Politics and Awful Art

post by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2007-12-20T03:46:21.000Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 49 comments

Followup toRationality and the English Language

One of my less treasured memories is of a State of the Union address, or possibly a presidential inauguration, at which a Nobel Laureate got up and read, in a terribly solemn voice, some politically correct screed about what a wonderfully inclusive nation we all were—"The African-Americans, the Ethiopians, the Etruscans", or something like that.  The "poem", if you can call it that, was absolutely awful.  As far as my ears could tell, it had no redeeming artistic merit whatsoever.

Every now and then, yet another atheist is struck by the amazing idea that atheists should have hymns, just like religious people have hymns, and they take some existing religious song and turn out an atheistic version.  And then this "atheistic hymn" is, almost without exception, absolutely awful.  But the author can't see how dreadful the verse is as verse.  They're too busy congratulating themselves on having said "Religion sure sucks, amen."  Landing a punch on the Hated Enemy feels so good that they overlook the hymn's lack of any other merit.  Verse of the same quality about something unpolitical, like mountain streams, would be seen as something a kindergartener's mother would post on her refrigerator. 

In yesterday's Litany Against Gurus, there are only two lines that might be classifiable as "poetry", not just "verse".  When I was composing the litany's end, the lines that first popped into my head were:

I was not your destination
Only a step on your path

Which didn't sound right at all.  Substitute "pathway" for "road", so the syllable counts would match?  But that sounded even worse.  The prosody—the pattern of stressed syllables—was all wrong.

The real problem was the word des-ti-NA-tion—a huge awkward lump four syllables long.  So get rid of it!  "I was not your goal" was the first alternative that came to mind.  Nicely short.  But now that I was thinking about it, "goal" sounded very airy and abstract.  Then the word "city" came into my mind—and it echoed.

"I was never your city" came to me, not by thinking about rationality, but by thinking about prosody.  The constraints of art force us to toss out the first, old, tired phrasing that comes to mind; and in searching for a less obvious phrasing, often lead us to less obvious thoughts.

If I'd said, "Well, this is such a wonderful thought about rationality, that I don't have to worry about the prosodic problem", then I would have not received the benefit of being constrained.

The other poetic line began as "Laugh once, and never look back," which had problems as rationality, not just as prosody.  "Laugh once" is the wrong kind of laughter; too derisive.  "Never look back" is even less correct, because the memory of past mistakes can be useful years later.  So... "Look back, laugh once smile, and then," um, "look forward"?  Now if I'd been enthralled by the wonders of rationality, I would have said, "Ooh, 'look forward'!  What a progressive sentiment!" and forgiven the extra syllable.

"Eyes front!"  It was two syllables.  It had the crisp click of a drill sergeant telling you to stop woolgathering, snap out of that daze, and get to work!  Nothing like the soft cliche of "look forward, look upward, look to the future in a vaguely admiring sort of way..."

Eyes front!  It's a better thought as rationality, which I would never have found, if I'd been so impressed with daring to write about rationality, that I had forgiven myself the prosodic transgression of an extra syllable.

If you allow affirmation of My-Favorite-Idea to compensate for lack of rhythm in a song, lack of beauty in a painting, lack of poignancy in fiction, then your art will, inevitably, suck.  When you do art about My-Favorite-Idea, you have to hold yourself to the same standard as if you were doing art about a butterfly.

There is powerful politicized art, just as there are great religious paintings.  But merit in politicized art is more the exception than the rule.  Most of it ends up as New Soviet Man Heroically Crushing Capitalist Snakes.  It's an easy living.  If anyone criticizes your art on grounds of general suckiness, they'll be executed for siding with the capitalist snakes.

Tolerance of awful art, just because it lands a delicious punch on the Enemy, or just because it affirms the Great Truth, is a dangerous sign:  It indicates an affective death spiral entering the supercritical phase where you can no longer criticize any argument whose conclusion is the "right" one.

