When Howard Met Thom

Howard Zinn and Thom Yorke debate the role of the artist in society

| December 4, 2003

Just because the worlds of rock stardom and cultural intellectualism don't often collide, doesn't mean they can't meet in the public square of our imaginations. It is with this in mind that the Seattle-based arts magazine, Resonance, has brought together Radiohead's Thom Yorke with culture utility-man, Howard Zinn for a debate about art and social change.

Owing to Zinn's new book, Artists in Times of War and Radiohead's most recent recording, Hail to the Thief -- which, Yorke insists is not a reference to a certain unscrupulous world leader, but rather the natural title for an album about 'extraordinarily fucked-up jubilation, wrong and displaced' -- the two are not such unlikely candidates to entertain questions about art and politics. Moderated by interviewer Sarah Burton, the men jaw about the role of artists in inspiring social change, the historical role of artists to do so, and the value and quality of politically-minded art versus art made for entertainment's sake, and the difference between calling an artist a 'revolutionary' and a 'patriot.'

What transpires is telling. Zinn's is an intelligent, but detached and analytical voice capable of invoking Donna Summers and Greek playwrights in the same breath. He ties up the frayed ends of the entertainment vs. art debate with quotables like 'Marx called [entertainment] the 'opium of the people,' something that people need. They need distraction ... but if that's all that artists do, the entertainment that you seek will become permanent. The misery that people live under and the war that people have to go through, that will become permanent.'

Yorke, speaking more from an experienced, in-the-trenches-of-culture point of view, is cautious in his view of artists, saying that 'someone like Zinn views artists as the seers, idealizing them as the people responsible [for inspiring change].' In response to Zinn's astute analysis of art vs. entertainment, Yorke says, 'Yeah, I don't think we are [political] at all ... If you sit down and try to [make art] 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 ... I don't think there is much that's genuinely political art that is good art.'
-- Eric Larson

Go there>>Duty of Expression: Howard Zinn and Thom Yorke Debate the Artist's Role in Making the World a Better Place

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