No Art, No Liberty (a talk from ISFLC 2014)

On February 15th, my friend James Padilioni, Jr. and I gave a talk about art and liberty to the 2014 International Students for Liberty Conference. Wacky poltergeist-like technical problems prevented us from finishing the talk and interrupted the part that we did give. So we thought we’d publish (more or less) what we wanted to say over here at BHL, in the hopes that people who wanted a fuller version will come and find it.


 What we want to do today is really very simple. James and I have both made lengthy arguments in a variety of other formats about the importance of art for liberty, and the importance of liberty for art. But we don’t want to make a complicated argument today.

What we want to do instead is to tell you that you’ve been told a lie. Art is not the enemy of liberty. They go hand in hand. But you will never discover that if you demand strict ideological purity from your art. We don’t. We like art that opens up conversations and poses questions. Not art that tells us what the answers are. And there is so much of that kind of art out there that supports and explores the things that we love.

And we want to prove that to you by pointing to four areas where art works for liberty, and by giving you a whole host of references of art to which liberty lovers should be paying attention—a random walk through culture, if you will—that you can explore on your own and to which you can add your own examples.

The first of these areas is art that is explicitly created to question the entrenched state. One of the most radical current examples of that surely must be Suzanne Collins’s young adult trilogy The Hunger Games, which is explicitly anarchist in its politics, and which has been a massive best seller that has produced a trilogy of films as well. In this same category, we think of much of the history of punk music, with its verbal and visual cacophony, not to mention its politics of aggressive independence and resistance to authority. It’s a musical version of the exchange in The Wild Ones. “What are you rebelling against?” “What have you got?”

The wildly successful House of Cards (and check out fellow blogger Steve Horwitz’s online course here) provides viewers with a close look at the underbelly of politics, and encourages all of us to think of politics, and politicians, without romance. It’s an epic look at dangers of power from within, and a serious political work on the order of Orwell’s 1984, another work of art that serves as an excellent vaccine against the virus of political orthodoxies. Less serious, perhaps, but equally focused on the importance of resisting political power is Joss Whedon’s Firefly, a science fiction western that focused on a band of rebel soldiers who were on the “losing side. Still not convinced it was the wrong one” against an oppressive government.

Ai Wei Wei’s justly famous personal and artistic resistance to the Chinese states produces works like He Xie (River Crabs). Here the Chinese language pun between the words for “harmony’ and “river crab” allow him to create a work of art that suggests through its pile of battle crabs that in China harmony is built only on death and destruction.

And we want to tip our hats as well to the beautiful Polish graphic novel, Marzi, which tells the story of a young girl’s life amid the Solidarity struggles of the 80s, highlighting her dawning awareness of the serious issue around her as she emerges from childhood into a fuller understanding of the daily struggles and the larger dangers of socialism.

Another area in which to watch for art that praises markets and entrepreneurship. Sarah has a twice monthly Freeman column that often explores literature that does this, and the column that went up right before the ISFLC conference (which began on Valentine’s Day) was an exploration of the way that work and entrepreneurship often form an important plot point for romance novels. But paintings does the same. Consider the Dutch still lifes that record and celebrate the small daily luxuries brought in by the roaring Dutch market culture—while still reminding the viewer of the transience of such earthly joys. Consider the 21st century innovation of reality television shows like Undercover CEO, Project Runway, Kitchen Nightmares, and Top Chef, where the focus is on the skills, grit, and determination needed to succeed in business.

Two Broke Girls is a fictional representation of this same kind of work ethic, as the daughter of a disgraced Bernie Madoff type joins with her friend, a less business-savvy baker, to open a shop where they can each highlight their particular talents.

There is an ever growing area of art that is created in liberty-supporting ways. What we want to point to here, really, are the ways in which the increasing ease of access and use for a whole range of formerly “professionals-only” technology has put the tools for creating art into the hands of the people who make it—freeing them from the need to get major studio support, to sign contracts they aren’t happy with, or to change their message in order to fit a set perception of what the market wants. In this category we put works like the webseries The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which envisioned Pride and Prejudice as a video diary, gained a massive online following, won an Emmy, and raised over $460,000 from individual fans on Kickstarter to fund further projects. A less well-known webseries, The Outs, has used the freedom of crowd funding to explore GLBTQ issues in a frank way that would likely be unacceptable on commercial television.