And then the next thing you know, you're composing dreadful hymns, or inserting giant philosophical lectures into the climax of your fictional novel...


Part of the Politics Is the Mind-Killer subsequence of How To Actually Change Your Mind

Next post: "False Laughter"

Previous post: "The Litany Against Gurus"


Comments sorted by oldest first, as this post is from before comment nesting was available (around 2009-02-27).

comment by Doug_S. · 2007-12-20T05:27:31.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

To be fair, we also hold some "art" to a different standard because it was made by an amateur, a child, or for various other reasons. I don't expect your average scientist to be as skilled at tale-telling as an average professional tale-teller. (Carl Sagan happened to be both a professional scientist and a pretty good fiction writer; I rather liked Contact.)

Once in a while, you do run into someone, such as George Orwell, who is good enough to stick an Author Filibuster into a novel and have it still be a good novel, but more often, they just make things boring to anyone except those who already agree with the argument or would read philosophy for fun anyway.

comment by Alex_Martelli · 2007-12-20T06:27:50.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you're looking for awesome atheist poetry, Lucretius' "De Rerum Naturae" will supply it -- in Latin, that's true, but, it CAN be translated, you know;-). Yes, it DOES start with a hymn to Venus -- "hominum divomque voluptas", and the rest of the wonderful opening Hymn to Venus -- but that's just keeping the paying sponsors (the Caesars, Augustus in particular) happy, as they claim descent from Venus -- look around the "tantum religio potuet suadere malorum" part for some juicier materials;-).

Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2012-03-19T03:25:19.669Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Dryden even gave us a rhyming translation (although in some respects Lucretius isn't very transhumanisty at all).

comment by Psy-Kosh · 2007-12-20T06:48:23.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I take your point, though I guess for "atheist hymns", or the closest things theirof, perhaps the first place to look would be Filk music? There're very very very few professional filkers, and most Filk is with untrained voices and so on, and has to be appreciated as just as it is, just for fun... but there's some good stuff too... Fire in the Sky, Hope Eyerie, etc.. (at least in my view)

One in particular that formed more or less out of the composer's frustration with a Young Earth Creationist is actually pretty good... perhaps one of the nicest attacks on YEC around, specifically "Word of God"

The ones I mentioned are at http://www.prometheus-music.com/eli/virtual.htm (Surprise! is just plain fun though! dunno about deep artistic merit, it's just fun. :))

Of course, tastes vary...

comment by mnuez · 2007-12-20T08:23:34.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Such are the things that consistently befall me

I come to say "Hi!" to let know of my appreciation and I arrive at a post that seems poetic masturbation.

Nightly I read listen learn love laugh at the litany of biases being overcome by Overcoming Bias' staff

  • and by the commentors as well, ye, the commentors as well -

But Alas! and Woe! and forsooth! (and my tooth!) For I read in bed by the light of my phone and can join the choired commentors, Not.

So I power-up tonight! (my laptop delicate) to say "hello, y'all!" from a position not prone (I stand, I won't sit) "Leizer, you're the best! You're fun to read and to cheer for!" "And Robin, your free-market posts are so full of bias and herefore! But I love you anyway, for I'm a disciple of Jesus, And I would not laugh or cackle if he beat out of you the begeesus! (And also you offer us this blog, which may mitigate some sins...)"

But what do I find? What does my screen show? A post about poetry! of which nothing I know...

sigh, sigh / a kercheif for mine eye ~

mnuez www.mnuez.blogspot.com

Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2010-11-26T17:33:14.231Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A post about poetry! of which nothing I know...

I have to agree - that, my friend, is doggerel.

comment by Ian_C. · 2007-12-20T10:54:01.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe to be beautiful, art has to have a sense of balance and proper proportion, but a political fanatic has very little of either of these.

comment by Ben_Jones · 2007-12-20T12:23:33.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As I remember from A Level English, Goldstein's 'book' on Big Brother's regime was the first part of 1984 to be written. I'm glad to see someone highlighting the parallels between great fictional works like Orwell's and classic rationalist scientific literature; I've always thought there was great value in this.

