What Is the Role of Art Under Authoritarianism?

Matthew Salesses

The NEA will likely be defunded this year. The budget of the NEA is a miniscule percentage of a trillion-dollar budget that includes an incredible amount of money for the military. It’s the military, or so has been the government’s standpoint, that defends democracy worldwide.

A good student of Asian American history will note that hundreds of thousands of Asians came to America in the wake of American military “interventions” and colonialism, including the Vietnam War, the colonization of the Philippines, and the Korean War, which is in its way how I got here from Korea. Korean adoption being at first an effort to adopt the half-American children of G.I.s.

So, as an adoptee writer, I want to ask: What is the role of art in a time of fake news and fake defense? What is the role of art under authoritarianism? And what does it have to do with audience?

My last novel, The Hundred-Year Flood, follows Tee—a Korean American adoptee—to Prague, where he believes he can be free of colonial influence over his identity. In Prague, Tee finds himself in love with a couple, an artist and his wife, who played an important role in the Velvet Revolution that brought freedom to then-Czechoslovakia. The artist, who goes by a foreign-given nickname, Pavel Picasso, feels lost after the revolution. He is caught between their past desire for a capitalist democracy and the current influence of American imperialist culture. He ends up attacked by Americans in the graveyard in which Kafka is buried, his wrists broken. His wife ends up with our protagonist. Tee is implicated in all of this, yet stands in a complicated position as an adoptee, himself a victim of the imperialism from which he benefits.

No one has read the book this way, though this was the original inspiration. Far more common has been a reading of the book as a Korean adoptee finding his identity/coming of age. To me his identity is inextricable from the colonial forces at work, something he doesn’t understand and which brings ruin to the group of friends and enemies in the novel.

The year I started the book, the year in which America chose to re-elect Bush over Kerry, I was living in Prague. American politics dominated conversations among Americans and among Czechs. Often I found myself wearing a red shirt with one word printed on it—“Canada”—in order to escape the label American. It was the first time I felt able to define myself, and yet also a time when I felt intensely aware of being Asian in a city of almost zero racial diversity. When I was asked by agents and editors why my protagonist was in Prague—a question that itself was fraught with political context always left unsaid (would they have asked this of a white American writer?)—I had trouble answering. I had been attracted to the survival of the city through multiple invasions, and what its eventual freedom implied about the role of artists. Artists and students in large part led the Velvet Revolution—after which the Czechs elected playwright Vaclav Havel as president.

I have thought a lot about the purpose of writing. In her book on the craft of the Asian American novel, Tiger Writing, Gish Jen remarks on how reluctant American novelists are to have a purpose for their writing, to write with a goal, political or otherwise. This is drilled out of us in most MFA programs. The political novel is seen as a lesser art form, in favor of “art for art’s sake.” Yet a novelist in China, Jen says, understands writing as something that must have a purpose—otherwise why do it? Whether the purpose is to make money to survive or to change a political system, art has a purpose; we only pretend sometimes that it does not.

I have also thought a lot about why we believe art does not have a purpose. I suspect it is about audience. Have we been conditioned to write for an audience who takes its identity for granted, so much so that it believes art is universal rather than particular? Jen thinks it’s about form—she blames the bildungsroman, as theorist Lisa Lowe does when she defines the bildungsroman as the tale of man’s reincorporation into society, and as Milan Kundera blames what he calls Western psychological realism. In other words, if these novels are novels of straight white male outsiders reincorporated into society, who is their audience? I read a long article last year about gamergaters and 4chaners who voted for Trump—young white men who feel entitled to incorporation and yet on the outside.

It wasn’t until I sold my next novel on a partial manuscript that I started to question why I was writing. I realized then that although The Hundred-Year Flood had begun with its political purpose, by the end I was writing my last book out of a desperate attempt to sell it. That was its goal, though I thought of it as art for art’s sake; the goal was consumption. I wanted a writing career, and I understood that one only has a writing career by publishing books, and I understood something about what kind of books got published.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t know I was writing a literary novel about an Asian American, something that hasn’t sold much in American history, but its sale was the main purpose I had.

