Thom Yorke and Howard Zinn debate the artist’s role in saving the world
Interviewed by Sarah Burton • Resonance Magazine • November 2003
Howard Zinn and Thom Yorke have never done lunch, waved to each other along a red carpet, or even met face to face. So we arranged the next best thing: a debate between these luminaries moderated via phone and email. We took the new book release of “Artists in Times of War” (Seven Stories Press) by Howard Zinn — distinguished professor, historian, playwright, and author of “A People’s History of the United States” — as an opportunity to find out what would happen if these two renowned individuals were to sound off on the role of artists in politics. After all, who better for this dialogue than Radiohead’s Thom Yorke? After the dust finally settled around the controversial title of their most recent album, “Hail to the Thief,” a seemingly direct poke at our president, Yorke still insists that Radiohead is not political in any intentional way. Perfect. We then paired Zinn and Yorke in conversation through a series of creatively juggled interviews. Each had plenty to say about art and politics, but not without also covering everything from Marx and Picasso to Donna Summer and Public Enemy.
Q: Pablo Picasso once said: “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” How do you react to this quote as describing the role of artists to inspire change and show us what the world should be like?
Zinn: Well, in a certain sense when you describe what the world should be like, you’re not telling the truth. You’re not describing reality, but a fantasy. You’re describing the future, something utopian, and something that’s in the imagination. So in a certain sense, it’s a lie that is extremely important in revealing the truth. It’s not just a matter of artists talking about the future or what life can be like in the future, which constitutes a kind of lie. All fiction is a kind of lie; you’re telling stories that are not true, but they somehow add up to a very important truth.
Yorke: Fox News is a lie. [laughs] Someone needs to tell the truth, but it shouldn’t be my job. So I guess I’d be on the lying side. I think no artist can claim to have any access to the truth, or an authentic version of an event. But obviously they have slightly better means at their disposal because they have their art to energize whatever it is they’re trying to write about. They have music.
Zinn: That’s right, and you know, the truth in the hands of artists, even when they are telling a fiction, even when they are inventing something, becomes a very powerful thing. Because what artists do is lend passion and emotion — they lend a kind of spiritual element to reality which enhances the truth, which gives it an intensity that a simple matter of recounting facts will not accomplish.
Yorke: This goes back to what should be causing extreme alarm. If there are political programs on TV, yet it takes an artist to actually energize political debate, that tells you something really quite frightening about the level of the political debate happening on mainstream channels-right-wing-biased mothers. One of the interesting things here is that the people who should be shaping the future are politicians. But the political framework itself is so dead and closed that people look to other sources, like artists, because art and music allow people a certain freedom. Obviously, the duty of artists is there, but it’s more an indictment of the political system that someone like Zinn views artists as the seers, idealizing them as the people responsible [for inspiring] change. I think that would be great, but the reason people think like that is because there is no other element of participation anywhere.
Zinn: True, the political power is controlled by the corporate elite, and the arts are the locale for a kind of guerilla warfare, in the sense that guerrillas in a totalitarian situation look for apertures and opportunities where they can have an effect. When tyrannies are overthrown — as, for instance, in fascist Spain or the Soviet Union — it starts in the culture, which is the only area where people can have some freedom. It starts with literature and poetry and music, because those don’t represent direct threats to the establishment. They’re subtle and indirect, so the establishment gambles that they won’t lead to anything threatening, but often they lose that gamble. I remember being in South Africa in 1982, during solid apartheid. There were little cultural shoots of dissent that could take place — like the Market Theater in Johannesburg, where white/black plays were put on, astonishingly, in the midst of apartheid. It’s impossible to measure the effect of those things because they work slowly over a period of time like wind and water eroding rock. I don’t mean to exaggerate the power of artists, but it is a special kind of power that touches people outside the range of political power.
Q: When Radiohead first became widely recognized, did it occur to you that you might possess the ability to inspire that kind of change?
Yorke: I think it is very difficult to argue that we inspire change, personally. I think maybe since there isn’t a great deal of access to the mainstream media and people don’t understand the language of mainstream media, if you put music out there with lyrics that are loosely political, people absorb some of it and spit it back out. The process is quite regenerative. Generally speaking, if people are prepared to stick their heads above the power pit, like Zinn says, and absorb what’s going on around them, it makes them think. I don’t see it in terms of changing things, but rather using language and music as weapons for fighting a mainstream media which is predominately right-wing, and loyal to the political framework and it’s corporate interests. [But] only because we’re still selling records does anyone give a flying fuck. The art part of it is discussed because we sell records and the music is powerful. Similarly, if Picasso hadn’t been an incredibly successful artist, he wouldn’t have been able to have such an effect when he painted a painting like “Guernica.” So ultimately, it’s idealistic to think that artists are able to step away from the power of the media and the way it controls things, and go on doing their own things. Again, we only have license to do that because we sell records and they want the money.
