a1 University of Nottingham
In what claims to be the first study of its kind, Peter Swirski celebrates the intersection of art, popular culture, and partisan expression in an entertaining and provocative volume. Swirski's interdisciplinary study engages diverse works of fiction and nonfiction to compose a body of American artists whom he asserts as modern day successors to political writings of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, or the “Twain–Douglass–London–Sinclair–Lewis axis” (17). Championing five works from the last five decades as forms of partisan expression which bridge the gap with popular entertainment, Swirski makes his case for a modern body of American political literature which has proved capable of vocalizing and even developing partisan viewpoints through their relative successes in popular culture.
As the author is quick to acknowledge, his task in establishing the boundaries of American political literature is vast. Ars Americana, Ars Politica sets itself against previous attempts made by Joseph Blotner, but most directly critiques Irving Howe's 1957 designation that political literature be defined by its vocal activism, which Swirski criticizes for its limited, yet nonspecific, categorization. Swirski justifies inclusion of the texts in Ars Americana via three essential requirements: the setting of the work must be political, the attitude must be political, and the work as a whole must present clear and present partisanship. A novel set in the White House, for example, will not be by necessity a work of political literature unless its author then engages directly with political issues.
Besides the establishment of a modern American political literature, Swirski also aims to challenge academics who might exclude consideration of the “mass-culture frontlines” (11). Swirski's writing style reflects this enthusiasm for popular art, as well as his aversion to the trappings of academia, rallying against the “cultural prejudice” (16) he sees in the academy, and celebrating his belief in the power of popular culture that makes “arts and artetainers effect change not by changing social systems but by changing belief systems” (169). His literary centrepieces, Irving Wallace's The Man, Richard Condon's Death of a Politician, P. J. O'Rourke's Parliament of Whores, Warren Beaty's Bulworth, and Michael Moore's Stupid White Men, all reached massive audiences in their decade, and Swirski is particularly useful in bringing new light to these works both in their involvement with the partisan politics surrounding their publications and, most surprisingly, in their continued relevance today. The attention to detail which novelists Irving Wallace and Richard Condon in particular devoted to their projects, hiring teams of researchers and conducting covert research trips to the White House, provide enlightening anecdotes on the complexity of American partisanship and its continued mythology.
One criticism, which Swirski foresees but does not curtail, is that his political and literary analyses do not always align. Contextual detail is vastly prioritized, often over the political beliefs of the authors themselves, bringing forward period detail sometimes to the loss of the works themselves. Textual analysis also falls behind in this sense, in Swirski's attempts both to fully detail the political implications of these texts and to distance himself from conventions of academic writing. It seems particularly important when initially dismissing works of political literature for a lack of innovation, as “little more than authorial mouthpieces” (18), to then engage with the technical innovations of the central texts themselves.
Ars Americana is, however, an entertaining engagement with the relatively underdeveloped and complex classification of political art. Swirski provides a convincing and accessible take on the problems facing both political and popular art, providing new and extensive detail on popular works and illuminating their place in the history of modern America.