This is no time for artists to shrink from social commentary

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Jordan Michael Smith’s “Making art political is one way to make it bad” (Ideas, Dec. 31) sacrifices Leo Tolstoy on the altar of amorality and relativism. Tolstoy’s sin? Writing, in his largely forgotten third novel, “Resurrection,” about how people recover from aristocratic indifference and brutality; how human nature isn’t confined to a dog-eat-dog, fight-flight-or-freeze way of living; how a simple lifestyle and social justice usher us toward peace.

So today, a writer who produces “urgent social commentary” — for example, making the daring suggestion within literature that someone like Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump needs to suffer consequences for their corrupt, mendacious, nationalist authoritarianism — would “ensnare and damage” their art. In Smith’s view, an empathic kind of art that promotes democratic ideals or encourages a society of diversity and inclusion would be too political and therefore bad.

Well then, if you’re any kind of artist at all, be sure to write banal banter that doesn’t test or challenge the status quo. Write only what’s worthy of an elitist relativism of truth. Don’t dare bring suggestions of equitable social change or positive evolution of humankind into it.

Especially in the dangerous short 10 months until November’s pivotal election, I hope we remember the words attributed to Bertolt Brecht: “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.”

Michael Caldwell

North Wolcott, Vt.

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