He knew more than me, he knew more than Mandela, he knew more than the South African people. His famous line, of course, was, “Art transcends politics.” And I said to him, “All due respect, Paulie, but not only does art not transcend politics… art is politics.
Simon may or may not have been wrong to violate the cultural boycott; I don’t know where the vantage point is from which to judge. I can point to a different perspective from Noel Murray, though:
But what’s most exciting about Under African Skies in particular is how it engages with the issue of whether artists have social and political responsibilities, and if so, what those might entail. Though Berlinger takes the criticism of Simon seriously, the film ultimately comes down strongly on the side of the artist’s right to move and work freely, and thus to retain the capacity to surprise. A more sensitive Simon would’ve stayed in New York and tried to approximate the sound of the Boyoyo Boys with local session men. The self-serving Simon ignored the political and cultural implications of his actions, and the result was “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes,” a song that continues to uplift and inspire people decades after the initial furor subsided. Sometimes the process has to be ugly to produce something truly beautiful.
Anyway, it’s that last line that rankles me. Van Zandt is right, if, by “art is politics”, he means nothing more than the truism that art doesn’t come from a vacuum, that art, as a product of social animals, is only intelligible in a sociopolitical context to begin with. I suspect he means a little more than that, though, and I suspect that this is another example of post-Enlightenment thinking in which art that doesn’t consciously strive toward politically progressive goals is either reactionary or narcotic. But I’ll leave the last word on the transcendent nature of great art to Pankaj Mishra in a slightly different context:
The other point that got lost in the rush to condemn Mo Yan was that we need a more complex understanding of writers working under authoritarian or repressive regimes. Something to replace this simpleminded, Cold War-ish equation in which the dissident in exile is seen as a bold figure, and those who choose to work with restrictions on their freedom are considered patsies for repressive governments. Let’s not forget that most writers in history have lived under nondemocratic regimes: Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Goethe didn’t actually enjoy constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of speech. And let’s not forget also, alas, that freedom of speech doesn’t guarantee great literature.