Thursday, October 9, 2008


“Too much intellectualizing”? A review of “The Political Art of Bob Dylan” edited by David Boucher and Gary Browning (Palgrave McMillan, 2004)

by Sam Urguhart

Much has been written about Bob Dylan's life and work, and much of it is very good. From Christopher Ricks' investigation of Dylan's "Visions of Sin" to Mike Marqusee's look at his protest songs in the 1960s and Clinton Heylin's biographical work, not to mention Dylan's own autobiographical "Chronicles" - we have come to learn a great deal more about one of our age's great voices. But what we haven't yet had, contend the authors of this volume of essays, is a scholarly take on Dylan's politics, a gap that editors Boucher and Browning set out to fill.

The essays (there are seven in all) range broadly across the chosen themes of its contributors. The result is, inevitably, uneven. We have a likening of Dylan's political development to that of ultra-critical postmodern philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard, from Gary Browning, who posits more of an analogy than an argument. Certainly he doesn't suggest that the two influenced each other, and his argument is interesting, if somewhat elevated.

We have an assesment of how Dylan used the idea of judgement to situate his political art from Andrew Gamble, which finds that as his 60s career developed, the act of judging became more complicated and the taking of political sides far harder. There is an excellent analysis of the "Judas!" cry shouted at Dylans 1965 gig at the Manchester Free Trade Hall from Michael Jones. Jones comes to explain Dylan's life work as "change itself" as a reaction to a culture which sought to straitjacket him - both from the Left (in the form of folk and protest movements) and from capital (in the form of the culture industry).

This look at the culture industry as a touchstone for Dylan's chameleon-like character than neatly accedes to a piece on the resonance between the work of Adorno and that of Dylan by Lawrence Wilde. Wilde notes Adorno's love of German abstract-expressionism and astutely compares its masters with Dylan's mid 60s period, shedding light on works like "Desolation Row" which fans might appreciate. Writing that, although Dylan had made a form of disavowal of political art in 1964 (with "My Back Pages"), 1965's "Desolation Row" "comes out with an outright rejection of the status quo" in the form of a "vibrant, autonomous song which exposes and explodes hypocrisy without falling into the trap of dogmatic sermonizing."

Many Dylan fans will surely agree. One of the questions about Dylan's work that the volume treats well is just this transition from "protest art" (such as "Masters of War") to this form of expressionist, "autonomous" song, which might on the surface appear less as a cry of protest than as a mystifying appeal to the senses. But, as Dylan once said of those later songs, "they are all protest songs" and, reading Wilde's essay, it's hard not to agree.

What the volume doesn't offer is a coherent explanation of Dylan's politics. His social links with groups and individuals are not broached. Some periods are blacked out, such as the early 1970s and the 1980s (although a few 80s songs such as "Union Sundown" are looked at, there is no place for the more intriguing "Jokerman"). Its attentions are also limited to 2001's "Love and Theft." The more recent "Modern Times" which includes another intriguing political gesture in "Workingman's Blues" is, inevitably, not considered. Work for a later volume, perhaps.

The focus is very much on the 1960s, and the volume tends to cover much the same ground that Marqusee did in his "Chimes of Freedom" in treading that familiar ground. What is added is an academic attention to critical interpretation of that period, and a desire to situate Dylan's work in time both artistically and politically. This focus finds a Dylan bordering on the post-modern, renouncing organized politics and commercial pressures alike, a conclusion that many will appreciate, but they also tend to neglect later eruptions of actual political commitment.

There is, for example, a mention of Dylan's support for imprisoned black boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, in 1975's "Desire." There is also a mention of Dylan's advocacy of farm reform in America at 1985's Live Aid. Little effort is expended assessing the seriousness of such stances.Despite this, these essays enrich our understanding of Dylan’s eccentricity as a political writer, and provide a new take on his most powerful work. "The Political Art of Bob Dylan" is a worthy volume, albeit for those of a critical bent. Its erudition does flirt with excess at times but, in the words of David Boucher referring to Dylan's art, "too much intellectualizing could destroy the experience." This is, by and large, avoided and the contributors should all take credit for that.