Does politics belong in art? The question arouses heated debate about creative freedom and moral responsibility. Assumptions include the idea that politics cheapens film, music, or literature, or that political art should abandon traditional ideas about beauty and technique. As engaging as such discussions might be in the abstract, they mean little to nothing if they don’t account for artists who show us that choosing between politics and art can be as much a false dilemma as choosing between art and love.
In the work of writers as varied as William Blake, Muriel Rukeyser, James Baldwin, and James Joyce, for example, themes of protest, power, privilege, and poverty are inseparable from the sublimely erotic—all of them essential aspects of human experience, and hence, of literature. Foremost among such political artists stands Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who—as the TED-Ed video above from Ilan Stavans informs us—was a romantic stylist, and also a fearless political activist and revolutionary.
Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, and, among his many other literary accomplishments, he “rescued 2,000 refugees, spent three years in political exile, and ran for president of Chile.” Neruda used “straightforward language and everyday experience to create lasting impact.” He began his career writing odes and love poems filled with candid sexuality and sensuous description that resonated with readers around the world.
Neruda’s international fame led to a series of diplomatic posts, and he eventually landed in Spain, where he served as consul in the mid-1930s during the Spanish Civil War. He became a committed communist, and helped relocate hundreds of fleeing Spaniards to Chile. Neruda came to believe that “the work of art” is “inseparable from historical and political context,” writes author Salvatore Bizzarro, and he “felt that the belief that one could write solely for eternity was romantic posturing.”
Yet his lifelong devotion to “revolutionary ideals,” as Stavans says, did not undermine his devotion to poetry, nor did it blinker his writing with what we might call political correctness. Instead, Neruda became more expansive, taking on such subjects as the “entire history of Latin America” in his 1950 epic Canto General.
Neruda died of cancer just weeks after fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet seized power from elected president Salvador Allende in 1973. Today, he remains a beloved figure for activists, his lines “recited at protests and marches worldwide.” And he remains a literary giant, respected, admired, and adored worldwide for work in which he engaged the struggles of the people with the same passionate intensity and imaginative breadth he brought to personal poems of love, loss, and desire.