To sell a book before it is finished is to remove the purpose of selling it from the equation. But then why was I writing?

I was also making another transition in my writing in general. This was about audience. I was trying as hard as I could to move from writing to a white audience to writing for an audience of Asian Americans.

I had in fact spent three years, from 2012 to 2015, writing essays about race and adoption that were mainly directed at white folks like my parents, trying to get them to see my “humanity,” as many Asian American writers have put it and still put it. The trouble with that was: I am already human. How could my writing convince them anymore than me standing in front of them, a human? So I wanted to write for people who already believed in my humanity.

The truth is I never for an instant thought I was writing for white people like my parents—but if I had asked myself what the purpose of my essays was, it would have been to try to convince people who didn’t agree with me of my perspective. Of course, the people who actually read and shared my essays were people who did agree with me and who also wanted to convince others. I could never actually convince people like my parents. So the transition came down to: What could I do for the people who were my real readers? If I wrote for them, what would I want to say?

I spent a year trying to rework my new novel manuscript so that it was meant not to show a white audience the effects of racism toward Asian Americans, but to get Asian Americans thinking about what to do about it.

And then the election happened.

Like many writers, I suddenly couldn’t write anymore. I spent weeks and multiple therapy sessions wondering why, coming up with various explanations, including helplessness, despair, the primacy of survival over art, that it was more important to survive suddenly than to make art, as if the two aren’t intertwined.

When I was able to write again, it wasn’t because I was able to feel safe first. It was because I realized that the reason I couldn’t write had nothing to do with the election itself—it had to do with the idea that the election planted in people’s minds: that the people at the center of the issue were “white working class men,” that “white working class men” were the people who had decided the election, that we should have convinced them, that we hadn’t empathized with them enough, that we had neglected them. For a few weeks I actually thought I should go back to trying to convince the people who disagreed with me that this would be the greater good. For a few weeks, in other words, I went back to questioning my own humanity. I had to do the work of a year over again. What helped, in fact, was to write the election in. I put the MAGA hats into my book. I made them a faceless threat. They were not my audience, but my villains. I was writing again.

In the plot of the book, a divorced, unemployed Korean American man finds out that he has a doppelgänger, a much more successful version of him who yet ended up murdered. He is trying to figure out why his doppelgänger’s seeming happiness led to death. The election and what it stands for, then, is important in answering that question.

The other question remained: If I wasn’t writing the book to help a white audience understand the effects of the model minority stereotype on identity, if I was writing for Asian Americans struggling with the way success in a system murders their sense of self, what was the reason?

In the end wasn’t I trying to write a book that encouraged a person like me to break down the identities he’d been given by whiteness, the stories he’d been led to believe (like, for me, the idea that being raised in America was more important than being born in Korea)? I had a desire to fight the stories we’re told—that America was greater in the past, that defending that past is a defense of who we are, that incorporation into society is our ultimate goal. Stories have always had a purpose. We can’t afford to pretend they don’t have a purpose, because then their politics becomes to hide their politics, to make a defense of the norms necessary.

What is the role of art in an authoritarian regime? What is the role of art in a regime where the story is controlled and dissenting stories are accused of being controlled? Where freedom has become freedom from freedom?

When I was in Prague, I was struck not by the way that art was directed at the Soviet Union, trying to change the minds of those in power—it wasn’t. What I remember is the way that art was a way to encourage dissent among those who needed encouragement. The characters in a Vaclav Havel play can never convince the Secret Police—to try is only to convict oneself further. What is left is for the people who know themselves not to be free to nourish the freedom inside themselves. That is the way artists helped take down a regime. That was the lesson that stuck with me, art with a purpose, writing as a mode of resistance.

Houston, TX. Spring 2017.

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter