. Hi Scavella:

    “It is true that when you speak on behalf of a community, you are expected to follow particular rules, so to speak, so that the danger of producing engaged literature is that the group for whom you speak tries to define what it is you represent or choose to say.”

    Communities often wrongly claim ownership of a voice they assume on the most superficial of evidence to be speaking on their behalf, upon which they instantly begin impersonating the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

    And even if the initial community assumption is correct, why isn’t this a stifling zero-sum game? Does it really strengthen the overall equation if one side succeeds in controlling and puppetizing the other?

  5. Hi Geoffrey — great to see you here! Very, very cool post on Walcott.

    Still thinking about it, but it’s beginning to seem to me that in the context of your argument (European vs non-European), and of Scavella’s elsewhere (black vs white), there may be too much of a tendency to speak of two (and only two) extremes. Either you’re on one virtuous bank or the other, and if you’re not, you’re in the deep dark abyssness of oh horror Neither-One-Nor-The-Other that separates the two.

    But, as you point out (I think) the middle ground is not some depthless abyss or treacherous rushing rapids of confused-identity-freaks. It’s actually quite a healthy and interesting place to be. Not an abyss – a bridge over the abyss.

    If the two virtuous extremes would stop fruitlessly and excoriatingly and lamentingly navel-gazing for a minute, and focus on and give some room to what’s going on in between, they may well find there the beginning of many a solution that just ain’t available where they’re at.

    I mean, when couldn’t a creaking old paradigm do with some shifting?

  6. Some of Brathwaite’s influences include Pound and Eliot–check out Other Exiles. So Brathwaite cannot be excluded from Eurocentric influences.
    My point is that poets pursue music and metaphor and where that sometimes leads is to a place/space that some are unwilling to follow-that’s where fame ends and greatness sometimes begins.


  7. “In past decades in Europe there used to be a lively discussion about engagement. Has a writer the right to abstain from politics? Personally, I think that a writer, in his everyday life, has the same rights and duties as his fellow citizens, but that, when writing, he must be completely free to choose the subjects and the moral code that best fit him. He must not be subjected to any restraint. Leave compulsions and restraints to the countries where civil rights are ignored or disregarded.

    But I also think that if a writer shuts his eyes to the reality of what is happening how, he risks missing the greatest change of direction mankind has made since the invention of the steam engine. He must be critical of every misuse and abuse, but if he is blind to what happpens in the fields of astrophysics, new technologies or computer science, he will no longer be able to understand his more up-to-date neighbors. He will be an old man, a left-over, an outsider in this world. For the first time in history, his fifteen-year-old children will outwit him.”

    –Primo Levi, From Lab to Writing Desk, 1986

  8. “He must be completely free to choose […] But”

    “buts” are difficult things to use gracefully. This one makes it look to me as if Levi contradicts the first para with the second.

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