What Is the Political Responsibility of the Artist?


Arts & Culture

Armed women in one of the main squares in Tehran at the beginning of the Iranian Revolution.


Perhaps no modern writer has experienced as much political turmoil and upheaval as the great Polish storyteller Ryszard Kapuscinski. Take, for instance, his claim that during his time serving as a reporter and war correspondent, he witnessed twenty-seven coups and revolutions and was sentenced to death four times. One might expect Kapuscinski to have a particularly informed response to the question that seems to be on so many people’s minds these days: What, if any, is the social or political responsibility of the artist? Or, to put it another way: Should writers be writing for a cause?

Penned thirty-five years ago, Shah of Shahs is Kapuscinski’s retelling of the most notorious revolution that he ever experienced firsthand—the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The book is a brilliant, nuanced portrait of a country and its corrupt leader in the tumultuous days leading up to and following his removal from power. Yet, upon close examination of the text, it seems that the author’s allegiance isn’t to any political party or ideology or cause—he is as harsh a critic of the powers that toppled the Shah as he is of the Shah himself. Instead, his allegiance is simply to art, and to the truth.

This is perhaps a strange statement to make about Kapuscinski, considering that, as a “nonfiction” author, his commitment to the truth has long been called into question. Throughout his career, he was often criticized for violating the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction. Even Salman Rushdie, a good friend and great admirer of his work, took offense at the way Kapuscinski seemed to bend and twist the facts. Referencing Kapuscinski’s The Emperor (which he admitted was one of the best books he’d ever read), Rushdie says, “The Emperor ends with the tragic or poignant image of Haile Selassie dying in bed, believing he was still emperor of Ethiopia. And actually this is not how Haile Selassie died—he was murdered in his bed, he was smothered to death by the Marxist regime that had succeeded him—and I mentioned it to him, that it seemed to me to be a flaw in this otherwise great book, that the death of the emperor was romanticized, and Ryszard looked cross and refused to discuss it, and took the out of the artist—that it’s what worked best as a book. Which is fine, if you’re not claiming to be telling the truth … ”

While Rushdie’s example of The Emperor’s dramatized death does indeed seem like a betrayal of the facts, and thus of the reader’s trust, in Shah of Shahs, Kapuscinski navigates the line between truth and fiction more deftly, and with more success. Still, readers in search of objective, fact-based reporting will no doubt find themselves disappointed here, too (readers in search of masterful literature will not). From the very first page, Kapuscinski’s liberal use of the first person clues us into what kind of a work this is going to be—not a dull history full of names and dates, but a subjective experience, one man’s opinion, a memoir of sorts.

And when there is an I, the question becomes not so much what are the facts and is the book staying true to them, but what is the narrator’s truth and is he being true to that? Because as much as he stretches the boundaries of fact and fiction, we feel instinctively that he is staying faithful to his own sense of what is true. As he himself once said, “It is not the story that is not getting expressed: it’s what surrounds the story. The climate, the atmosphere of the street, the feeling of the people, the gossip of the town, the smell; the thousand, thousand elements of reality that are a part of the event you read about in 600 words in your morning paper … You know, sometimes the critical response to my books is amusing. There are so many complaints: Kapuscinski never mentions dates, Kapuscinski never gives us the name of the minister, he has forgotten the order of events. All that, of course, is exactly what I avoid. If those are the questions you want answered, you can visit your local library, where you will find everything you need: the newspapers of the time, the reference books, a dictionary.” For  Kapuscinski, truth is bigger than the facts, and to get at it involves the tools not just of the reporter, but of the artist.

What’s really interesting is that Kapuscinski’s imagination-based reporting may be the only effective way to get at the underlying truth of the systems he’s profiling. His fantastical style, a kind of nonfiction magical realism, fits the subject matter, captures its labyrinthine feel of the absurd: a secret police that is nowhere and everywhere at once, every face you see a potential informer; the unthinkable systems of torture, prisoners thrown into “huge bags full of cats crazed with hunger”; the boundless fear and terror; the ludicrous excess and decadence, the “fairy-tale fortune” that, in one of my favorite lines in the book, Kapuscinski reminds us the Shah can dispose of as he pleases: “He can throw it into the sea, spend it on ice cream, or lock it up in a golden safe.”

But what is the truth that Kapuscinski unearths? In a sense, he’s profiled not just the Shah, but tyranny itself, anthropomorphized it, given it a personality, a life and breath of its own—a method that once again requires more creativity than journalistic rigor. But the real and most tragic truth he reveals to us is that tyranny does not end with the fall of a regime, but is almost inevitably continued on by the one that replaces it. “A despot may go away, but no dictatorship comes to a complete end with his departure. It requires generations to change such a state of affairs, to let some light in. Before this can happen, however, those who have brought down a dictator often act, in spite of themselves, like his heirs, perpetuating the attitudes and thought patterns of the epoch they themselves have destroyed. This happens so involuntarily and subconsciously that they burst into righteous ire if anyone points it out to them. But can all this be blamed on the Shah? The Shah inherited an existing tradition, he moved within the bounds of a set of customs that had prevailed for centuries. It is one of the most difficult things in the world to cross such boundaries, to change the past.”

It would have been easy to simply blame the Shah, the figurehead, to point a finger at one side or the other, but as an artist/author, Kapuscinski takes no sides—he knows it is not that simple, that there are darker, more deeply engrained forces at work … In a moment of wonderful anticlimax—after all, the whole book has been leading up to this point—we see the Shah departing the palace, and he is in tears. Under the compassionate, unexpectedly objective gaze of Kapuscinski, even the greatest of monsters has become a man.

