There is a hunger within us for our national issues to be portrayed and memorialized through art in a non-ideological way, a way that speaks to everyone. This is not a uniquely American desire. Every culture has required a remembrance through universal storytelling. Prehistoric peoples drew cave art we are still discovering; the Mesopotamians created The Epic of Gilgamesh; the Israelites received and wrote the Holy Scriptures; the Greeks had the poet Homer. We have not evolved beyond this cultural need.
Even so, we do not see much contemporary American art that serves this function. Sure, artists produce work—popular, underground, and academic—addressing our social issues, but it usually works to condemn one specific side and encourage the other. Liberal filmmaking is filled with movies like Don’t Look Up, The Power of the Dog, and Promising Young Woman that affirm the virtue of a certain audience but rarely gain traction outside them. Most of the poetry books being published and gaining media attention, despite their quality, are leftist and academic with very few everyday readers, books like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen or Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds. The most popular current American music, hip-hop, fares better with audiences, but much of the country is still disengaged with it. However, we may see better examples of art serving a national function if we turn our attention elsewhere.
For one of the best examples of popular art exploring national issues and defending the national memory in universal stories, we would do well to turn to a country with war even now at its gates: Poland and Polish cinema.
Poland has been invaded and conquered time after time throughout modern history. Yet the Poles have always come back, and indeed have helped other countries and peoples during those hard times, just like they are doing now in bravely embracing Ukrainian refugees. Few countries in world history have been able to reemerge time and time again as Poland has, and much of this has to do with the Poles’ ability to defend their national memory, even in secret and under extreme persecution, even when the rest of the world has disregarded them as weak and inept. These attitudes are represented well in Polish art, especially through their popular poetry of cinema.