Rubbish art attempting to point up serious political issues is about as effective as a scientific paper detailing a poorly run experiment. It's the difference between an Atlas Shrugged and a 1984.

Ian, for an example of great, polemic, unbalanced political art, see Rage Against The Machine. Being artistic - even being good at it - doesn't make you honest, it just makes you accessible.

mnuez - hang on to that day job! ;)

comment by Doug_S. · 2007-12-20T21:19:29.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Actually, I think I found something better. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jEOkxRLzBf0

comment by Tom3 · 2007-12-21T04:11:55.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's such a shame about my failure To have been born within Australia; Because then the rhyme for "Overcoming Bias" Could be found among "The Himalayas".

comment by Rick_Smith · 2007-12-27T13:44:26.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've always felt that constraining yourself to poetry that rhymes restricts both what you can say and the artfulness with which you can say it.

Replies from: Swimmer963
comment by Swimmer963 · 2011-03-05T18:52:04.680Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've had this thought before too, but I don't think there's any overall limit on how artful rhyming poetry can be. It's just harder and more time consuming. And yeah, sometimes you come up with a beautiful line and then can't use it because it doesn't fit with the syllable count.

comment by komponisto · 2009-11-07T04:42:24.339Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One of my less treasured memories is of a State of the Union address, or possibly a presidential inauguration, at which a Nobel Laureate got up and read

It can't have been a State of the Union address, since no one speaks at those except the President(*). On the other hand, Nobel Laureates reading poetry is exactly the kind of thing that happens at presidential inaugurations.

( )And this was before Obama(*) and after T. Roosevelt, so the President wouldn't have been a Nobel Laureate himself .

(**)The LW spellchecker does not recognize this word (!)

Replies from: MBlume
comment by MBlume · 2009-11-07T04:47:16.476Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


should you really be that surprised by this?

Replies from: Jack
comment by Jack · 2009-11-07T05:56:20.380Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wish the exclamation point had been its own footnote.

Replies from: orthonormal
comment by orthonormal · 2010-01-06T06:56:27.736Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

David Foster Wallace, we miss you.

comment by MBlume · 2009-11-08T20:14:22.222Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A related problem is the idea that making 'funny' music somehow excuses you from making good music. I listen to quite a lot of 'silly' artists -- Weird Al, They Might Be Giants, The Poxy Boggards, Jonathan Coulton, Tenacious D, Tim Minchin -- and whenever a service like last.fm notices this, it inevitably ignores the fact that all the acts I've named are exceptionally talented musicians in their own right, and plays me lots of 'silly' songs by mediocre singers, players, and melodicists.

Replies from: taryneast
comment by taryneast · 2011-02-11T10:38:14.902Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hmmm - AFAIK, last.fm plays "songs that are played by other people that play the songs you like".

So it may not be last.fm that's doing this to you - but other fans of your favourite musicians...

comment by ata · 2010-05-23T22:56:36.656Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One of my less treasured memories is of a State of the Union address, or possibly a presidential inauguration, at which a Nobel Laureate got up and read, in a terribly solemn voice, some politically correct screed about what a wonderfully inclusive nation we all were - "The African-Americans, the Ethiopians, the Etruscans", or something like that.

Could that be this one? It was indeed read at Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration, by Maya Angelou (video), who is neither a Nobel Laureate nor (as I originally thought you might have meant) a US Poet Laureate, but, although I can't really figure out what this poem is about, it does sound a lot like the one you mentioned. ("...the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew, / The African and Native American, the Sioux, / The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek, / The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh..." Then I think they all walk into a bar.)

(No Etruscans there, but I don't think there are a lot of them about anymore.)

Replies from: SilasBarta, Eliezer_Yudkowsky
comment by SilasBarta · 2010-05-23T23:03:39.072Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

the Greek, / The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh...

Aghhhh!!! A sheikh is a ruler, not an ethnic group, or a religious minister, so it doesn't fit with either list. And sheikh is pronounced like "shake"; it doesn't rhyme with "Greek".