We think of the enormously popular podcast, Welcome to Night Vale, independently produced by a small group of friends, and now with a book deal, a set of tour dates, and over 100,000 regular listeners. It’s completely fan-funded as well. (And, as Sarah noted here, contains some compelling content for BHL readers.) There’s the street art movement—epitomized by Banksy, who specializes in anti-surveillance state commentary—but filled out by thousands of others, known and unknown, who make art from materials no one thinks about, in places no one expects. (And yes, we acknowledge the complicated nature of the property rights question when it comes to graffiti.)

The last area is what James and I called our grab bag. This is art, like the music of BHL house band Radar vs Wolf, that is either made by libertarians without a specifically ideological purpose, or that, like the recent movies Frozen and The Lego Movie, seem to spur the kinds of conversations about art and liberty we think we should be having a lot more often.

We have seen, in the news again, poets hanged for their defense of civil liberties. We have seen students and other protestors dying in the streets of Venezuela and the Ukraine. We know that art will not solve this. Art will not free the world from oppression and violence. But it will let us celebrate some of the things that might.

It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there.

–William Carlos Williams.

  • I’ve always kept a quotation from George Orwell’s Literature and Totalitarianism on why art needs economic liberty:

    “… Modern literature is essentially an individual thing. It is
    either the truthful expression of what one man thinks and feels, or it is
    nothing. As I say, we take this notion for granted, and yet as soon
    as one puts it into words one realizes how literature is menaced. For this is
    the age of the totalitarian state, which does not and probably cannot allow the
    individual any freedom whatever. When one mentions totalitarianism one thinks
    immediately of Germany, Russia, Italy, but I think one must face the risk that
    this phenomenon is going to be world-wide. It is obvious that the period of free
    capitalism is coming to an end and that one country after another is adopting a
    centralized economy that one can call Socialism or state capitalism according as
    one prefers. With that the economic liberty of the individual, and to a great
    extent his liberty to do what he likes, to choose his own work, to move to and
    fro across the surface of the earth, comes to an end. Now, till recently the
    implications of this were not foreseen. It was never fully realized that the
    disappearance of economic liberty would have any effect on intellectual liberty.
    Socialism was usually thought of as a sort of moralized liberalism. The state
    would take charge of your economic life and set you free from the fear of
    poverty, unemployment and so forth, but it would have no need to interfere with
    your private intellectual life. Art could flourish just as it had done in the
    liberal-capitalist age, only a little more so, because the artist would not any
    longer be under economic compulsions.

    Now, on the existing evidence, one must admit that these ideas have been falsified.”

    • martinbrock

      You and I must admit that these ideas have been falsified. Many artists still see market forces as the greatest impediment to their artistry. They imagine themselves “free” artistically only if they need not satisfy the market to practice their art.

      • Les Kyle Nearhood

        Worse than that, since some of these independent artists are being subsidized in some fashion by government, they end up creating art that either glorifies the government or attacks those who are the critics of big government.

        • Sean II

          Often enough, no subsidy is required. Artists will side with the state purely on spec.

        • Theresa Klein

          This is complete nonsense.
          Just about everyone wants a free lunch. But almost all artists I have known have been strongly anti-authoritarian. Many of them are left anarchists. They would love to get a subsidy, but then spend all day painting pictures that depict prison abuse.

          • Les Kyle Nearhood

            The people I have seen are plenty anti authoritarian when the Right is controlling the government. not so much when it is the Left.

      • Alex Strekal

        Perhaps that’s because they have a valid perception that the big music industry overwhelmingly has come to cater to superficially, teenage girls, and making as much money as possible off of easily mass-produced crap? Yes, I’ll gladly damn any notion of “satisfying the market” if it means allowing some producer who could care less about music to run rough-shod over my music in the name of the mighty dollar.

        • martinbrock

          If you want millions of fans, teenage girls are a good market. If you don’t want teenage girls as your fans, then you won’t likely have millions of fans, but you don’t need to bother with mass produced crap either. The mass market is not the only market. I own art produced by local artists, and the internet vastly increases opportunities to appeal to smaller, more specialized markets.

