Provoking Democracy: Why We Need the Arts

February 14, 2008

At the heart of this clear and elegantly written book is one of the central questions that has faced anyone practising or teaching in any of the major art forms during the past century. As Caroline Levine herself puts it: "Why not let democracy rule? Why not let the majority of people decide what they do and do not like in art?" Furthermore, why not let those decisions determine the ways in which governments spend money on the arts? From these questions grows a powerful examination of the relationship between art and democracy that, in the light of ever more politically charged debates around censorship, could hardly be more relevant.

At the start of the book, Levine identifies what she sees as the curious consensus that exists between right-wing critics and radical artists over the dominant relationship that exists between the artist and "the public". Both sides see it as essentially adversarial, with the artist cast in the role of one continually "upsetting" conventional sensibilities.

However, Levine is at pains to restate the distinction between the historical avant-garde and what she terms "the logic of the avant-garde", which she argues has come to govern the relationship between a wide variety of artists and mainstream values. In short, she suggests that "in every kind of arts controversy, artworks under attack have the potential to become avant-garde", and here she cites US country trio Dixie Chicks, whose criticism of the war in Iraq in 2003 caused widespread controversy in America.

The logic of her argument is that it is not the function of democracy to make judgments about art but rather that "all of us need democratic states to commit themselves to the protection of minority expression, and particularly protection for artists in the tradition of the avant-garde who dedicate themselves to resisting the pressure to conform to calls for homogeneity".

While the book is rigorous in its working through of complex positions, it becomes most alive when it draws on historical examples of relationships that have existed between artists and the state. Levine is adept at selecting eye-catching instances revealing of the paradoxes that she argues are at the heart of liberal democracy itself. The most striking of these is the covert sponsorship of Jackson Pollock and other artists by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a CIA front organisation dedicated to producing propaganda at the height of the Cold War. As Levine's account reveals, Pollock unwittingly became a vehicle for the CIA to represent the US to the non-communist Left in Europe and Latin America as a place of artistic freedom.

Levine's argument also takes in the arts patronage of Richard Nixon and the obscenity trials of both Lady Chatterley's Lover and the rappers 2 Live Crew. This eclecticism makes her account engaging, but it is also vital to her argument that there are necessary paradoxes at the heart of the relationships between freedom, democracy and the artist. This is perhaps summed up best in the assertion that "the logic of the avant-garde rejects the people in the name of the people".

In an era in which rhetoric around the "value" of the arts is increasingly dominated by economics, Levine's answers to her title question are vital correctives. There is a strong case for its inclusion on the reading lists of a range of university courses that may not currently make enough space to properly reflect on what it is they are actually about.

Provoking Democracy: Why We Need the Arts

By Caroline Levine
Blackwell
256pp
£50.00 and £19.99
ISBN 9781405159265 and 592
Published July 2007

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