But that example definitely belongs in the list of "awful art we're supposed to pretend to like for signaling reasons"...

Replies from: Tyrrell_McAllister
comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2010-05-23T23:10:20.620Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Could it be a mistranscription? "Sikh" would make sense in context.

ETA: Guess not. I just listened to the YouTube clip. As ata says, she definitely pronounces an initial "sh" sound.

ETA2: Maybe she said "the chic", out of solidarity with those ridiculed for being too stylish.

Replies from: SilasBarta, ata, Tyrrell_McAllister, Tyrrell_McAllister, JoshuaZ
comment by SilasBarta · 2010-05-23T23:13:31.357Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, that would make a lot of sense. Good point!

Replies from: Tyrrell_McAllister
comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2010-05-23T23:18:05.980Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It was a beautiful theory, but it was wrong :). She definitely pronounces an "sh" sound.

comment by ata · 2010-05-23T23:14:58.094Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It sounds more like a "sh" in the video (around 3:10).

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2010-05-23T23:16:16.159Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

ETA: Guess not. I just listened to the YouTube clip. As ata says, she definitely pronounces an initial "sh" sound.

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2010-05-23T23:22:19.184Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

ETA: Maybe she said "chic" . . .

comment by JoshuaZ · 2010-05-23T23:22:55.988Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Unlikely, it seems that that's the wording according found in multiple hard copy sources according to Google Books. See for example this magazine article All the online copies (and there are many) have the word "Sheikh" there.

A Google search for "The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sikh" turns up no hits from a Google search which means that all online copies would have the poem this way. This seems unlikely for a transcription error.

(Incidentally, apparently the correct title of the poem is "On the Pulse of Morning" although many websites list the title as "The Rock Cries Out to Us Today")

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2010-08-06T22:14:25.364Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Seems highly likely.

comment by Snowyowl · 2010-11-26T12:44:03.938Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You know, I've heard it argued that you're guilty of this yourself in the first few chapters of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. But only the first few, the rest are fine.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-11-26T14:04:15.684Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My favorite example of something like this is about the Surrealists. They had rather depressing fallings-out and betrayals of friends, mostly because they had different approaches to the relationship between politics and art. Louis Aragon was wholly political; Andre Breton tried to strike a balance between politics and making the kind of art he liked, and he suffered for it. His former friends really screwed him.

Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2010-11-26T17:40:34.690Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The 20th century was in general a very bad time to be an apolitical artist, with everyone adopting the principle 'if you're not my ally, you're my enemy'.

Even mild criticism of prevailing trends could kill your career; I read Robinson Jeffers The Double Axe, which had some very mild isolationist sentiments - but because this was during the fever-pitch of WWII, the publisher included a preface disavowing any responsibility and attacking the poems! Pretty amazing, especially considering that one of Jeffers's main criticisms was all the WWII propaganda, which we now know he was right about, and the reception almost proves his point by itself.

Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2012-03-19T03:33:39.274Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

'The poet’s work is subjected to severe editing. Entire poems—10 in all—are excised. When the volume is finally published, it bears an extraordinary editorial note averring, “in all fairness to that constantly interdependent relationship, and in all candor,” the publisher “feels compelled to go on record with its disagreement over some of the political views pronounced by the poet in this volume.” The editor’s note concludes with the smug self-assurance of one who knows his reiteration of the conventional wisdom renders him practically unassailable: “Time alone,” he intones, “is the court of last resort in the case of ideas on trial.”'

--"Robinson Jeffers: Peace Poet", The American Conservative

comment by gwern · 2011-03-05T00:00:52.774Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"I have never known a novel that was good enough to be good in spite of its being adapted to the author's political views."

--Edith Wharton, letter to Upton Sinclair (Aug. 19, 1927), http://www.artsjournal.com/aboutlastnight/2009/09/tt_almanac_1508.html

Replies from: Eliezer_Yudkowsky
comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2011-03-05T00:19:03.901Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

And they ask me: Can it be done?

Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2011-03-05T00:21:16.567Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's when you said, 'I'll show them, I'll show them all!' and started cackling, right?

Replies from: Eliezer_Yudkowsky
comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2011-03-05T00:42:55.723Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"And I said yayus, yayus, everybody yayus! I said you must have faith in the creative spirit, because it is creativity... that gets things... created."

Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2011-03-05T01:22:23.047Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

'Yes, Master Writer...'

Replies from: Eliezer_Yudkowsky
comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2011-03-05T06:02:47.268Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That is not even on the Internet, I checked. 100 nerd points to you.

Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2011-03-05T15:54:55.745Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Actually, it is on the Internet.

Do I get more or less nerd points because I used my Google skills rather than watching the movie?

comment by Oscar_Cunningham · 2011-05-23T13:07:16.308Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Eyes front! It's a better thought as rationality, which I would never have found, if I'd been so impressed with daring to write about rationality, that I had forgiven myself the prosodic transgression of an extra syllable.

You seem to be saying that forcing yourself to make better art made the rationality better. That's confusing, what would be the mechanism for it?

Replies from: jimrandomh
comment by jimrandomh · 2011-05-23T13:48:02.543Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Needing an answer that had an irrelevant property (number of syllables) forced him to consider more of the answer space than he otherwise would have. I don't believe that looking for artistically pleasing things would produce more rational answers per unit time, but it does at least enforce a lower bound on time spent.

comment by lessdazed · 2011-10-30T06:05:14.129Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you allow affirmation of My-Favorite-Idea to compensate for lack of rhythm in a song, lack of beauty in a painting, lack of poignancy in fiction, then your art will, inevitably, suck.

If you allow awesome graphics or cut scenes in a video game to compensate for weak gameplay, your game will, inevitably, suck.

If you allow awesome special effects in a movie to compensate for plot or character development, your movie will, inevitably, suck.

Replies from: CronoDAS
comment by CronoDAS · 2012-06-21T10:33:25.610Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you allow awesome graphics or cut scenes in a video game to compensate for weak gameplay, your game will, inevitably, suck.

Bah. The existence of visual novels proves otherwise - and they consist entirely of cutscene!

I can give other examples, too.

comment by David_Gerard · 2013-08-17T22:25:54.333Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yep. The key point of political art is that you have to be excellent at both politics and art. Bob Dylan or The Clash are rare.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-08-24T07:26:11.025Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was not your destination
Only a step on your path

Which didn't sound right at all.

Actually, I like it much better that the version in the previous poster (but I mentally replaced “only” with “just”).

(I read “destination” in my head with a strong secondary stress on the first syllable: “I was NOT your DES-ti NA-tion”.)

comment by Colombi · 2014-02-20T05:26:55.209Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ha ha, good joke there at the end.

comment by themusicgod1 · 2014-03-04T17:10:09.255Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There seems to be one class of a political topic that seems to lead inevitably to this (and to which I'm guilty of). Any political stance that affects the means of creative production(for example, copyright/free culture). If you get to the point where you cannot stand the people who are making art for political reasons, you are forced to create your own. The result is going to be usually awful. Warning people against creating awful art in that case goes too far -- awful art probably needs to be created in order for masterpieces to emerge from in relation to. But a reminder that it is awful and that it's likely unsubjected to the scrutiny of a billion eyes for the period of time more mainstream art is(thus weeding out most crap in many iterative processes of crap removal), and can lead to affective death spirals, is a Good Thing.

comment by jeronimo196 · 2021-10-04T07:27:23.380Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Dear God" by XTC is my favourite atheist hymn. On the other hand, "Transcendence" with Johnny Depp made me feel empathy for christians watching bible flicks - I so wanted to like the damn thing.

As to OPs main point, "politics is the art killer" has recently entered the discourse of almost every fandom (if the franchise is still ongoing). Congratulations on pointing out yet another problem years before it became so exacerbated, that people can no longer ignore it.