          Expecting the consumers of your art to pay you for it does not subject to some producer of mass market art, but it does require you to find willing consumers, to produce art that meets a need outside of your own head and to establish a meaningful relationship with the people who love your art, rather than a relationship with politicians who love to talk about how much they love the idea of art.

  • Michael Wiebe
  • TracyW

    This was a really interesting article, and one that I agree a lot with. Thank you for the recommendations

    We like art that opens up conversations and poses questions. Not art that tells us what the answers are.

    Personally, I’m sick of art that only poses questions. If an artwork, or anyone else, tells us what the answers are, that seems to be much more productive for encouraging debate than one that merely poses questions.

    Posing questions is what you do when you don’t believe in any answer strongly enough to fight for it. Which I’ve certainly done myself on occasion, but that’s far from presenting a strong pro-liberty view.

    • martinbrock

      I don’t believe in any answer strongly enough to fight to impose it, but I’ll fight you as little as possible to be free to follow my own prescription instead of yours.

      • TracyW

        Sorry! Bad writing on my part. I meant argue for!

        • martinbrock


    • Al Bundy

      Gotta disagree here. If you have the answer or think you do just write a persuasive essay. The value of art IMO is to convey things that straight language alone can’t.

      • TracyW

        I agree entirely that the value of art is to convey things that straight language alone can’t. But that still allows an awful lot of space for arguing for actual answers, not merely raising questions.

        For example, doesn’t it strike you that, say, the film The Lives of Others portrays a strong answer that monitoring private citizens’ lives is wrong? Obviously a NASA employee might disagree with that answer, but it’s pretty clearly an answer. Or Picasso’s Guernica seems pretty clearly to convey the horror of bombing, and thus answer that it’s wrong. Again, someone might disagree with that answer, but Guernica doesn’t merely raise questions.

        Obviously not all art work comes out with such a clear message, personally I thought The Hunger Games trilogy degenerated into an illogical and unsatisfying mess from both the political and artistic viewpoints in the third book. And art is generally much more nuanced than a political slogan, much to my pleasure. But there’s nothing contradictory about portraying things that straight language alone can’t, and also presenting answers.

        • Al Bundy

          Good point. I guess I personally tend to like art that questions over art that answers. I find art that answers is more likely to bludgeon you over the head with whatever point the artist is making and not leave as much room for you to bring your own interpretation/subjective experience to the table. But obviously that’s not always the case.

          • TracyW

            Can you suggest some famous works that you both like and that, in your opinion, questions, rather than answers? It may be that our definitions overlap quite a lot.

            I agree that much art that “bludgeons over the head” with the point is not likeable, but I’d also say the same is true of much art that questions too. And, also, I could describe Picasso’s Guernica as art that “bludgeons over the head” with its message too, but I still find that mural amazing as a piece of art.

            However, on the last point, in my experience, quite a bit of bad art that aims to bludgeon over the head leaves plenty of space to bring your own interpretation/subjective experience to the table. For example, I stopped reading Oliver Twist once I caught myself thinking that if the workhouse owners had an ounce of humanity they’d’ve drowned that brat for the sake of the public good. (I don’t know what it is about Dickens, I can read plenty of writers I disagree with politically quite happily, I just find Dickens’ writing utterly boring and ridiculously over-sentimental). I know I’ve read other books or seen movies so bad that I found myself on the designated villains’ side, though I’m pulling a blank on other names right now.

  • martinbrock

    Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being is another notable ode to artistic angst and libertarian existentialism. Freedom imposes choices, between tradition and modernity, fidelity and variety, pleasure and passion, love and lust, more angst-ridden than tyranny can imagine. The book is also short enough for the attention deprived.

  • Theresa Klein

    What we want to do instead is to tell you that you’ve been told a lie. Art is not the enemy of liberty.
    Does anyone actually think that?

  • Anonymous

    I have not seen “The Lego Movie” yet, but “Frozen” was pretty overrated to say the least. The best animated film of last year was “The Wind Rises” which I would recommend.