Zinn: Yes, the mainstream media, ironically, is vulnerable to the profit motive. Harper-Collins’ huge publishing house will publish Michael Moore because he will make them money. They will also publish my People’s History, a radical look at American society, because it makes them money. So long as the Dixie Chicks and Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen make money, the capitalist system will find it hard to suppress them. When Dalton Trumbo wrote his novel Johnny Got His Gun, it was fiction. The character in it, so far as we know, didn’t exist in real life. It was a soldier found on the battlefields in WWI without arms and legs and eyes and nose, nothing but a torso and a brain and a heart beating. That was not reality, that was a fiction, that was a lie. But his novel describes the thinking of that person in such a way as to tell you the truth about war. That’s what art does — it takes something that is not quite true, it is invented, but it makes you think about reality in a way that a simple non-fiction account could not possibly match.
Q: Is there a book or piece of art, maybe a song, that was the first thing to make you realize something revolutionary that you wouldn’t have on your own?
Yorke: Everything Lennon was getting into trouble for during the ’70s. The “war is over” idea. In college, I was absolutely obsessed with that antagonistic slogan. Of all the things he did outside of music, that was the most amazing thing. I thought it was the fucking bravest thing, because it was straight to the point. Also, the music around that time, the protest songs around then, just had this sense of danger coming out of the Vietnam period. A whole generation of people waking up in the ’70s, going, “Hang on a minute, this ain’t right.” I don’t know if that would happen now because it caught the media unaware and for a time, it was a story that they found profitable to use. I think the media is far more heavily controlled now; they just don’t tolerate that sort of interference. If he had done that today they would have basically bound him up somewhere. If I did that, that’s definitely what they would do to me. I’m not sure I would have the nerve to do that. There are far too many clever, cunning ways to destroy you now. You get to a point where music has nothing to do with it. It stops being about that and starts being about the entire media machinery.
Zinn: It’s harder for artists now to rebel than in the era of Dylan and the Beatles, because the control by media, by government — especially now in the Bush administration — is so overwhelming. Harder, but not impossible. I see Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder, Ani DiFranco, and the Dixie Chicks defying the authorities and speaking out against war.
Q: So would you say that there’s a place for both directly political and non-political artists? What importance do you think each have?
Zinn: There are all sorts of artists. There are artists who really don’t have a social consciousness, who don’t see that there’s a connection between art and life in a way that compels the artist to look around the world and see what is wrong and try to use his or her art to change that. There are artists who just entertain. You can look upon entertainment as something useful, as we don’t want to eliminate art which is only entertaining, and insist that all art must be political, must be revolutionary, must be transforming. [But] there’s a place for comedy and music and the circus and things that don’t really have an awful effect on society except to entertain people — to make people feel good, and to act as a kind of religion. That is what Marx called the “opium of the people,” something that people need. They need distraction. So it does serve a purpose, but if that’s all that artists do, the entertainment that you seek will become permanent. The misery that people live under and the wars that people have to go through, that will become permanent. There are huge numbers of people in the world whose lives are bound, limited. Lives of sheer misery, of sickness and violence. In order to change that, you need to have artists who will be conscious of that, who will use their art in such a way that it helps to transform society. It may not be a blunt instrument, but it will have a kind of poetic effect.
Yorke: Yeah, I don’t think we are [political] at all, I think I’m hyper aware of the soapbox thing. It is difficult to make political art work. If all it does is exist in the realms of political discussion, it’s using that language, and generally, it’s an ugly language. It is very dead, definitely not a thing of beauty. The only reason, I think, that we go anywhere near it is because, like any reason that we buy music, these things get absorbed. These are the things surrounding your life. If you sit down and try to do it purposefully, and try to change this with this, and do this with that, it never works. I think the most important thing about music is the sense of escape. But there are different ways to escape. I think escape is sort of like coming to a show with ten thousand other people and responding to that moment. Sharing that moment—that’s escape. Wherever the music came from originally is secondary to what’s happening at that moment, how the music sends you somewhere else. That’s the important thing.
Zinn: It’s true that much of political language is ugly. We have to cherish those political writers whose language is beautiful, like Arundhati Roy, or Barbara Kingsolver, including those whose political language is funny, like Michael Moore. And it’s possible to react to such ugliness by saying music should not try to be overtly political because it will lose its beauty. But that doesn’t have to happen. Look at Dylan. Very strongly political, but poetic.
Yorke: My argument would be that I don’t think there is much that’s genuinely political art that is good art. The first requirement is that it’s good art, and if it is, then there’s a sense of escape. But I’m biased. I don’t think that, to escape, it has to be bland at all. I’ve never believed that pop music is escapist trash. There’s always a darkness in it, even amidst great pop music. If you look at “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer, in the lyrics and the way it runs, it feels really escapist but there’s a huge darkness over all the sounds and the way she is singing it. Just past that escapism is the representation of what’s around you. If you paint it all away, then you have no sense of uplift, because it has no sense of identification. It’s nonsense for its own sake, like much of the political discourse in mainstream media. It has a language of its own, but refers to fuck-all, really.
Zinn: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with escapism, or what you might call pure entertainment with no whiff of politics. We need that in our lives, not to take up all of our life, but to give us a glimpse of a world in which we don’t have to think about politics and its terrible battles.
Q: Is there one form of art that is more direct or more influential?
