Art Must Be Political

Should anyone tell you that the primary duty of art (and of life) is to be political, to constantly choose sides and to turn one another into mere categories and the most minute identities, here are a few replies by Jean Guéhenno, written while living in Nazi-Occupied Paris. All come from his Diary of the Dark Years:

December 23, 1940 But at twenty we think we have the task of changing the world, and when we discover how very imperfect it is, we think we’ve fallen into an ambush… Thus I remember being deeply shocked by the inadequacy of creation and vowing to correct it. I toiled for thirty years. I was hard, and full of anger. I looked at my contemporaries as so many enemies every time I found them inclined to accept a world in which all I could see was poverty and injustice. I brandished like a sword a few little ideas that I of course thought had come from the depths of my being, whereas they may merely have been prompted by the furies of the day. I strove to frighten people, as if that were a good way of persuading them. I found with all my strength and condemned as cowards those who did not commit themselves to the battle with the same heart. I wore out the best of myself in those battles. It was not enough; I almost forgot to live. (For life cannot merely be that vain brawl.) Perhaps pride as well as suffering persuaded me that I had a mission, that my life would only be justified by this battle, ‘my battle,’ Mein Kampf, as the fellow said—that king of madmen, that man typical of all today’s arrogant stupidity. I used up the years that were given me to love a few human beings kindly and modestly in fighting for the love of humanity. I lived badly, loved badly. I didn’t take the time for it…


September 8, 1942 My very diligence prevented me from recognizing the wonderful variety of life, from seizing all the occasions life offers; and it prevented me from acting generously, liberally, according to the circumstances. I considered only myself and did only those little things that the rule I had imposed on myself commanded. A deeper, more natural fidelity would have given me a transformational vision of the world. But the fear of betraying my idea locked me inside myself as in a prison. I brought everything back to my little rule, to my little problems. A stronger heart, less mistrustful of itself, would have shone forth far more. 


September 3, 1941 The utilization of youth as a separate force is one of the new, singular traits of contemporary politics. Youth is rather proud of that separation. Today’s politicians would have youth believe that is it leading the world, when in reality they are merely exploiting its frenetic energy and its thoughtlessness. Totalitarian ideology is completely instinctive and naturally must make use of the fervor of youth. And there is something in it for a few young sharks, but the mass of young people have never been more skillfully deceived. They give themselves up completely for a black, brown, or blue shirt, and use their energy to make a world in which, when they grow older, they are ashamed to live.


November 25, 1941 It is no doubt rather remarkable that attacks on individualism are almost always the work of pretentious egoists who long for tyranny. They have doubts only about other people’s ego, not their own. They preach so well and advise us so eloquently to lose ourselves in the state or the Party only in order to make sure they have an easier reign.


January 27, 1942 I have ample proof, unfortunately, that the teaching of literature in the Sorbonne and the Universities has become pathetic. The abuse of history, of the footnotes of history, has destroyed all critical sense and taste. I know a professor who spent a whole year giving a commentary on Lamartine’s Le Lac. He traced the history of a little pink or blue notebook in which Lamartine had scrawled a few stanzas of his poem. He related what hands it passed through, he counted the pages, analyzed them… That required several lectures. When the last one came around, neither he nor his students had read the poem yet. To these so-called historians, it seems that all the artists of the past suffered, wrote, and lived only to provide matter for a few bibliographical index cards. They have fused research with education. We must have researchers. But ‘researchers’ are not professors. Let the researchers do research and the professors teach. They are two distinct functions…. But in the best cases we train bookworms; from the age of twenty on, we accustom them to remain inside one drawer of index cards, we train them to compile notes and work their way through it. We cultivate petty vanity in them. For them, knowledge will always consist in adding a card to their file, like a gram to a kilo. Knowledge will distract them from their life, which it should rather enrich and govern. Their curiosity about small things will dispense them from being curious about great ones. Without critical sense, without taste, without ardor, mediocre researchers and worse teachers, they can only maintain our society of quantity in its vain illusion of being a civilization.


September 3, 1943 [on “art for art’s sake”:] A silly invention of decadence, of an era when artists, along with all other men, lost the sense of the universal and became makers of trinkets, specialists in a little profession, and brought everything down to that level. Great poets never posed such questions…. A poet is not a specialist. Everything is his domain. He wants to say everything, every time.


4 replies »

  1. On why we don’t have to worry about Sept 3rd coming around again, i recommend a lecture given by David Runciman on the Talking Politics podcast, maybe a month or so back now, the title is How Democracy Ends. He talks about how the fascist youth could be brain washed because of want, but youth now don’t want for the sake of survival. i am not explaining myself very well, best you listen to the lecture. David Runicman is pretty good.

    i don’t know how i feel about Jan 27th, part of me thinks detail is important to a lecturer, that they should be involved in research that it is vital. But then i wonder if it is a healthy way for anyone to exist & whether it is any better than any other mundane profession where you have to sift & input data. Then i realize i am reading Foucault again now & know what my true feelings probably are.

    Must say, never heard of this fella. He’s new to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Guehenno is one of my favorites, I posted more passages here, but the entire diary is gold:

    I posted today in part because I think something like Sept 3 is happening. I’ll check out Runciman, I bet he’s right in specifics, but the endless streams of information left & right does seem to breed a kind of “giving themselves” mindlessly to whatever cause, rather than parsing information & being in the middle. The fascist model still holds, whether for college kids obsessed with identity politics or for wanting sanitized learning environments; or far right & Trump folk—it’s still easier to live & inspire with an extreme message, than a middle ground quiet one.

    Jan 27 hits my occasional anti-academic mode right in the heart. By all means research, but I’m not writing poems or essays to inspire research but experience. I saw a guy actually say that “for us today poetry is an artifact of language” that needed study; he was talking about Eliot’s Waste Land. I don’t think it’d have gone over well if he’d told Eliot that while he was writing it, amid a nervous breakdown, that the emotional or experiential quality of poetry was now secondary to the scholarly.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I’ve noticed over the years that the people who believe that good art (or for that matter, all art) must be political tend to accuse us dissenters of being “conservative,” by way of suggesting that we’re in cahoots with the wrong sorts of people. Yet do I marvel that I can think of many partisan, politicized artists and writers whose work has caused evil in the world, but I struggle to find much harm done by creative folks who’ve implored others to appreciate such uncommon notions as our shared humanity, the merits of thoughtfulness and reason, and the value of poetry as something other than a vehicle for ephemeral policy goals.

    Liked by 1 person

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