Does being an artist make you a liberal? 

The Partisan Imagination

You don't hear about it much, but it exists — the role of art in the democratic process.

We're a pragmatic country. We don't care much for shades of gray. It's easy to see how the cost of education and a housing crisis affect the health of the citizenry.

But reading a novel or watching a play? That's not so easy to see. Hence, we don't hear about it much.

Even so, there is a long intellectual tradition of making the case for the arts in politics. In The Poetics, Aristotle said drama doesn't show us what has happened as much as what might happen. In the 20th century, Alexander Meiklejohn, an early advocate of First Amendment rights, said Americans need the arts precisely because we vote.

"The arts cultivate capacities of judgment and sensitivity that can and should be expressed in the choices a citizen makes," wrote Martha Nussbaum, paraphrasing Meiklejohn, in her Cultivating Humanity.

We must nurture a "sympathetic imagination," she adds in her own words, to understand "the motives and choices of people different from ourselves, seeing them not as forbiddingly alien and other, but as sharing many problems and possibilities with us."

For Nussbaum, art is a lens through which to understand other people, not a reflection of our political affiliation. Even so, most artists lean to the left.

Look, for instance, at contemporary American theater. You'd be hard pressed to find a play about conservative values.

"I don't think I've come across one," André Bishop, artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater for the past 16 years, told The New York Times two weeks ago.

No surprise then that Stephen Elliot, the novelist, asserted matter-of-factly that "literary fiction is character driven, and to write good characters you have to have empathy, and if you have empathy, you're a liberal."

It's an elegant concatenation of logic, but is empathy really a result of politics? Or does one's politics result in empathy?

Elliott's remark was no doubt in response to eight years of "compassionate conservatism." But it seems to reflect something more than one president's enormous failings.

Rather, it speaks to the powerful political tensions that characterize American life.

What do you really mean by 'empathy'?

For Andrea Studley, co-founder of the Deuce Theatre Company, Elliott is about right.

After all, liberals have become all but synonymous, in the potent words of linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, with "a tax-raising, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show."

And let's not forget that liberals have been for nearly a decade "God-hating elites." For Studley, whose political satire, The Emperor Is Naked?, continues this weekend, liberals need to reclaim the cause of empathy.

"Liberal values reflect caring for the have-nots," Studley says. "Those values are liberal and Christian, but religion has been identified by the right for many years now."

Is empathy needed to be a good artist?

Not really, says Conseula Francis, director of African-American Studies at the College of Charleston (and a City Paper contributor): "You have to be someone on whom nothing is lost," she says, paraphrasing the novelist Henry James. "I don't think you have to like people very much for that to be true."

As for empathy leading to a political bent, that might depend on how you see the role of government.

If you believe it should help people, Francis says, you might be a liberal. If you believe government should yield to the compassions of churches and charities, you might be a conservative.

But all art is political, says Frank Martin, a professor of art history at South Carolina State University. So empathy is political.

You can't get away from it, because art's expression is grounded in a context that is inherently politicized.

"True empathy implies liberalism," Martin says. "If I feel the pain of the other, that means the other cannot be exploited.

"Thus, empathy is inherently liberal."

Though the artist's context may be politicized, as well as his art, how we understand that context can be manipulated, says Tim LaPira, a CofC professor of political science.

Pro-choice advocates, for instance, have empathy for the mother. Pro-lifers have empathy for the unborn. Empathy, therefore, is psychological, sociological and rhetorical.

Elliott's remark seems to reflect two assumptions deeply rooted in the U.S. Constitution, LaPira says.

According to Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan, human nature is intrinsically bad. Government is meant to protect our rights and property from the corruption of power.

According to John Locke, human nature is good if we can lift the chains of inequality and injustice. The Constitution, therefore, was designed to protect against tyranny but also to manifest humanity's altruistic ideals.

So empathy is ideological, too.

Politics may explain why most artists are liberal, says JC Conway, who heads a late-night series at Footlight Players Theatre.

Conway is conservative, a rarity in theater. He believes his minority status has more to do with religious right "nut jobs" than neo-Federalists like himself.

"My personal preferences should not impinge on others," says Conway, who opens Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead on Nov. 6. "Most artists are liberal, because they don't want to be told what to do or how to live their lives."

Social conditions, not art, shape one's politics and one's degree of empathy, says Lance Mannion (, a commentator living in New Paltz, N.Y.

Peer pressure and self-interest, he says, will challenge even the staunchest partisan.

"If a young conservative does set out to become an artist, I don't think he'll stay that conservative for long, for the same reason a young liberal who enters the military or investment banking won't stay liberal for long," Mannion says.

Still, art can create empathy, says Carol Ann Davis, a CofC professor of English and editor of the literary journal Crazyhorse.

Davis believes "empathy is and should be a great democratizing force in that it disallows a certain type of ignorance from flourishing.

"It opens the possibility for hope."

The bad kind of empathy?

Let's assume for a moment that empathy is an inherent human trait and therefore apolitical.

Still, it may not serve well, as Meiklejohn asserted, the choices a citizen makes. The best empathy comes from a proper education.

A traditional view among metaphysical philosophers is that empathy has to be trained with "moral reasoning," says Jennifer Baker, a professor of philosophy at CofC.

Otherwise, Baker says, "We act on behalf of those for whom we have empathy and forget about those for whom we have none."

So empathy has a moral side as well.

In fact, we can empathize someone to death, says Mary Ann Kohli, a self-described liberal who heads the Clemente Project.

Her program offers free humanities courses, like philosophy and literature, to poor students, many of them battered women or former addicts, at Trident Technical College.

"You see it all the time in families with addiction," she says. "You have to confront the issue, and that can be seen as cold. If you don't, you can send them down the ladder.

"Destruction usually comes from within."

So, to recap — does being an artist make you a liberal? Well ... maybe. What if we reverse the question?

Does it make you a conservative?

Absolutely yes, says conservative blogger Ann Althouse (

"[A] great artist is inherently right wing. A great artist ... may have some superficial, naive, lefty things to say, but underneath ... there is a strong individual, taking responsibility for his place in the world."

But that's another story.


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