Indeed, in Shah of Shahs, the only characters for whom Kapuscinski seems to have no sympathy are the writers who do take sides, who pen their words on behalf of one political ideology or another. We are given, for instance, vivid, stomach-turning descriptions of poets who sing praises of the Shah and of his “great civilization:” these men are portrayed as little more than political lackeys, spreaders of propaganda. There are rewards for such literary loyalty to the state, of course—large villas, access to the palace, all their books published to wide acclaim and bound handsomely in leather—and to gain such rewards, all they had to do was write hackle-raising poems about their leaders with titles such as, ‘Where he casts his glance, flowers bloom,’ and that contained lines like, ‘And where longer his glance reposes, / there blossom roses.” Reading that section of the book, I could not help but think of a Paris Review interview with the great Ken Kesey, in which he relayed what he once told his creative writing class:

“So you guys can write,” he said, “and well enough that one of these days you’re going to have a visitation. You’re going to be walking down the street and across the street you’re going to look and see God standing over there on the street corner motioning to you, saying, Come to me, come to me. And you will know it’s God, there will be no doubt in your mind—he has slitty little eyes like Buddha, and he’s got a long nice beard and blood on his hands. He’s got a big Charlton Heston jaw like Moses, he’s stacked like Venus, and he has a great jeweled scimitar like Mohammed. And God will tell you to come to him and sing his praises. And he will promise that if you do, all of the muses that ever visited Shakespeare will fly in your ear and out of your mouth like golden pennies. It’s the job of the writer in America to say, Fuck you, God, fuck you and the Old Testament that you rode in on, fuck you. The job of the writer is to kiss no ass, no matter how big and holy and white and tempting and powerful. Anytime anybody comes to you and says, “Write my advertisement, be my ad manager,” tell him, “Fuck you.”

Kapuscinski’s take on the matter is more poetic than Kesey’s, but strikes the same chord … Feeling depressed about the tragic, vicious cycles of tyranny, and the way that even after the revolution, nothing really has changed, Kapuscinski writes:

When I want to cheer myself up, I head for Ferdousi street, where Mr. Ferdousi sells Persian carpets. Mr. Ferdousi, who has passed all his life in the familiar intercourse of art and beauty, looks upon the surrounding reality as if it were a B-film in a cheap, unswept cinema…. In all horrors (for he does call them horrors), like lying, treachery, theft, and informing, he distinguishes a common denominator—such things are done by people with no taste. He believes that the nation will survive everything and that beauty is indestructible. You must remember, he tells me as he unfolds another carpet (he knows I am not going to buy it, but he would like me to enjoy the sight of it), that what has made it possible for the Persians to remain themselves over two and a half millennia, what has made it possible for us to remain ourselves in spite of so many wars, invasions, and occupations, is our spiritual, not our material, strength—our poetry, and not our technology; our religion, and not our factories. What have we given the world? We have given poetry, the miniature, and carpets. As you can see, these are all useless things from the productive viewpoint. But it is through such things that we have expressed our true selves. We have given the world this miraculous, unique uselessness. What we have given the world has not made life any easier, only adorned it—if such distinction makes any sense. To us a carpet, for example, is a vital necessity. You spread a carpet on a wretched, parched desert, lie down on it, and feel you are lying in a green meadow. Yes, our carpets remind us of meadows in flower. You see before you flowers, you see a garden, a pool, a fountain. Peacocks are sauntering among the shrubs. And carpets are things that last—a good carpet will retain its color for centuries. In this way, living in a bare, monotonous desert, you seem to be living in an eternal garden from which neither color nor freshness ever fades. Then you can continue imagining the fragrance of the garden, you can listen to the murmur of the stream and the song of the birds. And then you feel whole, you feel eminent, you are near paradise, you are a poet.

You might think that, having witnessed all those revolutions, not to mention widespread poverty and injustice, Kapuscinski would argue that writers need to be more socially conscious in their work. But in this passage, we discover that he does not. He is for imagination, not facts, mystery, not answers, the beauty of art, not the grim realities of politics and war. And this book itself—beautiful even in its depiction of the greatest evils—is the clearest example of his own argument.

Should a writer be socially engaged? Is it a part of our duty? I always return to the poet and teacher Marie Ponsot: “The duty of the writer is to the welfare of the work.” Not to some political party or cause or ideal—which through making our art more useful might somehow rob it of its integrity, its wonderful, vital uselessness—but simply to the work itself. As Kesey and Kapuscinski and Ponsot hint, maybe it’s dangerous to start writing for a cause, a slippery slope that cannot only contaminate the purity of the art but betray the readers’ trust. After all, it is art’s very uselessness that makes it so useful. When it has no hidden motive or intention but beauty, art soothes, it refreshes. Or, to put it another way, maybe art is at its most politically subversive when it is not “political” at all.

And so, what is the responsibility of the artist? On the one hand: it is everything. Artists are the stewards of our species, the ones whose job it is to shed a little light in the darkness. On the other hand, their responsibility is simply to make art. And perhaps there’s not such a difference between the two.
This essay was adapted from a Master Lecture given at the Writer’s Foundry M.F.A. Program at Saint Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, New York.


Taylor Plimpton is the author of Notes from the Night: A Life After Dark and the co-editor of The Dreaded Feast: Writers on Enduring the Holidays. He teaches at the Writer’s Foundry.