This is a subject I've written on a few times before, but I don't think here, so allow me to polish off some old ideas of mine. Alyssa Rosenberg argues persuasively at her excellent new Think Progress blog that art and morality/politics can get along just fine, and I wanted to offer some further thoughts on this subject.
Often I feel "uncool" as a writer because I see my work as basically political -- not in the sense that my work advances any one party's interests intentionally, though I am at this point an unapologetic party-line voter and would certainly like to persuade you to vote the way I do. To the extent that the other writers I know see themselves in a similar way, the often seem to approach politics in an essentially academic way; most of us, it would seem, are working on "the problem" of "the other." (Sorry for all the scare quotes, I will try not to use too many more here.) This sort of writing is fine, though often a bit didactic, a bit predictable, a bit color by numbers: the opinion of humanist liberal writers is that the other is fine, or even totally awesome, and has been for some time. I'm bored of that argument (because it is so easily won), but it's most of what the self-consciously political set is up to.
To my mind, there are three broad categories of that work: to help us approach and understand our history and the conditions of our present; to frame positions in the debates of the day; and to provide space to play with policy and political ideas, an underlooked element in a rigidified political process that is deeply suspicious of error and evolution.
This strikes me as true, but I would also suggest that stories are really best at intervening in two particular concerns. One is how we know, and the other is how we empathize with each other. These things are of course related (our knowledge of a person determines a lot about our ability to empathize, even if that knowledge is thin or conjectural). Ultimately, stories rarely persuade us to believe in one policy over another, and they rarely convince us that one thing is wrong or another is right.
However, fiction has historically seemed to be successful in helping us to consider how we came to the beliefs that we hold. The Wire was noted for its success in portraying the institutions (both legal and illegal) that lead people to make the choices they do, and how they structure our lives. Fundamentally, this was what made the show successful as political fiction. There were also arguments about what sort of police-work and reporting and sentencing and so on might lead to better outcomes, and the creators of the show have been very vocal on this point, but before any of this could persuade anyone, it had to help people see the way other people saw. The show was anti-drugs, but it did a better job of explaining why its characters would turn to the drug trade than anything to come before it. D'Angelo explains chess to the kids he's teaching to deal using the metaphor of their gang's structure, and simultaneously explains their gang's structure to the audience using the metaphor of chess. We're learning to know the way that they know, and this allows us to extend our understanding to the least sympathetic characters even at their worst.
Some people think of this as revealing the internal lives of characters, but I think that misses the point a little: The Wire is so successful because it reveals the external structures that create human lives.
This understanding is so valuable in part because it can help us to extend empathy. I've long felt that this is the best use of art, or at least in moral and political terms the most important. If we look back at history we see that the greatest force for good has been the expansion of each person's circle of empathy to include more people. It's conceivable that art has some ability to intervene in this process, to help it along. There are instances -- I've written recently about Uncle Tom's Cabin as an example -- wherein it seems possible that a book has genuinely helped this process along. It may also be that art merely manifests and makes official what the culture already feels (we may attempt to create art that goes further, but it will only find a significant audience if it's in tune with artistic expectations). We hear what we are ready to here.
When it comes to questions of whether material or cultural causes are primary in our lives, I tend to favor material explanations. I don't think that art ultimately accomplishes much in the way of genuine intervention. I think that art probably serves as a lagging indicator of what our culture is, and what it is becoming. But I like to know those things, and I would like to serve as a lagging indicator. I would like to create something that reflects the best in us, the beauty, such as it is. I don't particularly want to be an "unacknowledged legislator."
And in writing this post, I have thought of a third use of stories: they allow us to measure desire. By entertaining us, by giving us what we want, art allows us to see and to know what we want. When we feel pleasure, we learn what brings us pleasure. This is sometimes exciting to learn. It is sometimes very upsetting. Often, I wish I did not know. Either way, it is productive. It's good to know what might make you happy. It's good to know what might feel good that you wish would not.