Is Art Inherently Political?

This might not seem as amusing to me when I wake up more. I was dozing in my chair, so I went to bed to take a nap. It ended up being a long one, and as I napped, I dreamed.

I wasn't in the dream at first. A bunch of guys are free diving with a small whale. From the voice over commentary about what it's like and how playful the whale is, it soon becomes obvious that the viewer (dreamer) is watching a documentary. (The creature isn't exactly a whale, but the distinction's not important. It's dusty orange and has webbed hands.) The viewer marvels at how good the guys are at holding their breath.

The scene shifts to the cabin of a large sailboat. A big city can be seen in the distance through a porthole. There is a crowd in the cabin. Among the crowd are the free divers. One of them complains that while they were swimming, those who stayed behind ate all of the chicken. A guy with a chicken bucket on his head brags, "Yep, we did," as he walks by. Someone else hands one of the divers a plate and dumps a bucket of fried chicken on it. Two of the divers, each holding part of the plate, begin devouring some of the chicken. As the camera zooms in, it becomes apparent, mentally, at least, that the dreamer is now the cinematographer.

The scene shifts again. It's clear that the cinematographer is wearing a head-mounted camera as he scans the room. He is at the opening party for the documentary. In effect, he is now making a documentary about the documentary. There are people standing around in small groups, and posters for the film are on the walls. The director, a man with long brown hair and beard, perhaps in his early thirties, is holding forth in one of the groups. The cinematographer joins them.

After a few pleasantries I can't recall, he asks the director, "Is art inherently political?"

The director replies that it is not. There's plenty of art that has no political content whatsoever.

The cinematographer, who is slowly becoming me, asks the director to picture that classic portrait: "A young mother is cradling her infant in her arms while looking down at it with dreamy love in her face. It's been done a gajillion times, and it will be done a gajillion more times."

"All right."

"Now, picture a slogan, or better yet, just a name at the bottom of the portrait. Maybe 'MADD: Mothers Against Drunk Driving,' Do you see how easily it can be rendered political? If art's not inherently political, it's just one step away."

"It might be politically adjacent, but that's not the same thing…"

I waken so slowly that there is no clear line between my waking state and the dream. In the end, I am discussing with myself the various names and slogans that put various political spins on the mother-cradling-child portrait: AFL-CIO, The Democratic Party, The Republican Party, The Mommy Party, It's For Life...

"NRA – wait, does NRA work?"

"Maybe, 'NRA – It's For Them'."


  • Is art political if the message the viewer takes from the art is political, or is it only political if the artist intended it to be?

    Also: 'NRA - Guns for them too'

  • edited January 2019

    Any art that expresses or depicts an opinion (on anything) is inherently political, even if it is not (on the surface) a political opinion. Anything that adds to, alters, influences or defines the vernacular has a political affect... even if it's miniscule.

  • The question of what is and isn't political is political. ✌

  • @Rufus said:
    Any art that expresses or depicts an opinion (on anything) is inherently political, even if it is not (on the surface) a political opinion. Anything that adds to, alters, influences or defines the vernacular has a political affect... even if it's miniscule.

    I believe I agree. "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."

  • @Clme said:
    Is art political if the message the viewer takes from the art is political, or is it only political if the artist intended it to be?

    I think it's political or politically adjacent no matter what you do. Humans are social animals, so anything about the human condition tends toward the political, at least.

  • @Bill said:

    Negotiating the Curve
    Sailer vs. Taleb on Bell Curves, Race, and IQ
    Taleb on Fat Tony vs. Dr. John
    Taleb: "IQ Is Largely a Pseudoscientific Swindle"

    The g Factor by Arthur Jensen remains the authoritative work for the educated general audience on the subject. I highly recommend it.

    Your objections are all false. I have links from a noted movie reviewer to prove it.

  • edited March 2019

    I saw this Taleb article being discussed elsewhere yesterday, and immediately knew two things: Steve Sailer had already written about it, and Bill had posted it here. I thought you'd be interested to read this reply.

    "my feeling about it is that as usual Taleb makes a lot of good points but does it in such an offputting way it makes me want to embrace IQ tests. I think he over-estimates his own short-term armchair reading of the literature and under-estimates the scholars who have been involved in developing these scales (or at least he groups them into a category that grossly misrepresents the diversity and motives and quality of thinking that has gone into their development).

    That said, I'm really glad he's writing what he's writing: The idea that IQ is some objective measure of intelligence is ridiculous and the media and public should be widely disabused of that idea.

    A couple things I'd add from my own limited perspective: Most of what I think Taleb should be criticizing is the media's, arm-chair scientists', and many psychological scientists' lack of understanding of the limitations of psycholometrics, and so the media's failure to communicate to the public how limited these kinds of scales are in the first place. A big part of this, I think, is fueled by scientists' (including psychological scientists) rightful concern that a worrying proportion of the voting public is rejecting science, and so these scientists may be hesitant to publicly criticize science and ready to over-state its objectivity for fear of losing more people to the "dark side" (where scientific consensus is rejected and things like teaching creationism in science class is considered perfectly okay).

