In answer to a complex question, Baudelaire has a simple answer. What is art? he asks. His response? Prostitution. This might seem a provocation until we appreciate how both involve the human body, the exchange of money, the mobilisation of market forces, the gaze of an onlooker, the commissioning of illicit acts, the subversion of ordinary relations, the showing up of forms of power, the disavowal of authority, the rejection of absolutes, the expression of needs, the satisfaction of wants. At least for Baudelaire art was in good company; he linked prostitution to love.
This book of essays is concerned with art and politics. Art, whether prostitution or not, is the necessary precursor to politics.
Art encourages us to look, to reflect, and, in the process, to re-imagine. It provokes opinions. It encourages people to speak up, to add their voices to a discourse that, over time, flows like a river, eroding the banks of ignorance. It transports and spreads ideas, sorting and refining the sediment of controversy, nourishing the floodplain of society.
Art is the diversity of the body politic made manifest. It is the granting of visibility to the hitherto invisible. Art shows us people and perspectives we might never otherwise encounter or understand. As Habermas argues, democracy cannot thrive if citizens cannot speak.
Politics is an art. At times it is built on honest ideas, at other times deceptions. Always, it is about style and the exercise of power. It is a fictional narrative, the arc of history, a long epic written and re-written by bards of varying skill.
These essays have been written in the spirit of such ideas. They do not set out merely to report. They castigate and praise. They aim to provoke, to add fuel to the fire of argumentation, the ceaseless discourse on the shape of a place. They make public the private through the trick vessel of art.
In 15th century Europe, “to essay” was to test the quality of something. The Old French word essai meant trial. A critic of literature or the visual arts is a political animal, someone with a point of view who, implicitly or not, argues for a version of the world.
Little wonder the essay has certain attractions for poets. “Both poetry and the essay come from the same impulse,” Marianne Boruch says, “to think about something and at the same time, see it closely, carefully, and enact it.”
The essay, like the poem, has a variety of costumes. It is deeply forgiving: capable of accommodating the polemical, the comic, the visual, the poetic. The Chinese, after the fall of the Han dynasty, created essays that alloyed prose and verse. In this vein, ideas about society flow naturally from the belief that art, art criticism and politics go hand in hand. I am just as interested in observing the world as reading the text – particularly when the one throws light on the other. This book discusses food, film, music and other forms of culture that infuse literature. Though Trinidad looms large, another republic is in view.
While some speak of the rebirth of the essay, the truth is that it has never been out of style. Even today, when people say print is passé, the novel dead, poetry irrelevant, and theatre arcane, essays come to us in an unending stream of newspaper columns, social media posts, diatribes by trolls, comments on online forums, blogs, vlogs, podcasts and websites dedicated to ideas.
Perhaps the essay has never been out of style because it has always been about one thing: its writer. Essays on literature, art, material culture and on politics can be a form of self-care, an affirmation of the value of all perspectives whether we agree or not. When she wrote about Kafka, Margaret Atwood acknowledged that “My real subject was not the author of the books but the author of the essay, me.” Here, then, is a history of myself told in many voices, ranging across genres and nations. Here, to repurpose a Shakespearean phrase, is the undiscovered country.