Zinn: Of course different forms of art have different possibilities of transforming people’s consciousness. The art of literature — that is more direct. The art of poetry may be a little more indirect. Music could be as direct as anti-war songs or maybe more subtle. Paintings can be very directly political, like the paintings that were done by Goya during the Napoleanic war, showing the horrors of war. Art can be very direct, but it can also be subtle, and yet — still by saying something about the human condition — have an effect on people’s consciousnesses.
Yorke: [Literature] is easier to be direct with because you’re using words as weapons rather than anything else. Music is more difficult — try naming a political band. The Dead Kennedys. The Dead Kennedys are political, but they are more funny than they are political. They always were, and that is what transcends the things they talk about. They can be singing about the most offensive things you’ve ever heard in your life, but it’s funny, so it works.
Zinn: Fundamentally, we face the same kind of situation in regard to art and politics as we always have. There’s a long historical continuous line going back to ancient Greeks where there were wars fought, and the Greek playwrights spoke out against war through their characters. It comes right down to the present day. So the role of artists fundamentally has not changed, and I guess it has not changed because we’ve not yet had fundamental changes in society. We still have war, we still have class, exploitation, and we still have racism. So long as that exists — and that has existed for such a long time — then forms of art and the content of art are going to remain the same.
Q: Could one say that artists have become more direct over time, in their drive to change things?
Zinn: I’m not sure artists have become more direct. I think of the 19th century, and back to Thoreau writing about John Brown, very directly, I can think of Melville in the middle of the 19th century writing directly about justice and power. Perhaps, in a sense, we’re more conscious of it today because the issues are in a certain sense larger — that is, wars are larger and the violence is greater. The scale of injustice has grown, so you might say that the scale of art is then required to grow in proportion. [But while] the scale of things has changed, but the quality of art has not changed. The requirements for what art must do to transform society remain the same.
Q: Back to the idea that Radiohead is not a directly political band. I know you’ve been asked this one too many times, but considering the assumptions that people made about the title of “Hail to the Thief” as a political reference to George Bush, and you avoiding being considered a political band — if you could go back and rename it, would you?
Yorke: Oh, God, no. We were really terrified by it. I was extremely concerned about doing it because I was just concerned with the reaction, and concerned about pinning all our hard work on to such a phrase like that. It looked from the outside like such a political phrase. But the reason I felt confident about it was because everybody else was really into it. They felt very strongly that, regardless of the consequences, this is where the record comes from, so let’s just do it. It was so obvious that that is what it should be called. “Hail to the Thief” is [about] extraordinarily fucked-up jubilation, wrong and misplaced, so I think they were right.
Zinn: Clearly it was a risk worth taking, because the idea of Bush as a thief is still alive, and will become more alive as he becomes more and more discredited. Maybe an example of where you can take the lead in the arts, in music, stick your head out a little, and the world will catch up with you.
Q: So was the reaction better or worse than you expected?
Yorke: Better, which is the thing that really surprised us. You realize that, actually, these discussions are going on all the time with all sorts of people. You realize that people talk about this shit the whole time, so it wasn’t a big shock. So it was just no big deal, which is good. It was a huge sense of relief because, as an issue, it’s completely gone away. I think that’s the nature of good art, it should be interpreted and misinterpreted. The point is, if you do anything, then it’s sort of working. [laughs] That sounds exactly like one of my art teachers. That doesn’t mean it’s provocative, it just means that the music sucks you in, makes you listen to the words in a certain way whereas sometimes maybe you don’t give a shit. But it’s the same with all music. What about Public Enemy? Now there’s a good band.
Zinn: Very often, artists who venture out into the field of politics and make political statements feel uncertain because they know that other artists — fellow artists and the public outside the art world — will look at them askance and say, “They shouldn’t be doing this, they shouldn’t be singing about war, they should just be entertaining.” It may not stop them from doing what they want to do, but it helps them when they hear somebody tell them that this is historically the great role of artists. This is how artists have inspired social change. It’s important for playwrights to know about the Greek playwrights and to know about Ibsen and Strinberg and the social consciousness of playwrights. It’s important for painters to know about Picasso’s politics, and important for singers coming up today to know the history of political music and to be inspired by that.
Q: Would you consider artists revolutionaries? Or, as Mark Twain called them, “the true patriots”?
Zinn: There’s a confusion of the term “patriot”; there’s a confusion in the term “revolutionaries.” I can only define it in my own way. I assume that a revolutionary is somebody who wants to turn things over, turn things around, change things radically. When I think of a revolutionary, I think of somebody who wants to radically change existing conditions in which people are exploited, in which a small group of people dominate the economy, in which a small group of people make the decisions to send the young people to war. So, a revolution requires a very fundamental change, from exploitation and war and control to a truly democratic society. So when I or others get some of that history and talk about the relationship between art and social change, it is encouraging to artists who are maybe a little tremulous and uncertain about what they’re doing, because what they’re doing runs so contrary to the mainstream and the commercial world [and that world] is likely to come down on them. They need all the strength and reinforcement and support that they can get. So those of us who are commenting on the role of art try to supply that.
Published in Resonance Magazine • November 2003
Republished on Alternet