    That doesn't mean we shouldn't use these measures: it can be really useful to look at how some scale correlates to some other variable. The thing we should avoid doing is reifying these scales (so, thinking that IQ actually measures some objective thing called "intelligence" that also refers our long-standing cultural-linguistic use of the word intelligence, or that Ekman's facial expressions of emotion actually measure some objective thing called emotion that maps on to our cultural theory of emotions.

    The criticisms Taleb aims at IQ could be aimed at somewhere near 100% of psychological scales (tests designed to measure some psychological category). IQ tests are an example, but also personality, or Hofstede's cultural dimensions, or measures of attachment, or the MMPI, or PTSD, or ADHD or autism... you name it. Most thoughtful psychologists are well aware of the limitations of these measures. That's why when most of us see The Bell Curve or non-psychologists (e.g., Sam Harris's*) defense of it and his embracing of IQ as somehow indicating an inherent relationship between race and intelligence, it makes pretty much every scientifically trained psychologist I know uncomfortable, and most of us authentically outraged.

    But most of us--in my experience--would feel the same way about even the most well-validated personality test (the Big 5) or largely biological categories of illness that have a psychological component (like schizophrenia or autism or depression or ADHD or PTSD): pretty much any psychological measure you name, if it were being used to categorize groups according to their inherent nature.

    It's not just psychological tests that have this problem. You can group people by pretty much any variable you can think up, including completely objective variables like whether they're taller or shorter than X, or absurdly irrelevant variables like whether they prefer ketchup or mustard or neither on their hotdogs, and you'll find significant differences across groups in terms of pretty much any other variable you can imagine (wealth or education level or whether you live in an urban or rural setting or whether you're European or North American or African or Asian)... if you have a large enough sample and don't care how small the effect size is.

    And it's not that those differences are random. There really are causal relationships. But as Taleb mentioned, these relationships are embedded in a system of causes, many of them that go (causally) in both directions, interconnected with the distribution of cultural and physical environments within which we live, with our genes, etc.

    Psychology, like pretty much all sciences, is a messy, complicated, difficult science, and the biggest problem, IMO, is the non-scientists lack of understanding as to how cultural and uncertain science itself is (encouraged by many psychologists own commitment to their preferred domain).

    So, longer answer than I expected, to make the point that where I think Taleb got it wrong is in his limited focus on IQ test and his apparent misunderstanding of how psychological science works.

    *-I know Sam Harris is a psychologist of sorts, but he was already committed to most of his arrogant and naive beliefs about the objectivity of science and the ultimate power of rational thinking before he decided to get trained as a scientist. Thankfully, IMO, his scientific education moderated that a little bit (not enough though) :)."

  • I want to find Taleb super interesting, and refreshingly iconoclastic. But what I've read I have a hard time with, because everything he writes is so steeped in his own lingo, past arguments, etc. His articles seem like unedited stream-of-consciousness, written specifically for people who have already read and internalized everything else he's written.

    Have you read his books? One presumes they must be better, best-selling as they are.

    As for the IQ stuff, the issue i have with claims about average IQs of large groups (or the prevalence of some other variable, as you point out) is the statistics' lack of real-world skin in the game (since we're on Taleb). When someone says blacks have an average IQ of such and such, the question in my mind isn't whether the statistic is true, but what the speaker thinks the statistic implies. What real-world fact or policy am I supposed to support or reject based on the statistic? If the answer is "nothing in particular", then the statistic can be discarded - who cares if it's true or not? If not - if the answer is "therefore our immigration policy should take race into account" or whatever - it always quickly falls apart as absurdity.

    It reminds me of that thread where Bill pointedly claimed that Jews are statistically overrepresented in Hollywood. Set aside whether it's accurate, what is one meant to do with such information?

  • His books were heavily recommended by the same people who warned my about his quirks, but I haven't read them myself. I thought it was interesting to see a statisticians take on the science behind IQ testing.

  • Fenomas, are you trying to maintain the most accurate model of reality that you can manage? If so, IQ is a useful tool. For instance the average Ashkenazi Jewish IQ is 112 (by one estimate). The average white IQ is 100 (by definition). The average black American IQ is 85. The average IQ in the United States is supposed to be about 98. The standard deviation of IQ is 15. The SD varies a bit by race, but 15 is close enough to make estimates.

    Just knowing those numbers plus a little bit about how the normal distribution works makes it completely unsurprising that Jews tend to do well both academically and financially and blacks, on average, do not. It allows you to weigh the plausibility of the hypothesis (or assertion) that black problems are largely caused by white racism.

    Here is a relevant example of Sailer using a database of campaign financing to examine the controversy that has recently been in the news about Jewish influence on American politics.

  • @Bill said:
    It allows you to weigh the plausibility of the hypothesis (or assertion) that black problems are largely caused by white racism.

    That's like saying "knowing that lightning causes forest fires lets me weigh the plausibility that humans cause forest fires". Believing that A contributes to something doesn't tell you anything about whether B also contributes, or about which contributes more.

    OTOH if you had invested a lot of ego into the idea that humans don't cause forest fires, but you didn't have a freestanding argument for that, then I suppose pointing at evidence for lightning causing forest fires would be something you could spend your time doing.

    Here is a relevant example of Sailer

    Yeah. Say do you remember that thread where I asked, in so many words, if you knew of any articles that were inconsistent with the claim that Sailer is a white supremacist, and long story short you didn't? Anyway thanks for the link.

  • I remember telling you that Sailer considers himself a "citizenist." He has never said, to my knowledge, that whites should rule over other races.

  • That's consistent with not being racist; it's not inconsistent with being racist. Is that too subtle a thing to discuss?

    Like, suppose there were some racists in the comment section of his articles. Purely hypothetically. If he said something that was inconsistent with their worldview they'd disagree with him, right? Whereas if he said "hey I'm not biased I just care about citizens", they'd say "yeah us too!", yeah? I asked if you've seen the former sort of thing, not the latter.

  • @Bill said:

    Here is a relevant example of Sailer

    I love how he describes Omar in this:
    "leader of the Congressional hijab caucus"
    "Omar, the fearless Somali bumpkin"
    " the Islamic upstart "
    "the feisty Muslim"
    " grandfather was a high-ranking minion of the brutal Somali dictator Siad Barre"
    Rep. Omar’s clan had to flee for their lives from the people back home who knew them best

    Bonus points for "Foucault was a fag", before spending the second half of the article playing spot the jew.

    One interesting development has been watching the white nationalists rally around Omar for stating the obvious. Politics makes for strange bedfellows, but if you had any doubts whether they hate muslims or jews more, this is the tell.

  • Sailer doesn't hate Jews. He's adopted, and far as he can tell from looking in the mirror, he's probably half Jewish himself. What bugs him is the current hypocrisy he's seeing among a lot of Jews. If someone other than Jews mentions that AIPAC is a powerful lobby, that person is called anti-Semitic. If someone other than Jews mentions that Jews have a lot of power in Hollywood, that person is called anti-Semitic. Et cetera. It stifles debate and is bad for the Republic.

    The fact is, Jews punch way above their weight in American politics. They are way richer than average. They do give a lot of money to politicians. They are very influential in Hollywood, banking, and academia. All of this while being only about two percent of the population. These are facts. There is nothing anti-Semitic about them.

    It's understandable that Jews are extremely sensitive about antisemitism. Given their history, I don't blame them. Nevertheless, the truth isn't anti-anything. It's simply the truth. Recognizing that Jews are a power to be reckoned with in American politics is just facing reality. If you want to analyze American politics, taking that fact into consideration makes you more accurate.

  • Well Bill, we're just going to have to agree on that. I don't think she said anything anti-Semitic either, and the response she got for stating the obvious was way out of line.

  • Bill, you're being disingenuous. Criticizing AIPAC policies isn't antisemitic, we all agree about that. Listing off fifteen factoids about Jewish influence, with no context why they're relevant or what they're supposed to imply, is creepy. You can claim it's not antisemitic in and of itself, but you cannot reasonably pretend it doesn't correlate with antisemitism.

    Don't be that guy - "I explained to this lady at the bakery how 73% of all comic books have at least one Jew involved in their production, and she had the gall to suspect I was biased!"

    So anyway it's a no on the sailer-not-racist thing?

  • :)

    FOr the nth time, it is not that IQ does not measure social skills/wisdom, etc. It DOES NOT MEASURE MENTAL CAPACITY.

    — Nassim Nicholas Taleb (@nntaleb) March 15, 2019
  • You're not getting it Lon. IQ may not be a perfect measure of mental capacity but we know it's meaningful because it correlates with real-world success.

    Also it's predictive - certain groups have more real world success because they have higher IQs.


  • So I see that its understandable that Jews are sensitive about antisemitism. But what about when other cultures (or races) are sensitive about how they are depicted? Blacks, Muslims, etc?

    Also I'm still confused about why there is such a big deal about ashkenazi Jews in Sailer articles, and very little reference (reverence?) for sephardic, mizrahim, etc? I rarely see anyone mention ashkenazi outside of IQ articles though, so I may be overthinking it...

    ....Although now I have developed a theory that Sailer sees himself as being part of one of those groups. Give me time and I'll find a few articles that reference other articles that somehow reference the first article in order to back it up.

Sign In or Register to comment.